Syed Ameer Ali.

The spirit of Islâm : a history of the evolution and ideals of Islâm online

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any other God, and slay not a soul that God hath forbidden
otherwise than by right ; and commit not fornication : . . .
they who bear not witness to that which is false ; and when
they pass by vain sport, they pass it by with dignity : who
say, ' Oh, our Lord, grant us of our wives and children such as
shall be a comfort unto us, and make us examples unto the
pious,' — these shall be the rewarded, for that they persevered ;
and they shall be accosted in paradise with welcome and
salutation : — For ever therein, — a fair abode and resting-
place ! " 3

This is the Islam of Mohammed. It is not " a mere creed ;
it is a life to be lived in the present " — a religion of right-doing,
right-thinking, and right-speaking, founded on divine love,
universal charity, and the equality of man in the sight of the
Lord. However much the modern professors of Islam may
have dimmed the glory of their Prophet (and a volume might
also be written on the defects of modern Mohammedanism),
the religion which enshrines righteousness and " justification
by work " 4 deserves the recognition of the lovers of humanity.

applied the episode to Hasan, the brother of Husain. See the Tafsir-
Husaini, Mirat Ed. p. 199.

1 Compare this with the precept of Mohammed reported by Abu Darda,
Mishkdt, bk. iv. chap. i. part ii., and the whole chapter on " Forgiveness "
(chap, xxxvi.) in the Mustatraf.

2 Zamakhshari (the Kashshdf), Egypt. Ed. part i. p. 280.

3 Koran, sura xxv. 63-76.

4 Mr. Cotter Morrison, in his Service of Man, calls the other doctrine the
most disastrous to human morality.


J* J y. ^ J — J V )' ^9' ^

" Wishest thou to approach God ?
Live purely, and act righteously."

Jalal ud-din Rumi says, —

" Thou partakest of the nature of the beast as well as the angel ;
Leave the nature of the beast, that thou mayest surpass the angel."

The present life was the seed-ground of the future. To work
in all humility of spirit for the human good, to strive with all
energy to approach the perfection of the All-Perfect, is the
essential principle of Islam. The true Moslem is a true
Christian, in that he accepts the ministry of Jesus, and tries
to work out the moral preached by him. Why should not the
true Christian do honour to the Preacher who put the finishing
stroke to the work of the earlier Masters ? Did not he call
back the wandering forces of the world into the channel of
progress ?

Excepting for the conception of the sonship of Jesus, there is
no fundamental difference between Christianity and Islam.
In their essence they are one and the same ; both are the
outcome of the same spiritual forces working in humanity.
One was a protest against the heartless materialism of the
Jews and the Romans ; the other a revolt against the degrading
idolatry of the Arabs, their ferocious customs and usages.
Christianity, preached among a more settled and civilised
people subject to an organised government, had to contend
with comparatively milder evils. Islam, preached among
warring tribes and clans, had to fight against all the instincts
of self-interest and ancient superstition. Christianity, arrested
in its progress towards the East by a man of cultured but
bizarre character, who, though a Jew by birth, was by education
an Alexandrian Greek, was carried to Greece and Rome, and
there gathering up the pagan civilisation of centuries, gave


birth to new ideas and doctrines. Christianity ceased to be
Christian the moment it was transplanted from the home of
its birth. It became the religion of Paul, and ceased to be that
of Jesus. The pantheons of ancient paganism were tottering
to their fall. Greek and Alexandrian philosophy had prepared
the Roman world for the recognition of an incarnate God — a
demiurgus, an iEon born in the bosom of eternity, and this
conception imbedded itself in Pauline Christianity. Modern
idealistic Christianity, which is more a philosophy than a
positive religion, is the product of centuries of pre-Christian
and post-Christian civilisation. Islam was preached among
a people, among conditions social and moral, wholly divergent.
Had it broken down the barrier which was raised against it by
a degraded Christianity, and made its way among the higher
races of the earth, its progress and its character would have
presented a totally different aspect from what it now offers
to the observer among the less cultured Moslem communities.
Like rivers flowing through varied tracts, both these creeds
have produced results in accordance with the nature of the
soil through which they have found their course. The Mexican
who castigates himself with cactus leaves, the idol-worshipping
South American, the lower strata of Christian nations, are
hardly in any sense Christians. There exists a wide gulf
between them and the leaders of modern Christian thought.
Islam, wherever it has found its way among culturable and
progressive nations, has shown itself in complete accord with
progressive tendencies, it has assisted civilisation, it has
idealised religion. 1

