Syed Ameer Ali.

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

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taste and culture surpassing any of the great monumental
relics of ancient Greece or modern Europe. Another branch
of Moslem decorative art is that of ornamental writing, which
is so often utilised with remarkable effect in the adornment of
mosques, mausolea, and palaces, where whole chapters of the
Koran are carved or inlaid round domes and minarets, doors
and arches, testifying to the same religious earnestness, yet in


a purely monotheistic spirit, as the pictures of saints and
martyrs which decorate Christian churches.

Before the promulgation of Islam the profession of music
among the Arabs was confined to the slaves of both sexes
imported from Syria and Persia, or to the class of hetairai
called Kydn. The Prophet had discountenanced, for obvious
moral reasons, the songs and dances of these degraded women.
But under the Abbasides and the Spanish Arab kings, when
music was elevated to the rank of a science, and its cultivation
was recognised as an art, a love for music spread among all
classes of society. A large literature grew up on the subject ;
songs were collected and classified according to their melodies
and keys, and the musical instruments of the ancients were
improved and new ones invented. The sharp conflict between
Rationalism and Patristicism, between Idealism and Literalism,
which marked the middle of the twelfth century, drove this
sweetest of arts back into the arms of the servile classes or
forced it to seek a refuge in the chapels of the dervishes.

A large general literature existed on the subject of com-
merce, agriculture, handicraft and manufacture, the latter
including every conceivable subject, from porcelain to weapons
of war.

In historical research the Moslems have not been behind any
other nation, ancient or modern. At first attention was devoted
chiefly to the history of the Prophet, but soon the primitive idea
widened into a broad conception. Archaeology, geography, and
ethnology were included in history, and the greatest minds
applied themselves to the pursuit of this captivating branch of
study. Between the simple work of Ibn-Ishak and the universal
history of Ibn-Khaldun there is a great difference, but the
intervening space is occupied by a host of writers, the product
of whose labours supplies some index to the intellectual activity
of the Saracenic nations under the inspiration of Islam.

Balazuri, who died in 279 a.h. (a.c. 892), was born at Bagdad,
where he lived and worked. His " Conquest of the Countries "
(Futuh ul-Bulddn) is written in admirable style, and marks a
distinct advance of the historical spirit.

Hamadani, who flourished towards the end of the third and
the beginning of the fourth century of the Hegira, gave to the


world a comprehensive history of Southern Arabia, with an
account of its tribes, its numerous remains of interest, with
explanations of their inscriptions, as well as the ethnography
and geography of Yemen. It is, however, in the monumental
works of Mas'udi, of al-Beiruni, of Ibn ul-Athir, of Tabari, of
Ibn-Khaldun, called by Mohl the Montesquieu of Islam, of
Makrizi, Makkari, AbuTfeda, Nuwairi, and Mirkhond that the
mental vigour of the Moslem races in this department of know-
ledge is found in full play. These men were not specialists
only ; they were encyclopaedists — philosophers, mathema-
ticians, geographers, as well as historians. Mas'udi was a
native of Bagdad, but by descent a Northern Arab, who in his
early youth travelled and saw the greater part of the Moham-
medan world. He first went to India, visited Multan and
Mansura, then travelled over Persia and Kerman, again went
to India, remained for some time at Cambay (Kambaja) and
the Deccan, went to Ceylon, sailed from there to Kambalu
(Madagascar), and went from there to Oman, and perhaps even
reached the Indo-Chinese Peninsula and China. He had
travelled far in Central Asia, and reached the Caspian Sea.
After finishing his travels, he lived for some time in Tiberias
and Antioch, and afterwards took up his abode in Basrah,
where he first published his great work, called the Muruj-uz-
Zahab («-**^l £jf). Afterwards he removed to Fostat
(old Cairo), where he published the Kitdb ut-Tanbih, and later
the Mirdt-uz-Zamdn, or the Mirror of the Times, a voluminous
work, which is only partially preserved. 1 In the Muruj-uz-
Zahab (the " Golden Meadows ") "he tells the rich experiences
of his life in the amiable and cheerful manner of a man who
had seen various lands, experienced life in all its phases, and
who takes pleasure, not only in instructing, but in amusing
his reader. Without burdening us with the names of the
authorities, without losing himself in long explanations, he
delights in giving prominence to that which strikes him as
wonderful, rare, and interesting, and to portray people and
manners with conciseness and anecdotic skill."

