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Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary


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Mohammed, its distinguished founder, was born in Arabia, toward the conclusion of the sixth century. Although he had been reduced to poverty, he was descended from ancestors who had long been conspicuous by rank and by influence; but having been shut out from the advantages of education, which in his peculiar case might have rather cramped than invigorated the astonishing powers of his mind, he had been compelled to seek his subsistence by devoting himself to a menial occupation. Yet although thus unfavourably situated, he was led, in conducting the commercial transactions which, in the service of Cadijah, a woman of great wealth, he was employed to arrange, to survey the state of several of the neighbouring nations; became acquainted with the most striking features in the characters of those by whom he was surrounded; and he was enabled to profit by the information which he thus procured, from his adding to the graces of personal elegance and beauty, the most captivating manners, and the most winning address. Exalted by the partiality of Cadijah, who conferred on him her hand and her extensive possessions, he seems early to have formed the scheme of announcing himself as the author of a new religion, and, in virtue of this sacred office, of ascending to that supremacy of political influence which it was his singular fortune, soon after he unfolded his pretensions, to attain. Taking advantage of that insensibility into which, by the attacks of epilepsy, he was occasionally thrown, he pretended that he was wrapped in divine contemplation, or was actually holding communication with higher orders of beings, who were committing to him the divine instructions which he was to disseminate through the world.

When the time which he conceived to be favourable for the grand object of his ambition had arrived, he openly declared that he was the prophet of the most high God; but the magistrates of Mecca, despising his pretensions, or dreading the evils which might result from religious innovation, vigorously opposed him, and he found himself compelled, in order to avoid the punishment which they were preparing to inflict on him to have recourse to flight. He did not, however, relinquish the scheme upon which he had so long meditated, and which he was convinced that he was qualified to carry into execution. After his departure from Mecca, from which event the Mohammedan era of the hegira takes its commencement, he was joined by a few followers determined to share his fate; and having solemnly consecrated the banner under which he was to extend his power and propagate his tenets, he commenced hostilities against those by whom he had been opposed. His first efforts, however, were not crowned with success, but he had infused into his attendants a spirit which misfortune could not subdue: they renewed their enterprise, and Mecca at length submitted to his arms. From this period his exaltation was very rapid; he was venerated as the favoured messenger of Heaven, and his countrymen bowed down before a sovereign protected, as they believed, by the Omnipotent, and commissioned to reveal his will. There were many causes which satisfactorily account for his success. The Christian religion, in the corrupted form in which it existed in the regions contiguous to the country of the prophet, was not interwoven with the affections of its professors; they were split into factions, contending about the most frivolous distinctions and the most ridiculous tenets; and the sword of persecution was mutually wielded by them all, to spread misery where there should have been the ties of charity and love. Thus divided, they presented no steady resistance to the attempt made to wrest from them their religion; and, indeed, as many of them had adopted that religion, not from conviction, but from dread of the tyranny by which it had been imposed on them, they only did what they had previously done, when, shrinking from the ferocious zeal of the emissaries of the prophet, they submitted to his doctrine. With admirable address, too, he had framed his religious system, so as to gratify those to whom it was announced. Laying down the sublime and unquestionable doctrine of the unity of God, he professed to revere the patriarchs, whose memory the Arabs held in veneration; he admitted that Moses was a messenger from God; he acknowledged Jesus as an exalted prophet; and he founded his own pretensions upon the intimation which our Saviour had given that the Paraclete, or Comforter, was to be sent to lead the world into all truth. Thus each party found in the Koran much of what it had been accustomed to believe; and the transition was in this way rendered more easy to the admission that a new revelation had been vouchsafed.

