Syed Ameer Ali.

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of celestial co-ordination and the idea prevalent among the
Assyrians of a divine hierarchy engrafted itself on Zoroastrian-
ism. Ormuzd was henceforth worshipped as a second Asshur ;
and the Persian's symbol of the God of light, the all-beneficent
power, became a winged warrior, with bow and lifted hand,
enclosed in the world-circle. Their symbol of growth also,

1 According to' the Persian traditions, Zahhak ruled over Iran for over a
thousand years, and this is supposed by several scholars to represent the exact
period of Assyrian domination. The rise of Faridun would, according to
this view, be synchronous with the downfall of Nineveh.

2 Lenormant, Ancient Hist, of the East, p. 54.


the tree with the candelabra branches ending upwards in the
pine-cone, was converted into the Persian fir-cone. Before
the rise of Cyrus in Farsistan and his consolidating conquests,
the symbolic worship in vogue among the early emigrants
and settlers became degraded among the masses into pyrolatry,
or took the form of Chaldseo-Assyrian Sabaeism.

The city of Asshur, — which had ruled Western Asia up to
the confines of India for nearly a thousand years, and almost
wrested from the Pharaohs the empire of Egypt, — the city
of the mighty Sargon and the great Sennacherib, had fallen
before the combined forces of the Babylonian and the Mede, 1
never again to raise its head among the nations of the world.
Babylon, which after its early rivalry with Nineveh had been
reduced to a dependency of Assyria, became again the centre
of Asiatic civilisation. She gathered up the arts and sciences
of a thousand years of growth, and the product of " interfused
races and religions, temples and priesthoods," and supplied
the connecting link between the inorganic faiths of antiquity
and the modern beliefs. Assyria had, with the civilisation
and literature of the early Accadians, also borrowed much of
their religion. Babylon, rising into more potent grandeur
from the ashes of Nineveh, centred in herself the essence of
the Assyrian and Chaldaean cults. Under Nebuchadnezzar
the empire of Babylonia attained the zenith of its power ;
Judaea fell, and the flower of the nation was carried into cap-
tivity to lament by the waters of Babylon the downfall of the
kingdom of Jehovah. The mighty conqueror penetrated into
Arabia, and overwhelmed and nearly destroyed the Ishmaelites;
he smote the Tyrians, and broke the power of the Egyptian
Pharaoh. In spite of the maledictions heaped upon her head
by the Hebrew patriot, Babylon was by no means such a hard
taskmaster as Egypt. 2 The Israelites themselves bear testi-
mony to the generosity of their treatment. Not until the
redeemer was nigh with his mighty hosts, marching to the
conquest of the doomed city, did the children of Israel raise
their voice against Babylon. Then burst forth the storm of
imprecations, of predictions of woe, which displayed the
characteristics of the race in its pristine savagery. " By the

1 606 B.C. * Jer. xlix. 27 to 29.


rivers of Babylon, there we sat down ; yea, we wept when we
remembered Zion. Daughter of Babylon ! happy shall he
be who dasheth thy little ones against the stones." 1

Under Nebuchadnezzar, Babylon was indisputably the
centre of all existing civilisations. And the influence wielded
by her priesthood did not cease with the empire of Babylonia.
The mark of the Babylonian conceptions is traced in unmis-
takable characters in both the Judaical and Christian systems.
The long exile of the Jews among the Chaldaean priesthood,
the influence which some of the Hebrews obtained in the court
of the Babylonian king, and the unavoidable interfusion of
the two peoples, tended to impart a new character to later
Judaism. They were carried to Babylon in a state of semi-
barbarism ; they returned to Zion after their long probation
in the land of exile a new people, advanced in faith and doctrine,
with larger aspirations and their political vision extended.

With the conquest of Babylon begins a new era in religious
development. Henceforth the religion of dualism holds the
empire of Asia. The grand toleration which Cyrus extended
towards the Jews naturally led to his exaltation as " the
Messiah," " the Redeemer," " the anointed Saviour of the
world." The captivity of the Hebraic tribes, and their enforced
settlement near the seat of Persian domination, and their sub-
sequent intermixture under Cyrus with the Persians, most
probably gave impetus to that religious reform among the
Zoroastrians which occurred during the reign of Darius IJys-
taspes. There was mutual action and reaction. The Israelites
impressed on renovated Zoroastrianism a deep and abiding
conception of a Divine Personality overshadowing the universe.
They received from the Iranians the notion of a celestial
hierarchy, and the idea of a duality of principles in the creation
of good and evil. Henceforth it is not the Lord who puts a
lying spirit into the mouths of evil-doers ; Satan, like
Ahriman, from this time takes a prominent part in the religious
and moral history of the Hebrews.

