Syed Ameer Ali.

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

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of the glorious dead, of Averroes and Avenpace, of Waladeh
and Ayesha, sit weeping by the ruined haunts of their people
— haunts silent now to the voice of minstrelsy, of chivalry, of
learning, and of art, — only echoing at times the mad outcries
of religious combatants, at times the fierce sounds of political
animosities. Christianity drove the descendants of these
Moslem Andalusians into the desert, sucked out every element
of vitality from beautiful Spain, and made the land a synonym
for intellectual and moral desolation. 1

If Maslamah had succeeded in capturing Constantinople, —
the capital of Irene, the warm advocate of orthodoxy and cruel
murderess of her own son, — the dark deeds which sully the
annals of the Isaurians, the Comneni, the Palaeologi, the terrible
results which attended the seizure of Byzantium by the Latins,
above all, the frightful outburst of the unholy wars, in which
Christian Europe tried to strangle the nations of Asia, would
probably never have come to pass. One thing at all events is
certain, that if Constantinople had fallen into the hands of the
Moslems, the iconoclastic movement would not have proved
altogether abortive, and the reformation of the Christian
Church would have been accomplished centuries earlier.
Providence willed otherwise. The wave of Free Thought,
which had reached the Isaurian emperors from the Islamic
regions, broke upon the rocks of ignorance, superstition, and
bigotry ; its power was not felt until the combined action of
the schools of Salerno and Cordova — the influence of Averroes,
and perhaps of some Greeks who had imbibed learning at the
Saracenic fountain — had battered down the rampart of

/ Islam inaugurated the reign of intellectual liberty. It has
been truly remarked, that so long as Islam retained its pristine
character, it proved itself the warm protector and promoter of
knowledge and civilisation, — the zealous ally of intellectual
freedom. The moment extraneous elements attached them-
selves to it, it lagged behind in the race of progress.

But, to explain the stagnation of the Moslems in the present

1 For the economic condition of Spain and the state of arts and learning
under the Arabs, see Short History of the Saracens, pp. 474-580.


day, it is necessary to glance back for a moment at the events
that transpired in Spain, in Africa, and in Asia between the
twelfth and the seventeenth centuries. In the former country,
Christianity destroyed the intellectual life of the people. The
Moslems had turned Spain into a garden ; the Christians con-
verted it into a desert. The Moslems had covered the land
with colleges and schools ; the Christians transformed them into
churches for the worship of saints and images. The literary
and scientific treasures amassed by the Moslem sovereigns
were consigned to the flames. The Moslem men, women, and
children were ruthlessly butchered or burnt at the stake ; the
few who were spared were reduced to slavery. Those who fled
were thrown on the shores of Africa helpless beggars. It would
take the combined charity of Jesus and Mohammed to make
Islam forget or forgive the terrible wrongs inflicted by the
Christians of Spain upon the Andalusian Moslems. But the
punishment was not long in coming. Before the world was a
century old, Spain's fire had sunk into a heap of ashes !

In Western Africa, the triumph of Patristicism under the
third Almohade sovereign, 1 and the uprise of Berber fanaticism
turned back the tide of progress, arrested the civilisation of
centuries, and converted the seats of learning and arts into
centres of bigotry and ignorance. The settlement of the
Corsairs on the Barbary coast and the anarchy which prevailed
in Egypt under the later Mamelukes, discouraged the cultiva-
tion of peaceful knowledge. In Asia the decadence of the
Timuride dynasty, the eruption of the wild and fanatical
Uzbegs, and the establishment of their power in the capital of
Timur, destroyed the intellectual vitality of the people. In
Persia, under the Safawis, literature and science had begun

1 On the decadence of the Fatimide power in Western Africa there arose a
dynasty descended from a Marabout or saint of the country, hence called
Almoravide or al-Murabatia (^aIsjI^i). To this family belonged Yusuf ibn
Tashfin, the patron of Ibn-Zuhr. His son and successor was defeated and
killed by Abdu'l Momin, the founder of the dynasty of Almohades (al-Muwa-
hidin, ^^Aj^i\. the Unitarians), who sacked and destroyed Morocco
and Fez. They were akin to the Wahabis and the Ikhwan of Central Arabia,
and probably not very different from the Mahdists of Lybia. The first two
sovereigns of this dynasty, Abdu'l Momin and Yusuf, encouraged learning
and arts ; in the reign of Ya'kub al-Mansur, the third Almohade king,
fanaticism became rampant.


to breathe once more ; but this renaissance was only temporary,
and with the irruption of the barbarous Ghihzais the renovated
life of Iran came to an end. A deathlike gloom settled upon
Central Asia, which still hangs heavy over these unhappy
countries, and is slowly lifting in Afghanistan.

