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Friday, June 29, 2012

In the Shadow of the Sword III; History, Myths and Prophecies

 Dhul-Qarnayn with the help of jinn, building  the Iron Wall to keep the barbarian Gog and Magog from civilized peoples.Courtesy: Wikimedia

Tom Holland mentions in his book the stories and legends popular among the Christians and Jews living in and around the Fertile Crescent. These are the tales of the seven sleepers, of the two-horned king and of Gog and Magog which also are mentioned in the Quran. A valid question can be raised perhaps, that why such stories of a victorious King, of mystical time-travelling Christians and of demonic hordes locked away behind a metallic wall were reproduced in the Quran? What kind of plagiarism is this! Was this an attempt by the “authors” of Quran to entice their Israelite cousins into the new-found Ishmaelite Empire? Or was it an effort to impress the Quraish with the knowledge of fantastic happenings which could only have come from God?

Let us examine the Islamic source material while ignoring the classical Muslim scholarship on this issue. I ignore it because classical Islamic scholars like Tabari, Ibn Ishaq etc. have borrowed heavily from Jewish and Christian sources to fill the gaps in their own understanding of history. Their commentaries on Quran often cite tales and fables of the Israelites. So Islamic understanding of Quran isn’t necessarily “Quranic” on many matters. For example, Book of Genesis becomes the guide for Muslim understanding of creation myths. Similarly whatever Quran mentions with references to Torah and Gospels, gets superimposed by the popular Judaeo-Christian opinion. Muslims start believing in ascension of Jesus and his return in latter days. Although they take care that rather than dying and rising up again, he is replaced on the cross with a look-alike (a story which existed in one of the lesser known gospels). Ibn Kathir went so far as to state that the earth rested on the horns of a bull. None of these stories can be verified by the Quranic text.

As the main thrust of Tom Holland’s argument is that Quran is a book manufactured, borrowed and edited to support an empire for the Arabs, I would like to compare these stories and legends with Quranic source material to see if there is any evidence of Divine knowledge in it.

A few points of clarification before I proceed further:

1. If Quran records an event or the past, regardless of its existence in Torah or folklore, the Quranic account will always be free of error. i.e., there will be no supernatural happenings, demons; time-travel etc. and it will be consistent with the scientific findings.

2. The story of Moses and “Khidr” is actually a vision of Moses which foretells of the future interactions between Israelites and the Muslims.

3. The story of Dhul-Qarnayn is significant because of its prophetic nature. i.e., Yajooj and Majooj making reappearance in the latter days.

For centuries Muslims have believed that Dhul-Qarnayn, the two horned king was Alexander the great. Some have asserted that the story has been copied from the “Romance of Alexander” which conveniently converts a pagan warrior into a soldier of God. But a closer look at the Quranic text and verified historic evidence shows that it was Cyrus the great who was the pious king. Also, Jewish records interpret Daniel’s vision about the two horned ram as Cyrus, their liberator. This understanding is consistent with other verses of Quran which also counts Sabians (Zoroastrians) as those who will be judged as monotheists along with Muslims and “people of the Book”. Quran also informs us of the geographical limits of Cyrus’s empire and location where the wall was built to keep Gog and Magog out.

The identity of this prophet-king matches the prophecy of Daniel in Torah, and not the myths prevalent among the masses. Thus Quran presents the correct history without error and also predicts the future. Exactly what a Divinely revealed scripture should do. When I say that the correct history was recorded, please note that the alleged supernatural beings helping the King build the wall and any myths regarding Gog and Magog are absent from Surah Kahf.

Now let’s see what Quran says about the future. Although it mentions Gog and Magog only twice, it does not elaborate on their origins or identity. Contemporary Jews put the title of Gog and Magog to everyone who came to harm them, including the Saracens. To them, Gog and Magog would inevitably be followed by the Messiah. Cyrus has been called a “Messiah” by Torah, so it was understandable that a future Messiah should also battle against the menace that is Yajooj and Majooj.

Quran says that in future Gog and Magog will cross all barriers and will spread on the earth causing mischief. If Biblical genealogy is to be believed, Japhethites (Gog and Magog) now inhabit Europe, Russia and North America.

This brings us finally to the story of the seven sleepers as was popular among the Syriac speaking Christians. Quran calls them Ashab-e-Kahf (Kahf=KHF=Cave) and does not give a number. Also, if we only read the text, it can be understood that these people of the cave may have belonged to various times and locations across the Roman Empire during the 3oo years of persecution. It also becomes clear that Quran does not mention a set number of the cave dwellers, which means that they were many in number who lived in the catacombs and caves around the Roman empire, virtually cut off from the daily business of life.

A test for the authenticity of Quran would be to prove that any of the historic accounts mentioned in it are erroneous in the light of the modern research. History at the time of late antiquity appears to be re-written and in many cases fabricated to validate a dynasty or religious order. Alexander or his historian sought to replace the memory of Cyrus with that of the invading conqueror. Umayyids and Abbasids were known to make use of fabricated hadith to help their popularity in the masses. Jews and Christians were also waiting for the Messiah or his second coming and their narratives were driven by this expectation. If Tom Holland’s theory is correct, Quran should be full of historic errors considering it narrates many stories from the past. In his book he does mentions such errors, but always through the agency of early Islamic commentators, who in turn were taking the best guess from many versions of history available to them.

If Quran is to be a collection of stories from syriac Christian and Jewish literature, it should also have the errors that they contain. An idea for another book for Mr. Holland perhaps?

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