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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Online LibraryD. S. (David Samuel) MargoliouthThe early development of Mohammedanism; lectures delivered in the University of London, May and June 1913 → online text (page 15 of 18)
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the sects that the Carmathians, or, as he calls them,
the Bcltinis, who for some fifty years were the terror
of the pilgrims, were actually atheists ; and he quotes
a letter supposed to be addressed by one of their
leaders to another, in which the prophets and their
codes are criticised in the style to which we are
accustomed in the publications of the Rational Press


Association. Mohammed in particular is made out
to have been a shrewd adventurer w^ho persuaded his
followers to pay ready money in the shape of their
goods and lives, while he postponed payment which
was to take the form of the Garden of Delight. This
sect, he asserts, declared Paradise was to be found in
this world only, and, indeed, in the shape of sensual
pleasures ; Hell, on the other hand, was to be found
in the religious observances which the Moslem code
enjoined. This society, which had secret agents in
various parts of the Moslem world, endeavoured to
win followers by playing on the weakness of the
particular Moslem with whom they came in contact,
and, having found somewhere a rift in his orthodoxy,
endeavoured to widen it. Of course we cannot
accept the account of the system given by an enemy,
who acknowledges that it was esoteric, not revealed
except to persons who, after probation, and before it
was disclosed to them, were made to swear that they
would not reveal it ; but his quotations from their
literature at any rate show that there were persons
even in the early centuries of Islam who had the
hardihood to break away from the Koran, without
substituting any other form of revelation for it.

The great bulk of the sects, however, by no means i
did this. They all accepted the sacred book as of
paramount authority, and quoted it in defence of all
their dogmas. And a Christian polemical writer has
with justice called attention to the inconsistency of the
Shi'ah in accepting the Koran as genuine when it was
known to have been collected by sovereigns whom


they brand as wicked usurpers, who did not even
accept the copy which Ah possessed as orthodox.
Probably greater inconveniences would result if they
were to abandon it. And it is probable that all
accepted the miracle of the Koran, in some sense or
other. The difficulty, however, of treating the literary
style as miraculous w^as found appalling, and many
had to retreat on the miracle which lay in the matter
which the Prophet communicated being unknown to
him through any ordinary channels ; but even this
doctrine involved implicit belief in the accuracy of
tradition, which many thinkers impugned. Indeed,
when the controversy of Islam was practically closed,
towards the beginning of its fourth century, free-
thinking was identified with the abandonment of
tradition. The theologian who finally won the case
for what has since been orthodoxy, Abu'l-Hasan
al-Ash'ari, after having for forty years been un-
orthodox — a Mu'tazil, — was visited by the Prophet
in a dream, who told him to undertake the defence
of the sunnah ; and in consequence this theologian
made a pile of the metaphysical works which he
possessed, and returned to the study of tradition.
He mounted the pulpit in the mosque of Basrah,
divested himself of his robe, and declared that he
divested himself of his errors in the same way.

The fact that the command which he received
from the Prophet was to write books in defence of
orthodoxy shows a considerable advance during these
three hundred years in controversial methods. The
command which the Prophet himself received and


delivered was to compel agreement by far more
forcible methods.

Since the time of this personage, Abu'l-Hasan
al-Ash'arl, orthodox Islam is called after his name ;
the Simnites should also be Ash'arites. Not all his
three hundred works appear to be preserved ; but
one which contains an epitome of his controversies
exists, and has recently been printed at Hyderabad.
Orthodox theology after his time largely consists in
defending his opinions ; and the increasing knowledge
of Greek philosophy which subsequent centuries
brought caused further objections to be raised, and
some fresh solutions of metaphysical puzzles to be
invented. His manuals, as often happens, gave way
to newer compendia of the system. Yet the dogmas
formulated by him appear to have remained un-
altered ; and from his time the number of recognised
sects seems scarcely to have been increased. The
study of sectarian opinions and of the correct mode
of dealing with them gradually stereotyped into an
unalterable science.