1 1 am told that the Library in Vienna contains a historical work by the
same author consisting of some thirty volumes which bears the name of the
Akhbar-uz-Zamcln. Perhars this is the same work as Mirat-uz-Zaman.


Tabari (Abu Ja'far Mohammed ibn Jarir), surnamed the Livy
of the Arabs, who died in Bagdad in 922 A.c., brought his work
down to the year 302 of the Hegira (914 A.c). It was continued
to the end of the twelfth century by al-Makin or Elmacin.

Ibn ul-Athir [j»J)l\&Jt), surnamed Izz ad-din, "glory of
religion," was a native of Jazireh-bani-Omar, in Irak, but
resided chiefly at Mosul, where his house was the resort of the
most distinguished scholars and savants of the time. His
universal history, known as the al-Kdmil, which ends with the
year 1231 a.c, may be compared with the best works of
modern Europe.

Makrizi x (Taki ud-din Ahmed) was a contemporary of Ibn-
Khaldim. His works on Egypt furnish a vivid picture of the
political, religious, social, commercial, archaeological, and
administrative condition of the country.

AbuTfeda, whom we have already mentioned as a geographer,
was the Prince of Hamah at the commencement of the four-
teenth century. Distinguished alike in the pursuit of arms
as in letters, gifted with eminent qualities, he occupies a
prominent place among the scholars and scientists of the East.
The portion of his great work which deals with the political and
literary history of Islam, and its relations to the Byzantines
from the eighth to the twelfth century, is extremely valuable.

Ibn Khaldun flourished in the fourteenth century of the
Christian era. Born in Tunis in 1332, he was in the midst of
all the revolutions of which Africa was the theatre in the
fourteenth century. His magnificent history is preceded by a
Prolegomena, in itself a store-house of information and philo-
sophical dissertation. In the Prolegomena he traces the origin
of society, the development of civilisation, the causes which led
to the rise and fall of kingdoms and dynasties ; and discusses,
among other questions, the influence of climate on the formation
of a nation's character. He died in the year 1406 a.c

The Arabs invented the mariner's compass, and voyaged to
all parts of the world in quest of knowledge or in the pursuit of
commerce. They established colonies in Africa, far to the
south in the Indian Archipelago, on the coasts of India, and on
the Malayan Peninsula. Even China opened her barred gates
1 Died in 1442 a.c.


to Moslem colonists and mercenaries. They discovered the
Azores, and, it is even surmised, penetrated as far as America.
Within the confines of the ancient continents they gave an
unprecedented and almost unparalleled impulse in every
direction to human industry. The Prophet had inculcated
labour as a duty ; he had given the impress of piety to industrial
pursuits ; he had recommended commerce and agriculture as
meritorious in the sight of the Lord. These precepts had their
natural result ; the merchants, the traders, the industrial
classes in general, were treated with respect ; and governors,
generals, and savants disdained not to call themselves by the
title of their professions. The peace and security with which
caravans travelled the empire ; the perfect safety of the roads ;
the cisterns, and tanks, and reservoirs, and rest-houses which
existed everywhere along the routes — all aided in the rapid
development of commerce and trade, and arts and manufactures.
The Arabs covered the countries where they settled with
networks of canals. To Spain they gave the system of irriga-
tion by flood-gates, wheels, and pumps. Whole tracts of land
that now lie waste and barren were covered with olive groves,
and the environs of Seville alone, under Moslem rule, contained
several thousand oil-factories. They introduced the staple
products, rice, sugar, cotton, and nearly all the fine garden and
orchard fruits, together with many less important plants, such
as ginger, saffron, myrrh, etc. They opened up the mines of
copper, sulphur, mercury, and iron. They established the
culture of silk, the manufacture of paper and other textile
fabrics ; of porcelain, earthenware, iron, steel, and leather.
The tapestries of Cordova, the woollen stuffs of Murcia, the
silks of Granada, Almeria, and Seville, the steel and gold work
of Toledo, the paper of Salibah were sought all over the world.
The ports of Malaga, Carthagena, Barcelona, and Cadiz were
vast commercial emporiums for export and import. In the
days of their prosperity the Spanish Arabs maintained a
merchant navy of more than a thousand ships. They had
f ictories and representatives on the Danube. W T ith Con-
stantinople they possessed a great trade, which ramified from
the Black Sea and the eastern shores of the Mediterranean into
the interior of Asia, and reached the ports of India and China


and extended along the African coast as far as Madagascar.
" In the midst of the tenth century, when Europe was about
in the same condition that Caffraria is now, enlightened Moors,
like Abul Cassem, were writing treatises on the principles of
trade and commerce." In order to supply an incentive to
commercial enterprise, and to further the impulse to travel,
geographical registers, gazetteers, and itineraries were pub-
lished under the authority of Government, containing minute
descriptions of the places to which they related, with par-
ticulars of the routes and other necessary matters. Travellers
like Ibn-i-Batuta visited foreign lands in quest of information,
and wrote voluminous works on the people of those countries,
on their fauna and flora, their mineral products, their climatic
and physical features, with astonishing perspicacity and keen-
ness of observation.

