OF THE RELIGION OF MAHOMET.
The only event in the history of the human species which admits of comparison with the propagation of Christianity is the success of Mahometanism. The Mahometan institution was rapid in its progress, was recent in its history, and was founded upon a supernatural or prophetic character assumed by its author. In these articles, the resemblance with Christianity is confessed. But there are points of difference which separate, we apprehend, the two cases entirely.
I. Mahomet did not found his pretensions upon miracles, properly so called; that is, upon proofs of supernatural agency capable of being known and attested by others. Christians are warranted in this. assertion by the evidence of the Koran, in which Mahomet not only does not affect the power of working miracles, but expressly disclaims it. The following passages of that book furnish direct proofs of the truth of what we allege:—“The infidels say, Unless a sign be sent down unto him from his lord, we will not believe; thou art a preacher only.” (Sale's Koran, c. xiii. p. 201, ed. quarto.) Again; “Nothing hindered us from sending thee with miracles, except that the former nations have charged them with imposture.” (C. xvii. p. 232.) And lastly; “They say, Unless a sign be sent down unto him from his lord, we will not believe: Answer; Signs are in the power of God alone, and I am no more than a public preacher. Is it not sufficient for them, that we have sent down unto them the book of the Koran to be read unto them?” (C. xxix. p. 328.) Beside these acknowledgments, I have observed thirteen distinct places in which Mahomet puts the objection (unless a sign, &c.) into the mouth of the unbeliever, in not one of which does he allege a miracle in reply. His answer is, “that God giveth the power of working miracles when and to whom he pleaseth;” (C. v. x. xiii. twice.) “that if he should work miracles, they would not believe;” (C. vi.) “that they had before rejected Moses, and Jesus and the Prophets, who wrought miracles;” (C. iii. xxi. xxviii.) “that the Koran itself was a miracle.” (C. xvi.)
The only place in the Koran in which it can be pretended that a sensible miracle is referred to (for I do not allow the secret visitations of Gabriel, the night-journey of Mahomet to heaven, or the presence in battle of invisible hosts of angels, to deserve the name of sensible miracles) is the beginning of the fifty-fourth chapter. The words are these:—“The hour of judgment approacheth, and the moon hath been split in sunder: but if the unbelievers see a sign, they turn aside, saying, This is a powerful charm.” The Mahometan expositors disagree their interpretation of this passage; some explaining it to be mention of the splitting of the moon as one of the future signs of the approach of the day of judgment: others referring it to a miraculous appearance which had then taken place. (Vide Sale, in loc.) It seems to me not improbable, that Mahomet might have taken advantage of some extraordinary halo, or other unusual appearance of the moon, which had happened about this time; and which supplied a foundation both for this passage, and for the story which in after times had been raised out of it.
After this more than silence, after these authentic confessions of the Koran, we are not to be moved with miraculous stories related of Mahomet by Abulfeda, who wrote his life about six hundred years after his death; or which are found in the legend of A1-Jannabi, who came two hundred years later.* On the contrary, from comparing what Mahomet himself wrote and said with what was afterwards reported of him by his followers, the plain and Pair conclusion is, that when the religion was established by conquest, then, and not till then, came out the stories of his miracles.
* It does not, I think, appear, that these historians had any written accounts to appeal to more ancient than the Sonnah; which was a collection of traditions made by order of the Caliphs two hundred years after Mahomet's death. Mahomet died A.D. 632; Al-Bochari, one of the six doctors who compiled the Sonnah, was born A.D. 809; died 869. Prideaux's Life of Mahomet, p. 192, ed. 7th.
Now this difference alone constitutes, in my opinion, a bar to all reasoning from one case to the other. The success of a religion founded upon a miraculous history shows the credit which was given to the history; and this credit, under the circumstances in which it was given, i. e. by persons capable of knowing the truth, and interested to inquire after it, is evidence of the reality of the history, and, by consequence, of the truth of the religion. Where a miraculous history is not alleged, no part of this argument can be applied. We admit that multitudes acknowledged the pretensions of Mahomet: but, these pretensions being destitute of miraculous evidence, we know that the grounds upon which they were acknowledged could not be secure grounds of persuasion to his followers, nor their example any authority to us. Admit the whole of Mahomet's authentic history, so far as it was of a nature capable of being known or witnessed by others, to be true (which is certainly to admit all that the reception of the religion can be brought to prove), and Mahomet might still be an impostor, or enthusiast, or a union of both. Admit to be true almost any part of Christ's history, of that, I mean, which was public, and within the cognizance of his followers, and he must have come from God. Where matter of fact is not in question, where miracles are not alleged, I do not see that the progress of a religion is a better argument of its truth than the prevalency of any system of opinions in natural religion, morality, or physics, is a proof of the truth of those opinions. And we know that this sort of argument is inadmissible in any branch of philosophy what ever.