The examination of the ideas which went to make
up Islam did not, then, commence with the period of
written literature, but rather that written literature
represents the outcome of the studies of a hundred
and twenty years, if we date from the time when the
Koran was completed and assumed its ultimate form.
Since that work claimed to give an explanation of
everything, as each philosophical question was posed
the students searched the sacred volume to discover
what its reply was ; and it clearly was made to reply


to questions which had not been asked of its author.
A question which occupied the Greek philosophers
was whether the non-existent could be said to be.
And according to our answer to that question we
shall decide whether creation means making out of
nothing, or making out of something. The Koran
is found to reply to this question when the Deity
says to Zachariah, *' We created thee before when
thou wast nothing."

Against this simple answer it would also be possible
to quote the sacred volume for the assertion that
man was created from clay, and it could scarcely be
asserted that clay was nothing. And this pheno-
menon being found in the case of practically every
controversy, one possible method of obtaining a
peaceful solution was to admit that both parties were
right. And this view was actually maintained by
one philosopher, 'Ubaidallah b. al-Hasan, who was
kadi or judge of Basrah in the year 158 a.h., and
therefore early among the metaphysical speculators.
He found the Koran contained texts which were in
favour of free will, and others in favour of fatalism :
he held that both views were correct. He thought
a Moslem adulterer might be called an unbeliever or
a believer or a hypocrite or a pagan ; since all these
titles might be justified from the sacred volume, they
were all correct. With regard to the wilful murderer
of a Moslem, you would be correct in holding that
he was saved or that he was damned or that his fate
was undecided. His meaning was thought to be
that, since all these opinions appeared to be found in


the Koran, he had been ordered to believe in them
all ; and it was not for him to claim any further
knowledge.^ There were persons who endeavoured
to settle the controversy on the creation of the Koran
in the same satisfactory way, by allowing that both
views might be held. Naturally, this attitude would
not suit many minds, and it is doubtful whether this
personage had even the honour of founding a school.
It seems doubtful whether the most freethinking
among the philosophers displayed a more tolerant
spirit towards unbelievers than did the orthodox ;
there are, however, some signs that occasionally their
reasoning too led them to propositions which would
involve a completer tolerance than was usually ex-
hibited. As we have seen, the orthodox view is
that the unbeliever's acts do not count ; the one
iniquity of which he can be found guilty is that of
having neglected to study the evidences of Islam.
Abu'l-Hudhail found an ingenious argument whence
it appeared that the unbeliever did perform certain
acts that are pleasing to God. For the word of
God contains commands and prohibitions, and to
obey a prohibition is to obey a command. Now,
the Koran declares that Islam is the only religion
in God's eyes, and so forbids all other religions. If,
then, the unbeliever followed all the forbidden cults,
he would be disobeying without obeying ; but since
he follows one cult, and eschews the rest, by the
mere fact of his following one forbidden cult he
obeys the command with regard to all the other

1 Mukhtalif al-Hadith, p. 57.


forbidden cults. The reply to this ingenious argu-
ment is got from the observation of Aristotle that
a thing may have more than one contrary ; whence
it may be possible to violate a false religion without
thereby obeying the true one.

One of the philosophers took the view that all
non-Moslems would, instead of being punished in the
next world, merely turn into dust ; his theory being
that knowledge was obligatory, i.e. it could not be
acquired but came by compulsion ; those therefore
to whom knowledge had not come were irresponsible,
and could have no future life. Another philosopher,
himself, it is said, the son of a captive, disapproved
of captivity, i.e. of making slaves ; his argument is
not perfectly clear, but he evidently assumes that
captives will be non-Moslems who had as yet no
knowledge of God, and who therefore had com-
mitted no offence justifying their being made
captives. This voice against slavery is almost the
only one we can find in Islamic literature ; and it
wins so little accord in the orthodox critic's mind
that the latter proudly argues from it that the author
of this doctrine, being himself the son of a captive
and slave-girl, thereby demonstrates his own illegiti-
macy ; for according to his own doctrine his father
had no right to possess a slave. The works of this
thinker, Thumamah Ibn al-Ashras, would possess
some interest for us : he had the reputation of being
a scoffer, and is said to have called those who flocked
to the mosque cattle, wondering what *' that Arab,"
viz. the Prophet, had made of them. A tradition


also makes him obtain the execution of a man who
charged the philosophers of his own school with