This effect was facilitated by the ignorance which prevailed in Arabia. Accustomed to a wandering life, the Arabs had devoted no time to the acquisition of knowledge: most of them were even unable to read the Koran, the sublimity and beauty of which were held forth to them as incontestable proofs of the inspiration of its author. Had Mohammed, indeed, rested his doctrine upon miracles, it might have happened that the imposture by some would have been detected; but, with his usual policy, he avoided what he knew was so hazardous; and, with the exception of his reference to the Koran, as surpassing the capacity of man, he explicitly disclaimed having been authorized to do such mighty works as had been wrought to establish the previous dispensations of the Almighty. The fascinating representation that he gave of the joys of paradise, which he accommodated to the conceptions and wishes of the eastern nations, also made a deep and favourable impression; the wantonness of imagination was gratified with the anticipation of a state abounding with sensual gratification raised to the highest degree of exquisiteness; while the dismal fate allotted through eternity to all who rejected the message which he brought, alarmed the fears of the credulous and superstitious multitude whom he was eager to allure. When with these causes are combined the vigour of his administration, and the certainty of suffering or of death in the event of withstanding his doctrine, there is sufficient to account for the success of his religion; and there is in that success nothing which can, with the shadow of reason, be employed, as, with strange perversion of argument, it has sometimes been, to invalidate the proof for the truth of Christianity deduced from its rapid diffusion. That proof does not rest upon the mere circumstance that the religion of Jesus was widely and speedily propagated; there might, under particular circumstances, have been in this nothing wonderful; but on the facts that it was so propagated, when all the human means to which they who preached it could have recourse, would have retarded rather than promoted what actually took place; that it employed no force; that it held out no earthly advantages; that it accommodated itself to no previous religious prejudices; and that it opposed and reproved all, and did not gratify any, of the corruptions and lusts of human nature.

But Mohammed did not limit his views to the sovereignty of Arabia: he was elevated by the hope of universal empire; and he moulded his system, so as to promote what he was eager to attain. For this purpose he promised to all who enrolled themselves under his banner full license to plunder the nations against which they were led; and he made it a fundamental tenet of his faith that they who fell in the warlike enterprises destined to enlarge the number of believers were at once delivered from the guilt and misery of their sins, and were admitted to the happy scenes prepared for the faithful. He thus collected around him an army thoroughly devoted, prepared for meeting every danger, stimulated to the most laborious exertions by the hope of plunder, and steeled against all which can weaken courage or exhaust resolution, by the enthusiasm of hope; whatever was their fate, they had nothing to dread; if they escaped the weapons of their enemies, they were loaded with spoil, and invited to indulgence; and if they fell, they were canonized by those who survived, and exchanged the vicissitudes and troubles of this world for the delights of a sensual paradise. An army thus constituted and thus impelled must, under any circumstances, have been formidable; against them the usual methods to defeat invasion and to prevent conquest would have failed; they could have been successfully encountered only by men who had imbibed a similar spirit, and who identified patience and courage in the field with the most sacred duty required by religion. Of the advantages which, after Arabia had acknowledged his sway, and hailed him as the prophet of the Lord, he might confidently anticipate, Mohammed was abundantly sensible; but while he was preparing to bring into action the mighty machine which he had erected, his earthly career was terminated, and he left to others to execute the schemes which he had fondly devised.

The energy of the system remained after the author of it was removed from the world; and his successors lost no time in extending their dominions far beyond the bounds of Arabia. The obstacles opposed to them instantly yielded; a feeble and degenerate empire sinking under its own weight, and unable to resist any power acting against it, at once submitted to the host of fanatical plunderers, who spread desolation as they advanced; the richest provinces soon were wrested from it; and the most fertile regions of Asia fell under the conquering fury of the caliphs. Persia, which had long persecuted Christianity, was added to their increasing territories; Syria submitted to their yoke; and, what filled with horror and with anguish the believers in the Gospel, Palestine, that holy land from which the light of divine truth had beamed upon the nations, which had been the scene of those awful or interesting events recorded in the inspired Scriptures, which had witnessed the life, the ministry, the death, the resurrection, and ascension of the Redeemer of mankind, bent under the iron sceptre of an infidel sovereign, nominally, indeed, revering the Founder of its religion, but filled with bigoted and implacable hatred against the most attached and conscientious of his disciples. But the caliphs did not accomplish their principal object when they reduced to subjection the countries which they ravaged: to them it was of infinitely more moment to propagate the Musselman faith; and, accordingly, although in the commencement of that faith some indulgence was, from political considerations, granted to the Christians, there was soon no alternative left to the trembling captives but to embrace the doctrine of the prophet, or to submit to slavery or death. We cannot wonder that tenets thus enforced rapidly spread; they supplanted, in many extensive regions, the religion of Jesus; and, incorporating themselves with civil governments, or rather founding all governments upon the Koran, they continue, at the distance of eleven hundred years, to be believed through a large proportion of the world.