The reign of Cyrus was one of conquest, hardly of organisation.
The reign of Darius was one of consolidation ; stern worshipper
of Ormuzd, to whom he ascribes all his victories, he endeavoured

1 Ps. cxxxvii.


to purify the faith of Zoroaster of all its foreign excrescences,
to stamp out the Magism of the Medes from its stronghold,
and to leave Aryan Persia the dominant power of the civilised
world. Nothing, however, could arrest the process of decay.
Before a hundred years had gone by, Zoroastrianism had
imbibed to the full the evils which it had fought against in its
infancy. The scourgers of idolatry, the uncompromising
iconoclasts, who, in their fiery zeal, had slaughtered the
Egyptian Apis and overturned its shrine, soon absorbed into
the worship of Ormuzd the Semitic gods of their subject states.
The old Magian element-worship was revived, and Artaxerxes
Mnemon, one of the immediate successors of Darius, introduced
among the Zoroastrians the worship of that androgynous
Mythra — the Persian counterpart of the Chaldaean Mylitta or
Anaitis, with its concomitant phallic cult. The development
of this Mythra-cult into the gorgeous worship of the beautiful
Sun-God is one of the marvels of history. The resplendent
Sun ascending over the cleft mountains, chasing the Bull into
its lair and with its blood atoning human sins, is a conception
which has left its ineffaceable mark on one of the dominant
religions of the world. This worship of Mythra was carried
by the Roman legionaries from the valley of the Euphrates
to the furthest corners of Europe, and in the reign of
Diocletian it became the state-religion of Rome.

Never was the condition of woman so bad, never was she
held under greater subjection, — a slave to the caprice of man, —
than under the Mago-Zoroastrians. The laws of Manu imposed
certain rules of chastity, and the stringency of primitive ex-
ogamy exercised a restraining effect upon human passions.
The Persian in the relations of the sexes recognised no law
but that of his own will. He could marry his nearest kindred,
and divorce his wives at his pleasure. The system of female
seclusion was not confined to the Persians alone. Among the
Ionic Greeks, women were confined within the gynaikonitis ,
often kept under lock and key, and never allowed to appear
in public. But the Greek gynaikonomoi were not, until later
times, mutilated specimens of humanity. In Persia, the
custom of employing eunuchs to guard the women prevailed
from the remotest antiquity. As in Greece, concubinage was


a recognised social institution, and was interwoven with the
foundations of society. The Persian, however, never allowed
lewdness to be incorporated with the national worship. He
worshipped no Aphrodite Pandemos ; nor was Zoroastrian
society tainted with that " moral pestilence," 1 the most
degrading of all vices, which was universal in Greece, which
spread itself afterwards in Rome, and was not even rooted out
by Christianity.

With the downfall of the Achsemenian Empire ended the
vitality of Zoroastrianism as a motive power in the growth
of the world. The swarms of conquerors, who swept like
whirlwinds over the face of Persia, destroyed all social and
moral life. The Macedonian conquest, with the motley
hordes which followed on its footsteps, the influx of all the
dregs of Lesser Asia, Cilicians, Tyrians, Pamphylians, Phrygians,
and various others, half Greeks, half Asians, obeying no moral
law, the hasty and reckless temper of the conqueror himself, —
all led to the debasement of the Zoroastrian faith. The Mobeds,
the representatives of the national life, were placed under the
ban of persecution by the foreigner, the aim of whose life was
to hellenise Asia.

Alexander's career was splendidly meteoric. Shorn of the
legends which have surrounded his life and turned it into an
epopee, he stands before us a man of gigantic conceptions and
masterly purposes, possessed of a towering ambition, a genius
which overpowered all opposition, and a personality which
enabled him to mould the minds of all around him according
to his own will. His was a nature full of contradictions. A
disciple of Aristotle, who aimed at the hellenisation of Asia,
with himself as the central figure in the adoration of the world,
an associate of philosophers and wise men, his life was dis-
graced by excesses of a revolting type. " The sack of Tyre
and the enslavement of its population, the massacres and
executions in India and Bactria, the homicide of Clytus, the
death warrants of Philotas and the faithful Parmenio, the
burning of Persepolis and the conflagration of its splendid
library at the instigation of a courtezan, are acts," says an
apologist and an admirer, " for which no historian has found

