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Mohammed and The Rise of Islam

Mohammed and The Rise of Islam
Item Code: NAM821
Author: D. S. Margoliouth
Publisher: Voice of India, New Delhi
Language: English
Edition: 1985
Pages: 523
Cover: Paperback
Other Details: 8.5 inch X 5.5 inch

Oriental Studies in the West has a long history. It has its genesis in the Christian-Muslim encounter. From its very birth, Islam found itself in conflict with neighbouring Christianity. Moved by the same passion and making the same claim, the two religions engaged in bitter strife for a thousand years. Islam knocked at the doors of Christianity, overwhelming much of Europe for centuries. Eventually Christianity replied with the sword of the crusades. The tide of Islam was stemmed; Western Christianity was united; the power of the Pope increased tremendously; and Western Christianity became East-oriented. The East became an object of a continuous aggressive quest.

The armed crusades themselves ended in ignominy by the end of the thirteenth century. Christianity now thought of other means of penetration. As Waddington puts it in his History of the Church, when "the arms of the Mohammedan were found to preponderate, some faint attempts were made, or meditated, to convince those whom it proved impossible to subdue." As a first step, Pope Honorius IV (1286-87 A.D.) encouraged the study of oriental languages as an aid to missionary work. Soon after, the Ecumenical Council of Vienna (1311-1312 A.D.) decided "that the holy Church should have an abundant number of Catholics well versed in the languages, especially in those of the infidels, so as to be able to instruct them in the sacred doctrine." Therefore it ordered the creation of chairs of Hebrew, Arabic, and Chaldaean at the Universities of Bologna, Oxford, Paris, and Salamanca (C. 24).

How far this decree was immediately implemented is not known but the strategic importance of Oriental Studies was clearly established. After another hundred years, the General Council of Basel (1434 A.D.) returned to the same theme and decreed that "all Bishops must sometimes each year send some men well-grounded in the divine word to those parts where Jews and other infidels live, to preach and explain the truth of the Catholic faith in such a way that the infidels who hear them may come to recognise their errors. Let them compel them to hear their preaching."

But for the next several generations, the Church had to train for polemics within its own fold. It faced internal revolts. Strong Protestant movements came to the fore, questioning several Catholic dogmas and the Pope's authority. These made big holes in the citadel of the Church. All this was uncomfortable for the time being, but eventually it did good to Christianity as a whole. Through 'challenge-and-response' it made it battle-ready. And though different Christian groups had acute internal quarrels, they all faced the non-Christian world unitedly. After a lull, the Protestant nations too joined the missionary game with great fervour. In fact, considering themselves as the rightful heirs to true Christianity, they were sure they would succeed where the Catholic Church had failed.

According to them, the Romish Church-the Protestant name for Catholics-was bound to fail, choked as it was with its own errors. George Sale, the first European to produce a faithful translation of the Quran, wrote in 1734 that "the Protestants alone are able to attack the Koran with success" ; and in fact, it is for them that "Providence has reserved the glory of its overthrow." More than a hundred years later, Sir William Muir, a representative of the mighty British Empire, expressed the same sentiment. He asked the question why the Muslim world was not already converted, considering the fact that the banners of Islam had approached so closely the Papal See. His answer was that "the bigotry of the Mussulmans, the licence of concubinage and slavery. and their otherwise low standard of morality" only partly explained this failure on the part of Christianity. The other part of the explanation was the superstitious practices of the Church itself which "froze the current. which should have flowed unceasingly. diffusing to the nations around the genial and healing streams of Christianity" [Calcutta Review, 1845).

It was against this background that the Christian researchers began their study of Islam. These early studies did little to improve their opinion of the rival creed. They regarded it as a "spurious faith" and its author as a "false prophet," an opinion which has not fur damentally changed since then though it is no longer stated with the same candour as in the past.

Within the framework of this hostile opinion, some concession began to be made in due course. Islam was evil but its role in destroying idolatry with a strong hand was praiseworthy. For example, Rev. Charles Forster, a clergyman of the Church of England and author of Mohammedanism Unveiled (I 829). regarded Islam as a "baleful superstition," and its founder an "impostor, earthly, sensual, devilish, beyond even the licence of his licentious creed;' but he still regarded this creed as "confessedly superior" to the gross idolatry of its predecessor. Islam has a place in the divine scheme. Considered in itself, and as opposed to the Gospel, it is a "curse" ; but as the "pre -appointed scourge of heresy and heathenism, as cleansing the world from the gross pollutions of idolatry, and preparing the way for the reception of a purer faith [Christianity], it may well be regarded as a blessing."

Like Marx who hated Capitalism but regarded it as a higher form of economic and political organisation and welcomed capitalists as sappers and miners of Communism, Christianity detested Islam but honoured it for destorying idolatry.

