Limitation Of Christian Territories By Mohammedanism


IN the first part of the seventh century, a power arose in Arabia which despoiled Christianity of much of its territory and cast a menacing shadow over the rest for centuries.

The founder of so great, and, relatively speaking, so permanent a power, could not have been an ordinary man. As we consider the breadth and self-propagating force of Mohammed's influence we are compelled to rank him among the most noteworthy actors upon the field of Oriental history.

The prophetic vocation came to Mohammed in part as a demand of his age and country, and in part as a result of his peculiar mental and physical constitution. Tokens of a religious ferment had appeared among his countrymen. The presence of a considerable Jewish and Christian population had probably acted upon some minds as a leaven of unrest. The reliability of the old faith began to be questioned, and there were instances in which its former devotees passed over into scepticism. In this unrest and dissatisfaction, none shared more deeply than Mohammed. But his ardent nature could not abide in mere doubt or denial of the old idolatrous faith. He pondered intensely upon the problems of religion. Seeking a place congenial to his burdened soul, he retired often to a lonely cave. Gradually his mind became established firmly in the conviction of the nothingness of idolatry, and in the acknowledgment of one supreme God, the Creator, Ruler, and Judge of the world. In a nature so intense and poetic as was his, the new belief could not lie dormant. It fired his imagination, and commanded his thoughts. At the same time, his physical constitution gave him a peculiar aptitude for vision and trance. So the epilepsy of childhood became the prophetic swoon of the mature man; Mohammed believed himself to be the recipient of revelations, a prophet sent from God to turn the Arabs from their idols. After spreading his views in private for an interval among his near friends, he called upon the people at large to give heed to his message. But the inhabitants of Mecca proved to be a gainsaying people. They responded with indifference, and finally with wrath and persecution. Meanwhile pilgrims from Medina had become favorably impressed with his claims, and prepared for him a refuge in that city. The result was the Hejira so celebrated in Mohammedan annals,- the flight of the prophet, in 622, from Mecca to Medina. In the latter city he easily gained complete ascendency. Other means besides spiritual weapons were now at his command, and he made no delay in using them. The sword was welcomed as the most effective instrument of persuasion. By its aid Mohammed's power had so far advanced by 630, that he was able to take Mecca; and in the next year came the unsparing edict for the complete extirpation of idolatry in Arabia. "When the sacred months," so reads the edict, "are passed away, kill the idolaters wherever ye may find them, and take them and besiege them, and lie in wait for them in every place of observation; but if they repent, and are steadfast in prayer, and give alms, then let them go their way." 1 Koran, Sura ix. At the death of Mohammed, in 632, little more remained to be done to complete the dominion of his faith in Arabia.

As Mohammed professed in all varieties of matters to be guided by revelations, his decisions as a ruler, as well as his earlier prophetic messages, were at the same time oracles of religion. So the Koran was prepared. It is simply a collection of the prophet's utterances, without respect to chronology in its arrangement,-a feature not a little embarrassing to the interpreter; for, it being a settled rule among the Mohammedans that in case of disagreement a later revelation must be regarded as cancelling an earlier, an unsettled chronology is equivalent to an unsettled authority. In fact, the outlines of the faith in the Koran have not appeared so distinct to its votaries as to prevent much diversity of opinion, and much division into sects. The advice of the prophet, "Take tight hold of God's rope altogether, and do not part into sects, 2 Sura iii. has been very poorly followed.

Great originality cannot be claimed for the prophet of the Koran. He drew both from Judaism and from Christianity. His borrowings, however, evidently were not made on the basis of an accurate acquaintance with the oracles of either. The sources of which he availed himself were extra-biblical, the popular traditions found among the Arabian Jews and Christians in his time. These he interwove at considerable length with his revelations. At first he acknowledged both Jews and Christians as representatives of the true religion, and even instructed his followers to turn their faces towards Jerusalem in prayer. Later he regarded them in a much less friendly light, though still giving a place to Moses and Jesus as the great prophets of the past, and reckoning himself as the end of the succession to which they belonged.

The Koran is not without reference to the Divine compassion, the freedom of man, and spiritual rewards in the hereafter. But, after all, the charge is well founded, that it sets forth the God of might and judgment rather than the God of love, lays the foundation for a fatalistic conception of man's relation to the Divine sovereignty, and encourages the anticipation of a sensual paradise. On the latter point, the mild comments of some recent writers are hardly adequate to the case. In the light of such passages as are found in Suras xliv., lv., and lxxviii., it cannot well be denied that a full counterpart of the Oriental harem is transferred to the hereafter.

