Mohammed : Saracenic Conquests – Beacon Lights of History, Volume V : The Middle Ages by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume V : The Middle Ages by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume V : The Middle Ages

Mohammed : Saracenic Conquests
Charlemagne : Revival of Western Empire
Hildebrand : The Papal Empire
Saint Bernard : Monastic Institutions
Saint Anselm : Mediaeval Theology
Thomas Aquinas : The Scholastic Philosophy
Thomas Becket : Prelatical Power
The Feudal System
The Crusades
William of Wykeham : Gothic Architecture
John Wyclif : Dawn of the Reformation

Beacon Lights of History, Volume V : The Middle Ages
John Lord

Topics Covered
Change of public opinion about Mohammed
Astonishing triumph of Mohammedanism
Old religious systems of Arabia
Polytheism succeeds the doctrines of the Magians
The necessity of reform
Early life of Mohammed
Mohammed’s meditations and dreams
His belief in a personal God
He preaches his new doctrines
The opposition and ridicule of his countrymen
The perseverance of Mohammed amid obstacles
His flight to Medina
The Koran and its doctrines
Change in Mohammed’s mode of propagating his doctrines
Polygamy and a sensual paradise
Warlike means to convert Arabia
Mohammed accommodates his doctrines to the habits of his countrymen
Encourages martial fanaticism
Conquest of Arabia
Private life of Mohammed, after his success
Carlyle’s apology for Mohammed
The conquest of Syria and Egypt
Conquest of Persia and India
Deductions in view of Saracenic conquests
Necessity of supernatural aid in the conversion of the world

Mohammed[1] : Saracenic Conquests

A.D. 570-632.

The most extraordinary man who arose after the fall of the Roman Empire was doubtless Mohammed; and his posthumous influence has been greater than that of any man since Christianity was declared, if we take into account the number of those who have received his doctrines. Even Christianity never had so rapid a spread. More than a sixth part of the human race are the professed followers of the Arabian prophet.

In regard to Mohammed himself, a great change has taken place in the opinions of critics within fifty years. It was the fashion half a century ago to speak of this man as a hypocrite, an impostor, even as Antichrist. Now he is generally regarded as a reformer; that is, as a man who introduced into Arabia a religion and a morality superior to what previously existed, and he is regarded as an impostor only so far as he was visionary. Few critics doubt his sincerity. He was no hypocrite, since he himself believed in his mission; and his mission was benevolent,–to turn his countrymen from a gross polytheism to the worship of one God. Although his religion cannot compare with Christianity in purity and loftiness, yet it enforced a higher morality than the old Arabian religions, and assimilated to Christianity in many important respects. The chief fault we have to find in Mohammed was, the propagation of his doctrines by the sword, and the use of wicked means to bring about a good end. The truths he declared have had an immense influence on Asiatic nations, and these have given vitality to his system, if we accept the position that truth alone has vitality.

One remarkable fact stands out for the world to ponder,–that, for more than fourteen hundred years, one hundred and eighty millions (more than a sixth part of the human race) have adopted and cherished the religion of Mohammed; that Christianity never had so astonishing a triumph; and that even the adherents of Christianity, in many countries, have not manifested the zeal of the Mohammedans in most of the countries where it has been acknowledged. Now these startling facts can be explained only on the ground that Mohammedanism has great vital religious and moral truths underlying its system which appeal to the consciousness of mankind, or else that these truths are so blended with dangerous errors which appeal to depraved passions and interests, that the religion spread in consequence of these errors rather than of the truth itself.

The question to be considered, then, is whether Mohammedanism spread in consequence of its truths or in consequence of its errors.

In order to appreciate the influence of the Arabian prophet, we are first led into the inquiry whether his religion was really an improvement on the old systems which previously prevailed in Arabia. If it was, he must be regarded as a benefactor and reformer, even if we admit the glaring evils of his system, when measured by the purer religion of the Cross. And it then simply becomes a question whether it is better to have a prevalent corrupted system of religion containing many important truths, or a system of downright paganism with few truths at all.

In examining the religious systems of Arabia in the age preceding the advent of the Prophet, it would seem that the most prominent of them were the old doctrines of the Magians and Sabaeans, blended with a gross idolatry and a senseless polytheism. Whatever may have been the faith of the ancient Sabaean sages, who noted the aspects of the stars, and supposed they were inhabited by angels placed there by Almighty power to supervise and govern the universe, yet history seems to record that this ancient faith was practically subverted, and that the stars, where were supposed to dwell deities to whom prayers were made, became themselves objects of worship, and even graven images were made in honor of them. Among the Arabs each tribe worshipped a particular star, and set up its particular idol, so that a degrading polytheism was the religion of the land. The object of greatest veneration was the celebrated Black Stone, at Mecca, fabled to have fallen from heaven at the same time with Adam. Over this stone was built the Kaabah, a small oblong stone building, around which has been since built the great mosque. It was ornamented with three hundred and sixty idols. The guardianship of this pagan temple was intrusted to the most ancient and honorable families of Mecca, and to it resorted innumerable pilgrims bringing precious offerings. It was like the shrine of Delphi, as a source of profit to its fortunate guardians.

