Syed Ameer Ali.

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

. (page 4 of 55)
Online LibrarySyed Ameer AliThe spirit of Islâm : a history of the evolution and ideals of Islâm → online text (page 4 of 55)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

of Christianity.

The worship of Isis, whose glory had overshadowed the
personality of her consort, was brought to Rome, it is said,
some eighty years before the birth of Jesus. It seized at once
the fancy both of the populace and of the cultivated classes.
Its gorgeous ritual, its tonsured, clean-shaven priests, the
young acolytes in white, carrying lighted tapers, the
solemn processions in which nothing was wanting to stimulate
the emotions, the passionate grief at the suffering and death
of Osiris-Horus, the frenzied joy at his resurrection, the
mysteries with all their mystical meanings, the initiation,
above all the promise of immortality, appealed vividly to a
world whose old gods were mute and which yearned for a
closer touch with the eternal problem of the Universe. It is
not surprising that Isis took a strong hold on the heart of the
Roman people. 1

Although the worship of Isis, " the bestower on the wretched
the sweet affection of a mother " never lost its power on their
emotions, the more virile cult of Mythra the beautiful sun-god,
with all its mystic rites, its doctrine of atonement, its insistence
on the direct touch of its god with humanity, was held in
special favour among the Roman soldiers ; and wherever the
legionaries were quartered they appear to have left the
memorials of their worship.

To form a just estimate of the superlative and exclusive
claim advanced by Christianity to enrol under her banner and
to dominate the conscience of all mankind, it is necessary to
bear in mind the causes that helped in the diffusion of the
Galilean faith before the ascension of Constantine to the throne.
The promise of the second advent of Jesus with the immediate
ushering in of the Kingdom of God," when the poor would

1 Dill's Roman Society from Nero to Marcus A urelius, chapter v. ; Legge's
Forerunners and Rivals of Christianity, vol. ii. p. 87.


be exalted, and Lazarus would take the place of Dives in the
enjoyment of heavenly gifts, created among the humble folk
a wild excitement. The fervent anticipations of the immediate
disciples and followers of Jesus naturally communicated them-
selves to the neighbouring peoples ; and as the missionaries
of the faith multiplied they carried this vivid belief far and
wide. The religion that held forth the promise of an early
adjustment of inequalities and redress of wrongs and injustice
received a ready acceptance among the masses. So strong
a hold did the belief in the establishment of the kingdom of
God with the second advent acquire among the populace, that
although the fulfilment of the promise, which was assured to
take place within the lifetime of the early disciples, receded as
decades went by into dim futurity, the anticipations and hopes
to which it gave birth did not lose their force until the final
collapse of the Crusades. After a thousand years, first of
travail and later of success, the warriors of Christianity
went forth to destroy the professors of another faith in the
full belief that the second coming of their Lord was nigh.

Besides this there were other causes equally potent which
helped the diffusion of Christianity in the shape it assumed
after the death or, according to Ebionite and Moslem belief,
the disappearance of the Master.

As already observed, among all the peoples of Asia Minor,
Syria and the Mediterranean littoral, excepting the Jews,
the idea of a god who had died and risen again, and of a divine
Trinity, was universal. It was an essential part of the
Serapean cult ; and with the spread of Isis-worship every
part of the Roman world was permeated by the trinitarian
conception ; there was no difficulty arising from sentiment
or religious predilection to the acceptance of the principal
doctrines of post-Jesus Christianity.

The philosophers at the same time, albeit unconsciously
and without the intention of helping Christianity, even without
any knowledge of its tenets, furthered its cause. Their
speculations with regard to the nature of God and of a life after
death undermined the faith of many thinking pagans in the
mysteries of Isis and Mythra, and in the rites and practices of
the old cults. And yet the hold of the Alexandrian divinities


and of the Sun-god on the hearts of the cultivated classes,
who looked askance at the revolutionary doctrines of the new
cult, was so strong that for nearly three centuries the spread
of Christianity was confined to the ignorant and uneducated.
Not until the Christian Church had incorporated with its
theology and ecclesiastical system many dogmas borrowed
from its great and fascinating rivals, and almost all their
rites and ceremonialism, and practices and institutions, did
it make any headway among people of culture. And when
these, under the stress ot religious persecution or imperial
pressure, began entering the fold they brought with them all
the elements that have gone to mould modern Christianity
with its multitudinous sects. 1 Relentless persecution lasting
for centuries secured, however, in the early period of its growth
a certain uniformity of faith and doctrines.

