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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tions are four — " God has made unlawful for you
that which has died a natural death, blood, swine's
flesh, and what has been consecrated to any other
than Allah." It must be confessed that the classifica-
tion leaves something to be desired ; and, indeed, some
argued that the fat of swine was lawful according to
the wording- of this text. In vi. 119 we are told
that the details have been given, only it is there
explained that " what has been consecrated to any
other than Allah " means " what has not had Allah's
name mentioned over it." And in verse 146 the
Prophet is told to say that in what has been revealed
to him he finds nothing forbidden save the four things
mentioned in Surah xvi. In Surah ii. 168 the same
list is given again. In Surah v., however, the first
verse tells us that graminivorous beasts are lawful
food, except what shall be read unto you, and the
list follows in verse 4 : but here no fewer than six
fresh exceptions are added. Since there follows the
expression, " To-day I have completed for you your
religion," it may be reasonably inferred that this is
the final utterance on the subject of lawful and un-
lawful food ; but one feels that the assertion in


Surah vi., " I only find in what has been revealed
to me," followed by the shorter list, ought not to
have been left unmodified by an editor ; for though
the statement in Surah v. may well be the final utter-
ance on the subject, it contradicts Surah vi. Since,
then, the verse in Surah vi. is abrogated, it ought
either to have been omitted, or some chronological
note should have been appended ; and, indeed, in
Surah vi., which takes its name from these beasts,
the author goes out of his way to give what he
supposes to be the Jewish law as well as that of his
own community, and to this revelation reference is
made in Surah xvi. ^

Now, if on a matter which admits of such precision
as this, the ruling of the Koran is inconsistent and
self-contradictory, we cannot reasonably expect pre-
cision on those moral and metaphysical questions
which taxed the ability even of an Aristotle, who
to his natural endowments had added a long and
profound study of the theory of classification.

To speak of the metaphysics of the Koran might
seem to be an anachronism, but the evidence which
justifies our using the phrase is irrefragable. It re-
peatedly attributes the unbelief of its opponents to
the act of God ; a man's acceptance of Islam is said
to be due to God's expanding his breast (vi. 125), his
refusal of it to his breast being straitened : God has
rendered such a person deaf and blind, and sealed
up his brains so that he cannot make use of them.
Had God willed, everyone on earth without excep-
tion would have believed (x. 99) ; no soul can believe


save by the permission of God (100) ; he, Mohammed,
cannot force people to beheve ; his preaching would
be unavailing if God willed to lead people astray
(xi. 36). It was impossible to rescue those who
were doomed to punishment (xxxix. 20). To all
this there was the obvious retort on the part of
the Unbelievers that they too could not alter what
God had decreed (vi. 149, xvi. 37); "had God
willed, neither we nor our forefathers would have
been pagans, nor should we have declared any
lawful food unlawful." And this objection is re-
peatedly recorded. The only reply that the Koran
can offer is that Unbelievers in old times said the
same, and that the people who say this have no real
knowledge, but are only guessing.

With regard to morals there is the same difficulty.
The Koran certainly is consistent on one point, the
first commandment, " Thou shalt have none other gods
but Me " ; and this is practically the sole message
which all the prophets communicate. If we come to
other commandments, we have to read through the
whole work in order to be sure what is actually
meant. Where something analogous to a code is
given, e.g. in Surah vi. 152 and following, Surah xvii.
24, XXV. Qd following. Surah xxxi. 12, Surah xvi. 92,
the second commandment is usually '* kindness to
parents " ; but then comes the difficulty noticed in
the case of Abraham : what happens if the parent is
an Unbeliever ? In Surah xxix. 7 the injunction is
followed by the rider, "But if they urge thee to
associate with Me that concerning which thou hast


no knowledge, then obey them not"; in xxxi. 14
there is added to this, " But associate with them
kindly." But in Surah Ix., when, owing to the
Migration and the battle of Badr, this matter has
assumed serious proportions, the Moslems are told
to declare that there is perpetual enmity between
them and the Unbelievers, whatever the relationship ;
Abraham's promise to pray for his father is stated to
be an exception which is not to be imitated.