Thus before Mohammed appeared polytheism was the prevalent religion of Arabia,–a degradation even from the ancient Sabaean faith. It is true there were also other religions. There were many Jews at Medina; and there was also a corrupted form of Christianity in many places, split up into hostile and wrangling sects, with but little of the spirit of the divine Founder, with innumerable errors and superstitions, so that in no part of the world was Christianity so feeble a light. But the great body of the people were pagans. A marked reform was imperatively needed to restore the belief in the unity of God and set up a higher standard of morality.

It is claimed that Mohammed brought such a reform. He was born in the year 570, of the family of Hashem and the tribe of Koreish, to whom was intrusted the keeping of the Black Stone. He therefore belonged to the highest Arabian aristocracy. Early left an orphan and in poverty, he was reared in the family of one of his uncles, under all the influences of idolatry. This uncle was a merchant, and the youth made long journeys with him to distant fairs, especially in Syria, where he probably became acquainted with the Holy Scriptures, especially with the Old Testament. In his twenty-fifth year he entered the service of Cadijeh, a very wealthy widow, who sent to the fairs and towns great caravans, which Mohammed accompanied in some humble capacity,–according to the tradition as camel-driver. But his personal beauty, which was remarkable, and probably also his intelligence and spirit, won the heart of this powerful mistress, and she became his wife.

He was now second to none in the capital of Arabia, and great thoughts began to fill his soul. His wife perceived his greatness, and, like Josephine and the wife of Disraeli, forwarded the fortunes of her husband, for he became rich as well as intellectual and noble, and thus had time and leisure to accomplish more easily his work. From twenty-five to forty he led chiefly a contemplative life, spending months together in a cave, absorbed in his grand reflections,–at intervals issuing from his retreat, visiting the marts of commerce, and gaining knowledge from learned men. It is seldom that very great men lead either a life of perpetual contemplation or of perpetual activity. Without occasional rest, and leisure to mature knowledge, no man can arm himself with the weapons of the gods. To be truly great, a man must blend a life of activity with a life of study,–like Moses, who matured the knowledge he had gained in Egypt amid the deserts of Midian.

With all great men some leading idea rules the ordinary life. The idea which took possession of the mind of Mohammed was the degrading polytheism of his countrymen, the multitude of their idols, the grossness of their worship, and the degrading morals which usually accompany a false theology. He set himself to work to produce a reform, but amid overwhelming obstacles. He talked with his uncles, and they laughed at him. They would not even admit the necessity of a reform. Only Cadijeh listened to him and encouraged him and believed in him. And Mohammed was ever grateful for this mark of confidence, and cherished the memory of his wife in his subsequent apostasy,–if it be true that he fell, like Solomon. Long afterwards, when she was dead, Ayésha, his young and favorite wife, thus addressed him: “Am I not better than Cadijeh? Do you not love me better than you did her? She was a widow, old and ugly.” “No, by Allah!” replied the Prophet; “she believed in me when no one else did. In the whole world I had but one friend, and she was that friend.” No woman ever retained the affections of a husband superior to herself, unless she had the spirit of Cadijeh,–unless she proved herself his friend, and believed in him. How miserable the life of Jane Carlyle would have been had she not been proud of her husband! One reason why there is frequent unhappiness in married life is because there is no mutual appreciation. How often have we seen a noble, lofty, earnest man fettered and chained by a frivolous woman who could not be made to see the dignity and importance of the labors which gave to her husband all his real power! Not so with the woman who assisted Mohammed. Without her sympathy and faith he probably would have failed. He told her, and her alone, his dreams, his ecstasies, his visions; how that God at different times had sent prophets and teachers to reveal new truths, by whom religion had been restored; how this one God, who created the heavens and the earth, had never left Himself without witnesses of His truth in the most degenerate times; how that the universal recognition of this sovereign Power and Providence was necessary to the salvation of society. He had learned much from the study of the Talmud and the Jewish Scriptures; he had reflected deeply in his isolated cave; he knew that there was but one supreme God, and that there could be no elevated morality without the sense of personal responsibility to Him; that without the fear of this one God there could be neither wisdom nor virtue.