A religion has to be eminently positive in its " command-
ments and prohibitions " to exercise an abiding salutary
influence on the ignorant and uncultured. The higher and
more spiritualised minds are often able to forge on the anvils
of their own hearts, lines of duty in relation to their fellow
creatures without reference to outside directions. They are

1 The faith which could give birth to the heroic devotion of Ali, the gentle-
ness of Ja'far (the Sadik), the piety and patience of Musa, the divine purity
of Fatima, the saintliness of Rabi'a ; the religion which could produce men
like Ibn-Sina, Al-Beiruni, Ibn-Khaldun, Sanai, Jalal ud-din Rumi, Farid
ud-din (the Attar), Ibrahim Adham, and a host of others, suiely contains
every element of hopefulness.


in commune with God and are guided by the consciousness of
right and wrong, of truth and purity which had grown up with
their being. Plato and Aristotle, who had never received the
light of the Semitic revelations, spoke to the world of the
highest principles of morality in as distinct terms as the great
prophets. They too had heard the voice of God, and were
lifted up to Him by their own thoughts.

To the mass of mankind, however, sunk either in ignorance
or barbarism, for the uncultured and the sodden, moral enuncia-
tions convey no meaning unless they are addressed in a positive
form and formulated with the precision of enactments
surrounded with definite sanctions. The ethical side of a
religion does not appeal to their feelings or sentiments ; and
philosophical conceptions exercise no influence on their minds,
their daily conduct or their lives.

They are swayed far more by authority and precedent than
by sermons on abstract principles. They require definite
prescriptions to regulate not only their relations towards their
fellow-beings but also towards their Creator whom, in the
absence of such rules, they are apt to forget.

The success of Islam in the seventh century of the Christian
era, and its rapid and marvellous diffusion over the surface
of the globe, were due to the fact that it recognised this essential
need of human nature. To a world of wrangling sects and
creeds, to whom words were of far greater importance than
practice, it spoke in terms of positive command from an
Absolute Source. Amidst the moral and social wreck in which
it found its birth, it aimed at the integration of the worship
of a Personal Will, and thereby to recall humanity to the
observance of duty which alone pointed to the path of
spiritual development. And by its success in lifting up
the lower races to a higher level of social morality it proved
to the world the need of a positive system. It taught them
sobriety, temperance, charity, justice and equality as the
commandments of God. Its affirmation of the principle of
equality of man and man and its almost socialistic tendency
represented the same phase of thought that had found
expression on the shores of Galilee. But even in his most
exalted mood the great Teacher of Islam did not forget the


limitations imposed on individual capacity which occasion
economic inequalities.

Alas for the latter-day professors of Islam ! The blight of
patristicism has ruined the blossom of true religion and a true
devotional spirit.

A Christian preacher has pointed out with great force the
distinction between religion and theology, and the evils which
have followed in his Church from the confusion of the two. 1
What has happened in Christianity has happened in Islam.
Practice has given way to the mockery of profession, cere-
monialism has taken the place of earnest and faithful work, —
doing good to mankind for the sake of doing good, and for the
love of God. Enthusiasm has died out, and devotion to God
and His Prophet are meaningless words. The earnestness
without which human existence is no better than that of the
brute creation, earnestness in right-doing and right-thinking,
is absent. The Moslems of the present day have ignored the
spirit in a hopeless love for the letter. Instead of living up to
the ideal preached by the Master, instead of " striving to
excel in good works," " of being righteous " ; instead of loving
God, and for the sake of His love loving His creatures, — they
have made themselves the slaves of opportunism and outward
observance. It was natural that in their reverence and
admiration for the Teacher his early disciples should stereotype
his ordinary mode of life, crystallise the passing incidents of a
chequered career, imprint on the heart orders, rules, and
regulations enunciated for the common exigencies of the day
in an infant society. But to suppose that the greatest
Reformer the world has ever produced, the greatest upholder
of the sovereignty of Reason, the man who proclaimed that the
universe was governed and guided by law and order, and that
the law of nature meant progressive development, ever con-
templated that even those injunctions which were called forth
by the passing necessities of a semi-civilised people should
become immutable to the end of the world, is doing an injustice
to the Prophet of Islam.