Of the numerous founders of schools who arose in
the second and third centuries of Islam, only one, it
appears, is known at first hand ; voluminous as were
the works of the others, they were not alloM^ed to
survive. The two main tendencies which sectarians
followed — belief in the freedom of the will, and belief
in justification by faith without works — were so un-
popular with orthodox Moslems that books in which
these opinions were defended had little chance of
surviving. Traditions were invented, which are
gravely cited by orthodox writers, in which the
Prophet condemned the holders of both these
opinions unsparingly ; the Believers in the Freedom
of the Will were called by him, it was said, " the
Mazdians of this nation " ; for by making man a free
agent they established in nature a power outside God.
He further asserted that the Murjis were accursed by
the mouth of seventy prophets. Their name was then
unknown ; but the Prophet explained that he meant
those who regarded faith as verbal expression only.
Yet we fancy that the verbal expression was that to
which he attached most importance — if there be any
truth in his biography.

Still, numerous works have been preserved by one
of these founders of sects — Jahiz of Basrah, probably
the most important of all Moslem authors, whose
treatises are mines of information on Arab antiquities
and the civilisation of the Islam of the first centuries


after the Migration. A certain amount of contro-
versial matter is to be found in the most lengthy
of his as yet pubUshed works — the zoology. It is
curious that the same writer who charges Jahiz with
having plagiarised his zoology from Aristotle also
declares that Aristotle got his from the Arabs. Neither
charge can be sustained : the amount which Jahiz
owes to the Greek philosopher is very slight ; he
only cites Aristotle occasionally, and probably not
at first hand, though he is aware that the Greek
treatises have suffered much from clerical errors and
mistranslation. In general he appears rather anxious
to get away from his subject than to adhere to it,
and the reader will certainly learn more from the
digressions than from what is said on the supposed

This work contains some reports of discussions
between Moslems and Jews, Christians, or Mazdians,
and these seem to have been conducted with good
temper. Considerable curiosity seems in most ages
to have been displayed by Moslems with regard to
the doctrines of those sects which they permitted to
exist, and it is likely that their representatives were
more often the defending than the attacking party ;
even where the Moslem bestows praise on members
of these subject cults, he makes no secret of his
claim of superiority. Still, in the process of dis-
covering their doctrines and learning how they were
defended the Moslem naturally had his attention
drawn to his own system and what view it was

supposed to hold on the subject ; and, as has been



seen, the Koran had often to decide a question on
which it either gave no answer or gave more than

From the statements in the zoology it would
appear that various questions which are included in
ontology and metaphysics had been greatly exercising
the minds of the Moslem theologians, and the recon-
ciliation of even elementary science with the Koran
had not been found easy. If the stars and sun were
not merely lamps, as the Koran asserted, but bodies,
as the Greek astronomy taught, how could the
former be flung at demons ? Jahiz discusses this
difficult matter, and replies that it need not necessarily
apply to all the stars, but only to some ; and since
the stars are innumerable, it is absurd to suppose that
any one would be missed from the sky if it were
flung at a demon ; and the Koran need not necessarily
mean that the whole star was so flung, but may refer
only to its flame.