Hence his soul burned to tell his countrymen his earnest belief in a supreme and personal God, to whom alone prayers should be made, and who alone could rescue by His almighty power. He pondered day and night on this single and simple truth. His perpetual meditations and ascetic habits induced dreams and ecstasies, such as marked primitive monks, and Loyola in his Manresan cave. He became a visionary man, but most intensely earnest, for his convictions were overwhelming. He fancied himself the ambassador of this God, as the ancient Jewish prophets were; that he was even greater than they, his mission being to remove idolatry,–to his mind the greatest evil under the sun, since it was the root of all vices and follies. Idolatry is either a defiance or a forgetfulness of God,–high treason to the majesty of Heaven, entailing the direst calamities.

At last, one day, in his fortieth year, after he had been shut up a whole month in solitude, so that his soul was filled with ecstasy and enthusiasm, he declared to Cadijeh that the night before, while wrapped in his mantle, absorbed in reverie, a form of divine beauty, in a flood of light, appeared to him, and, in the name of the Almighty who created the heavens and the earth, thus spake: “O, Mohammed! of a truth thou art the Prophet of God, and I am his angel Gabriel.” “This,” says Carlyle, “is the soul of Islam. This is what Mohammed felt and now declared to be of infinite moment, that idols and formulas were nothing; that the jargon of argumentative Greek sects, the vague traditions of Jews, the stupid routine of Arab idolatry were a mockery and a delusion; that there is but one God; that we must let idols alone and look to Him. He alone is reality; He made us and sustains us. Our whole strength lies in submission to Him. The thing He sends us, be it death even, is good, is the best. We resign ourselves to Him.”

Such were the truths which Mohammed, with preternatural earnestness, now declared,–doctrines which would revolutionize Arabia. And why not? They are the same substantially which Moses declared to those sensual and degraded slaves whom he led out of Egypt,–yea, the doctrines of David and of Job. “Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him.” What a grand and all-important truth it is to impress upon people sunk in forgetfulness and sensuality and pleasure-seeking and idle schemes of vanity and ambition, that there is a supreme Intelligence who overrules, and whose laws cannot be violated with impunity; from whom no one can escape, even though he “take the wings of the morning and fly to the uttermost parts of the sea.” This is the one truth that Moses sought to plant in the minds of the Jews,–a truth always forgotten when there is slavery to epicurean pleasures or a false philosophy.

Now I maintain that Mohammed, in seeking to impress his degenerate countrymen with the idea of the one supreme God, amid a most degrading and almost universal polytheism, was a great reformer. In preaching this he was neither fanatic nor hypocrite; he was a very great man, and thus far a good man. He does not make an original revelation; he reproduces an old truth,–as old as the patriarchs, as old as Job, as old as the primitive religions,–but an exceedingly important one, lost sight of by his countrymen, gradually lost sight of by all peoples when divine grace is withheld; indeed practically by people in Christian lands in times of great degeneracy. “The fool has said in his heart there is no God;” or, Let there be no God, that we may eat and drink before we die. Epicureanism, in its pleasures or in its speculations, is virtually atheism. It was so in Greece. It is so with us.

Mohammed was now at the mature age of forty, in the fulness of his powers, in the prime of his life; and he began to preach everywhere that there is but one God. Few, however, believed in him. Why not acknowledge such a fundamental truth, appealing to the intellect as well as the moral sense? But to confess there is a supreme God, who rewards and punishes, and to whom all are responsible both for words and actions, is to imply a confession of sinfulness and the justice of retribution. Those degraded Arabians would not receive willingly such a truth as this, even as the Israelites ever sought to banish it from their hearts and minds, in spite of their deliverance from slavery. The uncles and friends of Mohammed treated his mission with scorn and derision. Nor do I read that the common people heard him gladly, as they listened to the teachings of Christ. Zealously he labored for three years with all classes; and yet in three years of exalted labor, with all his eloquence and fervor and sincerity, he converted only about thirteen persons, one of whom was his slave. Think of such a man declaring such a truth, and only gaining thirteen followers in three years! How sickened must have been his enthusiastic soul! His worldly relatives urged him to silence. Why attack idols; why quarrel with his own interests; why destroy his popularity? Then exclaimed that great hero: “If the sun stood on my right hand, and the moon on my left, ordering me to hold my peace, I would still declare there is but one God,”–a speech rivalled only by Luther at the Diet of Worms. Why urge a great man to be silent on the very thing which makes him great? He cannot be silent. His truth–from which he cannot be separated–is greater than life or death, or principalities or powers.