1 Dollinger, The Gentile and the Jew, vol. ii. p. 239.


a palliation." With the conquest of Alexander and the
extinction of the Achsemenian dynasty, Zoroastrianism gave
way to Hellenism and the worst traditions of Chaldaean
civilisation. The extreme partiality of the hero of many
legends towards Babylon, and his anxious desire to resuscitate
that city and make it the centre of a mightier and more com-
plete civilisation, led him to discourage all creeds and faiths,
all organisations, religious or political, which militated with
his one great desire. Under the Seleucidae, the process of
denationalisation went on apace. Antiochus Epiphanes, the
cruel persecutor of the worshippers of Jehovah, won for himself
from them as well as the Zoroastrians, the unenviable designa-
tion of Ahriman. Even the rise of the Parthian power tended
to accelerate the decline and ruin of Zoroastrianism. The
Seleucidae ruled on the Tigris and the Orontes ; the Parthians
formed for themselves a kingdom in the middle portion of the
Achaemenian empire ; the Graeco-Bactrian dynasties were in
possession of the eastern tracts, viz. Bactria and the northern
part of Afghanistan. The state-religion of the Seleucidae was
a mixture of Chaldaeo-Hellenism. The Jews and Zoroastrians
were placed under the ban and ostracised. Under the Parthians,
Mazdism, though not actually extinguished, was compelled
to hide itself from the gaze of the rulers. In quiet and settled
parts, Zoroastrianism became mixed with the old Sabaeism of
the Medes and the Chaldaeans ; or, where kept alive in its
pristine character, it was confined to the hearts of some of those
priests who had taken refuge in the inaccessible recesses of
their country. But with Parthia enlarged into an empire,
and the Parthian sovereigns aspiring to the title of Shah-in-
shah, persecution gave way to toleration, and Mago-Zoroastrian-
ism again raised its head among the religions of the world.
And the rise of the Sasanides gave it another spell of power.
The founder of the new empire placed the Mobeds at the head
of the State. Last sad representatives of a dying faith !
Around them clustered the hopes of a renovated religious
existence under the auspices of the Sasanide dynasty. How
far the brilliant aspirations of Ardeshir Babekan (Artaxerxes
Longimanus), the founder of the new empire, were realised,
is a matter of history. The political autonomy of Persia —


its national life — was restored, but the social and religious life
was lost beyond the power of rulers to revive. The teachings
of yore lived perhaps in books, but in the hearts of the people
they were as dead as old Gushtasp or Rustam.

Under the Sasanides, the Zoroastrians attained the zenith
of their power. For centuries they competed with Rome for
the empire of Asia. Time after time they defeated her armies,
sacked her cities, carried away her Caesars into captivity,
and despoiled her subjects of their accumulated riches ; but
the fire of Zoroastrianism as a moral factor was extinct. It
burnt upon the high altars of the temples, but it had died out
from the heart of the nation. The worship of the true God had
given place to a Chaldaeo-Magian cult, and the fierce intolerance
with which Ardeshir and his successors persecuted rival creeds,
failed to achieve its purpose. The Persian empire, under the
later Sasanides, only rivalled in the turmoil of its sects and
the licentiousness of its sovereigns, in the degeneration of its
aristocracy and the overweening pride of its priesthood, the
empire of the Byzantines. The kings were gods ; they were
absolute masters over the person and property of their subjects,
who possessed no rights, and were virtual serfs. The climax
of depravity was reached when Mazdak, in the beginning
of the sixth century of the Christian era, preached the com-
munism with which modern Europe has now become familiar,
and " bade all men to be partners in riches and women, just as
they are in fire, water, and grass ; private property was not
to exist ; each man was to enjoy or endure the good and bad
lots of this world." x The lawfulness of marriages with sisters
and other blood relations had already been recognised by
Mago-Zoroastrianism. The proclamation of this extreme
communism revolted the better minds even among the Persians.
The successor of Zoroaster, as Mazdak styled himself, was put
to death ; but his doctrines had taken root, and from Persia
they spread over the West.

All these evils betokened a complete depravity of moral
life, and foreshadowed the speedy extinction of the nation in
its own iniquities. This doom, though staved off for a time

1 The Dabistan-i-Mazahib of Mohsini Fani ; see also Shaikh Muhammad
Iqbal's Development of Metaphysics in Persia, p. 18.


by the personal character of Kesra Anushirvan, became
inevitable after his death. But a Master had already appeared,
destined to change the whole aspect of the world !

