Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
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MOHAMMEDANISM is the most recent of the great religious creations of humanity.*55 Instead of the mystery in which the other religions hide their origin, this one was born in the full light of history; its origin is visible. The life of Mohammed is as well known to us as the lives of the reformers of the sixteenth century. The fundamental principles alone of Islamism will be presented here, with the political or social revolutions which it has produced.


—Islamism has in reality but two dogmas: the unity of God, and the prophetic office of Mohammed. Mohammed was no more the founder of monotheism among the Arabs than he was of their civilization and literature. The worship of the supreme Allah seems to have always formed the basis of the religion of the Arabs. The Semitic race has never conceived the government of the universe in any other form than that of an absolute monarchy. Numerous superstitious, tainted with idolatry and varying from tribe to tribe, had changed, however, among the Arabs the purity of the patriarchal faith, and after coming into contact with more firmly organized religions all the better minds of Arabia aspired to a higher worship. In the sixth century that country, till then inaccessible, was thrown open on every side. The Syrians introduced letters. The Abyssinians and the Persians reigned alternately in Yemen and Bahreïn. Whole tribes had embraced Judaism; Christianity had large churches at Nedjian, in the kingdoms of Hira and Ghassan. A species of vague toleration and syncretism of all religious was finally established; the ideas of one God, of paradise, of the resurrection, of the prophets, spread by degrees even among pagan tribes. The Caaba became the Pantheon of all the worships, and when Mohammed excluded images from the holy house, in the number of the exiled gods was a Byzantine madonna, painted on a column, holding her son in her arms. The ceremonies of the Caaba, the processions, the sacrifices in the valley of Mina, the belief in purgatory (Arafat), were established in all their details long before Mohammed. The prophet merely consecrated these ancient usages and sanctioned them by a strict proclamation of the doctrine of future rewards and punishments. The symbol of Islamism, at least before the relatively modern invasion of theological subtleties, scarcely went beyond the simplest elements of natural religion. "There is no God but God, and Mohammed is his prophet." This is the whole Mussulman dogma.


—Islamism being the least mystic of religions, its influence must be studied especially in the civil and political sphere. The new religion was an advance, so far as Arabia was concerned. It is true, that nothing could equal the charm of that society shown us by the Kitabel-Agâni and pre-Islamite poetry; never has human life been freer, more joyous, more noble, for a few. But it was a terrible anarchy. The weak children and women were scarcely protected. Although there were women at that time in Arabia who were their own mistresses. choosing their husbands and having the right to send them away whenever they pleased, no idea of an equality of rights existed. Mohammed established the right of women to inherit from their parents, restrained polygamy, even represented monogamy as a state of life agreeable to God. He recommended humanity toward slaves, advised their emancipation and abolished a multitude of inhuman practices. He desired each of the faithful to give one-tenth of his goods in alms. The Koran has become the text and the only source of the new law. It is at once a book of theology and a civil code—a collection of common law. Hence the fatal consequence, as we see, that in Islamism the civil law can never be separated from religion. No order, no methodical plan existed in the drawing up of this fundamental book. The Koran is a collection of Mohammed's discourses and orders of the day. Nothing could be more dissimilar, more contradictory. Entrusted at first to the memory, the surats (chapters of the Koran) were collected during the caliphate of Abou-Bekr, and underwent a second revision under that of Othman. This text has come down to us without essential variations.


—It does not appear that Mohammed's vision extended beyond the horizon of Arabia, or that he thought his religion might suit others besides Arabs. The conquering principle of Islamism, the idea that all the world should become Mussulman, appears to have originated with Omar. Governing after the death of Mohammed under the name of the feeble Abou-Bekr, at the moment when the work of the prophet, scarcely outlined, was on the brink of dissolution, he arrested the defection of the Arab tribes, and gave the new religion its universal character. He was the Paul of Islamism. In the circle of the primitive believers, among those of Mecca who had followed the prophet to Medina, and those of Medina who had aided him, the faith was almost absolute, but if we leave this little group, which did not exceed a few thousand men, we find in all the rest of Arabia nothing but very thinly disguised incredulity. The Mussulman faith had met, among the rich and proud families of Mecca, a centre of resistance which it could not entirely overcome. The other tribes of Arabia embraced Islamism only through force, without troubling themselves about the dogmas which they had to believe, and without attaching much importance to them. Certain parts of Arabia became completely Mussulman only at the beginning of the present century through the Wahhabite movement.