Among the masses Isis-worship was transformed into
Mariolatry ; and Mary the mother of Jesus became, instead
of the Egyptian goddess, " the haven of peace," and " the
altar of pity." Thenceforth she was worshipped, as she still
is among the Latin races, as the " madre de dios."

Asceticism was a favoured institution among the votaries
of the Alexandrian divinities ; it was practised by the Pytha-
goreans and Orphics, who had derived much of their inspiration
from the hierophants of the Gangetic Delta, among whom it
was a common practice ; the Christian Church adopted and
sanctified this institution for both sexes. From the simple
immersion used by John the Baptist, baptism under the
influence of the cult of Isis grew into a mystical and cumbrous
rite. Communion took the place of initiation ; and even the
dogma connected with the mysteries of Isis regarding the
change of wine into the blood of the mourned god was absorbed
into the Christian system. In the tonsured clean-shaven,
pale-clad priests, the white robed acolytes, in the gorgeous
rituals, " in the form of the sacraments, in the periods of the
fasts and festivals " 2 of the Christian Church, looking back
through the vista of ages, one is forcibly reminded of the older
cults ; and the religions which Christianity displaced rise

1 Dill's Roman Society from Nero to Marcus Aurelius, chapter v.

2 Legge, Forerunners and Rivals of Christianity, in loco.
s.i. d


before us in all their pomp and pageantry. We seem to hear
once more in the litanies of the Church the beautiful touching
hymns sung to the Alexandrian goddess (the Mater dolorosa
of the Western pagan world), by a thousand white-robed boys
and girls, and it requires but little effort of fancy to carry
back the imagination from St. Peter's or St. Paul's to the

The religion of Jesus, as taught by his chief disciples, had,
besides these borrowed and adventitious recommendations,
distinct and independent claims to draw to itself the homage
of those who, in the welter of spiritual conceptions and religious
beliefs, were groping in semi-darkness for a resting place where
high and low, ignorant and educated, should stand on the
same plane. In its higher phases, it appealed to the nobler
instincts of mankind if not more forcibly than the Isiac or
Mythraic creeds, certainly with greater assurance. Its promise
of a life after death was less veiled in mysteries ; its doctrines
were more positive and concrete than the abstract speculations
of the philosophers. It brought solace and comfort to the
down-trodden and held forth a promise — not yet fulfilled — of
equality and brotherhood among mankind, with an assured
trust in future salvation to rich and poor alike among those who
accepted its doctrines. Whilst the dogmatism of its preachers
often assisted by secular force silenced questioning minds,
it satisfied the yearnings of those who, turning from the
mysticism of the older cults or fleeing from the hidden inde-
cencies associated with Nature-worship, hungered for an assur-
ance that the existence on earth was but part of a larger life.
The whole of the Western pagan world was in short in an
expectant mood, waiting for a positive and direct revelation ;
and all the teachings of the past had attuned its mind to the
reception of a call. The Galilean faith seized the opportunity,
and after appropriating and absorbing the ritual and doctrinal
legacies left by its " Forerunners and Rivals," gradually
monopolised the homage of the peoples who had been subjected
by Rome. Whether this adaptation of the simple teachings
of Jesus, to make them more readily acceptable, was a develop-
ment or the reverse must remain for the present unanswered.
But the charge the Moslems make against his followers that


they corrupted his faith can hardly be said to be altogether

The early cessation of the ministry of Jesus and the absence
of any organic teaching, whilst it allowed a freer scope to
imagination, perhaps " a freer latitude of faith and practice," x
as shown in the lives of even the early Christians, furnished an
open ground for contending factions to dispute not only about
doctrines and discipline, but also as to the nature of their
Teacher. The expulsion of the Jews and the Christians from
Jerusalem, which abounded in so many traditions relating to
Jesus as a man ; the intermixture of his followers with the
non- Judaic people who surrounded them on all sides, and
among whom the Neo-Pythagorean or Platonic ideas as to the
government of the universe were more or less prevalent ; the
very vagueness which surrounded the figure of Jesus in the
conception of his followers — soon gave birth to an infinite
variety of doctrines and sects. And age after age everything
human, " everything not purely ideal, was smoothed away
from the adored image of an incarnate God," the essentially
pathetic history of Jesus was converted into a " fairy tale,"
and his life so surrounded with myths that it is now impossible
for us to know " what he really was and did."