But it will be said, if one religion could make its way without miracles, why might not another? To which I reply, first, that this is not the question; the proper question is not, whether a religious institution could be set up without miracles, but whether a religion, or a change of religion, founding itself in miracles, could succeed without any reality to rest upon? I apprehend these two cases to be very different: and I apprehend Mahomet's not taking this course, to be one proof, amount others, that the thing is difficult, if not impossible, to be accomplished: certainly it was not from an unconsciousness of the value and importance of miraculous evidence; for it is very observable, that in the same volume, and sometimes in the same chapters, in which Mahomet so repeatedly disclaims the power of working miracles himself, he is incessantly referring to the miracles of preceding prophets. One would imagine, to hear some men talk, or to read some books, that the setting up of a religion by dint of miraculous pretences was a thing of every day's experience: whereas, I believe that, except the Jewish and Christian religion, there is no tolerably well authenticated account of any such thing having been accomplished.
II. The establishment of Mahomet's religion was affected by causes which in no degree appertained to the origin of Christianity.
During the first twelve years of his mission, Mahomet had recourse only to persuasion. This is allowed. And there is sufficient reason from the effect to believe that, if he had confined himself to this mode of propagating his religion, we of the present day should never have heard either of him or it. “Three years were silently employed in the conversion of fourteen proselytes. For ten years, the religion advanced with a slow and painful progress, within the walls of Mecca. The number of proselytes in the seventh year of his mission may be estimated by the absence of eighty-three men and eighteen women, who retired to Aethiopia.” (Gibbon's Hist. vol. ix. p. 244, et seq. ed. Dub.) Yet this progress, such as it was, appears to have been aided by some very important advantages which Mahomet found in his situation, in his mode of conducting his design, and in his doctrine.
1. Mahomet was the grandson of the most powerful and honourable family in Mecca; and although the early death of his father had not left him a patrimony suitable to his birth, he had, long before the commencement of his mission, repaired this deficiency by an opulent marriage. A person considerable by his wealth, of high descent, and nearly allied to the chiefs of his country, taking upon himself the character of a religious teacher, would not fail of attracting attention and followers.
2. Mahomet conducted his design, in the outset especially, with great art and prudence. He conducted it as a politician would conduct a plot. His first application was to his own family. This gained him his wife's uncle, a considerable person in Mecca, together with his cousin Ali, afterwards the celebrated Caliph, then a youth of great expectation, and even already distinguished by his attachment, impetuosity, and courage.* He next expressed himself to Abu Beer, a man amongst the first of the Koreish in wealth and influence. The interest and example of Abu Beer drew in five other principal persons in Mecca, whose solicitations prevailed upon five more of the same rank. This was the work of three years; during which time everything was transacted in secret. Upon the strength of these allies, and under the powerful protection of his family, who, however some of them might disapprove his enterprise, or deride his pretensions, would not suffer the orphan of their house, the relict of their favourite brother, to be insulted, Mahomet now commenced his public preaching. And the advance which he made during the nine or ten remaining years of his peaceable ministry was by no means greater than what, with these advantages, and with the additional and singular circumstance of there being no established religion at Mecca at that time to contend with, might reasonably have been expected. How soon his primitive adherents were let into the secret of his views of empire, or in what stage of his undertaking these views first opened themselves to his own mind, it is not now easy to determine. The event however was, that these, his first proselytes, all ultimately attained to riches and honours, to the command of armies, and the government of kingdoms. (Gibbon, vol. ix. p 244.)
* Of which Mr. Gibbon has preserved the following specimen: “When Mahomet called out in an assembly of his family, Who among you will be my companion, and my vizir? Ali, then only in the fourteenth year of his age, suddenly replied, O prophet I am the man;—whosoever rises against thee, I will dash out his teeth, tear out his eyes, break his legs, rip up his belly. O prophet! I will be thy vizir over them.” Vol. ix. p. 215.