—The party of sincere Mussulmans found their strength in Omar; but after his assassination the opposing party triumphed by the election of Othman, nephew of Abou-Sofian, the most formidable enemy of Mohammed. The entire caliphate of Othman was a violent reaction against the friends of the prophet, who saw them selves excluded from affairs and violently persecuted. They never gained the upper hand after ward. The provinces could not endure that the little aristocracy of Medina and Mecca should arrogate to itself alone the right of electing a caliph. Ali, the true representative of the primitive tradition of Islamism, was, during his whole life, an impossible man, and his election was never seriously considered in the provinces. Persia alone espoused his cause through opposition to the Semitic spirit, and rendered to the least pagan of men a worship full of paganism.


—The accession of the Ommeyads brought these tendencies into full play. This family, which had become Syrian in habits and interests, was welcomed on every side. Now the orthodoxy of the Ommeyads was greatly suspected. They drank wine, practiced the rites of paganism, cared nothing for tradition. nor for the sacred character of the friends of Mohammed. Thus is explained the astonishing spectacle of the first century of the hegira altogether occupied in exterminating the real fathers of Islamism. By all ways we arrive at this singular result, that the Mussulman movement was produced almost without religious faith. Hence the state of uncertainty in which all the dogmas of the Mussulman religion are found till the twelfth century; hence that hold philosophy openly proclaiming the sovereign rights of reason; hence the numerous sects bordering sometimes on the most open infidelity—Karniathians, Fatimites, Ismailites, Druses, Hashbishins, secret double-meaning sects, joining fanaticism to unbelief, license to enthusiasm, the boldness of the freethinker to the superstition of the devotee. It was only in the twelfth century that Islamism really triumphed over the undisciplined elements which were seething in its bosom; this it did through the advent of the Ascharite theology which was more severe in its methods, and by the violent extermination of philosophy. This philosophy presents the example of a very high culture suppressed almost instantaneously and nearly forgotten by the people who created it. The caliphs of Bagdad, in the eighth and ninth centuries, had the glory of opening that brilliant series of studies which holds so large a place in the history of civilization, through the influence which it exercised on Christian Europe. The caliph Hakem in Spain renewed this noble spectacle. The taste for science and fine arts established in this favored corner of the earth a toleration of which modern times can scarcely show an example. Christians, Jews, Mussulmans, spoke the same language, chanted the same poetry, took part in the same studies. All the barriers separating men were thrown down; all labored with one accord at the common civilization. The mosques of Cordova in which students were numbered by thousands became active centres of philosophic and scientific studies. The schools of Kairoan, of Damascus, of Bagdad, of Bassorah, of Samarcand, initiated, on their part, the Mussulmans into that liberalism of manners and thought which people deprived of political liberty often demand of high intellectual culture.


—No great dogmatic idea presided at the creation of the Arab philosophy. The Arabs merely adopted the entire Greek encyclopedia such as the world accepted it toward the seventh and eighth centuries. At that time Greek science played among the Syrians, the Nabatians, the Harranians, the Sassanide Persians, a rôle very similar to that which European science played in the east during the last half century. Though developed on a traditional basis, Arabic philosophy reached, especially in the eleventh and twelfth centuries a real originality, and the intellectual growth represented by Arabic scholars till the end of the twelfth century was superior to that of the Christian world. But it was unable to pass into institutions; theology in this direction opposed an impassable barrier to it. Mussulman philosophy always remained an amateur or a court functionary. As soon as fanaticism alarmed the sovereigns, philosophy disappeared, its manuscripts were burned by royal command, and Christians alone remembered that Islamism had had its scholars and its thinkers. Islamism revealed by this circumstance how incurably narrow its genius was. Incapable of transformation, or of admitting any element of civil or citizen life, it tore from its bosom every germ of rational culture. This fatal tendency was combated while Islamism was controlled by the Arabs, a keen and intellectual race, or by the Persians, a people very much given to speculation; but it had unlimited sway as soon as barbarians (Turks, Berbers, etc.) assumed the guidance of Islam. Then the Mussulman world entered that period of ignorant brutality from which it issued only to fall into the gloomy agony in which it is struggling before our eyes.