The fantastic shapes assumed by Christianity in the centuries
which preceded the advent of Mohammed are alike interesting
and instructive.

The Gnostic doctrines, which were wholly in conflict with
the notions of the Judaic Christians, are supposed to have
been promulgated towards the end of the first century, almost
simultaneously with the capture and destruction of Jerusalem
by Hadrian. Cerinthus, the most prominent of the Gnostic
teachers in this century, inculcated among his followers the
dual worship of the Father and the Son, whom he supposed
to be totally distinct from the man Jesus, " the creator of the

The narrowness of Pauline Christianity, and its futile endeav-
ours to reconcile its doctrines with the philosophy of the
Alexandrian schools, gave birth about the same time to the
Neo-Platonic eclecticism of Ammonius Saccas, adopted after-

1 Mosheim, p. 121.


wards by Origen and other leading Christians. This versatile
writer, whose impress is visible in the writings of almost all
the prominent thinkers of Christendom in the earlier centuries,
endeavoured to bring about a general concordance among all
the existing creeds and sects. In some respects, Ammonius
was the prototype of Mini, or Manes, and was undoubtedly
above the level of his contemporaries. He succeeded in
forming a school, but his teachings never regulated the morals
or influenced the faith of a community.

The second century of the Christian era was ushered in in
strife and disorder. Divisions and heresies were rife throughout
the Christian Church. Gnosticism was in great force, and
left its character indelibly impressed on Christianity. Some
of the sects which came into prominence in this century deserve
a passing notice, as they show not only the evils which flowed
from the teachings of the Church, but also the influence
exercised upon Christianity by Zoroastrianism, Neo-Pytha-
goreanism, and the ancient Sabasism of the Chaldaeans.

The Marcionites, who were perhaps the most important of the
early Gnostics, believed in the existence of two principles, the
one perfectly good and the other perfectly evil. Between these
there existed the Demiurge, an intermediate kind of deity,
neither perfectly good nor perfectly evil, but of a mixed nature,
who administered rewards and inflicted punishments. The
Demiurge was, according to the Marcionite doctrines, the
creator of this inferior world, and engaged in perpetual conflict
with the Principle of Evil, — mark the impress of the Zoroastrian
ideas ! The Supreme Principle, in order to terminate this
warfare and to deliver from their bondage the human souls,
whose origin is celestial and divine, sent to the Jews, " a being
most like unto Himself, even His Son Jesus Christ," clothed
with a certain shadowy resemblance of a body, that thus he
might be visible to mortal eyes. The commission to this
celestial messenger was to destroy the empire, both of the Evil
Principle and of the Author of this world, and to bring back
wandering souls to God. ' ' On this account he was attacked with
inexpressible violence and fury by the Principle of Evil " and
by the Demiurge, but without effect, since, having a body only
in appearance, he was thereby rendered incapable of suffering.


The Valentinians, whose influence was more lasting, taught
that " the supreme God permitted Jesus, His Son, to descend
from the upper regions to purge mankind of all the evils into
which they had fallen, clothed, not with a real, but with a
celestial and aerial body." The Valentinians believed Jesus
to be an emanation from the Divine Essence come upon earth
to destroy the dominion of the Prince of Darkness.

The Ophites, who flourished in Egypt, entertained the same
notions as the other Egyptian Gnostics concerning the aeons,
the eternity of matter, the creation of the world in opposition
to the will of God, the tyranny of the Demiurge, and " the
divine Christ united to the man Jesus in order to destroy the
empire of this usurper." They also maintained that the
serpent, by which Adam and Eve were deceived, was either
Christ himself, or Sophia, disguised as a serpent.

Whilst the Gnostic creeds were springing into existence under
the influence of Chaldaean philosophy, the Greeks on their
side endeavoured to bring about a certain harmony between
the Pauline doctrine concerning " the Father, Son, and the
Holy Ghost, and the two natures united in Christ," and their
own philosophical views as to the government of the world.
Praxeus was the first of these sophistical preachers of Christi-
anity, and he set the ball rolling by denying any real distinction
between the " Father, Son, and Holy Ghost," and maintained
that the Father was so intimately united with the man Christ,
His Son, that He suffered with him the anguish of an afflicted
life, and the torments of an ignominious death !