The effect of this signal revolution was first experienced by those Christians who inhabited the eastern parts of the empire; but the account of it must have been speedily conveyed throughout Christendom, and the gigantic enterprises of the Saracens soon threatened all nations with slavery and superstition. The successors of the prophet, in the eighth century, directed their steps toward Europe; and having at length crossed the narrow sea which separates Africa from Spain, they dispersed the troops of Roderick, king of the Goths, took possession of the greater part of his dominions, subverted the empire of the Visigoths, which had been established in Spain for upward of three centuries, and planted themselves along the coast of Gaul, from the Pyrenean mountains to the Rhine. Charlemagne, alarmed at their progress, made a great effort to crush them; but he failed in accomplishing his object, and they committed, in various parts of Europe which they visited, the most shocking devastations.

When a great part of the life of Mohammed had been spent in preparatory meditation on the system he was about to establish, the chapters of the Alcoran or Koran, which was to contain the rule of the faith and practice of his followers, were dealt out slowly and separately during the long period of three-and-twenty years. He entrusted his beloved wife, Raphsa, the daughter of Omar, with the keeping of the chest of his apostleship, in which were laid up all the originals of the revelations he pretended to have received by the ministration of the Angel Gabriel, and out of which the Koran, consisting of one hundred and fourteen surats, or chapters, of very unequal length, was composed after his death. Yet, defective in its structure, and not less exceptionable in its doctrines and precepts, was the work which he thus delivered to his followers as the oracles of God. We will not detract from the real merit of the Koran; we allow it to be generally elegant and often sublime; but at the same time we reject with disdain its arrogant pretensions to any thing supernatural. Nay, if, descending to a minute investigation of it, we consider its perpetual inconsistency and absurdity, we shall indeed have cause for astonishment at that weakness of humanity, which could ever have received such compositions as the work of the Deity, and which could still hold it in such high admiration as it is held by the followers of Mohammed to the present day. Far from supporting its arrogant claim to a supernatural work, it sinks below the level of many compositions confessedly of human original; and still lower does it fall when compared with that pure and perfect pattern which we justly admire in the Scriptures of truth. The first praise of all the productions of genius is invention; but the Koran bears little impression of this transcendent character. It does not contain one single doctrine which may not fairly be derived either from the Jewish and Christian Scriptures, from the spurious and apocryphal Gospels, then current in the east, from the Talmudical legends, or from the traditions, customs, and opinions of the Arabians. And the materials collected from these several sources are here heaped together with perpetual and needless repetitions, without any settled principle, or visible connection. The most prominent feature of the Koran, that point of excellence in which the partiality of its admirers has ever delighted to view it, is the sublime notion it generally impresses of the nature and attributes of God. But if its author had really derived these just conceptions from the inspiration of that Being whom they attempt to describe, they would not have been surrounded, as they now are, on every side with error and absurdity. By attempting to explain what is inconceivable, to describe what is ineffable, and to materialize what in itself is spiritual, he absurdly and impiously aimed to sensualize the purity of the divine essence. But it might easily be proved, that whatever the Koran justly defines of the divine attributes, was borrowed from our Holy Scriptures; which, even from their first promulgation, but especially from the completion of the New Testament, have extended the views, and enlightened the understandings, of mankind.

The Koran, indeed, every where inculcates that grand and fundamental doctrine of the unity of the supreme Being, the establishment of which was constantly alleged by the impostor as the primary object of his pretended mission; but on the subject of the Christian trinity, its author seems to have entertained very gross and mistaken ideas, and to have been totally ignorant of the perfect consistency of that opinion with the unity of the Deity. With respect to the great doctrine of a future life, and the condition of the soul after its departure from the body, it must indeed be acknowledged that the prophet of Arabia has presented us with a nearer prospect of the invisible world, and disclosed to us a thousand particulars concerning it, which the Holy Scriptures had wrapped in the most profound and mysterious silence. But in his various representations of another life, he generally descends to an unnecessary minuteness and particularity, which excite disgust and ridicule, instead of reverence. He constantly pretended to have received these stupendous secrets by the ministry of the Angel Gabriel, from that eternal book in which the divine decrees have been written by the finger of the Almighty from the foundation of the world; but the learned inquirer will discover a more accessible, and a far more probable, source whence they might be derived, partly in the wild and fanciful opinions of the ancient Arabs, and chiefly in those exhaustless stores of marvellous and improbable fiction, the works of the rabbins. Hence, that romantic fable of the angel of death, whose peculiar office it is, at the destined hour, to dissolve the union between soul and body, and to free the departing spirit from its prison of flesh. Hence, too, the various descriptions of the general resurrection and final judgment with which the Koran every where abounds; and hence the vast but ideal balance in which the actions of all mankind shall then be impartially weighed, and their eternal doom be assigned them, either in the regions of bliss or misery, according as their good or evil deeds shall preponderate. Here, too, may be traced the grand and original outlines of that sensual paradise, and those luxurious enjoyments, which were so successfully employed in the Koran, to gratify the ardent genius of the Arabs, and allure them to the standard of the prophet.