3. The Arabs deduced their descent from Abraham through the line of Ishmael. The inhabitants of Mecca, in common probably with the other Arabian tribes, acknowledged, as I think may clearly be collected from the Koran, one supreme Deity, but had associated with him many objects of idolatrous worship. The great doctrine with which Mahomet set out was the strict and exclusive unity of God. Abraham, he told them, their illustrous ancestor; Ishmael, the father of their nation; Moses, the lawgiver of the Jews; and Jesus, the author of Christianity—had all asserted the same thing; that their followers had universally corrupted the truth, and that he was now commissioned to restore it to the world. Was it to be wondered at, that a doctrine so specious, and authorized by names, some or other of which were holden in the highest veneration by every description of his hearers, should, in the hands of a popular missionary, prevail to the extent in which Mahomet succeeded by his pacific ministry?
4. Of the institution which Mahomet joined with this fundamental doctrine, and of the Koran in which that institution is delivered, we discover, I think, two purposes that pervade the whole, viz., to make converts, and to make his converts soldiers. The following particulars, amongst others, may be considered as pretty evident indications of these designs:
1. When Mahomet began to preach, his address to the Jews, to the Christians, and to the Pagan Arabs, was, that the religion which he taught was no other than what had been originally their own.—“We believe in God, and that which hath been sent down unto us, and that which hath been sent down unto Abraham, and Ishmael, and Isaac, and Jacob, and the Tribes, and that which was delivered unto Moses and Jesus, and that which was delivered unto the prophets from their Lord: we make no distinction between any of them.” (Sale's Koran, c. ii. p. 17.) “He hath ordained you the religion which he commanded Noah, and which we have revealed unto thee, O Mohammed, and which we commanded Abraham, and Moses, and Jesus, saying, Observe this religion, and be not divided therein.” (Sale's Koran, c. xlii. p. 393.) “He hath chosen you, and hath not imposed on you any difficulty in the religion which he hath given you, the religion of your father Abraham.” (Sale's Koran, c. xxii. p. 281.)
2. The author of the Koran never ceases from describing the future anguish of unbelievers, their despair, regret, penitence, and torment. It is the point which he labours above all others. And these descriptions are conceived in terms which will appear in no small degree impressive, even to the modern reader of an English translation. Doubtless they would operate with much greater force upon the minds of those to whom they were immediately directed. The terror which they seem well calculated to inspire would be to many tempers a powerful application.
3. On the other hand: his voluptuous paradise; his robes of silk, his palaces of marble, his riven, and shades, his groves and couches, his wines, his dainties; and, above all, his seventy-two virgins assigned to each of the faithful, of resplendent beauty and eternal youth—intoxicated the imaginations, and seized the passions of his Eastern followers.
4. But Mahomet's highest heaven was reserved for those who fought his battles or expended their fortunes in his cause: “Those believers who sit still at home, not having any hurt, and those who employ their fortunes and their persons for the religion of God, shall not be held equal. God hath preferred those who employ their fortunes and their persons in that cause to a degree above those who sit at home. God had indeed promised every one Paradise; but God had preferred those who fight for the faith before those who sit still, by adding unto them a great reward; by degrees of honour conferred upon them from him, and by granting them forgiveness and mercy.” (Sale's Koran, c. iv. p. 73.) Again; “Do ye reckon the giving drink to the pilgrims, and the visiting of the holy temple, to be actions as meritorious as those performed by him who believeth in God and the last day, and fighteth for the religion of God? They shall not be held equal with God.—They who have believed and fled their country, and employed their substance and their persons in the defence of God's true religion, shall be in the highest degree of honour with God; and these are they who shall be happy. The Lord sendeth them good tidings of mercy from him, and good will, and of gardens wherein they shall enjoy lasting pleasures. They shall continue therein for ever; for with God is a great reward.” (Sale's Koran, c. ix. p. 151.) And, once more; “Verily God hath purchased of the true believers their souls and their substance, promising them the enjoyment of Paradise on condition that they fight for the cause of God: whether they slay or be slain, the promise for the same is assuredly due by the Law and the Gospel and the Koran.” (Sale's Koran, c. ix. p. 164.)*
* “The sword,” saith Mahomet, “is the key of heaven and of hell; a drop of blood shed in the cause of God, a night spent in arms, is of more avail than two months' fasting or prayer. Whosoever falls in battle, his sins are forgiven at the day of judgment; his wounds shall be resplendent as vermilion, and odoriferous as musk; and the loss of his limbs shall be supplied by the wings of angels and cherubim.” Gibbon, vol. ix. p. 256.