Buffeted and ridiculed, still Mohammed persevered. He used at first only moral means. He appealed only to the minds and hearts of the people, encouraged by his few believers and sustained by the fancied voice of that angel who appeared to him in his retreat. But his earnest voice was drowned by discordant noises. He was regarded as a lunatic, a demented man, because he professed to believe in a personal God. The angry mob covered his clothes with dust and ashes. They demanded miracles. But at this time he had only truths to declare,–those saving truths which are perpetual miracles. At last hostilities began. He was threatened and he was persecuted. They laid plots to take his life. He sought shelter in the castle of his uncle, Abu Taleh; but he died. Then Mohammed’s wife Cadijeh died. The priests of an idolatrous religion became furious. He had laid his hands on their idols. He was regarded as a disorganizer, an innovator, a most dangerous man. His fortunes became darker and darker; he was hated, persecuted, and alone.

Thus thirteen years passed away in reproach, in persecution, in fear. At last forty picked men swore to assassinate him. Should he remain at Mecca and die, before his mission was accomplished, or should he fly? He concluded to fly to Medina, where there were Jews, and some nominal converts to Christianity,–a new ground. This was in the year 622, and the flight is called the Hegira,–from which the East dates its era, in the fifty-third year of the Prophet’s life. In this city he was cordially welcomed, and he soon found himself surrounded with enthusiastic followers. He built a mosque, and openly performed the rites of the new religion.

At this era a new phase appears in the Prophet’s life and teachings. Thus far, until his flight, it would seem that he propagated his doctrines by moral force alone, and that these doctrines, in the main, were elevated. He had earnestly declared his great idea of the unity of God. He had pronounced the worship of images to be idolatrous. He held idolatry of all kinds in supreme abhorrence. He enjoined charity, justice, and forbearance. He denounced all falsehood and all deception, especially in trade. He declared that humility, benevolence, and self-abnegation were the greatest virtues. He commanded his disciples to return good for evil, to restrain the passions, to bridle the tongue, to be patient under injuries, to be submissive to God. He enjoined prayer, fastings, and meditation as a means of grace. He laid down the necessity of rest on the seventh day. He copied the precepts of the Bible in many of their essential features, and recognized its greatest teachers as inspired prophets.

A Reading from the Koran After the painting by W. Gentz

A Reading from the Koran After the painting by W. Gentz

It was during these thirteen years at Mecca, amid persecution and ridicule, and with few outward successes, that he probably wrote the Koran,–a book without beginning and without end, disjecta membra, regardless of all rules of art, full of repetitions, and yet full of lofty precepts and noble truths of morality evidently borrowed from the Jewish Scriptures,–in which his great ideas stand out with singular eloquence and impressiveness: the unity of God, His divine sovereignty, the necessity of prayer, the soul’s immortality, future rewards and punishments. His own private life had been blameless. It was plain and simple. For a whole month he did not light a fire to cook his food. He swept his chamber himself and mended his own clothes. His life was that of an ascetic enthusiast, profoundly impressed with the greatness and dignity of his mission. Thus far his greatest error and fault was in the supposition that he was inspired in the same sense as the ancient Jewish prophets were inspired,–to declare the will and the truth of God. Any man leading such a life of contemplative asceticism and retirement is prone to fall into the belief of special divine illumination. It characterized George Fox, the Anabaptists, Ignatius Loyola, Saint Theresa, and even, to some extent, Oliver Cromwell himself. Mohammed’s supreme error was that he was the greatest as well as the last of the prophets. This was fanaticism, but he was probably honest in the belief. His brain was turned by dreams, ecstasies, and ascetic devotions. But with all his visionary ideas of his call, his own morality and his teachings had been lofty, and apparently unsuccessful. Possibly he was discouraged with the small progress he had made,–disgusted, irritated, fierce.

Certainly, soon after he was established at Medina, a great change took place in his mode of propagating his doctrines. His great ideas remained the same, but he adopted a new way to spread them. So that I can almost fancy that some Mephistopheles, some form of Satanic agency, some lying Voice whispered to him in this wise: “O Mohammed! of a truth thou art the Prophet of the living God. Thou hast declared the grandest truths ever uttered in Arabia; but see how powerless they are on the minds and hearts of thy countrymen, with all thy eloquence, sincerity, and fervor. By moral means thou hast effected comparatively nothing. Thou hast preached thirteen years, and only made a few converts. Thy truths are too elevated for a corrupt and wicked generation to accept. Even thine own life is in danger. Thou hast been obliged to fly to these barren rocks and sands. Thou hast failed. Why not pursue a new course, and adapt thy doctrines to men as they are? Thy countrymen are wild, fierce, and warlike: why not incite their martial passions in defence of thy doctrines? They are an earnest people, and, believing in the truths which thou now declarest, they will fight for them and establish them by the sword, not merely in Arabia, but throughout the East. They are a pleasure-loving and imaginative people: why not promise the victors of thy faith a sensual bliss in Paradise? They will not be subverters of your grand truths; they will simply extend them, and jealously, if they have a reward in what their passions crave. In short, use the proper means for a great end. The end justifies the means.”