The existence of the jinn themselves was not easy
to reconcile with Greek science, and yet the Koran]
says too much about them to permit of their being
simply rejected. Jahiz devotes a long section to I
proving their existence chiefly by the assertions
of well-known persons who had come in contact!
with them. The stories here told seem excessively^
childish, e.g. accounts of unions between male jinn '
and women, or female jinn and men ; a grandson of
Iblis himself had lived and been known in Kufah.
Whether consciously descending to the level of his
audience, or himself entertaining these opinions, it


is certain that this founder of a freethinking sect
lends his name to the grossest superstitions. He has
a chapter on the evil eye, which he endeavours to
explain, and of which he gives some notable examples ;
and he is also a believer in spells. The Caliph Mansur,
wishing to test the powers of a snake-charmer, had
a leaden snake made and inserted in his roof: he
then summoned a charmer to deal with it For a
long time this leaden model resisted the utmost
efforts of the charmer ; finally it melted — literally —
and came down from its perch.

The fragments of metaphysical discussions which
this book contains seem, then, only partially serious,
yet they are probably fair specimens of what went
on in the mosques where these matters were discussed.
The Koran has of course to be quoted at every stage ;
where it fails, recourse is had to tradition.

In the course of the discussions it became clear that
certain beliefs could only be held by the dahriyyah
" atheists," persons who denied the existence of
angels, jinn, prophets, witchcraft, and spells. Such
an opinion was that of the eternity of matter ; clearly
matter, like everything else, was not eternal, but had
been created by God.

Attention has been called to this zoology because
outside it, in lieu of the works of the heretics, we
have selections from their doctrines made indeed
by an author of the early fifth century of Islam,
who appears to have possessed many of them and
to have studied them with care, but is himself
violently antagonistic and enumerates the dogmas


of these persons as so many disgraces. The range
of subjects these lost works covered seems to have
been as wide as that covered by the encyclopsedias
of the Greeks of old ; these theologians had their
own physical and metaphysical systems, and to a
certain extent their logic, their ethics, and their
systems of law. They are quoted for innovations
in matters which come strictly within the domain
of the jurist no less than for such as belong to
theology. Nazzam is charged with having limited
the amount which constituted a theft punishable
with loss of the hand to 200 dirhems, whereas the
great jurists settled that the punishment was to be
incurred by a theft of 2^ dirhems. He also denied
that a divorce could be effected by any form of
words other than that which expressed the husband's
intention with absolute plainness. They also made
incursions into the region called Principles of Juris-
prudence. Abu'l-Hudhail demanded as evidence
for a tradition no fewer than twenty witnesses, one
of whom must be known to have been qualified for
Paradise. To some extent the criticism of Moslem
history came within their scope ; they passed judgment
on those early Moslem heroes and heroines who had
taken part in civil wars.

Whether Islam gained or lost by these sectarian
developments may be a subject of dispute ; the
charge that Islam was ruined by the introduction
of Greek science and philosophy is in any case
untenable, since, as has been seen, the questions
were posed and the sects formed before Greek


thought had reached the Moslems except in those
results which had become common property. The
formulation of Islamic dogma was as much a neces-
sity due to the settlement of the Islamic empire as
was the codification of the law ; just as magistrates
had to know what was the law in a variety of
cases, so those who were constantly and perforce
using the words " faith," '* the soul," " God," " the
next world," had to know what they ought to think
about them. And since Islam was far more a
political than a religious system, the opinions
evolved could not easily be separated from Islamic
politics, and in any classification of the sects political
and metaphysical questions are hopelessly mixed.
When Greek philosophy was actually pressed into
the service, its results were at times accepted
blindly, at times rejected fanatically. That the
Islamic world awoke to the appreciation of these
monuments before Western Europe seems to be
attested, and some familiar phrases, like premise in
logic, retain the memory of this. Yet that Islamic
authors added nothing to Greek philosophy seems
also to be attested, since when once Western Europe
had recovered the Greek originals it discarded for
good the Arabic intermediaries.