5. His doctrine of predestination was applicable, and was applied by him, to the same purpose of fortifying and of exalting the courage of his adherents.—“If anything of the matter had happened unto us, we had not been slain here. Answer; If ye had been in your houses, verily they would have gone forth to fight, whose slaughter was decreed, to the places where they died.” (Sale's Koran, c. iii. p. 54.)
6. In warm regions, the appetite of the sexes is ardent, the passion for inebriating liquors moderate. In compliance with this distinction, although Mahomet laid a restraint upon the drinking of wine, in the use of women he allowed an almost unbounded indulgence. Four wives, with the liberty of changing them at pleasure, (Sale's Koran, c. iv. p. 63.) together with the persons of all his captives, (Gibbon, vol. ix. p. 225.) was an irresistible bribe to an Arabian warrior. “God is minded,” says he, speaking of this very subject, “to make his religion light unto you; for man was created weak.” How different this from the unaccommodating purity of the Gospel! How would Mahomet have succeeded with the Christian lesson in his mouth.—“Whosoever looketh upon a woman to lust after her, hath committed adultery with her already in his heart”? It must be added, that Mahomet did not venture upon the prohibition of wine till the fourth year of the Hegira, or the seventeenth of his mission, when his military successes had completely established his authority. The same observation holds of the fast of the Ramadan, (Mod. Univ. Hist. Vol. i. pp. 126 &112.) and of the most laborious part of his institution, the pilgrimage to Mecca. (This latter, however, already prevailed amongst the Arabs, and had grown out of their excessive veneration for the Caaba. Mahomot's law, in this respect, was rather a compliance than an innovation. Sale's Prelim. Disc. p. 122.)
What has hitherto been collected from the records of the Musselman history relates to the twelve or thirteen years of Mahomet's peaceable preaching, which part alone of his life and enterprise admits of the smallest comparison with the origin of Christianity. A new scene is now unfolded. The city of Medina, distant about ten days' journey from Mecca, was at that time distracted by the hereditary contentions of two hostile tribes. These feuds were exasperated by the mutual persecutions of the Jews and Christians, and of the different Christian sects by which the city was inhabited. (Mod. Univ. Hist. Vol. i. p. 100.) The religion of Mahomet presented, in some measure, a point of union or compromise to these divided opinions. It embraced the principles which were common to them all. Each party saw in it an honourable acknowledgment of the fundamental truth of their own system. To the Pagan Arab, somewhat imbued with the sentiments and knowledge of his Jewish or Christian fellow-citizen, it offered no defensive or very improbable theology. This recommendation procured to Mahometanism a more favourable reception at Medina than its author had been able, by twelve years' painful endeavours, to obtain for it at Mecca. Yet, after all, the profess of the religion was inconsiderable. His missionary could only collect a congregation of forty persons. It was not a religious, but a political association, which ultimately introduced Mahomet into Medina. Harassed, as it should seem, and disgusted by the long continuance of factions and disputes, the inhabitants of that city saw in the admission of the prophet's authority a rest from the miseries which they had suffered, and a suppression of the violence and fury which they had learned to condemn. After an embassy, therefore, composed of believers and unbelievers, (Mod. Univ. Hist. Vol. i. p. 85.) and of persons of both tribes, with whom a treaty was concluded of strict alliance and support, Mahomet made his public entry, and was received as the sovereign of Medina.
From this time, or soon after this time, the impostor changed his language and his conduct. Having now a town at his command, where to arm his party, and to head them with security, he enters upon new counsels. He now pretends that a divine commission is given him to attack the infidels, to destroy idolatry, and to set up the true faith by the sword. (Mod. Univ. Hist. Vol. i. p. 88.) An early victory over a very superior force, achieved by conduct and bravery, established the renown of his arms, and of his personal character. (Victory of Bedr, Mod. Univ. Hist. Vol. i. p. 106.) Every year after this was marked by battles or assassinations. The nature and activity of Mahomet's future exertions may be estimated from the computation, that in the nine following years of his life he commanded his army in person in eight general engagements, (Mod. Univ. Hist. vol. i. p. 255.) and undertook, by himself or his lieutenants, fifty military enterprises.
