D. S. (David Samuel) Margoliouth.

The early development of Mohammedanism; lectures delivered in the University of London, May and June 1913 online

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was too deeply interwoven with Islam — being
mentioned in the familiar prayer which afterwards
was placed at the commencement of the Koran — to
be abandoned. Since men's natural beliefs on these
subjects are inconsistent and contradictory, possibly
the Koran is not thereby the less suited to the
religious needs of the community ; just as the in-
consistencies in the Homeric and Vergilian Infernos
are assuredly what constitute their beauty and their
truth. But when it is desirable to extract dogma, in
order to know precisely what is to be believed, and
to penalise those who hold erroneous opinions, such
inconsistency is exceedingly troublesome.

Now the word Metaphysics means " after physics,"
and it seems clear that it is only after some progress
has been made with the physical sciences that meta-
physical questions can be profitably studied. For
founding despotisms no particular knowledge of
either appears to be requisite ; but when an empire
has to be maintained on a religious basis, systematisa-
tion becomes necessary, and the studies which should



have preceded the composition of the sacred book
cannot be permanently kept out. It was not, then,
the variant readings of the Koran, but the rough-and-
ready nature of its composition, which necessarily
brought about sectarianism. And in the opinion of
competent authorities the sect which comes nearest to
the original Islam is not one of those whose adherents
can be counted by millions, but one of which there
are scanty relics in corners of Arabia, Algeria, and
the Tripolitaine, whose very name suggests "going
out," not remaining within the fold.

The scientific and philosophical level of the Koran
appears, then, to be but slightly, if at all, superior to
that of the pagan Arabs ; it recommends the study
and observation of nature, but the author clearly had
no idea that nature had ever been methodically
studied, and his own observations are elementary.
The sun rises over people who are without shelter
from it, and sinks into a muddy well or a hot spring
— for it is uncertain how the passage should be
read ; the mountains serve as pillars to prevent the
earth from swaying ; domestic animals are of four
sorts — sheep, oxen, goats, and camels. There are two
seas, one sweet and the other salt ; there is a barrier
between them which prevents their mixing. The
shooting stars are flames aimed at rebellious jinn who
eavesdrop at the heavenly council. Though the
existence of other gods than Allah is vehemently
denied, nevertheless these non-existent beings will
repudiate their worshippers on the Day of Judgment.
Birds and insects not only are credited with uttering


the praises of God, which might well be regarded as
a poetical expression, but they are introduced into
narratives as reasoning and speaking, in a way which
has since given serious trouble ; it has been argued
from the Koran that even mountains probably have
thought and reason, but for some cause have
ordinarily been deprived of speech, and that beasts
and birds are responsible agents. So we fancy that
the doctrine of the Koran according to which Un-
believers' hearts are as hard as stone or even harder
has led to the belief that this is physically the case.
The historian Tabari gravely records how, when the
heart of the insurgent Shabib was taken out, it
rebounded as high as a man's stature when flung
on the ground, so hard-hearted was this insurgent.^

Since the Koran claims to give an exhaustive
account of everything, it was probably entirely
against the Prophet's wish that it should be
supplemented by any other sort of knowledge, and
his attitude even to the poets was hostile. As we
have repeatedly seen, the existence of the Koran in
his time was more like that of a running stream than
of an accumulated mass ; if difficulties arose, they
could be solved by the summary process of erasing
one verse and substituting another. There is much
homily, but no dogmatic system ; even on the
question whether the beings worshipped in addition
to Allah have any existence the Koran is self-con-
tradictory ; if they are merely names coined by your
ancestors, they will not be in a position to repudi-

1 a. 976.


ate their worshippers. On the question whether all
Moslems will be saved or whether only Moslems
will be saved, there are similarly contradictory state-
ments : varying according to the Prophet's mood
or political needs. By the end of three centuries
we find a very different state of affairs. All these
questions have been posed and a definite reply given
as the orthodox answer ; in the treatise of Abu'l-
Hasan al-Ash'ari, which bears date about that time,
we have a series of results which to this day are
accepted as the dogma of Islam by the bulk of its