Under Selim I., Solyman and the Murads, learning received
support in the Ottoman dominions ; but the Osmanlis were on
the whole a military race. At first from ambition, afterwards
from sheer necessity and for self-preservation, they had been
at war with a relentless foe, whose designs knew no slackening,
whose purpose was inscrutable. That enemy has disappeared,
but the nation has still to fight for its existence. Letters and
arts, under such conditions, can make but little progress.
Dealing with the charge of obscurantism, often levelled against
Islam, M. Gobineau makes the following pregnant observation :
" Imagine in any European country the absolute predominance
of military and administrative despotism during a period of
two hundred and fifty years, as is the case in Turkey ; conceive
something approaching the warlike anarchy of Egypt under the
domination of foreign slaves — Circassians, Georgians, Turks,
and Albanians ; picture to yourself an Afghan invasion, as in
Persia after 1730, the tyranny of Nadir Shah, the cruelties and
ravages that have marked the accession of the dynasty of the
Kajars, — unite all these circumstances with their naturally
concomitant causes, you will then understand what would have
become of any European country although European, and it
will not be necessary to look further for any explanation of the
ruin of Oriental countries, nor to charge Islam with any unjust

From the time of its birth in the seventh century up to the
end of the seventeenth, not to descend later, Islam was
animated by a scientific and literary spirit equal in force and
energy to that which animates Europe of our own day. It
carried the Moslems forward on a wave of progress, and enabled
them to achieve a high degree of material and mental develop-
ment. Since the eruption of the Goths and the Vandals, the
progress of Europe has been on a continuous scale. No such
calamity as has afflicted Asia, in the persons of the Tartars
or the Uzbegs, has befallen Christendom since Attila's retreat
s.i. 2 c


from France. Her wars, cruel and bitter, fierce and inhuman,
have been waged on equal terms of humanity or inhumanity.
Catholics and Protestants have burnt each other ; but Europe
has never witnessed, since the wholesale butcheries of the poor
Spanish Moors, the terrible massacres committed by the Tartars
in all the centres of civilisation and culture, in which fell the
gifted classes who formed the backbone of the nation. 1
And now,

v->l — *~l,»l J. J»i^ J si

The spider holds watch in the palace of Caesar,
The owlet beats the drum on the tower of Afrasiab.

1 The sack of Bagdad by the Mongols exemplifies what happened in other
cities, but in order to give a true conception of the fearful atrocities perpetrated
by the savages, it requires to be painted by another Gibbon. For three days
the streets ran with blood, and the water of the Tigris was dyed red for miles
along its course. The horrors of rapine, slaughter, and outraged humanity
lasted for six weeks. The palaces, mosques, and mausoleums were destroyed
by fire or levelled to the earth for their golden domes. The patients in the
hospitals and the students and professors in the colleges were put to the sword.
In the mausoleums the mortal remains of the sheikhs and pious imams, and
in the academies the immortal works of great and learned men, were con-
sumed to ashes ; books were thrown into the fire, or, where that was distant
and the Tigris near, were buried in the waters of the latter. The accumulated
treasures of five centuries were thus lost for ever to humanity. The flower of
the nation was completely destroyed. It was the custom of Hulaku, from
policy and as a precaution, to carry along with his horde the princes and chiefs
of the countries through which they swept. One of these princes was Sa'di
bin Zangi, the Atabek of Fars. The poet Sa'di had, it appears, accompanied
his friend and patron. He was thus an eye-witness to the terrible state of
Bagdad and its doomed inhabitants. In two pathetic couplets he has given
expression to its magnitude and horrors, see Appendix II.