The love of learning and arts was by no means confined to
one sex. The culture and education of the women proceeded
on parallel lines with that of the men, and women were as keen
in the pursuit of literature and as devoted to science as men.
They had their own colleges ; l they studied medicine and
jurisprudence, lectured on rhetoric, ethics, and belles-lettres,
and participated with the stronger sex in the glories of a
splendid civilisation. The wives and daughters of magnates
and sovereigns spent their substance in founding colleges and
endowing universities, in establishing hospitals for the sick,
refuges for the homeless, the orphan, and the widow. 2

The division and jealousy of the Arab tribes, which had
prevented the assimilation and fusion of their several dialects,
had nevertheless conduced to the enrichment of the national
language as spoken in Hijaz, and the annual conflux of people

1 One well-known institution of this kind was established in Cairo in 684 a.h.
by the daughter of the Mameluke Sultan Malik Taher.

2 Zubaida, the wife of Harun, founded several such refuges ; and the hospital
built by the wife of 'Azud ud-dowla rivalled her husband's. The daughter of
Malik Ashraf, known as the Khatun, erected a splendid college at Damascus.
Another college was founded by Zamurud Khatun, wife of Nasir ud-dowla of

Many Moslem ladies were distinguished in poetry. Fatima, the Prophet's
daughter, holds a high rank among poets. So does the daughter of Aurangzeb,
Zeb un-nisa, surnamed Makhfi. When Urquhart travelled in Turkey, three
of the most celebrated living poets were ladies, and one of them, Perishek
Khanam, acted as private secretary to Sultan Mustafa.


at Okaz, with the periodical contest of the poets, had imparted
to it a regularity and polish. But it was the Koran — " a book
by the aid of which the Arabs conquered a world greater than
that of Alexander the Great, greater than that of Rome, and
in as many tens of years as the latter had wanted hundreds to
accomplish her conquests ; by the aid of which they alone of
all the Shemites came to Europe as kings, whither the Phoeni-
cians had come as tradesmen, and the Jews as fugitives or
captives ; came to Europe to hold up, together with these
fugitives, the light to humanity ; — they alone, while darkness
lay around, to raise up the wisdom and knowledge of Hellas
from the dead, to teach philosophy, medicine, astronomy, and
the golden art of song to the West as to the East, to stand at
the cradle of modern science, and to cause us late epigoni for
ever to weep over the day when Granada fell," 1 — it was this
book which fixed and preserved for ever the Arabic tongue in
all its purity. The simple grandeur of its diction, the chaste
elegance of its style, the variety of its imageries, the rapid
transitions, like flashes of lightning, which show the moralist
teaching, the philosopher theosophising, the injured patriot
denouncing in fervent expressions the immorality and degrada-
tion of his people, and withal the heavenly Father calling back
through His servant His erring children, — all mark its unique
character among religious records. And the awe and venera-
tion with which the greatest poets of the day listened to its
teachings, show how deeply it must have moved the people.
Delivered at different times, — in moments of persecution and
anguish, or of energetic action, or enunciated for purposes of
practical guidance, — there is yet a vitality, an earnestness and
energy in every word, which differentiates it from all other
Scriptures. Lest it be thought we are biassed in our opinion,
we give the words of the great orientalist whom we have already
quoted : " Those grand accents of joy and sorrow, of love, and
valour, and passion, of which but faint echoes strike on our
ears now, were full-toned at the time of Mohammed ; and he
had not merely to rival the illustrious of the illustrious, but
excel them ; to appeal to the superiority of what he said and
sang as a very sign and proof of his mission . . . The poets

1 Deutsch.


before him had sung of love . . . Antara, himself the hero of
the most famous novel, sings of the ruin, around which ever
hover lovers' thoughts, of the dwelling of Abla, who is gone,
and her dwelling-place knows her not. Mohammed sang none
of these. No love-minstrelsy his, not the joys of this world,
nor sword nor camel, not jealousy or human vengeance, not
the glories of tribe or ancestors, nor the unmeaning, swiftly
and forever-extinguished existence of man, were his themes.
He preached Islam. And he preached it by rending the skies
above and tearing open the ground below, by adjuring heaven
and hell, the living and the dead."