Whether influenced by such specious sophistries, or disheartened by his former method, or corrupted in his own heart, as Solomon was, by his numerous wives,–for Mohammed permitted polygamy and practised it himself,–it is certain that he now was bent on achieving more signal and rapid victories. He resolved to adapt his religion to the depraved hearts of his followers. He would mix up truth with error; he would make truth palatable; he would use the means which secure success. It was success he wanted, and success he thus far had not secured. He was ambitious; he would become a mighty spiritual potentate.

So he allowed polygamy,–the vice of Eastern nations from remote periods; he promised a sensual Paradise to those who should die in defence of his religion; he inflamed the imagination of the Arabians with visions of sensual joys. He painted heaven as a land whose soil was the finest wheaten flour, whose air was fragrant with perfumes, whose streams were of crystal water or milk or wine or honey, flowing over beds of musk and camphor,–a glorious garden of fruits and flowers, whose inhabitants were clothed in garments of gold, sparkling with rubies and diamonds, who reclined in sumptuous palaces and silken pavilions, and on couches of voluptuous ease, and who were served with viands which could be eaten without satiety, and liquors which could be drunk without inebriation; yea, where the blissful warrior for the faith should enjoy an unending youth, and where he would be attended by houris, with black and loving eyes, free from all defects, resplendent in beauty and grace, and rejoicing in perpetual charms.

Such were the views, it is maintained, with which he inflamed the faithful. And, more, he encouraged them to take up arms, and penetrate, as warlike missionaries, to the utmost bounds of the habitable world, in order to convert men to the faith of the one God, whose Prophet he claimed to be. Moreover, he made new and extraordinary “revelations,”–that he had ascended into the seventh heaven and held converse with Gabriel; and he now added to his creed that old lie of Eastern theogonies, that base element of all false religions,–that man can propitiate the Deity by works of supererogation; that man can purchase by ascetic labors and sacrifices his future salvation. This falsity enters largely into Mohammedanism. I need not add how discrepant it is with the cheerful teachings of the apostles, especially to the poor, as seen in the deeds of penance, prayers in the corners of the streets, the ablutions, the fasts, and the pilgrimages to which the faithful are exhorted. And moreover he accommodated his fasts and feasts and holidays and pilgrimages to the old customs of the people, thereby teaching lessons of worldly wisdom. Astarte, the old object of Sabaean idolatry, was particularly worshipped on a Friday; and this day was made the Mohammedan Sabbath. Again, the month Rhamadán, from time immemorial, had been set apart for fastings; this month the Prophet adopted, declaring that in it he had received his first revelations. Pilgrimages to the Black Stone were favorite forms of penance; and this was perpetuated in the pilgrimages to Mecca.

Thus it would appear that Mohammed, after his flight, accommodated his doctrines to the customs and tastes of his countrymen,–blending with the sublime truths he declared subtile and pernicious errors. The Jesuit missionaries did the same thing in China and Japan, thinking more of the number of their converts than of the truth itself. Expediency–the accepted Jesuitical principle of the end justifying the means–is seen in almost everything in this world which blazes with success. It is seen in politics, in philanthropy, in ecclesiasticism, and in education. There are political Jesuits and philanthropical Jesuits and Protestant Jesuits, as well as Catholic Jesuits and Mohammedan Jesuits. What do you think of a man, wearing the livery of a gospel minister, devoting all his energies to money-making, versed in the ways of the “heathen Chinee,”–“ways that are dark, and tricks that are vain,”–all to succeed better in worldly thrift, using all means for that single end,–is not he practically a Jesuit? I do not mean a Catholic Jesuit, belonging to the Society of Jesus, but popularly what we mean by a Jesuit. What would you think of a college which lowered the standard of education in order to draw students, or selected, as the guardians of its higher interests, those men who would contribute the most money to its funds?

This spirit of expediency Mohammed entertained and utilized, in order to gain success. Most of what is false in Mohammedanism is based on expediency. The end was not lost sight of,–the conversion of his countrymen to the belief in the unity and sovereignty of God, but it was sought by means which would make them fanatics or pharisees. He was not such a miserable creature as one who seeks to make money by trading on the religious capital of the community; but he did adapt his religion to the passions and habits of the people in order that they might more readily be led to accept it. He listened to that same wicked Voice which afterwards appeared in the guise of an angel of light to mediaeval ritualists. And it is thus that Satan has contrived to pervert the best institutions of the world. The moment good men look to outward and superficial triumphs, to the disregard of inward purity, that moment do they accept the Jesuitical lie of all ages,–“The end justifies the means.”