U ,xkj J»

II KE all other nations of antiquity, the pre-Islamite Arabs
were stern fatalists. The remains of their ancient
-■ poetry, sole record of old Arab thought and manners,
show that before the promulgation of Islam the people of the
Peninsula had absolutely abandoned themselves to the idea of
an irresistible and blind fatality. Man was but a sport in the
hands of Fate. This idea bred a reckless contempt of death,
and an utter disregard for human life. The teachings of Islam
created a revolution in the Arab mind ; with the recognition
of a supreme Intelligence governing the universe, they received
the conception of self-dependence and of moral responsibility
founded on the liberty of human volition. One of the remark-
able characteristics of the Koran is the curious, and, at first
sight, inconsistent, manner in which it combines the existence
of a Divine Will, which not only orders all things, but which
acts directly upon men and addresses itself to the springs of
thought in them, with the assertion of a free agency in man
and of the liberty of intellect. Not that this feature is peculiar
to the Moslem scripture ; the same characteristic is to be found
in the Biblical records. But in the Koran the conception of
human responsibility is so strongly developed that the question
naturally occurs to the mind, How can these two ideas be

1 " God changes not as to what concerns any people until they change in
respect to what depends upon themselves."


reconciled with each other ? It seems inconsistent at first
sight that man should be judged by his works, a doctrine which
forms the foundation of Islamic morality, if all his actions are
ruled by an all-powerful Will. The earnest faith of Mohammed
in an active ever-living Principle, joined to his trust in the
progress of man, supplies a key to this mystery. I propose to
illustrate my meaning by a reference to a few of the passages
which give expression to the absolutism of the Divine Will and
those which assert the liberty of human volition : " And
God's ordering is in accordance with a determined decree ;
. . . and the sun proceeding to its place of rest — that is an
ordinance ; y^ ) of the Almighty, the All-wise ; x . . . and
among His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth
and of the animals which He hath distributed therein, which
He has sovereign power to gather when He will ; 2 . . . and do
they not see that God who created the heavens and the earth,
and faltered not in creating these, has power to vivify the dead
— nay, He has sovereign control over all things ; 3 and other
things which are not at your command, but which are truly
within His grasp, inasmuch as God is sovereign disposer of all
things ( \y±> ^i J? ^U ) ; 4 nor is there anything not pro-
vided beforehand by Us, or which W T e send down otherwise
than according to a fore-known decree ; 5 . . . the secrets of
the heavens and the earth are God's ; . . . God has all things
at command ; 6 . . . and propound to them a similitude of this
present life, which is like water sent down by Us from heaven,
so that the plants of the earth are fattened by it, and on the
morrow become stubble, scattered by the winds, — God disposes
of all things ; 7 . . . and it pertains to God's sovereignty to
defend them ; 8 . . . God creates what He will ; 9 . . . and who
created all things, and determined respecting the same with
absolute determination ; 10 . . . and thy Lord is a supreme
sovereign ; u . . . behold thou the imprints of the mercy of
God : how He vivifies the earth, after it has died — in very
deed, a restorer of life to the dead is there, and all things are
at His bidding ; 12 . . . to God belongs whatsoever is in the

I xxxvi. 38. 2 xlii. 28. 3 xlvi. 29. * xlviii. 21. 5 xv. 21.
* xvi. 77. 7 xviii. 45. 8 xxii. 40. 9 xxiv. 45. 10 xxv. 2.

II xxv. 54. 12 j*** ^^ <M .j^-e y&) , xxx. 50.


heavens and whatsoever is on the earth ; and whether ye dis-
close that which is within you or conceal it, God will reckon
with you for it ; and He pardons whom He will, and punishes
whom He will — inasmuch as God is a Supreme Sovereign ; 1
. . . say thou : O God, Sovereign Disposer of dominion, Thou
givest rule to whom Thou wilt, and takest away power from
whom Thou wilt, Thou exaltest whom Thou wilt, and humblest
whom Thou wilt : all good is at Thy disposal — verily, Thou art
a Supreme Sovereign ; 2 . . God punishes whom He will, and
pardons whom He will ; 3 . . . to God belongs the dominion of
the heavens and the earth, and whatsoever they contain is
His, and He is Sovereign over all things. 4 . . . Verily, God
accomplishes what He ordains — He hath established for every-
thing a fixed decree ; 5 . . . but God has the measuring out
( jZaj ) of the night and the day ; 6 . . . extol the name of Thy
Lord, the Most High, who made the world, and fashioned it to
completeness, who fore-ordained, and guides accordingly ; 7
... as for the unbelievers it matters nothing to them whether
thou warnest them or dost not warn them ; they will not
believe ; God hath sealed up their hearts and their ears ; 8 . .
and the darkness of night is over their eyes ; 9 . . and God
guides into the right path whomsoever He will ; 10 . . . God is
pleased to make your burthens light, inasmuch as man is by
nature infirm. . . . God changes not as to what concerns any
people until they change in respect to what depends upon
themselves ; n . . . say thou : Verily, Gods leads astray whom-
soever He will, and directs to Himself those who are penitent." 12
It will be noticed that, in many of these passages by " the
decree of God " is clearly meant the law of nature. The stars
and planets have each their appointed course ; so has every
other object in creation. The movements of the heavenly
bodies, the phenomena of nature, life and death, are all
governed by law. Other passages unquestionably indicate the
idea of Divine agency upon human will ; but they are again
explained by others, in which that agency is " conditioned "
upon human will. It is to the seeker for Divine help that God