Eleven centuries had passed over the Jews since their return
from the Babylonian captivity, and witnessed many changes
in their fortunes. The series of disasters which one after
another had befallen the doomed nation of Moses, had culmin-
ated in the wars of Titus and Hadrian. Pagan Rome had
destroyed their temple, and stamped out in fire and blood their
existence as a nation. Christian Constantinople persecuted
them with an equally relentless fury, but the misfortunes of
the past had no lessons for them in the future. Their own
sufferings at the hands of ruthless persecutors had failed to
teach them the value of humanity and peace. The atrocious
cruelties which they committed in the cities of Egypt, of
Cyprus and Cyrene, where they dwelt in treacherous harmony
with the unsuspecting natives, take away all sense of pity for
their future fate. The house of Israel was a total wreck ;
its members were fugitives on the face of the earth, seeking
shelter far and wide, but carrying everywhere their indomitable
pride, their rebellious hardness of heart, denounced and
reprehended by an endless succession of prophets. The Jews,
in their safe retreats in foreign lands,, re-enacted the scenes
of past times. The nation lived in hope, but the hope was
mixed with rigid uncompromising bigotry on the one hand,
and a voluptuous epicureanism on the other. Jesus had come
and gone, without producing any visible effect upon them.
The child of his age, he was imbued with the Messianic ideas
floating in the atmosphere in which he lived and moved.
The Book of Daniel, written during one of the greatest travails
of the nation, with its hopes and aspirations, could not but
make a deep impression on the mind of the Teacher mourning
over the sight of his stricken people. The fierce intolerance
of the Zealots seated in their mountain homes, the lifeless
ceremonialism of the Sadducees, the half-hearted liberalism
of the Pharisees, the dreamy hopefulness of the Essenes, with
one hand extended towards Alexandria and the other towards
Buddhistic India, the preachings and denunciations of the
wild Dervish, whose life became a sacrifice to the depravity


of the Herodian court, all appealed to the heart of Jesus. But
the Eagle's talons were clutched on the heart of Judaea and its
legions crushed out all hope of a violent change. The quietism
of Jesus, and his earnest anticipation of a kingdom of heaven,
to be ushered in by the direct instrumentality of God, were the
outcome of his age. Among a nation of furious and relentless
bigots, he had come as the messenger of universal brotherhood
and love. In the midst of a proud and exclusive race, he trod
the path of humility and meekness ; kind and gentle to his
immediate followers, devoted to the cause of all, he left behind
him the impress of an elevated, self-denying spirit. Among
the powerful, the rich, and the ruling classes, he had roused
only feelings of hatred, fear, and opposition ; among the
poor, the despised, the ignorant and the oppressed, the deep
compassion of the great Teacher had awakened sentiments of
gratitude and love. One bright sunny morning he had entered
the stronghold of Jewish fanaticism full of hope in his ministry
as the promised Messiah ; before a fortnight had run out, he
was sacrificed to the vested interests of his day.

Amidst the legends which surround his life, so much at least
is clear. Born among the poor, his preachings were addressed
to the poor. Deeply versed in the Rabbinical lore, his short
ministry was devoted almost exclusively to the humble denizens
of the country side — the poverty-stricken peasantry and the
fishermen of Galilee. His disciples were poor, ignorant folk.
In spite of their credulous natures, and the vivid — not to say
weird — effect exercised on their imaginations by the untimely
disappearance of the Master, they never regarded him as
anything more than a man. It was not until Paul adopted
the creed of him whose execution he had witnessed, that the
idea of an incarnate God or angel was introduced into Christi-
anity. In spite of the promise attached to the " effusion of
the Holy Ghost," " it was found necessary," says the historian
of Ecclesiasticism, " that there should be some one defender
of the gospel who, versed in the learned arts, might be
able to combat the Jewish doctors and the pagan philosophers
with their own arms. For this purpose Jesus himself, by an
extraordinary voice from heaven, had called to his service a
thirteenth apostle, whose name was Saul (afterwards Paul),


and whose acquaintance both with Jewish and Grecian learning
was very considerable." *

The Mago-Zoroastrian believed in an angel-deliverer, in the
Surush who was to appear from the East ; the Buddhist, in
an incarnate god born of a virgin ; the Alexandrian mystic
inculcated the doctrine of the Logos and the Demiurge. The
esoteric conceptions regarding the birth, death, and resur-
rection of Osiris, the idea of the Isis-Ceres, the virgin mother
" holding in her arms the new-born sun-god Horus," 2 were
in vogue both in Egypt and Syria. And Paul, the Pharisee
and the scholar, was deeply imbued with these half-mystical,
half-philosophical notions of his time. A visionary and
enthusiast by nature, not free from physical ailments, as
Strauss suggests, he, who had never come in actual contact
with the Master, was easily inclined to attach to him the
attributes of a Divinity — of an Angel Incarnate. He infused
into the simple teachings of Jesus the most mysterious
principles of Neo-Pythagoreanism, with its doctrine of intelli-
gences and its notion of the triad, borrowed from the far East.

