Syed Ameer Ali.

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

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The protracted struggle between pope and emperor for the
suzerainty of Christendom ; the Thirty Years' War, with its
concomitant miseries ; the persecution of the Huguenots, in
which dynastic ambitions played as important a part as religious
bigotry, — give us some conception of the evils that have flowed
from the greed of earthly power. In Islam it has been the
same. The Abbasides battling with the Ommeyyades, and
then with the Egyptian Fatimides, produced the same dis-
astrous results.

The eastern provinces of the ancient Persian empire were at
this time the home of a variety of congenial spirits. Here had
gathered not only the Mago-Zoroastrians, fleeing before the
Islamic wave, but also the representatives of various Indian
sects, with their ideas of metempsychosis, the incarnation of
Vishnu, the descent of Krishna from heaven, and his free and
easy intercourse with the gopis. The revolutionary opinions
and heresies which under the later Sasanides had shaken the
temple and palace alike, and which Kesra Anushirvan had
endeavoured to exterminate with fire and sword, had survived
all persecutions. At least they retained sufficient vitality to
reappear in Islam in various shapes and forms.

1 Makrizi died in 845 a.c. Jamal ud-din Abu'l Mahasin Yusuf bin Taghri-
bardi, in his ^ 4 la)l^^o JTjLc Ji $>*}}J\ fox? s P e aks of Makrizi

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" In this year died the learned sheikh and Imam, jurisconsult, and that
eminent historian and traditionist, Taki ud-din Ahmed, son of AH," etc. etc.


The Rdwendis, an Indo-Magian sect who maintained the
doctrine of the transmigration of souls, and the Safidjdmagdn}
founded by Hakim bin Hashim, the infamous Mokanna, 2
revolted in Khorasan, and were suppressed by the Caliph Al-
Mahdi. Mokanna taught that God had assumed the human
form, since He had commanded the angels to adore the first
man ; and that, since that period, the divine nature had passed
from prophet to prophet until it had descended to himself. 3

About the same time Mazdakism, which two centuries and
a half before had involved the empire of the Chosroes in a
general conflagration, and was ruthlessly trampled under foot by
the great Anushirvan, raised its head again under the Caliphs.
The snake had only been half killed. Babek, surnamed
Khurrami (from Khurram, his place of birth), preached, like
his prototype Mazdak, the same nihilistic doctrines, — the com-
munity of women and goods, and the indifference of all human
actions. For a space of twenty years he filled the whole
circuit of the Caliphate with carnage and ruin, until at length,
in the reign of Mu'tasim b'illah, he was overthrown, taken
prisoner, and put to death in the Caliph's presence. It was a
repetition of the old story. Islam had to pass through the
same throes as Christianity. From the beginning of the second
to the end of the ninth century there was an unceasing struggle
in Christianity with the ancient cults, which were appearing in
diversified characters throughout the wide area in which the
religion of Jesus was professed. After this struggle was over,
a deadly pall settled over Christendom ; orthodoxy had suc-
ceeded in crushing not only the revolutionary Montanists, the
Manichaean Paulicians, but also the rationalistic Arians.
Ecclesiasticism and orthodoxy, convertible terms, held in
bondage the mind of man until the Reformation. Islam had

1 So called because they dressed themselves in white, like the Taborides of

2 This is the impostor whom Moore has made famous as " the Veiled Prophet
of Khorasan." He was called Mokanna because, either to conceal his ugliness,
or to impress his followers with a sense of inaccessibility, he always wore a veil.
He was also called the Sdzendeh-i-Mah (Moon- maker), because on one occasion
he had, by a piece of jugglery, caused an illumination, like that of the moon,
at Nakhsheb.

3 Ibn Khaldun's General History, Kitdb nl-'Ibar. &-c. (Egypt, ed.), vol. iii.
p. 206.


to pass through the same ordeal, but its Reformation is only
just commencing.