—Mohammed invented nothing either in politics or religion. He established that unity of the nation which included all the Arab tribes, and which the aristocrats of Mecca had commenced for their own benefit. The creation of an executive council superior to the council of elders, the collection of alms destined to support pilgrims, the keeping of the keys of the Caaba, the management of the waters, and the discovery of the wells of Zervzen, had given the Coreishites an undisputed hegemony over Arabia, but the political bond was still lacking. Mohammed united the tribes in a sacred group. He proclaimed absolute equality among his disciples, and said, "My assembled believers can not err in a choice." Thus sovereignty departed from the oligarchy of the Coreishites and the assembly of the allied sheiks; it entered, by divine inspiration into the Mussulman church, into the assembly of the saints of Ismail. This was theocracy in the etymological sense of the word—the government not of priests, but of God himself, This political equality found its exercise in the election of the chief who was to lead the Mussulmans to the holy war, but it stopped there. Of all democracies this was the most disposed to settle into a military dictatorship, and besides there was no question of legislative power in this society; the law was already framed, and bound to be eternal.


—When Abou Bekr appeared in the assembly to recite the prayers, after the death of Mohammed, he did not ascend the pulpit; he remained some steps lower. So did Omar and Othman. The caliphs (vice-prophets) never looked on themselves as inspired. The title emir-al-mouminin, which Omar took, indicated clearly what he wished to be: the prince of the faithful, the commander of the holy war. The first caliphs, however, were not distinguished from the last of the Arabs except by authority. The distinctions which then existed among the Mussulmans were altogether moral; the degree of relationship with the prophet and religious merit were the titles which determined the order of inscription in the divani (census-list of the faithful) for the division of the fruits of conquest.


—The Ommeyads created a more formidable aristocracy; the divani became in their hands the list of military rewards; in return, the holders of these benefices insured them the right of succession to the caliphate. The chiefs of Islam then exchanged the democratic dictatorship of the earliest vicars of the prophet for the despotism of the kings of Persia and the exarchs of Byzantium. The Mussulman like the Roman republic perished from extension. This second Roman people could not escape the slow and invincible influences of the conquered races. Twenty years after Mohammed, Arabia was humiliated, overshadowed by the provinces; a century later, the Arab genius was almost completely extinct; Persia triumphed through the accession of the Abbassides; Arabia disappeared forever from the world's stage; and while its language was to bear civilization from Malaysia to Morocco, from Timbuctoo to Samarcand, forgotten, pressed back into its deserts, it became again what it had been in the days of Ismail.


—Liberty took refuge in the colonies of Africa and Sicily, far from the presence of the hereditary caliph, though under the menace of his Valis. The Arab colonies had elective magistrates, municipal assemblies, which decided on peace and war. This political civilization, troubled, however, by factions, by the endless anarchy of the Arab character, lasted till the invasions of the religious conquerors, the Fatimites and the Almoravides.


—In Asia the inability of the Arabs to form regular armies, and the consequent introduction of Turkish guards, the concentration of all powers in the hands of the emir el-Omra reduced the caliphate to the most deplorable degradation. The revolt of the feudaries and the Mongol invasions filled the Mohammedan world with blood. When the power of the Osmanli Turks had absorbed all others, peace was established, and Turkey was dangerous only to Persia and Europe; but this centralization soon brought on that terrible corruption which has reduced the Ottoman empire to a state of debasement out of which no human effort can raise it.


