Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
By Henry Hallam (17771859)
From Middle Ages
OF all the revolutions which have had a permanent influence upon the civil history of mankind, none could so little be anticipated by human prudence as that effected by the religion of Arabia. As the seeds of invisible disease grow up sometimes in silence to maturity, till they manifest themselves hopeless and irresistible, the gradual propagation of a new faith in a barbarous country beyond the limits of the empire was hardly known, perhaps, and certainly disregarded, in the Court of Constantinople. Arabia, in the age of Mohammed, was divided into many small states, most of which, however, seem to have looked up to Mecca as the capital of their nation and the chief seat of their religious worship. The capture of that city, accordingly, and subjugation of its powerful and numerous aristocracy, readily drew after it the submission of the minor tribes, who transferred to the conqueror the reverence they were used to show to those he had subdued. If we consider Mohammed only as a military usurper, there is nothing more explicable or more analogous, especially to the course of oriental history, than his success. But as the author of a religious imposture, upon which, though avowedly unattested by miraculous powers, and though originally discountenanced by the civil magistrate, he had the boldness to found a scheme of universal dominion, which his followers were half enabled to realise, it is a curious speculation by what means he could inspire so sincere, so ardent, so energetic, and so permanent a belief.
A full explanation of the causes which contributed to the progress of Mohammedism is not, perhaps, at present, attainable by those most conversant with this department of literature. But we may point out several of leading importance: in the first place, those just and elevated notions of the divine nature and of moral duties, the gold ore that pervades the dross of the Koran, which were calculated to strike a serious and reflecting people, already, perhaps, disinclined by intermixture with their Jewish and Christian fellow-citizens, to the superstitions of their ancient idolatry; next, the artful incorporation of tenets, usages, and traditions from the various religions that existed in Arabia; and thirdly, the extensive application of the precepts in the Koran, a book confessedly written with much elegance and purity, to all legal transactions and all the business of life. It may be expected that I should add to these what is commonly considered as a distinguishing mark of Mohammedism, its indulgence to voluptuousness. But this appears to be greatly exaggerated. Although the character of its founder may have been tainted by sensuality as well as ferociousness, I do not think that he relied upon inducements of the former kind for the diffusion of his system. We are not to judge of this by rules of Christian purity, or of European practice. If polygamy was a prevailing usage in Arabia, as it is not questioned, its permission gave no additional licence to the proselytes of Mohammed, who will be found rather to have narrowed the unbounded liberty of oriental manners in this respect; while his decided condemnation of adultery and of incestuous connections, so frequent among barbarous nations, does not argue a very lax and accommodating morality. A devout Mussulman exhibits much more of the Stoical than the Epicurean character. Nor can anyone read the Koran without being sensible that it breathes an austere and scrupulous spirit. And, in fact, the founder of a new religion or sect is little likely to obtain permanent success by indulging the vices and luxuries of mankind. I should rather be disposed to reckon the severity of Mohammeds discipline among the causes of its influence. Precepts of ritual observance, being always definite, and unequivocal, are less likely to be neglected, after their obligation has been acknowledged, than those of moral virtue. Thus the long fasting, the pilgrimages, the regular prayers and ablutions, the constant alms-giving, the abstinence from stimulating liquors, enjoined by the Koran, created a visible standard of practice among its followers, and preserved a continual recollection of their law.
But the prevalence of Islam in the lifetime of its prophet, and during the first ages of its existence, was chiefly owing to the spirit of martial energy that he infused into it. The religion of Mohammed is as essentially a military system as the institution of chivalry in the west of Europe. The people of Arabia, a race of strong passions and sanguinary temper, inured to habits of pillage and murder, found in the law of their native prophet, not a licence, but a command to desolate the world, and the promise of all that their glowing imagination could anticipate of Paradise annexed to all in which they most delighted upon earth. It is difficult for us in the calmness of our closets to conceive that feverish intensity of excitement to which man may be wrought, when the animal and intellectual energies of his nature converge to a point, and the buoyancy of strength and courage reciprocates the influence of moral sentiment or religious hope. The effect of this union I have formerly remarked in the Crusades; a phenomenon perfectly analogous to the early history of the Saracens. In each, one hardly knows whether most to admire the prodigious exertions of heroism, or to revolt from the ferocious bigotry that attended them. But the Crusades were a temporary effort, not thoroughly congenial to the spirit of Christendom, which, even in the darkest and most superstitious ages, was not susceptible of the solitary and overruling fanaticism of the Moslem. They needed no excitement from pontiffs and preachers to achieve the work to which they were called; the precept was in their law, the principle was in their hearts, the assurance of success was in their swords.