Ernest Renan (1823-1892)

Prominent French orientalist, philosopher and author of several books related to Middle Eastern languages and civilization

“The Coran was the sign of a literary revolution, as well as of a revolution in religion; it signalizes among the Arabs the transition from the versified style to prose, from poetry to eloquence, crisis so important in the intellectual life of a people. At the beginning of the seventh century the grand poetic age of Arabia was passing away; traces of fatigue showed themselves in all quarters; the ideas of literary criticism appeared as a sign of ill omen for genius.

Antar, that Arab nature so frank, so unspoiled, begins his Moallakat, very much as a poet of the decadence might, with these words: “What theme have not the poets sung?” An immense astonishment greeted Mahomet when he appeared in the midst of an exhausted literature, with his vivid and earnest recitations. The first time that Otba, son of Rebia, heard this energetic language, sonorous, full of rhythm, though un-versified, he went back to his friends quite astonished. “What is the matter?” they asked.

“By my faith!” he replied, “Mahomet has used towards me speech such as I never heard. It is neither poetry, nor prose, nor the language of the magician, but it is penetrating.” Mahomet did not like the exceedingly refined prosody of Arab poetry; he committed faults of quantity when he quoted verses, and God himself took the responsibility of excusing him from it in the Coran. “We have not taught our prophet versification.” He repeats on all occasions that he is neither a poet nor a magician. The common people, in fact, were continually tempted to confound him with these two classes of men; and it is true that his rhymed and sententious style had some resemblance to that of the magicians.

It is impossible for us, forsooth, to comprehend the charm that the Coran exerted immediately on its appearance. The book seems to us declamatory, monotonous, tedious; the continuous reading of it is almost insupportable; but it must be remembered that Arabia, having never possessed an idea of the plastic- arts, or of high beauties of composition, makes perfection of form consist exclusively in the details of style. Language in its view is something divine; the most precious gift that God has made to the Arab race. The most certain sign of its pre-eminence is the Arab language itself, with its learned grammar, its infinite wealth, its subtle delicacy.

It cannot be doubted that Mahomet owed his chief success to the originality of his language, and to the novel turn he gave to Arab eloquence. The most important conversions, that of the poet Lebid, for example, are wrought through the effect of certain fragments of the Coran; and to those who demanded a “sign ” of him, Mahomet offers no other response than the perfect purity of his Arab speech, and the fascination of the new style of which he had the secret.

Thus, Islamism, with a completeness of which it would be hard to find another example, sums up the ideas, moral, religious, aesthetic, in a word, the spiritual life of one great family of mankind.”

Studies of Religious History and Criticism, Ernest Renan, pg. 279-280; Carleton Publishers, New York, 1864