The Islam of Mohamed
I do not desire to explain the importance and significance ofIslam among the religious systems of the world; nor am I tofix and ascertain the exact position of Mohamed as a religious teacheramong the world’s great teachers of religions. My effort in thispaper is simpler and yet not altogether free from bewildering perplexities.I desire to explain what Islam is and what its teachingsare: Islam as preached and delivered by the prophet of Arabia;Islam stripped of the accretions of ages of theological disputes andcontroversies; in other words to sketch out, to the best of mylight and leading, Islam of the prophet Mohamed. Difficult thoughthis task is, it is not indeed a hopeless venture for one who haskept himself clear and free from narrow sectarianism.
To fully appreciate the message of Mohamed, it is essentialthat I should say something about the condition of Arabia beforeIslam. I must readily admit that so far as the Pagan Arabia isconcerned, we are in great dearth of authorities. Our informationis shadowy, fitful, and fragmentary and the industry ofEuropean scholars (such as Caussin De Perceval, Krehl, Wellhausen,Robertson Smith and Sir Charles Lyall) has succeeded but inlifting the veil merely at its fringe. But however partial andunsatisfactory as the account is, of the Pagan days; we can yet forman idea of the life that the Pagan Arabs led and the thoughts thatswayed and animated their conduct and their deeds. I will, therefore,describe “The Pre-Islamic Arabia” as briefly as I can.
The Pre-Islamic Arabs were not a nation. Of the sense of nationality,indeed, they had not the vaguest conception, though theywere linked by community of speech. Arabia was a sum-total ofloose and disconnected congeries of tribes and the tribe was thesource and the limit of social and political obligation. Beyond thetribe there lay no duty and no obligation either. Political relationswere moral; for morality was confined within the limits of thetribe. Political organisation was represented by the corporate[Pg 2]feeling which found expression in the exercise of the duties ofbrotherhood. Within the pale of the tribe obtained the prohibitionto kill, to commit adultery, to steal, &c., &c. Beyond it therewas no such prohibition. Fidelity to one’s kinsman was animperative duty, apart from any question of the justness of thecause. Outside the tribe there was nothing but constant plunderand unceasing warfare. “Certain large groups were, indeed,almost continually at war with one another. Ma`add, the peopleof the Hijaz and Al-yamamah generally looked upon Al-yaman astheir natural prey and were constantly raiding on the herds oftheir southern neighbours. Between Tamim and Bakr, son ofWail, there was permanent bad blood, Ghatafan and Hawazinhad a standing feud. In the north the kingdom of Al-Hirah, therepresentative of Persian predominance was the hereditary enemyof Ghassan, the representative of the might of Rome.” (Lyall,Ancient Arabian Poetry, p. xxiii.) Arabia, before Islam, was thusa theatre of internecine warfare, restrained, but partially, by theintroduction of blood money. There was compensation foreverything for which vengeance could be exacted. All crimeswere assessed as economic damage. Every loss of honor, property,or life could be appraised by agreement; all having theirprice in camels. We thus see that the Arabs before Islam hadscarcely emerged from barbaric conditions. There was nosocial order, no organised government. The law of sheerbrute force prevailed, untempered and unrestrained, by anycivilizing or controlling influence. Nor did they attain anyrefined idea of religion. Their religion was nothing more orless than gross fetichism; the worship of tree and stone, theveneration of certain personified divine attributes, meaninglessritual and ceremonials. The true religious spirit they neversucceeded in grasping and the fear of God never exercisedany real, practical influence over their conduct and actions.It was reserved for Islam to instil into them the senseof responsibility to God and to make this idea of human responsibilitythe guiding and controlling principle of life. To allappearance the Arabs honoured the gods, went on pilgrimage to[Pg 3]their sanctuaries, made sacrifices in the temples, anointed withthe blood of the victims gods carved out of stone or made of wood,consulted the oracles, when in difficulty, and questioned themabout the future. But all this was sham and counterfeit. Ofreal, genuine, religious feeling there was none. This empty show,however, was kept up for purposes of gain; the manifold sanctuariesyielding large incomes to certain noble families and clans.