We see, then, that the second commandment has
had to undergo serious alteration as time goes on ;
and without the theory of abrogation it is impossible
to make use of Koranic rulings on the commandment
concerning the honour due to parents. With other
commandments we can trace the same process. In
the code of Surah xvi. 93 there is a commandment
to keep oaths ; but in Surah v. 91 this rule is modified
by the introduction of the principle of compensation,
whereby the violation of an oath may be atoned by
some other performance ; and in Surah Ixvi. this
new principle is confirmed and applied to a case
wherein the Prophet himself is concerned. The
tendency here, then, as in the former case, is towards
laxity ; and it has had the decidedly serious result
that there appears to be no mode known to Moham-
medan law whereby an oath can be made legally
binding ; for not only does the Koran expressly state
that the performance of certain charitable acts will
serve as a substitute for specific performance, but the
Prophet is credited with the maxim according to
which if a man having taken an oath to do some-


thing discovers some preferable course, he is to take
that preferable course and make compensation. And,
indeed, the jurists appear to devote their attention
entirely to the nature of the compensation to be
adopted in such cases, without disputing the legality
of perjury. It cannot, however, be easily believed
that the Prophet would have failed to see the danger
of admitting this principle unrestrictedly, though
there may be cases in which the existence of an
authority empowered to release men from such
obligations is conceivably desirable.

If in lieu of a code we endeavour to collect
occasional precepts or to analyse the general spirit
of the Koran, the result is somewhat wanting in
precision and consistency. It is clearly an untenable
view that the moral law can vary with the varying
conditions of an individual or of a community ; it
may be wise to fight with Unbelievers only when
there is a good chance of defeating them, but the
question whether it is right or not to do so cannot
be settled on this ground. On this subject, however,
we have a series of utterances which steadily increase
in intolerance until they culminate in the ferocious
document that forms Surah ix. We can indeed '
gauge the agitation of the Prophet in that Surah by
the fact that he mentions a battle-field by name —
Hunain ; elsewhere he uses veiled phrases, eg, the
day of Deliverance, or the day when the two parties
met. Similarly, in the disagreeable episode connected
with his adopted son, he goes so far as to mention
Zaid by name. Still, it is not possible to harmonise



a precept which forbids any sort of dispute, a precept
which urges the rendering of good for evil, and a
precept which enjoins the extermination of pagans,
fighting with them wherever they are to be found,
disregarding all family ties when religion is con-
cerned. If we admit the theory that God's com-
mands are dictates of prudence, i.e. are temporary
rules accommodated to the varying circumstances of
a few days or years, the question suggests itself: did
circumstances cease to change on the Prophet's
death ? Changing so quickly within the twenty
years of his activity that the rule which suited the
first year was wholly inapplicable in the last, can
they in the last year have become so stereotyped
that no further alteration is required ?

Just, then, as we find that metaphysical difficulties
are not really abstruse, but on the surface as well
as in the depth, so the problems suggested by the
theory of revelation formulated themselves even to
untrained minds. The Prophet's answer is that of
a dictator, who sees no difficulty about altering his
rulings from day to day ; the texts which had ceased
to be applicable were wiped out, erased, and something
equally good if not better substituted for them.

Even with regard to ritual we are confronted by
the same difficulties. Doubtless the Koran con-
sistently enjoins prayer and alms, and it certainly
prescribes the pilgrimage to the Ancient House ;
yet it is agreed that the Koran cannot be quoted
for the number and exact nature of the ceremonies
which together constitute prayer, or even for a