No one had a keener perception than he of the necessities of
this world of progress with its ever-changing social and moral

1 Professor Momerie in his Defects of Modem Christianity.


phenomena, nor of the likelihood that the revelations vouch-
safed to him might not meet all possible contingencies. When
Muaz was appointed as governor of Yemen, he was asked by
the Prophet by what rule he would be guided in his administra-
tion of that province. " By the law of the Koran," said Muaz.
" But if you find no direction therein ? " " Then I will act
according to the example of the Prophet." " But if that
fails ? " " Then I will exercise my own judgment." The
Prophet approved highly of the answer of his disciple, and
commended it to the other delegates.

The great Teacher, who was fully conscious of the exigencies
of his own times, and the requirements of the people with whom
he had to deal, — people sunk in a slough of social and moral
despond, — with his keen insight and breadth of views, perceived,
and one may say foretold, that a time would come when the
accidental and temporary regulations would have to be differ-
entiated from the permanent and general. " Ye are in an
age," he declared, " in which, if ye abandon one-tenth of what
is ordered, ye will be ruined. After this, a time will come
when he who shall observe one-tenth of what is now ordered
will be redeemed." x

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As we have already observed, the blight which has fallen on
Musulman nations is not due to the teachings of the Master.
No religion contained greater promise of development, no
faith was purer, or more in conformity with the progressive
demands of humanity.

The present stagnation of the Musulman communities is
principally due to the notion which has fixed itself on the
minds of the generality of Moslems, that the right to the
exercise of private judgment ceased with the early legists,

1 This authentic tradition is given in the J&ma' nt-Tirmizi and is to be
found also in the Mishkdt.


that its exercise in modern times is sinful, and that a Moslem
in order to be regarded as an orthodox follower of Mohammed
should belong to one or the other of the schools established by
the schoolmen of Islam, and abandon his judgment absolutely
to the interpretations of men who lived in the ninth century,
and could have no conception of the necessities of the twentieth.

Among the Sunnis, it is the common belief that since the
four Imams, 1 no doctor has arisen qualified to interpret the
laws of the Prophet. No account is taken of the altered
circumstances in which Moslems are now placed ; the con-
clusions at which these learned legists arrived several centuries
ago are held to be equally applicable to the present day.
Among the Shiahs, the Akhbari will not allow his judgment to
travel beyond the dictates of " the expounders of the law."
The Prophet had consecrated reason as the highest and noblest
function of the human intellect. Our schoolmen and their
servile followers have made its exercise a sin and a crime.

As among Christians, so among Moslems. The lives and
conduct of a large number of Moslems at the present day are
governed less by the precepts and teachings of the Master,
and more by the theories and opinions of the mujtahids and
imams who have tried, each according to his light, to construe
the revelations vouchsafed to the Teacher. Like men in a
crowd listening to a preacher who from a lofty position addresses
a large multitude and from his vantage ground overlooks a
vast area, they observed only their immediate surroundings,
and, without comprehending the wider meaning of his words
or the nature of the audience whom he addressed, adapted his
utterances to their own limited notions of human needs and
human progress. Oblivious of the universality of the Master's
teachings, unassisted by his spirit, devoid of his inspiration,
they forgot that the Prophet, from the pinnacle of his genius,
had spoken to all humanity. They mixed up the temporary
with the permanent, the universal with the particular. Like
many of the ecclesiastics of Christendom, not a few were the
servants of sovereigns and despots whose demands were not
consistent with the precepts of the Master. Canons were
invented, theories started, traditions discovered, and glosses