" These sects," says Mosheim, " were the offspring of philo-
sophy. A worse evil was to befall the Christian Church in the
person of Montanus, a native of Phrygia." This man, who
disdained all knowledge and learning, proclaimed himself
the Paraclete promised by Jesus. He soon succeeded in
attaching to himself a large body of followers, the most famous
of whom were Priscilla and Maximilla, the prophetesses,
" ladies more remarkable for their opulence than for their
virtue." They turned Northern Asia into a slaughter-house,
and by their insensate fury inflicted terrible sufferings on the
human race.

Whilst the Marcionites, Valentinians, Montanists, and the


other Gnostic sects were endeavouring to spread their doctrines
throughout the empire of Rome, there arose in Persia a man
whose individuality has impressed itself in ineffaceable char-
acters on the philosophy of two continents. Mani was, to all
accounts, the most perfect embodiment of the culture of his
age. He was an astronomer, a physicist, a musician, and an
artist of eminence. The stories relating to his art-gallery *
have passed into a proverb.

Thoroughly acquainted with the Jewish Cabbala and the
teachings of the Gnostic masters, imbued with the ancient
philosophy and mysticism of the East, a Magi by birth and
Christian by education, he rose in revolt against the jarring
discord which surrounded him on all sides, and set himself
to the task of creating, from the chaos of beliefs, an eclectic
faith which would satisfy all demands, the aspirations of all
hearts. The audacity with which Mani applied himself to
undermine the current faiths by an outward profession, joined
to a subtle criticism, which destroyed all foundations of belief
in the neophyte — a process afterwards imitated by his congeners,
the Isma'ilias, 2 — and his assertion, like the Batinis, of an
esoteric insight into all religious doctrines, armed against him
every creed and sect ; and naturally, wherever he or his
disciples appeared, they were persecuted with unparalleled

The doctrine of Mani was a fantastic mixture of the tenets
of Christianity with the ancient philosophy of the Persians and
the Chaldseans. According to him, Matter and Mind are
engaged in perpetual strife with each other. In the course
of this conflict human beings were created by the Principle
of Matter endowed with two natures, one divine, the other
material, the former being a part of the light or spirit which
had been filched from heaven. In order to release the struggling
divine soul from the prison in which it was confined, the
Supreme God sent from the solar regions an Entity created
from His own substance — which was called Christ. Christ
accordingly appeared among the Jews clothed with the shadowy
form of a human body, and during his ministry taught mortals
how to disengage the rational soul from the corrupt body —

1 Arzang-i-Mdni. 2 See post, part ii. chap. x.


to conquer the violence of malignant matter. The Prince of
Darkness having incited the Jews to put him to death, he was
apparently, but not in reality, crucified. On the contrary,
having fulfilled his mission, he returned to his throne in the sun.

The Manichaean Christ thus could neither eat, drink, suffer,
nor die ; he was not even an incarnate God, but an illusory
phantasm — " the all-pervading light-element imprisoned in
nature, striving to escape matter, without assuming its forms."
However blasphemous and irrational these doctrines may seem,
they appear hardly more so to Moslems than the doctrine of
transubstantiation, the changing of the eucharistic elements
into the actual flesh and blood of the Deity.

Manes divided his disciples into two classes ; one, the
" elect," and the other, the " hearers." The " elect " were
compelled to submit to a rigorous abstinence from all animal
food and intoxicating drink, to abjure wedlock and all gratifica-
tions of the senses. The discipline appointed for the " hearers "
was of a milder kind. They were allowed to possess houses,
lands, and wealth, to feed upon flesh, to enter into the bonds of
conjugal relationship ; but this liberty was granted them
with many limitations, and under the strictest conditions of
moderation and temperance.

Manes, or Mani, was put to death by Bahram-G6r, but his
doctrines passed into Christianity and were visible in all the
struggles which rent the Church in later times.