The same observation which has been applied with respect to the sources whence the doctrines were drawn, may, with some few limitations, be likewise extended to the precepts which the Arabian legislator has enjoined. That the Koran, amidst a various and confused heap of ridiculous and even immoral precepts, contains many interesting and instructive lessons of morality, cannot with truth be denied. Of these, however, the merit is to be ascribed, not to the feeble imitation, but to the great and perfect original from which they were manifestly drawn. Instead of improving on the Christian precepts by a superior degree of refinement; instead of exhibiting a purer and more perfect system of morals than that of the Gospel; the prophet of Arabia has miserably debased and weakened even what he has borrowed from that system. We are told by our Saviour, that a man is to be the husband of one wife, and that there is to be an inseparable union between them. By Mohammed's confession, Jesus Christ was a prophet of the true God, and the Holy Spirit was with him. Yet in the Koran we find permission for any person to have four wives, and as many concubines as he can maintain. Again: our Saviour expressly tells us, that, at the resurrection, "they will neither marry nor be given in marriage; but be like the angels of God in heaven." We are informed also by St. Paul, that we shall be changed, and have a spiritual and glorified body; "for flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of heaven; neither can corruption inherit incorruption." But Mohammed gives a very different account: it is clear, from his own confession, that the happiness promised in the Koran consists in base and corporeal enjoyments. According to its author, there will not only be marriage, but also servitude in the next world. The very meanest in paradise will have eighty thousand servants, and seventy-two wives of the girls of paradise, beside the wives he had in this world; he will also have a tent erected for him of pearls, hyacinths, and emeralds. And as marriage will take place, so a new race will be introduced in heaven; for, says the Koran, "If any of the faithful in paradise be desirous of issue, it shall be conceived, born, and grown up in the space of an hour." But on the contradictions in point of doctrine, though sufficient of themselves to confute the pretensions of Mohammed, we forbear to insist.

The impure designs which gave birth to the whole system may be traced in almost every subordinate part; even its sublimest descriptions of the Deity, even its most exalted moral precepts, not unfrequently either terminate in, or are interwoven with, some provision to gratify the inordinate cravings of ambition, or some license for the indulgence of the corrupt passions of the human heart. It has allowed private revenge, in the case of murder; it has given a sanction to fornication; and, if any weight be due to the example of its author, it has justified adultery. It has made war, and rapine, and bloodshed, provided they be exercised against unbelievers, not only meritorious acts, but even essential duties to the good Musselman; duties by the performance of which he may secure the constant favour and protection of God and his prophet in this life, and in the next entitle himself to the boundless joys of paradise. In the Koran are advanced the following assertions, among others already noticed: That both Jews and Christians are idolaters; that the patriarchs and Apostles were Mohammedans; that the angels worshipped Adam, and that the fallen angels were driven from heaven for not doing so; that our blessed Saviour was neither God, nor the Son of God; and that he assured Mohammed of this in a conference with the Almighty and him; yet that he was both the word and Spirit of God: not to mention numberless absurdities concerning the creation, the deluge, the end of the world, the resurrection, the day of judgment, too gross to be received by any except the most debased understandings.