1 Abu Hanifa, Shafe'i, Malik, and Ibn Hanbal.


put upon his words utterly at variance with their spirit. And
hence it is that most of the rules and regulations which govern
now the conscience of so many professors of the faith are
hardly derived from any express and positive declarations of
the Koran, but for the most part from the lego-religious books
with which the Islamic world was flooded in the later centuries.
" Just as the Hebrews deposed their Pentateuch in favour of
the Talmud," justly observes an English writer, " so the
Moslems have abolished the Koran in favour of the traditions
and decisions of the learned." " We do not mean to say,"
he adds most pertinently, " that any Mohammedan if asked
what was the text-book of his religion, would answer anything
but the ' Koran ' ; but we do mean that practically it is not
the Koran that guides his belief or practice. In the Middle
Ages of Christendom it was not the New Testament, but the
Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas, that decided questions
of orthodoxy ; and in the present day, does the orthodox
churchman usually derive his creed from a personal investiga-
tion of the teaching of Christ in the Gospels ? Probably, if
he refers to a document at all, the Church Catechism contents
him ; or if he be of a peculiarly inquiring disposition, a perusal
of the Thirty-nine Articles will resolve all doubts. Yet he too
would say his religion was drawn from the Gospels, and would
not confess to the medium through which it was filtered. In
precisely the same way modern Mohammedanism is constructed,
and a large part of what Moslems now believe and practise
is not to be found in the Koran at all."

And yet each system, each school contains germs of improve-
ment, and if development is now stopped, it is not even the
fault of the lawyers. It is due to a want of apprehension of
the spirit of the Master's enunciations, and even of those of
the fathers of the Church. 1

In the Western world, the Reformation was ushered in by
the Renaissance and the progress of Europe commenced when

1 The Radd ul-Muhtdr of Mohammed Amin the Syrian, and the Majma'
ul-Anhdr of the Shaikh Zadeh are as much in advance of the Multeka and the
Hedaya as the views of an Eldon or Mansfield upon those of a Coke or Black-
stone. The opinions of Shaikh Murtaza, in their liberal and liberalising
tendencies, are far above those of the narrow-minded self-opinionated Mohak-
kik. But the servile Akhbari follows the latter in preference to the former.


it threw off the shackles of Ecclesiasticism. In Islam also,
enlightenment must precede reform ; and, before there can be
a renovation of religious life, the mind must first escape from
the bondage which centuries of literal interpretation and the
doctrine of " conformity " have imposed upon it. The
formalism that does not appeal to the heart of the worshipper
must be abandoned ; externals must be subordinated to the
inner feelings ; and the lessons of ethics must be impressed
on the plastic mind ; then alone can we hope for that enthusiasm
in the principles of duty taught by the Prophet of Islam. The
reformation of Islam will begin when once it is recognised that
divine words rendered into any language retain their divine
character and that devotions offered in any tongue are accept-
able to God. The Prophet himself had allowed his foreign
disciples to say their prayers in their own tongue. 1 He had
expressly permitted others to recite the Koran in their respective
dialects ; and had declared that it was revealed in seven

In the earliest ages of Islam there was a consensus of opinion
that devotion without understanding was useless. Imam
Abu Hanifa considered the recitation of the namdz and also of
the Khutba or sermon, lawful and valid in any language. 2
The disciples of Abu Hanifa, Abu Yusuf and Mohammed,
have accepted the doctrine of their master with a certain
variation. They hold that when a person does not know
Arabic, he may validly offer his devotions in any other
language. 3

There is, however, one great and cogent reason why the
practice of reciting prayers in Arabic should be maintained
wherever it is possible and practicable. Not because it was
the language of the Prophet, but because it has become the
language of Islam and maintains the unity of sentiment

1 Salman the Persian, whom Ali had saved from a lion, was the first to
whom this permission was granted.

% Jawdhir ul-Akhldti ; Durr ul-Mukhtdr, Bdb us-Saldt (Chapter on Prayer).
This view is also given in the Tajnis. Tahtawi states that the Imam's opinion
is authoritative and should be followed. The commentator of the Durr
ul-Mukhtdr also recognises the validity of reciting prayers in Persian.