With some passages noble in content as well as in style, and not unworthy of a prophet, the Koran combines others which bespeak a man weakly given over to delusion, or consciously devoted to fraud and trickery. The revelations by which he justified his marriage with Zeinab, the divorced wife of his freedman and adopted son, as also that by which he endeavored to silence the complaints of his wives over an unequal share in his attentions, give us a picture of inspiration descending into a poor and transparent burlesque. Even critics who judge Mohammed in general with great charity are obliged to confess that in his later years he was not unstained by the arts of the imposter. "It is hard to think," says Stanley Lane-Poole, "that he could really believe in the inspired source of some of his revelations. He may have thought the commands they convey necessary, but he could hardly have deemed them Divine. In some cases he could scarcely fail to be aware that the object of the 'revelation' was his own comfort or pleasure or reputation, and not the major Dei gloria, nor the good of the people." 1 Studies in a Mosque.

The Koran embodied not only a religion, but a social system. In respect to the latter, it no doubt introduced much improvement upon the previous customs of the Arabians. At the same time it built enormous barriers against future progress. By giving the sanction of religion to the cardinal vices of Eastern civilization,- polygamy, unlimited license in concubinage, and slavery, -- it mortgaged unnumbered generations to degradation.

Mohammed's commendation of the sword by word and deed found a ready response in the hearts of his followers. Under the double impulse of a fresh religious zeal and military ambition, they sallied forth to the work of conquest. And where these two motives failed, a third came in to urge on the halting, -- the love of plunder, so strongly rooted in the Arabs of that as of other ages. To use the graphic description of Sir William Muir: "The marauding spirit of the Bedouin was in unison with the militant spirit of Islam. The cry of plunder and of conquest reverberated throughout the land, and was answered eagerly. The movement began naturally with the tribes in the North, which had been first reclaimed from their apostasy, and whose restless spirit led them over the frontier. Later on, in the second year of the Caliphate, the exodus spread to the people of the South. At first the Caliph forbade that help should be taken from such as had backslidden. But step by step, as new spheres opened out, and the cry ran through the land for fresh levies to fill up the martyr gaps, the ban was put aside, and all were welcome. Warrior after warrior, column after column, whole tribes in endless succession, with their women and children, issued forth to battle, and ever, at the marvelous tales of cities conquered, of booty rich beyond compute, of fair captives distributed on the field, --'to every man a damsel or two,' -- and, above all, at the sight of the royal fifth of spoil and slaves sent to Medina, fresh tribes arose and went. Onward and still onward, like swarms from the hive, one after another they poured forth, pressed first to the north, and spread thence in great masses to the east and west." 1 Annals of the Early Caliphate.

So far as Christian territory was concerned, in large sections an easy victory for the Islamite warriors had been prepared by the great schisms which had grown out of the Christological controversies. Large populations in Egypt and Syria mere not at all loath to change from the hated government at Constantinople to the yoke of Mohammedan rule. Both of these countries had been conquered by 640. Persia was added by 651. Northern Africa was invaded in 647, but not fully subdued till the first years of the next century. The conquest of Spain was begun in 710. The capital of Eastern Christendom was twice assailed (669, 717), and owed its safety only to the strength of its fortifications and the use of the Greek fire. The Western capital was also threatened. Indeed, in the space of a century Mohammedanism had stretched its borders along the whole extent of Christian territory, and seemed destined to make still further acquisitions. But the reserved power was wanting to follow up the early victories. So the rugged peoples which had settled in the Western Empire were able both to check, and in a measure to turn back, the advancing wave.

In most countries, Mohammedan possession meant the limitation rather than the complete destruction of the Christian Church. In Arabia the policy was broached by the second Caliph, Omar, of tolerating no religion but that of the Koran. But elsewhere the attempt was not made-- at least, it was no part of a settled scheme -- to proscribe Christianity and Judaism. The alternatives presented were Islam, tribute, and the sword. By the payment of tribute the Christians could purchase for themselves the privilege of practising their religion, only subject to social degradation and often assailed with ridicule. To those at all open to temptation, there were plenty of motives for apostasy. The simple acceptance of the Koran raised the conquered to the rank of the conquerors. Prisoners who had forfeited their lives, as having been taken in battle, could redeem themselves by a change of faith. Polygamy, and the unrestrained right of the master to use every bondwoman according to his pleasure, brought multitudes of women under a heavy domestic constraint, against which it was no easy matter to preserve their religion. Before excessive indulgence had enervated the conquerors, these features of their social system were no doubt effectual means for swelling their own ranks at the expense of the tributary Christians. In some quarters Christianity was reduced almost to the vanishing point. "Out of four hundred sees that once shed a salutary light on Africa, four only were surviving in the eleventh century. The rest had been absorbed in the vortex of Islamism." 1 Hardwick, Christian Church in the Middle Age.

In return for its work of destruction in general, and for its enormous crime and folly in particular in the burning of the Alexandrian library, Mohammedanism began to give back the fruits of learned industry after the conqueror came the scholar. By the eighth century the Arabic mind began to yield to the stimulus of Greek culture. Metaphysics attracted some attention; but it was in the line of mathematical and physical studies that the most noteworthy achievements were made. In Spain the tenth century was the golden era of this Arabic learning.