However, even this approach was considered too hostile and there were thinkers from an early date who canvassed for a still more liberal treatment of Islam. George Sale whom We have already mentioned pleaded that "how criminal soever Mohammed may have been in imposing a false religion on mankind, the praises due to his real virtues ought not to be denied him." Were not the laws he gave to his people "preferable, at least, to those of the ancient pagan lawgivers?" And therefore, did he not deserve, Sale asked, at least equal respect, "though not with Moses or Jesus Christ, whose laws came really from Heaven, yet with Minas and Numa ?" - the religious legislators of ancient Crete and Rome. Sale quoted with approval the example of the pious and learned Spanhemius who though he regarded Muhammad as a "wicked impostor" yet acknowledged his natural endowments, his subtle wit, his agreeable behaviour, his liberality and courtesy, his fortitude against his enemies, and above all his reverence for the name of God.

As the translations of the Quran became available, some Christian writers began dimly to perceive that Muhammad's virtues and vices were not his own but that he shared them with Biblical prophets. But these Christian writers Were taught to castigate in the Quran what they had been taught to admire in the Bible. How could they do it consistently and conscienciously ? They found that some of the cruelest and fanatical passages in the Quran-like "kill them wherever ye find them" (2.191)-had a solid Biblical support and precedent. Rev. E.M. Wherry states this predicament in his A Comprehensive Commentary on Quran (1882). Referring to this injunction, kill them, he says: "Much is made of expressions like this, by some Christian apologists, to show the cruel character of the Arabian prophet, and the inference is thence drawn that Muhammad was an impostor and his Quran a fraud. Without denying that Muhammad was cruel, we think this mode of assault to be very unsatisfactory to say the least, as it is capable of being turned against the Old Testament Scriptures. If the claim of Muhammad to have received a divine command to exterminate idolatry by the slaughter of all impenitent idolaters be admitted, I can see no Objection to his practice. The question at issue is this, Did God command such slaughter of idolaters, as he commanded the destruction of the Canaanites or of the Amalekites [Deut. 7.1 2; Joshua 6.21,24] ? Taking the stand of the Muslim, that God did so command Muhammad and his followers, his morality in this respect may be defended on precisely the same ground that the morality of Moses and Joshua is defended by the Christians" (Volume I, p. 358). The fact is that while the Christian writers used strong adjectives and hurled hostile epithets, they had no proper grounds for attack. Some of the more perceptive ones among them probably even realised that an attack on Islam in a fundamental way was an attack on Christianity itself, since the two were so similar in their source, deeper perspective and psychic affinity. Both derived from a common source in the Old Testament; both were monolatrous; both claimed to be God's chosen fraternities; in both, God-man communication took place through a favoured intermediary; both had human founders; both were credal religions.


The biographers of the Prophet Mohammed form a long series which it is impossible to end, but in which it would be honourable to find a place. The most famous of them is probably Sir Walter Raleigh, t while the palm for eloquence and historical insight may well be awarded to Gibbon.

During the time when Gibbon wrote, and for long after, historians mainly relied for their knowledge of the life of Mohammed on the Biography of Abu'l- Fida, who died in the year 722 A.H., 1322 A.D., of whose work Gagnier produced an indifferent edition. The scholars of the nineteenth century were naturally not satisfied with so late an authority; and they succeeded in bringing to light all the earliest documents preserved by the Mohammedans. The merit of discovering and utilising these ancient works is shared by G. Weil, Caussin de Perceval, F. Wusten-feld, A. Sprenger, and Sir William Muir; and the Lives of Mohammed by the last two of these writers are likely to be regarded as classical so long as there are students of Oriental history in Europe; notwith- standing the fact that Muir's Life is written with a confessedly Christian bias, and that Sprenger's is defaced by some slipshod scholarship and untrust- worthy archaeology.

Since these works were composed, knowledge of Mohammed and his time has been increased by the publication of many Arabic texts, and the labours of European scholars on Mohammedan antiquities. t The works of I. Goldziher, J. Wellhausen, and Th. Noldeke have elucidated much that was obscure, and facilitated the understanding of Arabian history both before and after the Prophet. And from the following Arabic works, most of which have been published since Sprenger and Muir wrote, many fresh details of interest and even of importance occasionally have been furnished.

I. The Musnad,or collection of traditions of Ahmad Ibn Hanbal, who died in 241 A.H., (855 A.D.: Cairo, 1890, in six volumes, fol.). In this work the sayings of the Prophet recorded by different individuals are given in separate collections for each individual. The same tradition is sometimes given ten, twenty, or even a hundred times. Much of the matter is scarcely to be found elsewhere, and is likely to be genuine. The account of this work given by Gold- ziher, Z. D. M. G., 1. 463-599, is of course excellent.

2. The gigantic Commentary on the Koran by the historian Tabari, who died 310 A.H., (922 A.D.: Cairo, 1902-1904, in thirty volumes, fo1.). This commentary is for the historian of far greater value than the popular commentaries of Zamakhshari and Baidawi, who lived many centuries later, and were influenced by later controversies.

