State of the World in the 7th Century–Western Empire–Eastern Empire–Persia–Arabia–Mohammed–His probable Motives–Character of his Religion–The Koran.

AT the commencement of the 7th century of the Christian era a new character was about to be impressed on a large portion of the world. During the two centuries which preceded, the Goths, Vandals, Huns, and other martial tribes of the Germanic race, had succeeded in beating down the barriers opposed to them, and in conquering and dismembering the Western Empire. They brought with them and retained their love of freedom and spirit of dauntless valour, but abandoned their ancient and ferocious superstitions, and embraced the corrupt system which then degraded the name of Christianity. This system, hardened, as it were, by ideas retained and transferred from the original faith of its new disciples, which ideas were fostered by those passages of the books of the Hebrew Scriptures which accorded with their natural sentiments, afterwards, when allied with feudalism, engendered the spirit which poured the hosts of Western Europe over the mountains and plains of Asia for the conquest of the Holy Land.

A different picture was at this time presented by the empire of the East. It still retained the extent assigned to it by Theodosius; and all the countries from the Danube, round the east and south coasts of the Mediterranean, to the straits of Gades, yielded a more or less perfect obedience to the successors of Constantine. But a despotism more degrading, though less ferocious, than those of Asia paralyzed the patriotism and the energy of their subjects; and the acuteness, the contentiousness, and the imagination of the Greeks, combined with mysticism and the wild fancy of the Asiatics to transform the simplicity of the religion of Christ into a revolting system of intricate metaphysics and gross idolatry, which aided the influence of their political condition in chilling the martial ardour of the people. The various provinces of the empire were held together by the loosest and feeblest connexion, and it was apparent that a vigorous shock would suffice to dissolve the union.

The mountains of Armenia and the course of the Euphrates separated the Eastern Empire from that of Persia. This country had been under the dominion of the people named Parthians at the time when the eagles of the Roman republic first appeared on the Euphrates, and defeat had more than once attended the Roman armies which attempted to enter their confines. Like every dominion not founded on the freedom of the people, that of the Arsacides (the Parthian royal line) grew feeble with time, and after a continuance of nearly five centuries the sceptre of Arsaces passed from the weak hand of the last monarch of his line to that of Ardeshir Babegan (that is the son of Babec), a valiant officer of the royal army, and a pretended descendant of the ancient monarchs of Persia. Ardeshir, to accomplish this revolution, availed himself of the religious prejudices of the Persian people. The Parthian monarchs had inclined to the manners and the religion of the Greeks, and the Light-religion–the original faith of Persia, and one of the purest and most spiritual of those to which a divine origin may not be assigned–had been held in slight estimation, and its priests unvisited by royal favour. It was the pride and the policy of Ardeshir to restore the ancient religion to the dignity which it had enjoyed under the descendants of Cyrus, and Religion, in return, lent her powerful aid to his plans of restoring the royal dignity to its pristine vigour, and of infusing into the breast of the people the love of country and the ardour for extending the Persian dominion to what it had been of old; and for 400 years the Sassanides were the most formidable enemies of the Roman empire. But their dominion had, at the period of which we write, nearly attained the greatest limit allotted to Oriental dynasties; and though Noosheerwan the Just had attained great warlike fame, and governed with a vigour and justice that have made his name proverbial in the East, and Khoosroo Purveez displayed a magnificence which is still the theme of Persian poetry and romance, and carried his victorious arms over Syria and Egypt, and further along the African coast than even those of Darius I. had been able to advance, yet defeat from the gallant Emperor Heraclius clouded his latter days, and the thirteenth year after his death, by showing the Persian armies in flight, and the palladium of the empire, the jewel-set apron of the blacksmith Kawah, in the hands of the rovers of the deserts, revealed the secret that her strength was departed from Persia. The brilliancy of the early part of the reign of Khoosroo Purveez had been but the flash before death which at times is displayed in empires as in individuals. The vigour was gone which was requisite to stem the torrent of fanatic valour about to burst forth from the wilds of Arabia.

It is the boast of Arabia that it has never been conquered. This immunity from subjugation has, however, been only partial, and is owing to the nature of the country; for although the barren sands of the Hejaz and Nejed have always baffled the efforts of hostile armies, yet the more inviting region of Yemen, the Happy Arabia of the ancients, has more than once allured a conqueror, and submitted to his sway. The inhabitants of this country have been the same in blood and in manners from the dawn of history. Brave, but not sanguinary, robbers, but kind and hospitable, of lively and acute intellect, we find the Arabs, from the days of Abraham to the present times, leading the pastoral and nomadic life in the desert, agriculturists in Yemen, traders on the coasts and on the confines of Syria and Egypt. Their foreign military operations had hitherto been confined to plundering expeditions into the last-mentioned countries, unless they were the Hycsos, or Shepherd Kings, who, according to tradition, once made the conquest of Egypt. Arabia forming a kind of world in itself, its various tribes were in ceaseless hostility with each other; but it was apparent that if its brave and skilful horsemen could be united under one head, and animated by motives which would inspire constancy and rouse valour, they might present a force capable of giving a fatal shock to the empires of Persia and of Rome.