complete definition of what is meant by ceremonial
washing. Of the system which occupies so many
pages in the law-books, and of the minute details
connected with this performance, only the beginnings
can be found in the Koran ; and it is by no means
certain that the prescriptions in that book which
are concerned with nightly prayer are meant to
apply to anyone but the Prophet himself. Similarly,
though charity is constantly enjoined, and the alms
spoken of as an institution, there is no guidance as
to the amount to be paid. Slightly more detail
perhaps is given of the ceremonies connected with
the pilgrimage which it was the intention of the
Prophet to preserve or to abolish ; but even on this
subject the statements are scanty. It is probably
true that in the Prophet's time none of these
"pillars of Islam," as they are termed, assumed
quite as stereotyped a shape as that into which the
studies of the first century of the Migration brought
them ; yet where the leading principle of a system
is that one particular teacher should be obeyed and
imitated, the accurate formulation of duties is
evidently required. If prayer and alms are per-
formances which God demands, it becomes necessary
to know what constitutes them ; where there is a
claim to be satisfied, the debtor should know the
exact amount of the claim. Since God is, according
to the Koran, " quick at accounts," the debtor must
also have an opportunity of keeping his own.
Moreover, the alms being a tax which the sovereign
has to collect, its amount must be definitely known.


In the third place, it is clear that the legislation
of the Koran is imperfect, and fails to deal with
numerous subjects on which rules are required.
Such a subject is constitutional law, the principle
whereon the ruler or sovereign is appointed, and the
limits of his power. When a dispute concerning
the succession arose, the only Koranic text which
seemed to deal with the matter was one referring
to disputes arising between a man and his wife, in
which case an umpire was to be appointed from
either side ; what was to happen in the event of
these umpires disagreeing was not specified. Those
who were appointed to decide the succession to the
throne were enjoined to settle the matter according
to the Koran, if this were possible ; to do so was
found quite impracticable, though it would appear
that one of the parties endeavoured to effect this
by extending the principle of analogy which had
already been employed in the case of the arbitrators.
It was then argued that where a murder had been
committed, " authority " was given to the avenger of
blood, i.e. the kinsman on whom that duty naturally
fell ; and the word " authority " might conceivably
apply to general authority, though the context would
be against this. The occurrence, however, of this
text, which might thus have some bearing on the
question of the successor to the murdered Othman,
was probably what encouraged one of the parties to
stake its cause on the ruling of the Koran.

If the Prophet's mission was analogous to what
he supposed that of Jesus to have been, i.e. the


relaxation of some parts of an earlier code, but in
general the maintenance of it, it would have been
natural for the community to adopt the codes in
use among either Jews or Christians, merely intro-
ducing such changes as the new revelation had
brought. And, indeed, the academic question is
sometimes posed : are we bound by the codes of
our predecessors ? The question is clearly academic,
for there is practically no mode of getting at those
codes. The doctrine that the Jewish and Christian
scriptures had been wilfully corrupted beyond re-
cognition seems to have become a dogma of Islam
at a very early date : it is the regular apology for
the astounding diversity of the Koran in matters of
history from the Christian and Jewish documents,
and any system which involved the employment of
those scriptures had necessarily to be rejected. It
will be seen that this theory is actually made a
principle of law, and regulates the relations of the
Moslem government with its Christian subjects.

Still, though the nature of the Koran was not such
as to render it a convenient handbook for consultation
on the various difficulties which arose, there were
certain sources of information which for a time might
be utilised. The Prophet had governed a community
a sufficient length of time in a variety of circumstances
for the Moslem life to have developed in a particular
way, and for Islam itself to have exhibited what might
be called a spirit ; the Prophet's career had for some
years at least been in miniature what was to be the
career of his successors : the conquest and adminis-


tration of provinces. And, on the other hand, from
the different conditions wherein he had hved with his
followers, there was more than a general notion current
of what he approved and disapproved. Victorious
over internal and external enemies, recognised as
absolute dictator on all questions connected with
morality and law, he had been free to do as he
liked ; there was little reason to suppose that greater
success would have seriously changed his methods.
Hence there was already a style or system which
admitted of continuation.