But the worst thing which the Prophet did in order to gain his end was to make use of the sword. For thirteen years he appealed to conscience. Now he makes it an inducement for men to fight for his great idea. “Different prophets,” said he, in his memorable manifesto, “have been sent by God to illustrate His different attributes: Moses, His providence; Solomon, His wisdom; Christ, His righteousness; but I, the last of the prophets, am sent with the sword. Let those who promulgate my faith enter into no arguments or discussions, but slay all who refuse obedience. Whoever fights for the true faith, whether he fall or conquer, will assuredly receive a glorious reward, for the sword is the key of heaven. All who draw it in defence of the faith shall receive temporal and future blessings. Every drop of their blood, every peril and hardship, will be registered on high as more meritorious than fasting or prayer. If they fall in battle their sins will be washed away, and they shall be transported into Paradise, to revel in eternal pleasures, and in the arms of black-eyed houris.” Thus did he stimulate the martial fanaticism of a warlike and heroic people with the promise of future happiness. What a monstrous expediency,–worse than all the combined usurpations of the popes!

And what was the result? I need not point to the successive conquests of the Saracens with such a mighty stimulus. They were loyal to the truth for which they fought. They never afterwards became idolaters; but their religion was built up on the miseries of nations. To propagate the faith of Mohammed they overran the world. Never were conquests more rapid and more terrible.

At first Mohammed’s followers in Medina sallied out and attacked the caravans of Arabia, and especially all belonging to Mecca (the city which had rejected him), until all the various tribes acknowledged the religion of the Prophet, for they were easily converted to a faith which flattered their predatory inclinations and promised them future immunities. The first cavalcade which entered Medina with spoils made Mussulmans of all the inhabitants, and gave Mohammed the control of the city. The battle of Moat gave him a triumphal entrance into Mecca. He soon found himself the sovereign of all Arabia; and when he died, at the age of 63, in the eleventh year after his Hegira, or flight from Mecca, he was the most successful founder of a religion the world has known, next to Buddha. A religion appealing to truth alone had made only a few converts in thirteen years; a religion which appealed to the sword had made converts of a great nation in eleven years.

Mohammed, Preaching the Unity of God, Enters the City of Mecca After the painting by A. Müller

Mohammed, Preaching the Unity of God, Enters the City of Mecca After the painting by A. Müller

It is difficult to ascertain what the private life of the Prophet was in these years of dazzling success. The authorities differ. Some represent him as sunk in a miserable sensuality which shortened his days. But I think this statement may be doubted. He never lost the veneration of his countrymen,–and no veneration can last for a man steeped in sensuality. Even Solomon lost his prestige and popularity when he became vain and sensual. Those who were nearest to the Prophet reverenced him most profoundly. With his wife Ayésha he lived with great frugality. He was kindly, firm in friendship, faithful and tender in his family, ready to forgive enemies, just in decision. The caliphs who succeeded him, for some time, were men of great simplicity, and sought to imitate his virtues. He was doubtless warlike and fanatical, but conquests such as he and his successors made are incompatible with luxury and effeminacy. He stands arraigned at the bar of eternal justice for perverting truth, for blending it with error, for making use of wicked means to accomplish what he deemed a great end.

I have no patience with Mr. Carlyle, great and venerable as is his authority, for seeming to justify Mohammed in assuming the sword. “I care little for the sword,” says this sophistical writer. “I will allow a thing to struggle for itself in this world, with any sword or tongue or implement it has or can lay hold on. What is better than itself it cannot put away, but only what is worse. In this great life-duel Nature herself is umpire, and can do no wrong,” That is, might makes right; only evil perishes in the conflict of principles; whatever prevails is just. In other words, if Mohammedanism, by any means it may choose to use, proves itself more formidable than other religions, then it ought to prevail. Suppose that the victories of the Saracens had extended over Europe, as well as Asia and Africa,–had not been arrested by Charles Martel,–would Carlyle then have preferred Mohammedanism to the Christianity of degenerate nations? Was Mohammedanism a better religion than the Christianity which existed in Asia Minor and in various parts of the Greek empire in the sixth and seventh centuries? Was it a good thing to convert the church of Saint Sophia into a Saracenic mosque, and the city of the later Christian emperors into the capital of the Turks? Is a united Saracenic empire better than a divided, wrangling Christian empire?

But I will not enter upon that discussion. I confine myself to facts. It is certain that Mohammedanism, by means of the sword, spread with marvellous and unprecedented rapidity. The successors of the Prophet carried their conquests even to India. Neither the Syrians nor the Egyptians could cope with men who felt that the sacrifice of life in battle would secure an eternity of bliss. The armies of the Greek emperor melted away before the generals of the caliph. The Cross waned before the Crescent. The banners of the Moslems floated over the proudest battlements of ancient Roman grandeur.