It is said that at the time of the French Revolution
there were persons who wished to destroy all earlier
literature so that the world might begin afresh. It
would seem that such a view of the function and
nature of Islam had impressed itself on the Prophet's
imagination towards the end of his life, when he
supposed that a new cosmic era had commenced.
The relative positions of the planets had come back
to the same as they had occupied at the beginning of
creation. Whereas, then, Islam had at first been
conceived of as based on earlier missions, which it
continued and applied to the special needs of Arabia
rather than superseded, when the idea of world-
conquest had become connected with it, it could
afford to reject that basis. The maxim ** Islam
cancels all that is before it," of the utmost importance
in morals and law, also came to be historically
applied. The amount of past history which the
Koran contained was all that was worth knowing.
Converts to Islam desired to forget their past : when
asked questions about the earlier condition, they
reply with the fixed formula, "God has put an end to



all that, so why recur to it ? " The process which we
have seen to have been carried out in jurisprudence
found its analogue in history : practice did not mean
" uninterrupted practice," but the Prophet's practice ;
the era at which human memory commenced was
the life of the Prophet, and only such practice as
was sanctioned then had value or was to be main-
tained. Similarly, no preceding history had value ;
but that time, when men were living who saw
and heard the Prophet, could not be sufficiently

It is doubtless owing to this that Arabic authors
have so little that is of value to record about Arabia.
In South Arabia, where writing was so familiar and
so long practised, it is difficult to believe that there
were no written chronicles ; and even in Central
Arabia something was probably known about the
origin and age of the most important cities. Yet it
is the fact that with the Moslems real and continuous
history commences with the Prophet's Migration ;
what precedes that date is a mass of fiction, wherein
some facts may lie buried or occasionally appear.
It can indeed be used in illustration of matter which
happens to be known from some trustworthy source ;
but for other purposes it is worthless. Even of the
pre-Islamic worships the Arabian archaeologists have
practically nothing to add to the meagre statements
of the Koran ; and the rule that no case may be
judged simply by the statements of one litigant
ought not to be discarded in this matter. We
should Uke to know what the pagan priests and


worshippers said or thought about their gods and
goddesses as well as what the Koran says.

Those who ventured outside the Koran and con-
sulted the books which the Koran ostensibly confirms
found themselves confronted with a difficulty. It
was quite true that Pharaoh, Korah, and Haman were
mentioned in the Old Testament ; but whereas in
the Koran Haman is the vizier of the Egyptian
king, in the Old Testament he is the minister of a
Persian king who lived about a thousand years later ;
and whereas in the Koran, Korah — if he be meant by
Xarun — figures as a man of vast wealth who was
punished for trusting to it, in the Old Testament
there is nothing about this, and his punishment is
for a very different offence. Now, in the Old Testa-
ment and its continuation in the New, the narratives
hang together in chronological sequence, and the
transference of Haman from the time after the Exile
to that of Moses is unthinkable. Those, therefore,
who consulted the books of the Jews and Christians
found themselves plunged not into light but into
darkness — on the assumption that the Koran was
the infallible word of God and that it confirmed
previous revelations.

According to the tradition, Mohammed actually
forbade his followers to read the books which the
Koran ostensibly confirmed, alleging that the copies
of the Jews and Christians had been intentionally
corrupted : a charge which in the Koran itself is
confined to the actual recitation ; but he is also
supposed in the case of serious discrepancies between


his statements and those of the older sacred books
to have harmonised them by some gentler method.
Eventually there came to pass what might have been
expected to happen ; when the authority of the
Koran was so secured that there was no danger of
its being shaken, illustration and supplementing from
the Jewish and Christian books were occasionally
practised, though scarcely commended ; ^ and indeed
it is probable that certain converts from the older
systems gladly used and even paraded their know-
ledge, which, so far as it served to illustrate the
Koran, would be sure of appreciation. The citation
of these works in confirmation of the Koran was thus
permissible, but naturally they were not to be heard
when they contradicted it.

To the rest of pagan history the Moslem attitude
was not dissimilar to the modern European attitude
with regard to far-off history : the man of ordinary
education is not required to be familiar with the
ancient Egyptian dynasties, or with the sequence
of the Babylonian kings. What he usually knows
about them is what is told either in the Bible or in
Herodotus, not what has been made out from the

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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 15 of 18)