Islam required from its votaries a simple confession of an
eternal truth, and the practice of a few moral duties. In other
respects it allowed them the widest latitude of judgment. In
the name of divine unity it held forth to all creeds and sects the
promise of a democratic equality. Naturally the persecuted
heretics of every faith rallied round the standard of the Prophet
who had emancipated human judgment from the bondage of
priesthood ; and " Avestan scripturalists " and Zoroastrian
free-thinkers, Manichaeans, Christians, Jews, and Magi all
hailed the advent of a new dispensation which realised the
dream of religious unity. The swarms of gnostic sects which
had distracted the Church of Jesus from the second to the sixth
century had either merged in the Church of Mohammed, or
lived in peace, unmolested by the orthodox Greeks or Catholics,
under the large tolerance of the Caliphs. The former, whilst
they adopted the faith of Mohammed, retained their primitive
conceptions, and gave birth to the docetic sects of Islam, which
we shall describe later on.

The national characteristics of a people, the climatic condi-
tions under which they exist, the natural features of the country
in which they dwell, the influence of older cults, all give a colour
and a complexion to their faiths and doctrines. It is the same
in Christendom and in Islam. Iran gave birth to agnosticism ;
from there emanated the docetic conceptions which permeated
the Roman world and impressed upon the primitive belief of
the judaical Christians the conception of a divinity who dis-
coursed familiarly with mankind on earth. Manichseism, that
wonderful mixture of fancy and philosophy, to which Chris-
tianity owes so much and acknowledges so little, was, in spite
of the persecution of Zoroastrian and Christian, alive, not dead.
Will it ever die, that child of a bizarre genius, the outcome of
a nation's character ? Theologians may try, but will never
kill it. The morbidism of the Fathers of the Sunni Church gave
place in Iran to imaginative philosophy. Ali's personality
fired the imagination of Manichaeism. It took the place of the
docetic Christ among the people. The process of deification
was not confined to Ali. His successors were deified with him.


Shiaism, like Sunni'sm, presents therefore two aspects. One
is the pure, simple Shiaism of Mohammed's immediate descen-
dants, which we shall describe shortly. The other is docetic
Shiaism, fantastic and transmogrified according to the
primitive beliefs of the people among whom it spread. Ultra-
Shiaism is again as different from docetic Shiaism as ultra-
Sunni'sm or Nawasibism is from docetic Sunni'sm. Narrow-
minded exclusiveness is not the peculiar characteristic of any
one faith or creed ; nor are the thunders of the Athanasian
Creed confined to Christianity. In Islam also (be it said with
certain exceptions) each sect condemns the others to perdition,
not eternal (as the orthodox Christian charitably hopes it will
be), but sufficiently prolonged to make them feel the evils of
a different 'doxy from its own. Still, notwithstanding the
anathemas of hell-fire and brimstone which have been hurled
by contending parties and sects against each other, the philo-
sophical student will not fail to observe the universality of Islam.
About the middle of the seventh century Constantine
Sylvanus founded the Manichaean sect of Paulicians, who
derived their name from St. Paul, whose disciples they professed
themselves to be. The Paulicians disclaimed the designation
of Manichaean ; but their doctrines bear the closest analogy to
those taught by Mani, and all the Christian writers, with the
exception of Milner, ascribe their origin to Manichaeism. The
Paulicians were the real progenitors of the Reformed Churches
of Europe. Their abhorrence of images and relics was pro-
bably a reflex of Islamic influences. In their aversion towards
Mariolatry and saint-worship, and in the repudiation of all
visible objects of adoration, they closely approached the
Moslems. They believed, however, with Mani, that Christ was
a pure spirit which bore on earth only the semblance of a body,
and that the crucifixion was a mere delusion. They maintained
the eternity of matter ; the origin of a second principle, of an
active being, who has created this visible world, and exercises
his temporal reign till the final consummation of sin and death.
In the interpretation of the Christian Gospels they indulge in
allegories and figures, and claimed, like Mani, an esoteric insight
into the meaning of words. An outward and expedient profes-
sion of another faith, a doctrine which in modern Persia has


become famous as ketmdn or takiyye, 1 was held to be commend-

The Paulicians were persecuted by the Greek Church and the
Byzantine Court with terrible fury, and for nearly two hundred
years they waged a not unequal contest in North Armenia and
Cappadocia with the fanatics and despots of Byzantium, in
which both sides perpetrated the most fearful atrocities. 2 At
last they succumbed to superior force ; but though their
fortresses were razed and their cities ruined, the sect lived. It
passed its doctrines to the Bulgarians, who have always
been regarded with disfavour by the Orthodox Churches.
The Paulicians after their destruction in Asia appeared
in South Provence and Savoy in the thirteenth century.
Their fate in those countries is known to every reader
of European history. They were annihilated with fire and
sword, — not even women and children were spared ; such
of the latter as escaped were reduced to slavery. But Pauli-
cianism did not die ; it showed itself in England, where its
followers, under the name of Lollards, suffered like their
predecessors in Asia, in Savoy, and in Provence ; it reappeared
in Bohemia under Huss ; and finally it triumphed under Luther
and Calvin over its orthodox persecutors. We have traced so
far the fate of this peculiar sect, as in its original home it
exercised no inconsiderable influence over the religio-political
movements which were proceeding about the same time in