In the fifth year of the caliph Omar, only seventeen years from the Prophet’s flight from Mecca, the conquest of Syria was completed. The Christians were forbidden to build churches, or speak openly of their religion, or sit in the presence of a Mohammedan, or to sell wine, or bear arms, or use the saddle in riding, or have a domestic who had been in the Mohammedan service. The utter prostration of all civil and religious liberty took place in the old scenes of Christian triumph. This was an instance in which persecution proved successful; and because it was successful it is a proof, in the eyes of Carlyle, that the persecuting religion was the better, because it was outwardly the stronger.

The conquest of Egypt rapidly followed that of Syria; and with the fall of Alexandria perished the largest library of the world, the thesaurus of all the intellectual treasures of antiquity.

Then followed the conquest of Persia. A single battle, as in the time of Alexander, decided its fate. The marvel is that the people should have changed their religion; but then, it was Mohammedanism or death. And a still greater marvel it is,–an utter mystery to me,–why that Oriental country should have continued faithful to the new religion. It must have had some elements of vitality almost worth fighting for, and which we do not comprehend.

Nor did Saracenic conquests end until the Arabs of the desert had penetrated southward into India farther than had Alexander the Great, and westward until they had subdued the northern kingdoms of Africa, and carried their arms to the Pillars of Hercules; yea, to the cities of the Goths in Spain, and were only finally arrested in Europe by the heroism of Charles Martel.

Such were the rapid conquests of the Saracens–and permanent conquests also–in Asia and Africa, under the stimulus of religious fanaticism, until they had reduced thirty-six thousand cities, towns, and castles, and built fourteen thousand mosques.

Now what are the deductions to be logically drawn from these stupendous victories and the consolidation of the various religions of the conquered into the creed of Mohammed,–not repudiated when the pressure was removed, but apparently cherished by one hundred and eighty millions of people for more than a thousand years?

We must take the ground that the religion of Mohammed has marvellous and powerful truths, which we have overlooked and do not understand, which appeal to the heart and conscience, and excite a great enthusiasm,–so great as to stimulate successive generations with an almost unexampled ardor, and to defend which they were ready to die; a religion which has bound diverse nations together for nearly fourteen hundred years. If so, it cannot be abused, or ridiculed, or sneered at, any more than can the dominion of the popes in the Middle Ages, but remains august in impressive mystery to us, and even to future ages.

But if, in comparison with Christianity, it is a corrupt and false religion, as many assume, then what deductions must we draw from its amazing triumphs? For the fact stares us in the face that it is rooted deeply in a large part of the Eastern world, or, at least, has prevailed victorious for more than a thousand years.

First, we must conclude that the external triumph of a religion, especially among ignorant or wicked people, is not so much owing to the purity and loftiness of its truths, as to its harmony with prevailing errors and corruptions. When Mohammed preached his sublimest doctrines, and appealed to reason and conscience, he converted about a score of people in thirteen years. When he invoked demoralizing passions, he converted all Arabia in eleven years. And does not this startling conclusion seem to be confirmed by the whole history of mankind? How slow the progress of Christianity for two hundred years, except when assisted by direct supernatural influences! How rapid its triumphs when it became adapted to the rude barbaric mind, or to the degenerate people of the Empire! How popular and prevalent and widespread are those religions which we are accustomed to regard as most corrupt! Buddhism and Brahmanism have had more adherents than even Mohammedanism. How difficult it was for Moses and the prophets to keep the Jews from idolatry! What caused the rapid eclipse of faith in the antediluvian world? Why could not Noah establish and perpetuate his doctrines among his own descendants before he was dead? Why was the Socratic philosophy unpopular? Why were the Epicureans so fashionable? Why was Christianity itself most eagerly embraced when its light was obscured by fables and superstitions? Why did the Roman Empire perish, with all the aid of a magnificent civilization; why did this civilization itself retrograde; why did its art and literature decline? Why did the grand triumphs of Protestantism stop in half a century after Luther delivered his message? What made the mediaeval popes so powerful? What gave such ascendency to the Jesuits? Why is the simple faith of the primitive Christians so obnoxious to the wise, the mighty, and the noble? What makes the most insidious heresies so acceptable to the learned? Why is modern literature, when fashionable and popular, so antichristian in its tone and spirit? Why have not the doctrines of Luther held their own in Germany, and those of Calvin in Geneva, and those of Cranmer in England, and those of the Pilgrim Fathers in New England? Is it because, as men become advanced in learning and culture, they are theologically wiser than Moses and Abraham and Isaiah?