1 ii. 284. ■ iii. 25. 3 v. 18. * v. 120. 5 lxv. 3.

8 lxxiii. 20. ' Ixxxvii. 1-3. ■ ii. 5-6. • ii. 7. 10 xiii. 31.

11 *f«-AJb U \jyX> JL. pjju Lc £k, V «Jj, yj ( xiii. 11. 12 xiii. 27.


renders His help ; it is on the searcher of his own heart, who
purifies his soul from impure longings, that God bestows grace.
To the Arabian Teacher, as to his predecessors, the existence of
an Almighty Power, the Fashioner of the Universe, the Ruler
of His creatures, was an intense and vivid reality. The feeling
of "an assured trust " in an all-pervading, ever-conscious
Personality has been the motive power in the world of every
age. To the weary mariner, " sailing on life's solemn main,"
there is nothing more assuring, nothing that more satisfies the
intense longing for a better and purer world, than the con-
sciousness of a Power above humanity to redress wrongs, to
fulfil hopes, to help the forlorn. Our belief in God springs from
the very essence of Divine ordinances. They are as much laws,
in the strictest sense of the word, as the laws which regulate the
movements of the celestial bodies. But the will of God is not
an arbitrary will : it is an educating will, to be obeyed by the
scholar in his walks of learning as by the devotee in his cell.

The passages, however, in which human responsibility and
the freedom of human will are laid down in emphatic terms
define and limit the conception of absolutism. " And who-
soever gets to himself a sin, gets it solely on his own responsi-
bility ; * . . . and let alone those who make a sport and a
mockery of their religion, and whom this present world has
deluded, and thereby bring to remembrance that any soul
perishes for what it has got to itself ; 2 and when they commit
a deed of shame they say : We have found that our fathers did
so, and God obliges us to do it ; say thou : Surely, God
requireth not shameful doing : 3 . . . they did injustice to them-
selves ; 4 yonder will every soul experience that which it hath
bargained for ; 5 ... so then, whosoever goes astray, he himself
bears the whole responsibility of wandering." 6

t~J6 ^U &xSj Uoli Uj'i w~£j ^ j 1V in

2 o^-oT.Uj if&i JLw i,yl, vi. 70.

3 flA^U^l 3J *JJ| it, vii . 09.

4 cjyJij ^«.JL| \,M ySJ j, ix. 70.

LfkXc iS&j Uj'i J-* ^j A-aJ C 5«>x ( tJ l»j li ^oJjfci ^^j, v. io3.


Man, within the limited sphere of his existence, is absolute
master of his conduct. He is responsible for his actions, and
for the use or misuse of the powers with which he has been
endowed. He may fall or rise, according to his own " inclina-
tion." There was supreme assistance for him who sought
Divine help and guidance. Is not the soul purer and better
in calling to its Lord for that help which He has promised ?
Are not the weak strengthened, the stricken comforted — by their
own appeal to the Heavenly Father for solace and strength ?
Such were the ideas of the Teacher of Islam with regard to
Divine sovereignty and the liberty of human volition. His
recorded sayings handed down from sources which may be
regarded as unquestionably authentic, help in explaining the
conception he entertained about freewill and predestination
()*» 3 Ui orjCJ.^I jj**- )• Not only his own words, but those
of his son-in-law, " the legitimate heir to his inspiration,"
and his immediate descendants, who derived their ideas from
him, may well furnish us with a key to the true Islamic notion
on the question of the free agency of man — a subject which has
for ages, both in Islam and in Christianity, been the battle-
ground of sectarian disputes. In discussing this subject, we
must not, however, lose sight of the fact that most of the
traditions which have supplied to Patristicism its armoury of
weapons against the sovereignty of reason, bear evident traces
of being ' made to order.' They tell their own story of how,
and the circumstances under which, they came into existence.
Some of the traditions which purport to be handed down by
men who came casually in contact with the Teacher, show
palpable signs of changes and transformations in the minds
and in the memories of the mediaries. The authentic sayings,
however, are many, and I shall refer only to a few to explain
what I have already indicated, that in Mohammed's mind an
earnest belief in the liberty of human will was joined to a vivid
trust in the personality of the heavenly Father. Hereditary
depravity and natural sinfulness were emphatically denied.
Every child of man was born pure and true ; every departure
in after-life from the path of truth and rectitude is due to
education. " Every man is born religiously constituted ; it is
his parents who make him afterwards a Jew, Christian, or a