The jealousy between the home and the foreign, the Judaical
and the anti- Judaical party, was shown in the curious though
well-known antipathy of the two apostles, Peter and Paul. 3
The Ebionites most probably represented the beliefs of the
original companions of the Prophet of Nazareth. He had
conversed with them familiarly, and "in all the actions of
rational and animal life " had appeared to them as of the same
nature as themselves. They had marked him grow from
infancy to youth and from youth to manhood ; they had
seen him increase in stature and wisdom. Their belief was
tempered by their knowledge of him as a man. The deprava-
tion of ideas from this original faith, through various inter-
mediate phases like those of the Docetes, the Marcionites, the
Patripassians, 4 and various others down to the decisions of the

1 Mosheim, Ecclesiastical History, vol. ii. p. 63.

2 Comp. Mr. Ernest de Bunsen's Essay on Mohammed's Place in the
Church, Asiatic Quarterly Review, April 1889.

3 Milner, Hist, of the Church of Christ, vol. i. pp. 26, 27.

4 The Docetes believed Jesus to be a pure God. The Marcionites regarded
him as a being " most like unto God, even his Son Jesus Christ, clothed with
a certain shadowy resemblance of a body, that he might thus be visible to


Council of Nice in 328, forms a continuous chain. The prevalent
belief in aeons and emanations predisposed all classes of people,
especially those who had never beheld the Prophet, observed
his humanity, or noted his everyday life, to accept his divinity
without any question.

At the time Jesus began his preaching the Empire of Rome
stretched over more than half Europe, and included almost
the whole of Northern Africa and a large part of Western
Asia. This vast area by an accident became, in the coming
centuries, the seed-ground of Christianity and the battlefield
of contending sects.

Exactly a century before the Phrygian Cybele * was brought
to Rome, Ptolemy Soter, the most fortunate and probably the
most far-sighted of Alexander's generals, had become master
of Egypt. With the object of fusing the Egyptians and
Greeks into a homogeneous nation by the unifying bond of a
common religion he conceived the design of establishing a
worship in the practice of which the two peoples would join
hands. The same idea occurred to Akbar some two thousand
years later ; but where the great Akbar failed, Ptolemy
succeeded, for all the conditions were in his favour. The
Greeks worshipped Zeus, Demeter and Apollo or Dionysus ;
the Egyptians, Osiris, Isis and Horus ; the trinitarian belief
was common to both. The Egyptian faith revolved round the
Passion and Resurrection of Horus, the Son ; the Greek in
the Passion and Resurrection of Dionysus. The Greek had
his Eleusinian mysteries with all the mystic rites of initiation
and communion ; the Egyptian hierophant, the mysteries of
Isis with similar rites and similar significance. To neither it
mattered under what names the gods were worshipped or the
rituals were conducted. So long as the main idea was main-
tained they were indifferent to mere names. Thus was born
the great cult of the Serapeum. Serapis took the place of
Zeus among the Greeks, of Osiris among the Egyptians ;
Isis who became the " mater dolorosa " of the votaries of the

mortal eyes." The Patripassians believed that the Father suffered with the
Son on the -cross (Mosheim and Gibbon, in loco ; and Neander, vol. ii. pp.
150, 301 et seq).

1 The worship of Cybele has a very close analogy to the cult of the famous
Hindu goddess Durga or Kali.


Alexandrian cult, displaced Demeter ; and Horus Happocrates
absorbed the adoration hitherto rendered to Dionysus. This
deity does not seem, however, to have lost his hold among the
inhabitants of the sea-board of Asia Minor ; and the prevailing
belief that a god had lived among mankind, had suffered and
died and risen again made easy in later centuries the spread

Online LibrarySyed Ameer AliThe spirit of Islâm : a history of the evolution and ideals of Islâm → online text (page 3 of 55)