I do not cite the rapid decline of modern civilized society, in a political or social view, in the most favored sections of Christendom; I do not sing dirges over republican institutions; I would not croak Jeremiads over the changes and developments of mankind. I simply speak of the marvellous similarity which the spread and triumph of Mohammedanism seem to bear to the spread and triumph of what is corrupt and wicked in all institutions and religions since the fall of man. Everywhere it is the frivolous, the corrupt, the false, which seem to be most prevalent and most popular. Do men love truth, or readily accept it, when it conflicts with passions and interests? Is any truth popular which is arrayed against the pride of reason? When has pure moral truth ever been fashionable? When have its advocates not been reviled, slandered, misrepresented, and persecuted, if it has interfered with the domination of prevailing interests? The lower the scale of pleasures the more eagerly are they sought by the great mass of the people, even in Christian communities. You can best make colleges thrive by turning them into schools of technology, with a view of advancing utilitarian and material interests. You cannot make a newspaper flourish unless you fill it with pictures and scandals, or make it a vehicle of advertisements,–which are not frivolous or corrupt, it is true, but which have to do with merely material interests. Your libraries would never be visited, if you took away their trash. Your Sabbath-school books would not be read, unless you made them an insult to the human understanding. Your salons would be deserted, if you entertained your guests with instructive conversation. There would be no fashionable gatherings, if it were not to display dresses and diamonds. Your pulpits would be unoccupied, if you sought the profoundest men to fill them.

Everything, even in Christian communities, shows that vanities and follies and falsehoods are the most sought, and that nothing is more discouraging than appeals to high intelligence or virtue, even in art. This is the uniform history of the race, everywhere and in all ages. Is it darkness or light which the world loves? I never read, and I never heard, of a great man with a great message to deliver, who would not have sunk under disappointment or chagrin but for his faith. Everywhere do you see the fascination of error, so that it almost seems to be as vital as truth itself. When and where have not lies and sophistries and hypocrisies reigned? I appeal to history. I appeal to the observation and experience of every thoughtful and candid mind. You cannot get around this truth. It blazes and it burns like the fires of Sinai. Men left to themselves will more and more retrograde in virtue.

What, then, is the hope of the world? We are driven to this deduction,–that if truth in itself is not all-conquering, the divine assistance, given at times to truth itself, as in the early Church, is the only reason why truth conquers. This divine grace, promised in the Bible, has wrought wonders whenever it has pleased the Almighty to bestow it, and only then. History teaches this as impressively as revelation. Christianity itself, unaided, would probably die out in this world. And hence the grand conclusion is, that it is the mysterious, or, as some call it, the supernatural, spirit of Almighty power which is, after all, the highest hope of this world. This is not discrepant with the oldest traditions and theogonies of the East,–the hidden wisdom of ancient Indian and Persian and Egyptian sages, concealed from the vulgar, but really embraced by the profoundest men, before corruptions perverted even their wisdom. This certainly is the earliest revelation of the Bible. This is the power which Moses recognized, and all the prophets who succeeded him. This is the power which even Mohammed, in the loftiness of his contemplations, more dimly saw, and imperfectly taught to the idolaters around him, and which gives to his system all that was really valuable. Ask not when and where this power shall be most truly felt. It is around us, and above us, and beneath us. It is the mystery and grandeur of the ages. “It is not by might nor by power, but by my spirit,” saith the Lord. Man is nothing, his aspirations are nothing, the universe itself is nothing, without the living, permeating force which comes from this supernal Deity we adore, to interfere and save. Without His special agency, giving to His truths vitality, this world would soon become a hopeless and perpetual pandemonium. Take away the necessity of this divine assistance as the one great condition of all progress, as well as the highest boon which mortals seek,–then prayer itself, recognized even by Mohammedans as the loftiest aspiration and expression of a dependent soul, and regarded by prophets and apostles and martyrs as their noblest privilege, becomes a superstition, a puerility, a mockery, and a hopeless dream.


The Koran; Dean Prideaux’s Life of Mohammed; Vie de Mahomet, by the Comte de Boulainvilliers; Gagnier’s Life of Mohammed; Ockley’s History of the Saracens; Gibbon, fiftieth chapter; Hallam’s Middle Ages; Milman’s Latin Christianity; Dr. Weil’s Mohammed der Prophet, sein Leben und seine Lehre; Renan, Revue des Deux Mondes, 1851; Bustner’s Pilgrimage to El Medina and Mecca; Life of Mahomet, by Washington Irving; Essai sur l’Histoire des Arabes, par A.P. Caussin de Perceval; Carlyle’s Lectures on Heroes and Hero Worship; E.A. Freeman’s Lectures on the History of the Saracens; Forster’s Mahometanism Unveiled; Maurice on the Religions of the World; Life and Religion of Mohammed, translated from the Persian, by Rev. I.L. Merrick.

[1] Spelled also Mahomet, Mahommed; but I prefer Mohammed.

Charlemagne : Revival of Western Empire

Beacon Lights of History, Volume V : The Middle Ages