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ISSN 1409-6900 | UDK 82+7     Blesok no. 36 | volume VII | May-June, 2004



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                     Peer-reviewed journal
Blesok no. 36May-June, 2004
Essays

In the Beginning, There Were the Holy Books

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Kenneth L. Woodward

    He was a pious family man, a trader from Mecca who regularly retreated into the hills above the city to fast and pray. In his 40th year, while he was praying in a cave on Mount Hira, the angel Gabriel spoke to him, saying, “Muhammad, you are the Messenger of God,” and commanded him to “Recite!”
    Muhammad protested that he could not—after all, he was not gifted like the traditional tribal bards of Arabia. Then, according to this tradition, the angel squeezed him so violently that Muhammad thought he’d die. Again Gabriel ordered him to recite, and from his lips came the first verses of what eventually became the Qur’an, regarded as the eternal words of God himself by some 1.3 billion Muslims around the world.
    Until that moment, 13 centuries ago, the Arabs were mostly polytheists, worshiping tribal deities. They had no sacred history linking them to one universal god, like other Middle Eastern peoples. They had no sacred text to live by, like the Bible; no sacred language, as Hebrew is to Jews and Sanskrit is to Hindus. Above all, they had no prophet sent to them by God, as Jews and Christians could boast.
    Muhammad and the words that he recited until his death in 632 provided all this and more. Like the Bible, the Qur’an is a book of divine revelation. Between them, these two books define the will of God for more than half the world’s population. Over centuries, the Bible fashioned the Hebrew tribes into a nation: Israel. But in just a hundred years, the Qur’an created an entire civilization that at its height stretched from northern Africa and southern Europe in the West to the borders of modern India and China in the East. Even today, in streets as distant from each other as those of Tashkent, Khartoum, Qom and Kuala Lumpur, one can hear from dawn to dusk the constant murmur and chant of the Qur’an in melodious Arabic. Indeed, if there were a gospel according to Muhammad, it would begin with these words: in the beginning was the Book.
    But since the events of September 11, the Qur’an and the religion it inspired have been on trial. Is Islam an inherently intolerant faith? Does the Qur’an oblige Muslims to wage jihad—holy war—on those who do not share their beliefs? And who are these “infidels” that the Muslim Scriptures find so odious? After all, Jews and






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