—Under the caliphate as well as under the dynasties which rose "like clouds of dust from his feet," one guarantee alone remained to the Mussulmans, the law sent down from heaven. This law, which, for the Shiites, adherents of Ali, is reduced to the Koran, includes, in addition, for the Sunnites, the traditional sayings of the prophet, collected by his intimates, the decisions of the first four caliphs and the four great Imams. The legislation of the Turkish epoch is further increased by the decisions of 200 jurisconsults assembled under Mohammed II., and by the code of Soliman. The articles of faith of Néséfi define supreme power as follows: "It is the right and the duty of the Imam to see to the observance of the precepts of the law, to enforce legal penalties, to defend the boundaries, to raise armies, to collect the tithes, to put down rebels and brigands, to preside at the public prayer of Friday and the feasts of Bairam, to judge citizens, to settle misunderstandings among subjects (rayahs), to receive legal proof in legitimate cases, to arrange the marriage of minors of both sexes who are deprived of natural guardians, and to settle the partition of lawful booty." This power is exorbitant, but it is not absolute. Even in Persia Saadi wrote: "The cadi obeys the vizier, the vizier the sultan, and the sultan the law which the people themselves obey." Some canonists deny the sultan the right of making organic laws to assure the execution of the sacred law. The latter is placed under the guardianship of judges and jurists, who form the first two orders of the Mussulman clergy, and are superior to the ministers of worship. These interpreters of the law have often obeyed the precept of the Koran: "Oppose the violation of the law," and the sheik-ul-islam has frequently been as great by his resistance as a prætorian prefect under the Roman emperors.


—The public law of the cast seems to have always conferred on the monarch an unlimited power over his functionaries, and in general over all who have the misfortune to approach him. Other citizens are usually safe, and in many respects freer than Europeans. This cruel law of exception originated in the condition of the ancient ministers in the east, chosen from among the slaves of the seraglio, and in the situation itself of the monarchs, strangers to everything in the realm; "first prisoners of the place," as Montesquieu says, and servants of the hatreds of their ministers so long as their own ignorance continues, and they are incapable of mastering their rage when they discover that they have been deceived. This deplorable policy has governed all the monarchies of the east, and Islamism has changed it in no regard.


—The perpetual interference of the sovereign in affairs of inheritance has caused Europeans to suppose that Mussulman princes were owners of all the real property, or that they could not maintain their luxury except by confiscations, after the manner of the first Cæsars. Other authors have solved the question in a more mystic sense, and assured us that according to the Koran the land belongs to God. The origin of Mussulman property must be found in the special code of the holy war. The ownership of lands possessed by the Arabs before the conquest, the ownership of lands abandoned by infidels and divided among believers, is as secure as the title to land can be in the west, and is transferred by sale, donation or inheritance. The Koran and the Sunna recognize, besides, complete ownership of desert lands recovered by labor. "If any man brings dead land to life," says Mohammed, "it belongs to him." In every country buildings and trees are the objects of a true and complete ownership; but it is not the same with the soil on which they stand. Entire tribes, as the Metnalis of Syria, are merely usufructuaries; the sultan in such cases is the great landed proprietor. As to the Christians, former owners of the soil, they enjoy a tenant right which is almost equivalent to ownership. Once out of Arabia and launched into the world, the Arabs would have become faithless to the holy war if they had settled down permanently. It was necessary to deprive them of the pretext. The hereditary possession of land was left to the vanquished on condition of laboring and paying tribute. Abandoned land was given by the state to new settlers. As the choice between conversion and extermination was given to idolaters, and between conversion and tribute to the "people of the book," (that is, to nations having a revelation—Christians, Jews, Sabians), the former were converted, and the latter paid tribute. This tribute included a land tax and poll tax, the ransom of their lives and the price of their personal safety. The newly converted did not enjoy immediately the same rights as their conquerors, and were treated as subjects at first. The original inhabitants were thus riveted to the soil under the supervision of the victorious army. These warriors, collectors of taxes, organized in a hierarchy, lived on domains, which were frequently extensive, and mistaken by Europeans for feudal estates, though they were merely financial districts. But one essential thing was really wanting to make this a feudalism: property in land.