It was frequently the triumphant boast of St. Paul, that the Gospel of Jesus Christ had for ever freed mankind from the intolerable burden of ceremonial observances. But the Koran renews and perpetuates the slavery, by prescribing to its votaries a ritual still more oppressive, and entangling them again in a yoke of bondage yet more severe than that of the law. Of this kind, amidst a variety of instances, is that great and meritorious act of Mohammedan devotion, the pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca; an act which the Koran has enjoined, and the pious Musselman implicitly performs, as necessary, to the obtaining pardon of his sins, and qualifying him to be a partaker of the alluring pleasures and exquisite enjoyments of paradise. To the several articles of faith to which all his followers were to adhere, Mohammed added four fundamental points, of religious practice; namely, prayer five times a day, fasting, alms-giving, and the pilgrimage to Mecca. Under the first of these are comprehended those frequent washings or purifications, which he prescribed as necessary preparations for the duty of prayer. So necessary did he think them, that he is said to have declared, that the practice of religion is founded upon cleanliness, which is one half of faith, and the key of prayer. The second of these he conceived to be a duty of so great moment, that he used to say it was the gate of religion, and that the odour of the mouth of him who fasteth is more grateful to God than that of musk. The third is looked upon as so pleasing in the sight of God, that the Caliph Omar Ebn Abdalaziz used to say, "Prayer carries us half way to God; fasting brings us to the door of his palace; and alms procure us admission." The last of these practical religious duties is deemed so necessary, that, according to a tradition of Mohammed, he who dies without performing it, "may as well die a Jew or a Christian." As to the negative precepts and institutions of this religion, the Mohammedans are forbidden the use of wine, and are prohibited from gaming, usury, and the eating of blood and swine's flesh, and whatever dies of itself, or is strangled, or killed by a blow, or by another beast. They are said, however, to comply with the prohibition of gaming, (from which chess seems to be excepted,) much better than they do with that of wine, under which all strong and inebriating liquors are included; for both the Persians and Turks are in the habit of drinking freely.

However successful and triumphant from without, the progress of the followers of Mohammed received a considerable check by the civil dissensions which arose among themselves soon after his death. Abubeker and Ali, the former the father-in-law, the latter the son-in-law, of this pretended prophet, aspired both to succeed him in the empire which he had erected. Upon this arose a cruel and tedious contest, whose flames produced that schism which divided the Mohammedans into two great factions; and this separation not only gave rise to a variety of opinions and rites, but also excited the most implacable hatred, and the most deadly animosities, which have been continued to the present day. With such furious zeal is this contention still carried on between these two factions, who are distinguished by the name of Sonnites and Schiites, that each party detest and anathematize the other as abominable heretics, and farther from the truth than either the Christians or the Jews. The chief points in which they differ are:

1. The Schiites reject Abubeker, Omar, and Othman, the first three caliphs, as usurpers and intruders; but the Sonnites acknowledge and respect them as rightful caliphs or imams.

2. The Schiites prefer Ali to Mohammed, or, at least, esteem them both equal; but the Sonnites admit neither Ali, nor any of the prophets, to be equal to Mohammed.

3. The Sonnites charge the Schiites with corrupting the Koran, and neglecting its precepts; and the Schiites retort the same charge on the Sonnites.

4. The Sonnites receive the Sonna, or book of traditions of their prophet, as of canonical authority; but the Schiites reject it as apocryphal, and unworthy of credit. The Sonnites are subdivided into four chief sects, of which the first is that of the Hanefites, who generally prevail among the Turks and Tartars; the second, that of the Malecites, whose doctrine is chiefly followed in Barbary, and other parts of Africa; the third, that of the Shafeites, who are chiefly confined to Arabia and Persia; and the fourth orthodox sect is that of the Hanbalites, who are not very numerous, and seldom to be met with out of the limits of Arabia. The heretical sects among the Mohammedans are those which are counted to hold heterodox opinions in fundamentals, or matters of faith; and they are variously compounded and decompounded of the opinions of four chief sects; the Motazalites, the Safatians, the Kharejites, and the Schiites.

Ever since the valour of John Sobieski rolled back the hosts of Islamism from eastern and central Europe, the civil dominion of the false prophet has been rather retrograde than advancing, A free philosophy in many places is destroying the influence of the system among the better informed; and the barbarism and misery which a bad government inflicts upon the people, weakens its power, and is preparing the way for great changes. The throwing off the Turkish yoke by the Greeks, and the rising greatness of Russia, are symptoms of the approaching subversion of Mohammedanism as a power; and thus the fall of this eastern antichrist cannot long be delayed. It is, indeed, even now supported only by the rival interests of Christian powers; and a new combination among them would suddenly withdraw its only support.

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Bibliography Information
Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Mahometanism'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. 1831-2.

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