About the middle of the third century arose the sect of the
Sabellians, which marked a new departure in the religion of
Jesus. They regarded Jesus as only a man, and believed that
a certain energy proceeding from the Supreme Father had
united itself with the man Jesus, thus constituting him the
son of God. This peculiar doctrine, which Gibbon regards as
an approach to Unitarianism, was the cause of serious disorders
in the Christian Church, and led to the promulgation in the
early part of the fourth century, by Origen, of the doctrine of
three distinct personalities in the Godhead. Tritheism was
only a modification of the ancient paganism suited to the
character of the people who had adopted the creed of Jesus.
Polytheism was ingrained in their nature, and tritheism was
a compromise between the teachings of Jesus and the ancient


worship of a number of personalities. In the course of time,
tritheism merged into the doctrine of the trinity, but not
before it had given birth to the most philosophic sect of
Christianity. 1

The rise of Arianism is due principally to the revolt of the
human intellect from the irrational teachings of the Church.
In Alexandria, which was at that time the most fanatical of
Christian cities, Arius had the boldness to preach, in opposition
to his own bishop, that Christ was not of the same essence with
God. Arianism soon spread itself in Egypt and Northern
Africa, and in spite of violent and frequent persecution, kept
its hold in these parts as well as Spain until his followers were
taken into the fold of Islam. 2

The troubles generated by the schism of Arius induced
Constantine, in a.c. 325, to assemble the Council of Nice, in
Bithynia. In this general council, after many violent efforts
on both sides, the doctrine of Arius was condemned, and
' ' Christ was declared consubstantial with the Father. ' ' 3 What-
ever may have been the condition of the Christian Church
before, henceforth its history presents a constant and deplorable
record of trouble and violence, of internecine strife and
wrangling, of fearful and cruel persecutions, of bitter hatred
and a perpetual endeavour to crush out reason and justice
from the minds of men. The vices of the regular clergy
assumed monstrous proportions, and the luxury, arrogance,
and voluptuousness of the sacerdotal order became the subject
of complaint on all sides. The asceticism of the early times
had given place to monasticism, and the licentiousness of the
monks became a byword. They were the free lance of the
Church, — always foremost in fomenting tumults and seditions,
and the streets of Constantinople, Alexandria, and Rome
frequently ran with blood in consequence of their unruliness
and turbulence.

1 Mosheim, p. 411.

2 In the latter part of the sixteenth century of the Christian era Socinus of
Sienna (in Italy) revived and amplified the doctrines of Arius. The unitarians
of the present day are the direct spiritual descendants of the Socinians, who
denied the divinity of Jesus. They also repudiated the doctrine of original
sin and atonement. To them God alone was the object of adoration.

3 Gibbon, vol. iv. 307.


The disputes of Nestorius with Cyril, the murderer of
Hypatia, forms a prominent chapter in the history of Christi-
anity. The second Council of Ephesus was convoked partly
with the object of conciliating the various parties which had
sprung up in the Church ; but " the despotism of the Alex-
andrian Patriarch," says Gibbon, " again oppressed the
freedom of debate. The heresy of the two natures was for-
mally condemned. ' May those who divide Christ, be divided
with the sword.' ' May they be hewn in pieces.' ' May they
be burned alive ! ' were the charitable wishes of a Christian

At the Council of Chalcedon, which was convened at the
instance of the Bishop of Rome, the doctrine of the incarnation
of Christ in one person but in two natures was definitely settled.

The Monophysites and Nestorians, revolting from the
doctrine of incarnation, endeavoured to make a stand against
the decree of Chalcedon. But they succumbed under the
furious onslaught of the orthodox, who had succeeded in
solving the mystery of their Teacher's nature. Jerusalem
was occupied by an army of monks ; in the name of one
incarnate nature they pillaged, they murdered ; the sepulchre
of Christ was defiled with blood. The Alexandrian Christians,
who had murdered a woman, did not hesitate to massacre
their Patriarch in the baptistery, committing his mangled
corpse to the flames and his ashes to the wind.

About the middle of the sixth century the drooping fortunes
of the Monophysites revived under the guidance of one of their
leaders, Jacob, bishop of Edessa. Under him and his successor
they acquired overwhelming predominance in the Eastern
empire, and by their unrelenting persecution of the Nestorians
and their bitter quarrels with the orthodox or the Chalcedonians,
plunged the Christian Church into internecine warfare and

Online LibrarySyed Ameer AliThe spirit of Islâm : a history of the evolution and ideals of Islâm → online text (page 4 of 55)