Now, it is noticeable that the literature called
Arabian philosophy is mostly later than this date ; the
chief translators of Greek philosophical works and
the chief reproductions of those treatises belong to
the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries. The discussions
whereby the ultimate orthodoxy was evolved there-
fore took place at a period earlier than the whole-
sale introduction of Greek philosophy into Moslem
countries. When it was introduced in this fashion
it had the reputation of unorthodoxy ; to possess the
works of Aristotle or of Avicenna was rarely safe ;
philosophers were denounced from the pulpit, and
pious sovereigns made holocausts of their works.
Hence the influence of Greek thought in building
up the dogmatics of Islam, though considerable,
is likely to have been in the main indirect.

The works in which the few great thinkers of
mankind have stated their views are in most cases
difficult ; what suits the public far more is some


compendium or summary. In our time the number
of persons who have read the Origin of Species bears
no proportion to the number of Darwinians ; and
similarly in ancient times the number of persons
whose thoughts were guided by the discoveries of
Plato and Aristotle vastly exceeded that of those
who had read their works, or, indeed, heard their
names. Prior to the rise of Islam^ translations of
Greek philosophical works had been issued in the
languages of the nations which shortly after its rise
were to be incorporated in its empire — the Syrians
and the Persians ; but the ideas of the Greeks had
been current among the peoples w^ith whom the
Arabs associated long before. Uneducated as was
the author of the Koran, it is clear that even that
work contains traces of Aristotelian thought. When
Satan refuses to bow down before Adam on the
ground that he had been created of fire, whereas
Adam had been created of clay, the underlying
thought is that of Aristotle's Physics : wherein the
proof is given that fire is more honourable than earth,
because in the hierarchy of the elements fire is at
the top, whereas earth is at the bottom. Similarly,
though the Prophet is unlikely to have heard of the
Odyssey, we are justified in finding an allusion to
Penelope in the woman who undid her spinning after
it had been wound. ^ Such discoveries as Aristotle's
analysis of the reasoning process become common
property, and influence the thought of persons who
are quite unacquainted with their origin ; but that

^ Surah xvi. 94*.



origin not having been forgotten, under certain
conditions persons are likely to arise who will go
back to the source.

Towards the end of the second century there arose
sovereigns who had a genuine desire to possess
accurate translations of Greek philosophical master-
pieces ; and when such translations were published,
there were Moslems who studied them with great care.
A philosopher of the early third , century is charged
with substituting for the Koran Aristotle's Physics,
de Generatione et Coji^uptione, and Logic ; with
spending his time on those studies, and neglecting
his fasts.^ One of the friends of Jahiz, who lived at
that time, had a slave-girl who had mastered the
whole of Euclid, whereas some Moslem men were
unable to master a single proposition.^ In the middle
of the third century the study of Greek geometry is
recommended as necessary for the sharpening of the
intellect, and there were both Christian and Moslem
teachers of it. The ultra - orthodox regarded it as
heretical and dangerous.^ There is reason for
thinking that even towards the end of the first
century Greek authorities on various forms of the
black art had obtained access to the Moslem
court. But the doctrine that only the Koran might
be studied, which, as we have seen, at first pre-
vailed, probably would not have given way except
to so tremendous a breach in the continuity of
Islam as was brought about by the transference

1 Mukhtalif al-Hadlth, p. 67. ^ Hayawan i. 28.

3 Yakut ii. 45.


of the capital to the new city on the Tigris,
and the consequent inheritance by the CaHphs of
the traditions of the old Persian kings. Baghdad,
growing with phenomenal rapidity, speedily attracted
to itself all that was in any sense remarkable in the
Islamic empire. Shafi'i, who lived in the second half
of the second century, when the city was still new,
said that Baghdad was the world ; ^ all else was the
country, or, as he expressed it, the desert. He who
had not seen Baghdad had not seen mankind. It
was there that Moslem literature began, and this also
grew no less rapidly than the city ; there were
authors of the third century whose volumes might be
counted by the hundred or more. Much of their
matter was either derived from or suggested by
translations from other languages. But the main
lines of Moslem heresies had been marked out before
the foundation of that metropolis, whence the influ- }
ence of philosophy upon them must, as has been seen,
have been indirect, i.e. due to those results which
had become the common property of mankind.