Another great writer speaks of the Koran in the following
terms : " If it is not poetry, — and it is hard to say whether it
be or not, — it is more than poetry. It is not history, nor
biography. It is not anthology, like the Sermon on the
Mount ; nor metaphysical dialectics, like the Buddhist Sutras ;
nor sublime homiletics like Plato's conferences of the wise
and foolish teachers. It is a prophet's cry, Semitic to the core ;
yet of a meaning so universal and so timely that all the voices
of the age take it up, willing or unwilling, and it echoes over
palaces and deserts, over cities and empires, first kindling its
chosen hearts to world-conquest, then gathering itself up into
a reconstructive force that all the creative light of Greece and
Asia might penetrate the heavy gloom of Christian Europe,
when Christianity was but the Queen of Night." x

In general literature, embracing every phase of the human
intellect, ethics, metaphysics, logic, rhetoric, the Moslem
writers may be counted by hundreds. In poetry, the fertility
of the Moslem mind has not been yet surpassed. From Mutan-
abbi the Arab (not to go back to the poets who flourished in
the time of the Prophet) to Hali the Indian, there is an endless
succession of poets. Mutanabbi flourished in the ninth century,
and enjoyed the patronage of Ameer Saif ud-dowla (Abu'l
Hasan Ali bin Hamdan). He was followed by Ibn-Duraid, 2
Abii-Ula, 3 Ibn Faridh, 4 Tantarani, 5 and others. The Spanish
Arabs were nature's poets ; they invented the different kinds
of poetry, which afterwards were adopted as models by the

1 Johnson. 2 Died in a.c. 933. 3 Died in a.c. 1057.

4 Died in a.c. 1255. 5 Died in A.c. 1092.


Christian nations of southern Europe. Among the great poets
who nourished in Spain the name of Ahmed ibn Mohammed
(Abu-Omar) 1 is the most famous. We have already mentioned
the poets who lived under Mahmud ; Firdousi, who brought
back to life the dead heroes of Iran, rivals the fame of the
sovereign whom first he praised and afterwards satirised.
Under the later Ghaznavides and the Seljukides flourished the
lyric poets Suzeni, 2 the creator of the Persian metrical system,
and Watwat ; the panegyrists Anwari, 3 Khakani, 4 and Zahir
Faryabi ; 5 the great mystics, Sanai', 6 whose Hadika is valued
wherever the Persian language is known and appreciated, and
Farid ud-din 'Attar ; 7 and the romancist Nizami, the immortal
bard of Khusru and Shirin and of Alexander. Under the
Atabegs, who rose to power on the decline of the Seljukides,
flourished the moralist Sa'di and the mystic Jalal ud-din
Rumi. Under Timur lived the sweet singer Haftz (Shams
ud-din), called the Anacreon of Persia. These are but a very
few of the names famous in the realm of poetry. The pages
of Ibn-Khallikan, and of Lutf Ali Azar 8 speak more eloquently
of the poetical genius of the Moslems.

Such were the glorious achievements of the Moslems in the
field of intellect ; and all was due to the teachings of one man.
Called by his voice from the abyss of barbarism and ignorance
in which they had hitherto dwelt, with little hope of the present,
with none of the future, the Arab went into the world, to
elevate and civilise. Afflicted humanity awoke into new life.
Whilst the barbarians of Europe, who had overturned an effete
empire, were groping in the darkness of ignorance and brutality,
the Moslems were building up a great civilisation. During
centuries of moral and intellectual desolation in Europe, Islam
led the vanguard of progress. Christianity had established

1 A.C. 1175, A.H. 569. * A.C. II77, A.H. 573.

3 Anwari' s panegyric on Sultan Sanjar is one of the finest poems in the
Persian language. The Hindustani poet Sauda in the Kasida in honour of
Asaf ud-Dowla of Oudh has imitated Anwari with great success.

* A.C. Il86, A.H. 582. 6 A.C I20I, A.H. 598.