It is impossible, on taking a survey of the history of the world, not to recognize a great predisposing cause, which appoints the time and circumstances of every event which is to produce any considerable change in the state of human affairs. The agency of this overruling providence is nowhere more perceptible than in the present instance. The time was come for the Arabs to leave their deserts and march to the conquest of the world, and the man was born who was to inspire them with the necessary motives.

Mohammed (Illustrious) was the son of Abd-Allah (Servant of God), a noble Arab of the tribe of Koreish, which bad the guardianship of the Kaaba (Square House of Mecca), the Black Stone contained in which (probably an aerolite) had been for ages an object of religious veneration to the tribes of Arabia. His mother was Amineh, the daughter of a chief of princely rank. He was early left an orphan, with the slender patrimony of five camels and a female Æthiopian slave. His uncle, Aboo Talib, brought him up. At an early age the young Mohammed accompanied his uncle to the fair of Bozra, on the verge of Syria, and in his 18th year he signalized his valour in an engagement between the Koreish and a hostile tribe. At the age of 25 he entered the service of Khadijah, a wealthy widow, with whose merchandise he visited one of the great fairs of Syria. Mohammed, though poor, was noble, handsome, acute, and brave; Khadijah, who was fifteen years his senior, was inspired with love; her passion was returned; and the gift of her hand and wealth gave the nephew of Aboo Talib affluence and consideration.

Mohammed’s original turn of mind appears to have been serious, and it is not unlikely that the great truth of the Unity of the Deity had been early impressed on his mind by his mother or his Jewish kindred. The Koreish and the rest of his countrymen were idolaters; Christianity was now corrupted by the intermixture of many superstitions; the fire-worship of the Persians was a worshipping of the Deity under a material form; the Mosaic religion had been debased by the dreams and absurd distinctions of the Rabbis. A simpler form than any of these seemed wanted for man. God, moreover, was believed to have at sundry times sent prophets into the world for its reformation, and might do so again; the Jews still looked for their promised Messiah; many Christians held that the Paraclete was yet to come. Who can take upon him to assert that Mohammed may not have believed himself to be set apart to the service of God, and appointed by the divine decree to be the preacher of a purer faith than any which he then saw existing? Who will say that in his annual seclusions of fifteen days in the cave of Hira he may not have fallen into ecstatic visions, and that in one of these waking dreams the angel Gabriel may not have appeared to his distempered fancy to descend to nominate him to the office of a prophet of God, and present to him, in a visible form, that portion of his future law which had probably already passed through his mind?

A certain portion of self-delusion is always mingled with successful imposture; the impostor, as it were, makes his first experiment on himself. It is much more reasonable to conclude that Mohammed had at first no other object than the dissemination of truth by persuasion, and that he may have beguiled himself into a belief of his being the instrument selected for that purpose, than that the citizen of a town in the secluded region of Arabia beheld in ambitious vision from his mountain-cave his victorious banners waving on the banks of the Oxus and the Ebro, and his name saluted as that of the Prophet of God by a fourth part of the human race. Still we must not pass by another, and perhaps a truer supposition, namely, that, in the mind of Mohammed, as in that of so many others, the end justified the means, and that he deemed it lawful to feign a vision and a commission from God in order to procure from men a hearing for the truth.

Whatever the ideas and projects of Mohammed may originally have been, he waited till he had attained his fortieth year (the age at which Moses showed himself first to the Israelites), and then revealed his divine commission to his wife Khadijah, his slave Zeid, his cousin Ali, the son of Aboo Talib, and his friend, the virtuous and wealthy Aboo Bekr. It is difficult to conceive any motive but conviction to have operated on the minds of these different persons, who at once acknowledged ledged his claim to the prophetic office; and it speaks not a little for the purity of the previous life of the new Prophet, that he could venture to claim the faith of those who were most intimately acquainted with him. The voice of wisdom has assured us that a prophet has no honour in his own country and among his own kindred, and the example of Mohammed testified the truth of the declaration. During thirteen years the new religion made but slow and painful progress in the town of Mecca; but the people of Yathreb, a town afterwards dignified with the appellation of the City of the Prophet (Medinat-en-Nabi), were more susceptive of faith; and when, on the death of Aboo Talib, who protected his nephew, though he rejected his claims, his celebrated Flight (Hejra) brought him to Yathreb, the people of that town took arms in his defence against the Koreish. It was probably now that new views opened to the mind of the Prophet. Prince of Yathreb, he might hope to extend his sway over the ungrateful Mecca; and those who had scoffed at his arguments and persuasions might be taught lessons of wisdom by the sword. These anticipations were correct, and in less than ten years after the battle of Bedr (the first he fought) he saw his temporal power and his prophetic character acknowledged by the whole of the Arabian peninsula.