—While the Arabs were the leaders of Islamism, sciences, letters, philosophy, and even arts to a certain point, were able to unite the conquerors and the conquered. But under Turkish rule all fusion became impossible. The Turks took Islamism much more seriously than the Arabs had. The prescriptions of the law and of juris prudence against tributaries were enforced in all their rigor. The rayahs were obliged to distinguish themselves from the Osmanli by their dress, to yield them the inside of the walk, to pay the tribute without delay and with deference, under pain of "being taken by the throat and treated as enemies of God." They retained their religion, it is true, their communes, their civil laws and the right to be judged by priests of their own nation; but all the vexations which conquerors could inflict on the conquered without threatening their lives or violating the pact of settlement were heaped on the heads of the rayahs. This treatment was called avaniah. Such abuse of power did not prevent the aristocratic race, however, from showing many examples of probity in intercourse with men, of devotion to the country, of modest dignity and noble politeness. Strangers to arts, to sciences, and frequently to every exercise of thought, they despised those industrious nations which were unable to conquer, while the enslaved, descended from superior races, from nations which had held the sceptre of three continents, retained the consciousness of their ancient nobility, of their present activity, and gave the conquerors contempt for contempt.


—Once settled in a country, the Mussulmans have always disdained to convert the inhabitants. The proselytism and fanatacism of the Turks and Berbers themselves were but a frightful revenge for the crusades and the expulsion of the Moors from Spain. The Israelites and tributary Christians have only suffered persecutions when the Mussulmans thought themselves insulted or menaced; at such times they felt the whole fury of apathetic and ignorant masters whose toleration was exhausted. It must even be admitted that this situation has become still more critical since Europe has begun to exercise a pressure upon the internal government of Turkey, and by imposing on Mussulman society reforms opposed to the spirit of Islamism, has asked it to commit suicide. The indissoluble and fatal union of religious law and the civil law is the greatest obstacle to every political innovation. The law, equal for Mussulmans alone, can regard infidels with disdainful tolerance only, and can not fill the abyss between the children of God and their enemies which divides the reprobate from the elect.


—Islamism is evidently the product of an inferior, and so to speak, mediocre combination of human elements. This is why it has been a conqueror only in the middle stage of human nature. Savage races have not been able to rise to it, and, on the other hand, it has not sufficed for peoples who possessed the germs of a more vigorous civilization. Its too great simplicity has everywhere been a bar to a really fruitful development of science, of lofty poetry, of delicate morality.


—If it be asked what the future of Islamism will be in presence of an essentially aggressive civilization, and destined it seems to become universal as far as may be permitted by the infinite variety of the human race, it must be confessed that nothing enables us to form precise ideas on this subject. If, on the one hand, Islamism loses, not its existence, for religions do not die, but the moral and intellectual government of an important part of the world, it will not succumb to the attacks of another religion, but to modern sciences with their modes of reasoning and criticism. On the other hand, it seems—if we consider only its dogmas and constitution—to possess in its simplicity hidden powers of resistance. It has neither popes, nor councils, nor bishops divinely instituted, nor a well defined clergy; it has never sounded the formidable abyss of infallibility. What can criticism attack? it is sometimes asked. Its legend? This legend has no more sanction than the pious beliefs which may be rejected in the bosom of Catholicism without becoming a heretic. Its dogma? Reduced to its real limits Islamism adds nothing to natural religion but the prophetic office of Mohammed and a certain conception of fatalism which is less an article of faith than a general turn of mind susceptible of proper direction. Its morals? In morals it offers the choice between four sects equally orthodox. among which the moral sense has a fair share of liberty. As to worship, when freed from accessory superstitions, it can be compared for simplicity only with some of the purest sects of Protestantism. Have we not seen in the beginning of the present century, in the very country of Mohammed, a sectary call forth the vast political and religious movement of the Wahhabites, by proclaiming that the true worship of God consists in prostration before the idea of his existence, that the invocation of any intercessor with him is an act of idolatry, and that the most meritorious act would be to raze the tombs of the prophets and destroy the mausoleums of the Imams?