3. The Isabah, or Dictionary of Persons who knew Mohammed, by Ibn Hajar (Calcutta, 1853-1894, four volumes). In spite of the late date of the author of this great dictionary, his work is historically valuable, owing to the fact that it embodies matter taken from sources which are no longer accessible. Ibn Hajar was possessed of an extraordinary library.

4. The works of early Arabic writers, especially the polygraph 'Amr, son of Bahr, called Al-Jahiz, who died in 255 A.H. (868 A.D.). Of his works there are now accessible three edited by the late Van Vloten, and the treatise on rhetoric published in Cairo. Though not dealing directly with Mohammed, they contain many an allusion which it is possible to utilise.

The present writer has gone through, in addition to these (so far as they were accessible to him), the authorities utilised already by his predecessors, of which the chief are enumerated in the Bibliography. One of these, the Class Book of Ibn Sa'd (ab. 230 A.H., 845 A.D.) is in course of publication. Since the authors of books in this series have the number of their pages limited, it has been found necessary to abbreviate, and this has been done by omitting three kinds of matter: I. Translations of the Koran (except in the rarest cases).

2. All anecdotes that are obviously or most probably fabulous.

3. Such incidents as are of little consequence either in themselves or for the development of the narrative.

Some principles for estimating the credibility of traditions are given by Muir in his Introduction, and by Goldziher in his Muhammadanische Studien. A few important observations bearing on this subject are also made by Noldeke, Z. D. M. G., lii., I6, foll. The number of motives leading to the fabrication of traditions was so great that the historian is in constant danger of employing as veracious records what were deliberate fictions. I can only hope that I have not displayed greater credulity than my predecessors. In condemning traditions as unhistorical I have ordinarily considered the obelus of Goldziher, Noldeke, or Wellhausen as sufficient.

The standpoint from which this book is written is suggested by the title of the series. I regard Mohammed as a great man, who solved a political problem of appalling difficulty,-the construction of a state and an empire out of the Arab tribes. I have endeavoured, in recounting the mode in which he accomplished this, to do justice to his intellectual ability and to observe towards him the respectful attitude which his greatness deserves; but otherwise this book does not aim at being either an apology or an indictment. Indeed neither sort of work is now required. The charming and eloquent treatise of Syed Ameer Ali is probably the best achievement in the way of an apology for Mohammed that is ever likely to be composed in a European language, whereas indictments are very numerous-some dignified and moderate, as is the work of Sir William Muir; others fanatical and virulent. These works are ordinarily designed to show the superiority or inferiority of Mohammed's religion to some other system; an endeavour from which it is hoped that this book will be found to be absolutely free.

There are two forms of literature to which I should especially wish to acknowledge obligations. One of these consists of works in which we have authentic biographies of persons who have convinced many of their fellows that they were in receipt of divine communications; in particular I may mention the history of modern Spiritualism, by F. Podmore and the study on the founder of Mormonism, by I. W. Riley. For the employment of “revelations" as a political instrument, and for the difficulties which attend the career of Prophet-statesman, the life of Joseph Smith (the founder of Mormonism) furnishes illustrations of the most instructive character; only the biographer of Mohammed must envy the wealth and authenticity of the material at Dr. Riley's disposal, without which the formulae of modern psychology could not have been applied to the interpretation of Smith's career so successfully as Dr. Riley has applied them.

A second class of works are those in which savage life is described at first hand: and among these the Autobiography of fames P. Beckwourth deserves special notice. There are chapters in that work where by substituting camel for horse we might find a reproduction of Bedouin manners and institutions; and the question of Beckwourth's veracity does not affect the general truth of his descriptions.

Finally, I have to thank various persons from whom I have derived assistance. I am indebted for many suggestions and improvements to the Editor of the Series, to J. P. Margoliouth, and to the Rev. W. J. Foxell, who have read and re-read the proofs; to Mr. A. E. Cowley, Fellow of Magdalen College, for advice in the selection of coins; to Dr. J. Ritchie, Fellow of New College, and Mr. R. B. Townshend for guidance with regard to medical and anthropological works; and to Mr. G. Zaidan, editor of the Cairene journal Hilai; for leave to reproduce certain plates that have appeared in his magazine, and also for the names of certain Arabic works with which I was not previously acquainted. Mr. Zaidan is well known in Arabic-speaking countries as historian, novelist, and journalist; and I hope that ere long I may have the pleasure of introducing some of his works to English readers.


List of Illustrationsxiii
Chapter IThe Birthplace of the Hero1
Chapter IIEarly Life of Mohammed45
Chapter IIIIslam as A Secret Society83
Chapter IVPublicity118
Chapter VHistory of The Meccan Period152
Chapter VIThe Migration185
Chapter VIIThe Battle of Badr234
Chapter VIIIProgress and A Setback275
Chapter IXThe Destruction of The Jews309
Chapter XSteps Towards The Taking of Meccah338
Chapter XIThe Taking of Meccah377
Chapter XIIThe Settlement of Arabia410
Chapter XIIIThe Last Year444
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