During the tempestuous epoch, when Chyroseir the Paulician
was devastating the eastern portion of the Byzantine dominions,
and had filled the cities of Asia Minor with carnage and ruin,
there lived at Ahwaz, in Fars, a man who equalled Mini in the
versatility of his genius, the variety of his information, and the
profundity of his knowledge, and who was destined to play an
almost equal part in the history of religion. Abdullah ibn
Maimun al-Kaddah has been represented by his enemies as a
Magian by birth : whilst his disciples have declared him

1 See post, p. 335.

2 A hundred thousand Paulicians are said to have been destroyed under the
orders of the second Theodora, the mother of Manuel, by the sword, the gibbet,
or the flames.


to be a descendant of AH. 1 However that may be, it
is clear that he was a devoted adherent of the House of
Mohammed. Considering the disastrous consequences which
directly or indirectly have flowed from his teachings, it was
impossible for even historians like Ibn Khaldun 2 to avoid
viewing the man and his doctrines with an unfavourable bias.
They think Abdullah ibn Maimun was animated by a desire to
subvert the dominion of Islam by the same insidious means
which were adopted by his great prototype against Christianity.
Aware of the risk attendant upon an open war against con-
stituted authority so long as the conscience of the people and
temporal power were at its back, he determined (they say) to
work in secret like Mani. He accordingly enveloped his system
in a veil of mystery, and, in order to annihilate all positive
religion and authority, he resolved to divide his followers into
seven degrees, like the Pythagoreans. The last degree incul-
cated the vanity of all religion, — the indifference of actions,
which, according to him, are neither visited with recompense
nor chastisement, either now or hereafter. He appointed
emissaries whom he despatched to enlist disciples, and to
initiate them according to their capacity in some or all of the
degrees. The pretensions of the son of Isma'il served them as
a political mask ; whilst working ostensibly for him, they were
secretly, but in reality, the apostles of impiety. 3

Shahristani's account, 4 however, of the tenets of the sect is
in a more philosophical spirit ; whilst Mohsin Fani's description
in the Dabistdn, derived from members of the fraternity, is
coloured with a slightly roseate hue. But, studied carefully,
they render it more than probable that Abdullah ibn Maimun
was a materialistic theist ; that like Mani, he was fired with
the ambition of creating an eclectic naturalism, which would
reconcile philosophy with positive religion ; and that his
degrees of initiation were analogous to the mystical degrees of
the Sufis. It is evident from what Mirkhond states that the

1 Abdullah ibn Maimun is stated to have been at one time in the service of
Imam Ja'far as Sadik.

* Pronounced in Arabic Ibn (u) Khaldun ; in Persian, Ibn (i) Khaldun.

8 Nuwairi, Journal Asialique, vol. iv. p. 298.

4 Shahristani, part i. p. 147.


Egyptian Fatimides adopted most of their mystical doctrines
from Abdullah ibn Mairrmn. 1

Abdullah proceeded from Ahwaz to Basra, and thence to
Syria, where he settled at Salemiye. In the course of his
travels he came in contact with the Paulicians, and imbibed
many of their doctrines. The long-continued struggle of the
Paulicians with the Byzantines, and the success of their pro-
selytising endeavours, undoubtedly influenced him in his
project of religion. He moulded his doctrines partly upon
those actually taught by Mani and partly upon those of the
Moslem mystics. Manichseism itself was essentially pan-
theistic, founded upon a substratum of Pythagorean philo-
sophy, Zervanism, and Christianity. Abdullah's followers have
received the designation of Bdtinis or Esotericians, on account
of their claim to an esoteric insight into the precepts of positive
religion — a claim similar to that advanced by the Manichaeans
and Paulicians.