—Symptoms of a much graver nature are revealed at Constantinople and in Egypt. In those places the contact of science and European manners has produced a libertinism which is concealed only to avoid shocking the people. Sincere believers who feel the danger do not hide their alarm, and denounce European books of science as containing fatal errors and subversive of all religious faith. We may persist, however, in believing that if the east could succeed in overcoming its apathy, and pass the limits which to this time it has been unable to pass in the matter of rational speculation, Islamism would not oppose a very serious obstacle to the progress of the modern spirit. The absence of theological centralization has always left Mussulman nations a certain amount of religious liberty; and Mussulman orthodoxy not being defended by a permanent autonomous body, self-recruited and self-governed, is vulnerable. But it must be confessed also that, in certain parts of the Mussulman world, in Syria for example, ignorance and fanaticism are extreme; and it can not be conceived how minds so narrow can ever be opened to a broad idea or a generous sentiment.


—It is superfluous to add that, if a religious reform should appear in Islamism, Europe should not interfere except by its influence in the most general manner. It would ill become her to wish to regulate the faith of others. While propagating actively her own dogma. which is civilization, she should leave to nations the infinitely delicate task of accommodating their religious traditions to their new wants, and respect the most indefeasible right, as well of nations as individuals, that of presiding over the revolutions of their own conscience in the most perfect liberty.


Notes for this chapter

The data which we possess for even an approximate estimate of the number of the followers of Islam are altogether inadequate In one place we find the Mussulman population stated at 270,000,000; in another it is reduced to 120,000,000. On account of the total absence of statistics and of serious censuses in Mohammedan countries we are unable to decide between numbers so different. Islamism has made very great progress in the interior of Africa and in China. There are no documents to show the number of these new followers, which increases every day. Strange phenomenon! Islamism is the religion which in the nineteenth century makes the greatest conquests. Mussulman missionaries setting out from Cairo and Muscat enter every part of Africa and find the most cordial reception among the negro populations. The favor which the monotheistic belief finds in certain parts of China, and the change which it effects in the minds of the population. are astonishing.

—The great division of Islamism (Shiites and Sunnites) seems at first sight to arise merely from a disagreement concerning an historical question; the Sunnites admit the authority of the first three caliphs. Abon-Bekr, Omar and Othman, while the Shiites admit the rights of Ali alone, and reject the legitimacy of all the dynasties which took the place of the descendants of Ali. But this division is in reality more serious. The rights of Ali were merely a pretext taken up with avidity by the more independent portions of Islam, to escape from what they considered unendurable in orthodox belief The Persian provinces especially embraced the worship of Ali with eagerness, since it offered them an occasion to hate the Arabs, to turn their maledictions on them for the murder of Hussein and Hassan, and to develop the mystical and mythological side of the Iranian imagination On close examination we shall find that a Shiite is not a real Mussulman, in the Arabic sense of the word, and, if I may say so, in the Semitic sense. He allows images; he delights in an epic literature, full of exploits of ancient pagan heroes, a species of demigods; the legend of Mohammed, as related by him is more like a poem on the Hindu-Krishna than the history of a prophet of God. In future this difference will no doubt become more marked. The Shiite world is swarming with sects tinged with Suflism, the basis of which is a panthelstic unbelief, summed up in these words: "Of a truth we come from God, and shall return to him." It has long been observed that Persia is not seriously Mussulman; under the mantle of official hypocrisy nearly every Persian hides a sectarian attachment, a secret thought, which in a way has its source in the Koran.

Footnotes for MONARCHY

End of Notes

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