3 This is construed by the Ulemas of the present day to mean, when the
worshipper is unable to pronounce Arabic words ! The absurdity of the
explanation is obvious.


throughout the Islamic world. And wherein lies more strength
than in unity ?

Note I.

The sumptuary prohibitions of Mohammed may be divided
into two classes, qualitative and quantitative. The prohibition
against excess in eating and drinking and others of the like
import belong to the latter class. They were called forth in
part by the peculiar semi-barbarous epicureanism which was
coming into fashion among the Arabs from their intercourse
with the demoralised Syrians and Persians, and in part by
circumstances of which only glimpses are afforded us in the
Koran. The absolute prohibition of swine's flesh, which may
be classed under the head of qualitative prohibitions, arose,
as is evident, from hygienic reasons and this prohibition must
remain unchanged as long as the nature of the animal and the
diseases engendered by the eating of the flesh remain as at
present. The prohibition against dancing was directed against
the orgiastic dances with which the heathen Arabs used to
celebrate the Syro-Phcenician worship of their Ashtoreth,
Moloch and Baal.


THE idea of a future existence — of an existence after
the separation of the living principle of our nature
from the mortal part — is so generally shared by races
of men, otherwise utterly distinct from each other, that it has
led to the belief that it must be one of the first elementary
constituents of our being. A more careful examination of
facts, however, connected with the infancy of races and tribes,
leads us to the conclusion that the conception of a future
existence is also the result of the natural development of the
human mind.

The wild savage has scarcely any idea of a life separate and
distinct from that which he enjoys on earth. He looks upon
death as the end of existence. Then comes a later stage when
man has passed out of his savage state, his hopes and aspirations
are bounded no more by an earthly death ; he now anticipates
another course of existence after the course here has been
fulfilled. But even in this stage the conception of immortality
does not rise out of the groove of daily life. Life after death
is a mere continuation of life on earth. This idea of a continued
life beyond the grave must have been developed from the yet
unconscious longing of the human soul for a more extended

1 See translation at end of this chapter.


sphere, where the separation of dear friends, so painful to both
savage and civilised man, should end in reunion.

The next stage is soon reached ; man comes to believe that
present happiness and misery are not, cannot be, the be-all and
end-all of his existence ; that there will be another life, or that
there is another life after death, where he will be happy or
miserable in proportion to his deserts.

Now we have reached a principle and a law.

The mind of man goes no further towards developing the
idea of future existence. The nihilistic philosopher makes no
discovery, asserts no new position. He is only treading in the
footsteps of our savage ancestor, whose field of vision was
restricted to this life alone.

It is a well-authenticated fact, however, that all those ideas
which represent the various stages, from a subjective point of
view, exist simultaneously not only among different nations
but even in the same nation, in different combinations, accord-
ing to the individual development.

The Egyptians are said to have been the first to recognise
the doctrine of a future life, or, at least, to base the principles
of human conduct on such a doctrine. 1 With an idea of
metempsychosis they joined an idea of future recompense and
punishment. Man descended into the tomb only to rise again.
After his resurrection he entered on a new life, in company
with the sun, the principle of generation, the self -existent
cause of all. The soul of man was considered immortal like
the sun, and as accomplishing the same pilgrimages. All
bodies descended into the lower world, but they were not all
assured of resurrection. The deceased were judged by Osiris
and his forty-two assessors. Annihilation was often believed
to be the lot of those adjudged guilty. The righteous,
purified from venial faults, entered into perfect happiness,
and as the companions of Osiris, were fed by him with
delicious food. 2

We might naturally expect that the long stay of the Israelites
in Egypt would introduce among them some conception of a

1 Rawlinson's History of Ancient Egypt, vol. ii. p. 423.

2 Comp. Lenormant, Ancient History of the East, vol. i. pp. 319-322 ; and
Alger, History of the Doctrine of a Future Life, p. 102 et seq.


future life with its concomitant idea of rewards and punish-
ments. But pure Mosaism (or the teachings which pass under

Online LibrarySyed Ameer AliThe spirit of Islâm : a history of the evolution and ideals of Islâm → online text (page 23 of 55)