Abdullah ibn Maimun seems to have affirmed the eternity of
matter. He declared further " that God is not separate from
His manifestations ; that it cannot be predicated of him inde-
pendently that He is existent or non-existent, omniscient or
non-omniscient, for to affirm regarding Him any of these things
is to assume that there is some resemblance between Him and
His creatures ; that the First Cause evolved by a simple
command (amr-i-wdhid) , or a mere act of volition, a Principle
which was embosomed in Eternity, and is called Akl or Reason,
and this Principle evolved a subordinate Principle called the
Nafs or soul, whose relation to the other is that of a child to the
parent ; that the essential attribute of this Principle is Life,
as that of Reason is Knowledge ; that this second Principle gave
shape to pre-existent Matter, the essential attribute of which
is passivity, and afterwards created Time and Space, the
elements, the planets, and the astral bodies, and all other
objects in creation ; that in consequence of an incessant desire
on the part of the Second Principle {the Demiurgus) to raise

1 The Egyptian Fatimides differed from the general body of the Isma'ilias
in one essential feature. Whilst the latter held that Isma'il, their last Imam,
had only disappeared, and would reappear in the fulness of time when " the
kingdom of heaven" would be revealed, the Egyptians taught that he had
reappeared in the person of Obaidullah al-Mahdi and his successors.


itself to the level of the First Created Principle, it manifested
itself in matter in the shape of human beings ; that the aim of
all human souls is to struggle upwards to the Creative Principle
or Wisdom ; that the Prophets are embodiments or manifesta-
tions of that Principle to help the human soul to struggle with
matter ; the Prophets are therefore called Ndtik, <££l>, ' speak-
ing apostles ' ; that they are seven in number like the planets ;
that the progress of the world is in cycles, and at the last stage
will occur the Resurrection {&#$ c**tj ) , when the sanctions
of positive religion and law will be withdrawn, for the motion
of the heavens and the adoption of the precepts of religion are
for the purpose that the Soul may attain Perfection, and its
perfection consists in attaining to the degrees of Reason and
its junction or assimilation with it in fact ; and this is the great
Resurrection ( &jxS o^cUi ), when all things, the heavens, the
elements, and organic substances, will be dissolved ; and the
earth will be changed, and the heavens will be closed like a
written book, and the good will be differentiated from the bad,
and the obedient from the disobedient, and the good will be
merged in the Universal Soul, and the bad will join with the
Principle of Evil ; thus from the commencement of motion to
its cessation (according to Abdullah ibn Maimun) is the initial
stage ( \o**> ), an d from the cessation of motion or activity to
amalgamation with infinity is the stage of perfection ; * that

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all the precepts of religion and law have their measures "...
" and that each letter and word have two meanings, for every
revelation (tanzii) has an interpretation (tdvil), and everything
visible has its counterpart in the invisible world ; that know-
ledge of truth cannot be acquired by reason but by instruction."
Abdullah ibn Maimun's disciples developed his doctrines still
further by declaring that Resurrection means the Advent or
Revelation of the Imam and of a Heavenly Kingdom in which
all the burdens of positive religion and traditions would be
removed ; that deception in religion is allowable ; that all the
precepts of the Koran have an esoteric sense ; that religion does
not consist in external observances, but in an inner sense and
feeling ; that every thing or act which is not injurious is lawful ;
that fasting is nothing but keeping the secret of the Imam ;
that the prohibition against fornication implies that the
disciple must not disclose the mysteries of the faith ; and that
zakdt means the giving of the tithes to the Imam ma'siim — a
peculiar and fantastical medley of many cults and philosophies,
and in its tendency subversive of law and morality.

Abdullah ibn Maimun settled in Syria, the home of Christian
Gnosticism, where he still further developed his doctrines.
Here he converted Hamadan, also called Karmath, whose name
has become infamous in the annals of Islam.