One result was, then, to make the Moslems hero-
worshippers to a greater degree than any other
community has attained. The Koran bids its
devotees take as their models those who have been
guided, and in particular urges that the Prophet
is a pattern of conduct. Naturally, his immediate
associates were supposed to have resembled him most
closely, and what they did became a norm of conduct
far below, indeed, that which was attributed to the
Prophet, but at least analogous to it ; whoso followed
their example could not go wrong. This prin-
ciple eventually developed into a cult of saints,
with numerous extraordinary superstitions. Moslem
essays have a tendency to consist of citations of
sayings bearing on the subject which are attributed
to the Companions of the Prophet. But though
much of this matter, if not the whole of it, is apo-
cryphal, we cannot doubt that the mode of life
pursued by the Prophet exercised a great influence
on his environment, and the process spread through


the ever-expanding area of Islam. During the early-
generations the character thus disseminated was
fairly preserved ; as time went on and the state
became more settled, it became remodelled, and its
old features were blurred ; but some were too clearly
cut to be rendered indistinguishable. And in the
encomia which certain historians bestow on Moslem
sovereigns, and their assessment of the conduct which
they record, they retain the old valuations derived
from a study of the lives of the Prophet and the
foremost of the Companions.

If, leaving theory, we turn to practice, and
endeavour to picture to ourselves the life of the
earliest Moslems, the Companions of the Prophet,
who occupy in this system the same place as is
occupied in Christianity by Apostles and Saints, we
shall probably understand the ethical value of the
Koran better than if we study it with orthodox com-
mentaries. These persons accepted the Koran as
guidance at the time of its author or at any rate
authorised expounder. What effect had it on their
Hves ? Two qualities it certainly encouraged : courage
and discipline. The Prophet spared neither himself
nor his followers ; they fought many a battle at
great odds and won. The boast of the Koran that
a Believer was worth two Unbehevers on the battle-
field, if not ten, justified itself repeatedly. Not only
the Jews, whose rehgion disarms them, but the legions
of the Greek and Persian empires, were unable to face
the Believers' onslaught.

The heroic life, as depicted in the Greek Iliad, bears


a close resemblance to the life of the early Moslems ;
they fight in tribes, and the capable fighter is the
tribal hero. Nor is the religious basis entirely dis-
similar ; the loves and hates of the fighters in both
cases are the loves and hates of their gods. The best
fighter is also the best worshipper. But it follows
from this proposition that the best worshipper is
often the best fighter ; and the government is to a
certain extent priestly in consequence. When the
Yemenite tribes at Kufah were making common
cause against the usurper Mukhtar, the rivalry
between their chieftains was likely to lead to
disaster ; the affair was settled by making the chief
of the Readers, i.e, the person best acquainted with
the Koran, leader of prayer and so leader of the forces.^
The experiences of the Prophet's life, the constant
bloodshed which marked his career at Medinah,
seem to have impressed his followers with a pro-
found belief in the value of bloodshed as opening the
gates of Paradise. Among the many pathetic stories
which Tabari has preserved is that of the Penitents,
inhabitants of Kufah who had invited the Prophet's
grandson Husain to come and be their sovereign, but,
owing to the vigorous measures of the Umayyad
governor of Kufah, left Husain in the lurch, who was
presently surrounded by the Umayyad troops at
Kerbela, where he and many members of his family
met their deaths. The death of Husain has been to
a large portion of the Moslem world the analogue of
the Crucifixion : the culminating crime of the whole

1 Tabari ii. 654!,


world, too horrible to mention, yet always to be kept
in mind. When these Penitents became conscious
of the offence which they had committed, they
decided that they durst not appear before their
Creator without having taken steps to atone for it ;
they must take the life of those by whose hands
Husain had fallen. When they had taken this
resolution, there was already a considerable reaction
against the Umayyads, for indeed the slaughter of
the Prophet's household was eminently calculated
to produce one ; the authorities in Kufah promised
the Penitents their aid and support, merely desiring
that this endeavour to avenge Husain should be
undertaken with caution and prudence ; only the
Penitents declined. It appeared that their desire
was far more to lose their own lives in the pursuit
of their aim than to compass that aim ; an avenue
to Paradise was opened to them, and they hastened
to take it. On their way to battle with the Umayyad
forces they met other sympathisers, who also urged
caution, and deprecated unnecessary waste of life,
and especially of noble lives ; the sympathisers were
thanked, but their assistance and their counsel
declined. On the battle-field many were offered
amnesty by their fellow-tribesmen who happened
to be in the Umayyad army ; in the cases quoted
the amnesty was declined ; the Penitents fought
till they fell. Similarly, we read of generals who,
hurrying to battle, asked their friends to pray for
their martyrdom ;^ and of those who, mortally wounded