For lack of any other matter to be read the |
first Moslems conned the Koran ; and since political


study of the sacred volume were no less common
than private study. The sects, called by the orthodox
" the people of fancies," when they had no intention
of breaking with Islam, found in the sacred volume
the basis of their systems ; even the doctrine that Ali

1 K. K. ii. 49.

meetings could be explained to the authorities as
Bible-classes, it is probable that gatherings for the


was an incarnation of the divine being, held by a sect
called the Saba'Ts, whom Ali himself condemned to
the stake, could and probably did cite a text of the
Koran wherein the adjective Ali, " sublime," is applied
to Allah. The fanatics called Khawarij, whose main
doctrine was that the evil-doer was an Unbeliever,
and that in consequence the subject had a right to
revolt against a monarch who did wrong, were firm
upholders of the Koran. When they split into par-
ties, one maintaining that the wives and children of
the unorthodox (in their sense) should be massacred,
the other disapproving of this course, each party
based its case on Koranic texts. There is no reason
for supposing that they did otherwise than follow
their lights ; but very much depended on the texts
which they treated as " The Mother of the Book," i.e.
the principles according to which the other texts
should be interpreted. As they studied the sacred
volume questions of all sorts suggested themselves to
the intelligent ; and the origin of all the sects appears
to have been discoveries made by the pious in the
course of their perusal.

Our authorities would have us believe that the
discussion of religious metaphysics went back even to
the Prophet's time, and quote his opinions on the
subject of sects which, we fancy, cannot in his day
have had any conscious or recognised existence. But
though these stories appear to be fables, we cannot
easily shake the evidence which ascribes to many of
the sects very high antiquity. A man who was born

in the year 9 a.h., and whose mother was charged with



acting as mischief-maker between the Prophet's wives,
and was executed by him in consequence, is said to
have been an adept in the arguments of the Mu'tazils
or behevers in the freedom of the will, to which sect
he belonged.^ Our earhest collection of traditions,
the author of which died in the year 179, contains a
saying of the Prophet concerning these heretics ; and
the pious Caliph Omar II., who died just at the end
of the first century of Islam, is quoted in the same
collection as consulting a jurist on the subject of the
same heretics, and agreeing that the right course to
pursue with them was to summon them to repent,
and, in the event of their declining, to put them to the
sword.^ It is difficult to reject the story, since the
jurist consulted by Omar II. was the uncle of Malik
himself. And before the first half of the third
century was finished, the refutation of heretics had
become a familiar subject.^

If we may believe the chronicles, the theory of the
pious Omar II. that Believers in the Freedom of the
Will should be summoned to repent, and in case of
their refusing should be put to death, was actually
put in force by his successors. The act whereby his
successor Hisham was most likely to win the favour
of God was, according to one of his contemporaries,
that he slaughtered or banished these heretics.* A
specimen of his method is recorded. One Ghailan had
made himself conspicuous as a heresiarch. He is
summoned to the presence of the Caliph, and con-

^ Agham xvii. 95.

^ Jahiz, Hayawan i. 93.

- Muwatta^ ed. Zurkani, iii. 83.
4 Tabarlii. 1777.


fronted with an orthodox theologian. He asks :
Does God will that He should be disobeyed ? The
orthodox theologian replies by a counter-question :
Is God disobeyed against His will? Ghailan hesi-
tates for a reply ; and the Caliph orders his hands
and feet to be amputated. During the second
century, though the third Yazid, whose reign was
ephemeral, belonged to the Kadaris or Believers in
the Freedom of the Will, and chose a successor in
accordance with his co-religionists' advice, this sect
remained highly unpopular ; to say a man belonged
to it was in the year 126 sufficient to make the mob
tear him in pieces.^ A jurist who died in 198
formulated the opinion that one who asserted the
Creation of the Koran — a shibboleth of the sect —
should be decapitated and his body thrown into the