6 A.C. Il8o, A.H. 576. 7 A.C. II90, A.H. 586.

8 The Atesh-Kadeh (" Fire Temple ") of Lutf Ali Azar is the lives of the
Persian poets from the earliest times, with specimens of their poetry.


itself on the throne of the Caesars, but it had failed to regenerate
the nations of the earth. From the fourth century of the
Christian era to the twelfth, the gloom that overshadowed
Europe grew deeper and deeper. During these ages of ferocious
bigotry Ecclesiasticism barred every access through which the
light of knowledge, humanity, or civilisation could enter. But
though jealously shut out from this land of fanaticism, the
benignant influences of Islamic culture in time made them-
selves felt in every part of Christendom. From the schools
of Salerno, of Bagdad, of Damascus, of Cordova, of Granada, of
Malaga, the Moslems taught the world the gentle lessons of
philosophy and the practical teachings of stern science. 1

The first manifestation of Rationalism in the West occurred in
the province most amenable to the power of Moslem civilisation.
Ecclesiasticism crushed this fair flower with fire and with
sword, and threw back the progress of the world for centuries.
But the principles of Free Thought, so strongly impressed on
Islam, had communicated their vitality to Christian Europe.
Abelard had felt the power of Averroes' genius, which was
shedding its light over the whole of the Western world. Abelard
struck a blow for Free Thought which led to the eventual
emancipation of Christendom from the bondage of Ecclesi-
asticism. Avenpace and Averroes were the precursors of
Descartes, Hobbes, and Locke.

The influence of Abelard and of his school soon penetrated
into England. Wycliffe's originality of thought and freedom
of spirit took their rise from the bold conceptions of the former
thinkers. The later German reformers, deriving their notions
on one side from the iconoclasts of Constantinople, and on the
other from the movements of the Albigenses and the Wyclirfites,
completed the work which had been commenced by others
under foreign rationalistic influence.

While Christian Europe had placed learning under the ban
of persecution ; while the Vicar of Christ set the example of
stifling the infant lispings of Free Thought ; while the priests

1 The impetus which Islam gave to the intellectual development of mankind
is evidenced by the fact that the Arabs were joined in the race for progress by
members of nationalities which had hitherto lain absolutely dormant. Islam
quickened the pulse of humanity and awakened new life in communities which
were either dead or dying ; see Appendix III,


led the way in consigning to the flames thousands of inoffensive
beings for mere aberration of reason ; while Christian Europe
was exorcising demons and worshipping rags and bones —
learning flourished under the Moslem sovereigns, and was held
in honour and veneration as never before. The Vicegerents of
Mohammed allied themselves to the cause of civilisation, and
assisted in the growth of Free Thought and Free Inquiry,
originated and consecrated by the Prophet himself. Persecution
for the sake of the faith was unknown ; and whatever the
political conduct of the sovereigns, the world has never had
superior examples in their impartiality and absolute toleration
of all creeds and religions. The cultivation of the physical
sciences — that great index to the intellectual liberty of a nation
— formed a popular pursuit among the Moslems.

The two failures of the Arabs, the one before Constantinople
and the other in France, retarded the progress of the world for
ages, and put back the hour-hand of time for centuries. Had
the Arabs been less keen for the safety of their spoils, less
divided among themselves, had they succeeded in driving before
them the barbarian hosts of Charles Martel, the history of the
darkest period in the annals of the world would never have been
written. The Renaissance, civilisation, the growth of intel-
lectual liberty, would have been accelerated by seven hundred
years. We should not have had to shudder over the massacre
of the Albigenses or of the Huguenots, or the ghastly slaughters
of the Irish Catholics by the English Protestants under the
Tudors and the Protectorate. We should not have had to
mourn over the fate of a Bruno or a Servetus, murdered by the
hands of those who had revolted from their mother-church.
The history of the auto-da-fe, of the murders of the Inquisition,
of the massacres of the Aztecs and the Incas ; the tale of the
Thirty Years' War, with its manifold miseries, — all this would
have remained untold. Above all, Spain, at one time the
favoured haunt of learning and the arts, would not have become
the intellectual desert it now is, bereft of the glories of centuries.
Who has not mourned over the fate of that noble race, exiled
by the mad bigotry of a Christian sovereign from the country
of its adoption, which it had made famous among nations ?
Justly has it been said, " In an ill-omened hour the Cross


supplanted the Crescent on the towers of Granada. ' ' The shades

Online LibrarySyed Ameer AliThe spirit of Islâm : a history of the evolution and ideals of Islâm → online text (page 43 of 55)