1 Tabariii. 644, l6.


in battle, expired congratulating themselves that
they were dying in the mode they best desired.^
The Caliph Ibn Zubair finds consolation for the
death of his brother on the battle-field in the fact
that he is following the family tradition ; unlike the
Umayyads, who regularly died in their beds.^ Other
men as they reach old age anxiously seize what may
be their last chance of martyrdom.^ This spirit seems
to have regularly animated the Khawarij, the most
ferocious as well as the most pious of the Moslems/
They were habitually able to defeat many times their
number in consequence. But it also animated those
who extended the Islamic empire to the far East.^

But beyond these virtues, courage and discipline,
it might be difficult to find any which the Com-
panions of the Prophet exhibited above other men.
Temperance, in the sense of total abstinence, was
part of their discipline ; the amount of chastity
demanded was very slight. The ordinary ills of
humanity, envy, hatred, and malice, seem to have
been rife even in the Prophet's household, and the
Shi*ites seem historically correct in asserting that
after his death his staff subordinated all other con-
siderations to an intrigue for the succession. Where
the goods of infidels were in view, the precept " Thou
shalt not covet" does not appear to have been en-
joined ; and the thirst at any rate for infidel blood
was encouraged rather than suppressed. Those who
had to deal with the Prophet or his immediate suc-

1 Tabarl ii. 657. 2 a gig. 3 ij io37.

4 ii 1378. 5 ii. i6o4.


cessors in Medinah had to deal with an armed camp :
with a fighting force as effective as has ever been
organised, when fighting depended not on brain
power but on physical force. The Prophet rightly
claims to have set a good example in resolution and
contempt of danger and fatigue. But that any of
the gentler virtues were cultivated does not appear ;
and the vices which are associated with Asiatic
despotisms seem to have displayed themselves from
the time when the despotism of Medinah was
founded. The Prophet's successor and bosom friend,
according to the best authorities, deprived the
Prophet's daughter of her property in order to
avenge an insult which his own daughter had received
some years before. And, in general, little love seems
to have been lost between the Companions of the

The shedding of blood, indeed, became a passion
which at times assumed strange shapes. The sect of
Khawarij or professional rebels, which was called after
al- Azrak, made a point of killing women and children
as well as male Moslems who would not accept their
symbol ; a letter is extant wherein this practice is
j ustified from the Koran : these monsters spared
Christians and Jews.^ In the civil wars at times
some of the conquerors could see that the Moslems
whom they had defeated were brave men, who could
ill be spared for the defence of the frontiers, and that
it was improper to treat the prisoners of war as
responsible for the deaths of the victor's comrades ;

1 See, e.g., Tabari ii. 760.


but such voices were rarely able to convince : the
thirst for blood was too strong. When the
adventurer Mukhtar undertook to avencfe the death
of Husain, he slaughtered hundreds, meaning to kill
all the troops that had been engaged against Husain ;
the real head of the house of Ali advised him to spill
less blood. A pious insurgent in the year 76 advised
his leader to kill all who disagreed with him before
even summoning them to a change.^ And some of
his followers carried out this principle without even
consulting their commanders.^ The less religious,
e.g. the founder of the Umayyad dynasty, seem to
have developed this horrible taste less than the
devotees ; but even their record is terrible. We
cannot fail to find the source of this most painful
feature of Islam throughout its history in the
Prophet's massacres of his opponents, and in the
theory of the Koran that copious bloodshed is
characteristic of a true prophet at a certain stage of
his career.

Dangerous consequences were drawn from the
Prophet's doctrine, emphasised on the occasion of a

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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 4 of 18)