It will be seen from this that the record of Islam
for religious persecution in the case of sects which all
claimed to be Mohammedan at times by no means
fell short of that which characterised mediseval
Christianity. And neither the Umayyads nor the
Abbasids were specially notorious for fanaticism. A
historian of the sects who writes early in the fifth
century tells us that by then sectarianism had
acquired a sort of legal status. The sectarian was to
be allowed to be buried in a Moslem cemetery ; he
was to receive his share of the booty in war ; and he
was to be allowed to pray in a mosque. On the
other hand, no prayer was to be said over him or

1 Tabarl ii. 1828. 2 Tabakat al-Huffaz i. 302.


behind him ; food slaughtered by him was to be
unlawful ; nor was there to be any jus connubii
between him and the orthodox.^ In some ways,
then, the heretic was to be inferior to the Jew or
Christian, in others superior. Some rulers assimilated
them altogether to the tolerated cults.^

What strikes us as noteworthy in the case of the
particular heresy called Kadariyyah, or belief in the
freedom of the will, is that unlike some others its
connection with politics appears to have been slight.
Where the heretic disallowed the claim of a sovereign,
the reasons for persecuting him were obvious ; for no
reliance could be placed on his allegiance. He was
a member of a conspiracy against the existing regime.
But persecution merely on account of dogma un-
connected with politics is less easy to understand in^
the case of a system which to some extent tolerated
disagreement with itself.

In several other cases the supposed inventors of
heretical opinions are placed at dates which seem to
exclude their having been directly influenced by
Greek philosophy. The origins of theological dis-
cussions are connected by the historians not with
discussions with Unbelievers, but with the civil wars
which broke out fiercely before the jubilee of the
Migration. The fact clearly appeared that persons
whose antecedents would argue a high degree of
saintliness were found in opposing camps. The
Prophet's favourite wife went to war with the
husband of the Prophet's daughter, and the foremost

1 'Abd al-Kahir, p. 1 1 . ^ Letters of Khwarizmi.


champion of Islam. What was forcibly brought
home by these events was that " Believer " and
" virtuous " could scarcely be regarded as convertible
terms : for on the one hand it would be hard to deny
that Ali and *A'ishah were Believers ; on the other
hand, where parties resort to the decision of the
battle-field, they are intentionally aiming at each
other's death. The Koran is so emphatic in its
making Hell-Fire the eternal doom of one who
intentionally kills a Believer,^ that these civil wars
occasioned the gravest theological difficulties to those
who regarded the Book as infallible. On the one
hand, these heroes and heroines were certainly
Believers : on the other hand, they had certainly led
armies against Believers and left some slain on the
field. The question how far their future, and indeed
their status in this life, was affected by their having
aimed at the unpardonable offence of compassing the
death of Moslems suggested itself at once. And the
individual who is perhaps most usually regarded as
the founder of Mu'tazilism, and whose death is placed
in the year 131, i.e. just at the termination of the
Umayyad period, made what might seem a valu-
able suggestion for dealing with this difficulty. By
capital offences the Moslem did not, as the sect
called Kharijis ordinarily taught, become an Un-
believer ; he entered an intermediate state, in which
he forfeited his claim to the title Believer without
earning the other. And this opinion was regarded
as characteristic of the school.

1 iv; 92.


The name " Mu'tazil," by which this school is most
commonly known, is identical with the word for
"neutral," used repeatedly of those who kept out
of the civil wars and sided with neither party/ The
name may then in origin be a political one ; more
probably, however, it is taken from a passage in the
Koran where Abraham says he will keep away or
withdraw from the pagans and what they associate
with God. The Mu'tazils are otherwise known to
have called themselves the " people of monotheism
and justice." By justice they meant that in their
system God escaped the charge of ordaining that
men should disobey Him and punishing them for
doing so ; but their claim to monotheism is less
clear, since their opponents could with some show of
justice call them the Mazdians of Islam, inasmuch
as they postulated a power that was co-ordinate
with God, or at any rate restricted the arbitrary
power which the others assigned Him. It does not
seem possible to look for the source of these and
similar names outside Islam with any chance of
success ; whence it would appear that the problems
originated in the study of the sacred volume, which
professed to contain the answer to all questions on
all subjects, and certainly approaches this particular
problem more than once. What we are at liberty
to suppose is that some help for pursuing the study
was obtained from outside, just as some suggestions
for the grammatical study of the Koran were certainly
obtained from Syrians, though never acknowledged.