The method of proselytising adopted by the followers of
Abdullah ibn Maimun was the old Manichsean one of throwing
the acolyte into a sea of doubt with insidious questions and
equivocal replies, " not," says Mohsin Fani's informant, " with
any evil object, but simply to bring the seeker after truth and
wisdom to the goal of perfection." * The process varied with
the religious standpoint of the person whom they desired to

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— Shahristani, pt. i. pp. 148, 149.
1 Dabistan, p. 356.


onvert. The Dd'i x (the missionary) would at first give a tacit
ecognition of the faith of the intended proselyte, and then by
.n insinuation of doubt and difficulties, gradually unsettle his
nind, and end by suggesting as the only possible solution the
>eculiar tenets of the Bdtini system. For example, if the Dd'i
lad to proselytise a Shiah, he would represent himself as a
le voted partisan of the House of Mohammed. He would
:xpatiate on the cruelty and injustice with which they were
reated — on the martyrdom of Husain and the butchery of
ierbela ; having thus prepared the way, he would instil into
he now receptive mind the esoteric doctrines of the Bdtinis.
i he had a Jew to deal with, he spoke disparagingly of the
Christians and the Musulmans, and while agreeing with his
ntended convert in still looking forward to a promised Messiah,
>y degrees persuaded the neophyte that this promised Messiah
:an be none other than the Isma'ilite Imam. If it was a Christian
vhom he hoped to win over, he enlarged on the obstinacy of the
|ews and the ignorance of the Musulmans, he conformed to all
:he chief articles of the Christian creed, at the same time hinting
:hat they were all symbolic, and pointed to a deeper meaning
vhich the Bdtini system alone could solve. And after the
nind of the neophyte had been so far moulded he would suggest
:hat the Christians had misinterpreted the doctrine of the
Paraclete, and that the Isma'ilia Imam was the real Paraclete. 2
\bdullah ibn Maimun also formulated in precise terms the
loctrine of takeyye — outward conformity with an alien
•eligious belief or practice. It had been in vogue among all
:he Manichaean sects — not excepting the Paulicians. It was
re-introduced by Abdullah ibn Maimun, partly to escape per-
secution, partly to facilitate the work of proselytism. Takeyye
s the natural defence of the weak and suffering against the
strong. All people have not the fibre of a martyr ; and the
majority of them have to submit where they cannot oppose,
rhe primitive Christians had to practise takeyye. The Isma'ilias
tiad special reasons for concealing their religious views in all
:ountries within the sway of the Abbaside Caliphs ; and this
long-enforced habit became at last a second nature with them.
From them the Shiahs proper borrowed the practice of takeyye.
1 v,y*l>i one wno invites. » Mani, in fact, claimed to be the Paraclete.


Before Persia and Turkey had entered upon terms of amity, a
Shiah was unable to perform the Hajj unless he conformed to
the Sunni rites, and takeyye in such cases was almost a necessity
with the devout Shiah wishing to visit the holy shrines. But
takeyye, "the natural offspring of persecution and fear," has
become so habitual with the Persians that they conform to it
even in circumstances when there is no necessity. They
practise it to avoid giving offence or wounding susceptibilities,
just as the modern Protestant shows a certain deference to
Romish rites in Catholic countries.

Hamadan, otherwise called Karmath, had broken away from
his master and formed a sect of his own. Abdullah ibn Maimun
had disavowed the use of force in his proselytism ; Karmath
advocated it as the corner-stone of his sect. Possibly, like
Chyroseir, he was driven to it by the persecution of the ortho-
dox. He raised an insurrection in al-Ahsa and al-Bahrain.
The weakness of the Caliph's troops gave him the victory.
Collecting a large following he issued from al-Bahrain, and,
like the Paulician Chyroseir, marked his progress by slaughter
and ruin. The Karmathites, from their fastnesses in al-Bahrain
and al-Ahsa, waged for nearly a hundred years a sanguinary
contest with the Pontiffs of Bagdad. They pillaged even
Mecca, and carried away the sacred stone, the symbol of
Abrahamitic antiquity, like the Wahabis 900 years later. In
this sacrilege they imitated the example of their congeners, the
Paulicians, who had pillaged Ephesus, destroyed the sepulchre
of St. John, and turned his cathedral into a stable for mules
and horses. They were destroyed ultimately by the Caliph
Mu'tazid b'illah.

After the destruction of the Karmathites, Isma'ilism was
proscribed ; its votaries were placed under the ban, and hunted
like vermin. Isma'ilism had to hide itself on all sides until
Obaidullah al-Mahdi wrested Africa from the Abbasides.

The Fatimides of Egypt were grand supporters of learning
and science. Yet in their desire to promote the diffusion of
knowledge among their subjects, they did not ignore the

Online LibrarySyed Ameer AliThe spirit of Islâm : a history of the evolution and ideals of Islâm → online text (page 37 of 55)