Sabaean, like as ye take up the beast at its birth — do ye find
upon it any mutilation, until ye yourselves mutilate it ? " 1
Infants have no positive moral character : for about those who
die in early life, " God best knows what would have been their
conduct " [had they lived to maturity]. " Every human being
has two inclinations, — one prompting him to good and impelling
him thereto, and the other prompting him to evil and thereto
impelling him ; 2 but the godly assistance is nigh, and he who
asks the help of God in contending with the evil promptings of
his own heart obtains it." " It is your own conduct which will
lead you to paradise or hell, as if you had been destined there-
for." No man's conduct is the outcome of fatality, nor is he
borne along by an irresistible decree to heaven or hell ; on the
contrary, the ultimate result is the creation of his own actions,
for each individual is primarily answerable for his future
destiny. " Every moral agent is furthered to his own con-
duct," or, as it is put in another tradition : " Every one is
divinely furthered in accordance with his character." 3 Human
conduct is by no means fortuitous ; one act is the result of
another ; and life, destiny and character mean the connected
series of incidents and actions which are related to each other,
as cause and effect, by an ordained law, " the assignment " of
God. In the sermons of the Disciple we find the doctrine more
fully developed. " Weigh your own soul before the time for
the weighing of your actions arrives ; take count with yourself
before you are called upon to account for your conduct in this
existence ; apply yourself to good and pure actions, adhere to
the path of truth and rectitude before the soul is pressed to
leave its earthly abode : verily, if you will not guide and warn
yourself, none other can direct you." 4 "I adjure you to

^ mr* Ja *1**a &+x$i **£$^l <J& US aJUs^? } thj^sj ^ titejQf'

* Bukhari's Collections, chapter on the Hadis, "He is secured whom God
helps " ; reported by Abu Sa'id al-Khuzri.

3 *J <j^» UJ j—** J£i \jUs\

4 Nakj ul-Balaghat, p. 43 (a collection of the Khutbas of the Caliph Ali by
one of his descendants, named Sharif Riza, mentioned by Ibn-Khallikan),
printed at Tabriz in 1299 a.h.


worship the Lord in purity and holiness. He has pointed out
to you the path of salvation and the temptations of this world.
Abstain from foulness, though it may be fair-seeming to your
sight ; avoid evil, however pleasant. . . . For ye knoweth how
far it takes you away from Him. . . . Listen, and take warning
by the words of the Merciful Guardian." x . . . And again, " O
ye servants of my Lord, fulfil the duties that are imposed on
you, for in their neglect is abasement : your good works alone
will render easy the road to death. Remember, each sin
increases the debt, and makes the chain [which binds you]
heavier. The message of mercy has come ; the path of truth
is clear ; obey the command that has been laid on you ; live
in purity, and work in piety, and ask God to help you in
your endeavours, and to forgive your past transgressions." 2
" Cultivate humility and forbearance : comport yourself with
piety and truth. Take count of your actions with your own
conscience ( u ^ k i i ) ( for he who takes such count reaps a great
reward, and he who neglects incurs great loss. He who acts
with piety gives rest to his soul ; he who takes warning under-
stands the truth ; he who understands it attains the perfect
knowledge." These utterances convey no impression of pre-
destinarianism ; on the contrary, they portray a soul animated
with a living faith in God, and yet full of trust in human
development founded upon individual exertion springing from
human volition. Mohammed's definition of reason and know-
ledge, of the cognition of the finite and infinite, reminds us of
Aristotelian phraseology and thought, and Ali's address to his
son may be read with advantage by the admirer of Aristotelian

The Ihtijdj ut-Tabrasi 3 supplies further materials to form a
correct opinion on the question of predestinarianism in Islam.

Online LibrarySyed Ameer AliThe spirit of Islâm : a history of the evolution and ideals of Islâm → online text (page 44 of 55)