1 Tabarl i. 334>2, 4, 9 ; 3427, etc.


Here, too, as in the case of jurisprudence, the
debate precedes the treatise. The mosques, where
any teacher could form his circle, served as debating-
rooms, where questions could be asked and opinions
be formulated.

One of those who attended these discussions has
left us a notice of some that he heard. The ques-
tioning reminds us of the Socratic dialogues ; the
able questioner could reduce the opponent to silence.
The Mu'tazils asserted that the epithet "hearing"
applied to the Deity meant " knowing " ; the Koranic
text was quoted : " Verily God has heard the speech
of those who said," and the question was asked : Had
God heard it before they said it ? The reply was
in the negative. But did God know it before they
said it ? The reply was affirmative. The questioner
then asked whether that did not prove that the
word " hear " in this text meant something other
than know ? To this no answer could be given. The
reporter of this debate says that he asked these
reasoners why when they were thus convicted of
error they did not revise their opinions, since they
all claimed that reason should be followed whitherso-
ever it led. He was told that if they allowed them-
selves to be convinced they would find themselves
changing their opinions many times a day. The
hearer's conclusion was naturally very unfavourable
to the debaters, since they were not advancing upon
a scientific road, but merely defending shibboleths ;
and he held with some show of justice that it was
better in that case to follow the opinions of the


ancients, and especially the traditions of the Prophet.
And he urges with some reason against the philo-
sophical schools that their results exhibit no con-
sistency ; the various sects of Mu'tazils charge each
other with unbelief just as the orthodox charge them
all with it. Yet in the case of the real sciences every-
one says the same. All calculators are agreed as to
their sums ; all physicians are agreed as to the treat-
ment of the same maladies.

Nevertheless, it is probable that these debates were
far from ineffective, at any rate in guiding opinion
and winning adherents. In the story quoted the
narrator ascribes his own conversion to orthodoxy to
his witnessing the nonplussing of a Mu'tazil. And
since Mu'tazilism represents at least to a moderate
extent freedom of thought, it is not unnatural that
the ablest Moslem thinkers of the early centuries
belonged to one of its branches. Indeed, in the
biography of Abu'l-Hasan al-Ash'ari, who has the
reputation of having won the case for orthodoxy, it
is granted that the orthodox could not ordinarily
produce any debater who could hold his own against
the Mu'tazils. The biographer supposes that the
temporary victory of Mu'tazilism in the early third
century was owing to the fact that the orthodox
party produced martyrs, but not debaters ; not
because the orthodox were incompetent reasoners,
but because they regarded it as improper to talk to
the unorthodox or share a carpet with them. Abu'l-
Hasan al-Ash'ari, having, indeed, special authorisa-
tion, overcame this prejudice and defeated the


unorthodox on their own ground. Nevertheless,
there was occasional recrudescence of Mu'tazil
opinions. One of the most famous of ministers and
scholars, the Sahib Ibn 'Abbad, belonged to their
school. In the fifth century a vizier of the Seljuk
Sultan, who followed the same system, was strong
enough to introduce the practice of cursing the name
of Abu'l-Hasan al-Ash'ari in the Friday sermon, an
honour which had once fallen to Ali ; and even
to start a general persecution of Ash'arites, which
was shortly afterwards followed by a counter-persecu-
tion, when an orthodox vizier had been installed. It
is not in favour of these supposed freethinkers that,
on the occasions when they obtained political power,
they should have exhibited gross intolerance towards
their opponents ; but it is a mistake to suppose that
in this matter one sect is much better than another.

That the philosophical study of the Koran, in the
sense of free speculation on its doctrines and their
ostensible basis, would lead some minds to scepticism
and even atheism might be expected a priori ; but
naturally such conclusions as these were ordinarily so
dangerous that the inquirers would keep them to
themselves. It is, indeed, asserted by the historian of

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Online LibraryD. S. (David Samuel) MargoliouthThe early development of Mohammedanism; lectures delivered in the University of London, May and June 1913 → online text (page 14 of 18)