From this time we have nothing left to account for, but that Mahomet should collect an army, that his army should conquer, and that his religion should proceed together with his conquests. The ordinary experience of human affairs leaves us little to wonder at in any of these effects: and they were likewise each assisted by peculiar facilities. From all sides, the roving Arabs crowded round the standard of religion and plunder, of freedom and victory, of arms and rapine. Beside the highly painted joys of a carnal paradise, Mahomet rewarded his followers in this world with a liberal division of the spoils, and with the persons of their female captives. (Gibbon, vol. ix. p. 255.) The condition of Arabia, occupied by small independent tribes, exposed it to the impression, and yielded to the progress of a firm and resolute army. After the reduction of his native peninsula, the weakness also of the Roman provinces on the north and the west, as well as the distracted state of the Persian empire on the east, facilitated the successful invasion of neighbouring countries. That Mahomet's conquests should carry his religion along with them will excite little surprise, when we know the conditions which he proposed to the vanquished. Death or conversion was the only choice offered to idolaters. “Strike off their heads! strike off all the ends of their fingers!(Sale's Koran, c. viii. p. 140.) kill the idolaters, wheresoever ye shall find them!” (Sale's Koran, c. ix. p. 149.) To the Jews and Christians was left the somewhat milder alternative of subjection and tribute, if they persisted in their own religion, or of an equal participation in the rights and liberties, the honours and privileges, of the faithful, if they embraced the religion of their conquerors. “Ye Christian dogs, you know your option; the Koran, the tribute, or the sword.” (Gibbon, vol. ix. p. 337.) The corrupted state of Christianity in the seventh century, and the contentions of its sects, unhappily so fell in with men's care of their safety or their fortunes, as to induce many to forsake its profession. Add to all which, that Mahomet's victories not only operated by the natural effect of conquest, but that they were constantly represented, both to his friends and enemies, as divine declarations in his favour. Success was evidence. Prosperity carried with it, not only influence, but proof. “Ye have already,” says he, after the battle of Bedr, “had a miracle shown you, in two armies which attacked each other; one army fought for God's true religion, but the other were infidels.” (Sale's Koran, c. iii. p. 36.) Again; “Ye slew not those who were slain at Bedr, but God slew them.—If ye desire a decision of the matter between us, now hath a decision come unto you.” (Sale's Koran, c. viii. p. 141.)
Many more passages might be collected out of the Koran to the same effect; but they are unnecessary. The success of Mahometanism during this, and indeed every future period of its history, bears so little resemblance to the early propagation of Christianity, that no inference whatever can justly be drawn from it to the prejudice of the Christian argument. For what are we comparing? A Galilean peasant accompanied by a few fishermen with a conqueror at the head of his army. We compare Jesus, without force, without power, without support, without One external circumstance of attraction or influence, prevailing against the prejudices, the learning, the hierarchy, of his country; against the ancient religious opinions, the pompous religious rites, the philosophy, the wisdom, the authority, of the Roman empire, in the most polished and enlightened period of its existence,—with Mahomet making his way amongst Arabs; collecting followers in the midst of conquests and triumphs, in the darkest ages and countries of the world, and when success in arms not only operated by that command of men's wills and persons which attend prosperous undertakings, but was considered as a sure testimony of Divine approbation. That multitudes, persuaded by this argument, should join the train of a victorious chief; that still greater multitudes should, without any argument, bow down before irresistible power—is a conduct in which we cannot see much to surprise us; in which we can see nothing that resembles the causes by which the establishment of Christianity was effected.
The success, therefore, of Mahometanism stands not in the way of this important conclusion; that the propagation of Christianity, in the manner and under the circumstances in which it was propagated, is an unique in the history of the species. A Jewish peasant overthrew the religion of the world.
I have, nevertheless, placed the prevalency of the religion amongst the auxiliary arguments of its truth; because, whether it had prevailed or not, or whether its prevalency can or cannot be accounted for, the direct argument remains still. It is still true that a great number of men upon the spot, personally connected with the history and with the Author of the religion, were induced by what they heard and saw, and knew, not only to change their former opinions, but to give up their time, and sacrifice their ease, to traverse seas and kingdoms without rest and without weariness, to commit themselves to extreme dangers, to undertake incessant toils, to undergo grievous sufferings, and all this solely in consequence, and in support, of their belief of facts, which, if true, establish the truth of the religion, which, if false, they must have known to be so.