It commonly happens that, when a new form of religion is proposed for the acceptance of mankind, it surpasses in purity that which it is intended to supersede. The Arabs of the days of Mohammed were idolaters; 300 is said to have been the number of the images which claimed their adoration in the Caaba. A gross licentiousness prevailed among hem; their polygamy had no limits assigned to it. For this the Prophet substituted the worship of One God, and placed a check on the sensual propensities of his people. His religion contained descriptions of the future state of rewards and punishments, by which he allured to obedience and terrified from contumacy or opposition. The pains of hell which he menaced were such as were most offensive to the body and its organs; the joys of Paradise were verdant meads, shady trees, murmuring brooks, gentle airs, precious wines in cups of gold and silver, stately tents, and splendid sofas; the melody of the songs of angels was to ravish the souls of the blessed; the black-eyed Hoories were to be the ever-blooming brides of the faithful servants of God. Yet, though sensual bliss was to be his ultimate reward, the votary was taught that its attainment demanded self-denial on earth; and it has been justly observed that “a devout Mussulman exhibits more of the Stoical than of the Epicurean character.” As the Prophet had resolved that the sword should be unsparingly employed for the diffusion of the truth, the highest degree of the future bliss was pronounced to be the portion of the martyrs, i.e., of those who fell in the holy wars waged for the dissemination of the faith. “Paradise,” says the Prophet, “is beneath the shadow of swords.” At the day of judgment the wounds of the fallen warrior were to be resplendent as vermilion, and odoriferous as musk; and the wings of angels were to supply the loss of limbs. The religion of Mohammed was entitled Islam (resignation), hence its votaries were called by the Arabs Moslems, and in Persian Mussulmans. Its articles of belief were five–belief in God, in his angels, in his Prophet, in the last day, and in predestination. Its positive duties were also five–purification, prayer, fasting, alms, and the pilgrimage to Mecca. Various rites and observances which the Arabs had hitherto practised were retained by the Prophet, either out of regard for the prejudices of his followers, or because he did not, or could not, divest his own mind of respect for usages in which he had been reared up from infancy.

Such is a slight sketch of the religion which Mohammed substituted for the idolatry of Arabia. It contained little that was original; all its details of the future state were borrowed from Judaism or from the Magian system of Persia. The book which contains it, entitled the Koran (reading), was composed in detached pieces, during a long series of years, by the illiterate Prophet, and taken down from his lips by his scribes. His own account of its origin was that each Sura, or revelation, was brought to him from heaven by the angel Gabriel. It is regarded by the Mohammedan. East, and by most European Orientalists, as the masterpiece of Arabian literature; and when we make due allowance for the difference of European and Arabian models and taste, and consider that the rhyme which in prose is insufferable to the former, may to the latter sound grateful, we may allow that the praises lavished on it are not unmerited. Though tedious and often childish legends, and long and tiresome civil regulations, occupy the greater part of it, it is pervaded by a fine strain of fervid piety and humble resignation to the will of God, not unworthy of the inspired seers of Israel; and the sublime doctrine of the Unity of God runs like a vein of pure gold through each portion of the mass, giving lustre and dignity to all. Might we not venture to say that Christianity itself has derived advantage from the imposture of Mohammed, and that the clear and open profession of the Divine Unity by their Mohammedan enemies kept the Christians of the dark ages from smothering it beneath the mass of superstition and fable by which they corrupted and deformed so much of the majestic simplicity of the Gospel? No one, certainly, would dream of comparing the son of Abd-Allah with the Son of God, of setting darkness by the side of light; but still we may confess him to have been an agent in the hands of the Almighty, and admit that his assumption of the prophetic office was productive of good as well as of evil.

The Mohammedan religion is so intimately connected with history, law, manners, and opinions, in the part of the East of which we are about to write, that this brief view of its origin and nature was indispensable. We now proceed to our history.

Secret Societies of the Middle Ages, by Thomas Keightley, [1837]

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