In a soil, apparently so uncongenial, how did Islamstrike its root? This is an interesting and fascinatingquestion and we must try to solve it here. The solution of thisquestion is to be found in the existence of Judaism andChristianity, on the one hand, and in the commercial activity ofthe Arabs, on the other. By commerce the Arabs acquired anextended knowledge of foreign nations and their civilisation.Frequent contact with the outer world widened their intellectualhorizon and awakened in them higher and more spiritualthoughts. They learnt new ideas, acquired new habits and, whatwas most valuable of all, they learnt to think for themselves.But not merely did travel in foreign countries and intercoursewith foreign people exercise a disruptive influence, but therewere forces, alike subversive and destructive, nearer home. InArabia itself the two streams of Christianity and Judaism flowed,side by side, with the Arab Heathenism.
That Christianity had made a considerable advance amongthe Arabs is clear from the fact, that, at the time of Mohamed, itwas considerably diffused not merely among the Rabia tribes buteven among the Tamim. Nor did the Taiyy altogether escapeits influence. Its growth, however, was not so favourable inHijaz and central Arabia, but even here Christian ideas undoubtedlymade their way through commerce and social intercourse.Similarly the Jewish influence was equally powerful. When theJews came to Arabia we do not definitely know, but Dr. Nöldekepoints out that a great Jewish immigration into Arabia cannotbe fixed prior to the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus andHadrian. At all events, it is clear that at the time of Mohamed[Pg 4]there was a large colony of Jews at Taima, Khaibar, Yathrib,Fedak and Yaman. They did not live scattered amidst Arabpopulation but kept together and, though despised by the Ara`sqthey were yet indispensible to them as merchants, jewellers, andgoldsmiths. It would, therefore, be not an error to suppose thatthey exerted no small spiritual influence over the Arabs. Thatthis is no unfounded theory or improbable supposition is evidencedby the fact that in the works of four of the most prominent Arabianpoets of the Pre-Islamic time—An-Nabigah, Zuhair, Al-Asha andLabid—we find expressions which show that they, at least, if notthe wild wanderers of the desert, knew very well what a spiritualreligion meant. Ibn Qutaibah enumerates drinking, joy, wrathand love among the “motive causes” which speed the poet butwe cannot fail to detect in their poems an undercurrent of deepreligious feelings. Individual minds felt a sense of uneasiness andsought to find some plausible solution of the mysteries of life anddeath and traces of such a frame of mind we notice frequently inancient Arab poetry. On no other basis, indeed, can we explainaway the lamentations of the royal poet Imra-ul-Qais over theworthlessness of the life of pleasure that he had led and the conversionto Christianity of Qais B. Zuhair, the leader of the Abs in thelong fratricidal war against the Dhubian. In considering the riseof Islam we cannot be unwatchful of the course of contemporarythought or unmindful of the religious forces which contributed toits success. Such, indeed, were the forces at work in Arabia beforeMohamed; forces which could not have failed to stir higherthoughts in enlightened minds and to create a reaction against theArab Heathenism. And a reaction, indeed, did set in. A bandof distinguished men, whom we must recognise as the heralds andstandard-bearers of Islam, no longer willing to tolerate idolatrouspractices, definitely cut themselves adrift from the ArabianPaganism. They called themselves Hanifs; a word of doubtfulmeaning and the cause of much controversy. “The most acceptableconjecture seems to me”, says Sir Charles Lyall, “to be thatof Sprenger that it is connected with the Hebrew HANEF heretic.”Hanifism had certain specific features: rejection of idolatory,abstention from certain kinds of food, and the worship of “the[Pg 5]God of Abraham.” Ascetic practices, such as the wearing ofsackcloth, are also ascribed to some of the Hanifs. Islamictradition has handed down to us the names of a number of religiousthinkers before Mohamed, who are described as Hanifs and ofwhom the following is a list:—
- Warakah b. Naufal of Kuraish.
- Ubaidulla b. Jahsh.
- Uthman b. Al Huwarith.
- Zaid b. ´Amr b. Naufal.
Ibn Kutaibah adds to the above:—
- Urbab b. al Bara´ of Abdul Qais
- Umayyah b. Abi-s-Salt.
- Kuss b. Saidah of Iyad (Aghani XIV, 41-44) Mohamed heard him at Ukaidh but hedied before the mission.
- Abu Kais Simrah b. Abi Anas.
- Khalid b. Sinan b. Ghaith of Abs.
To these Sir Charles Lyall adds:—
- Abu Kais Saifi, Ibn Al-Aslat of the Aus-allah of Yathrib.
It is impossible to misconceive the importance and significanceof Hanifism in the origin of Islam. The path wasalready prepared for it and Islam offered to the Arabs what theywere long in search for: a moral, ethical, and spiritual teaching;a higher form of worship and last but not least fraternity and union.The tribal cults were henceforward merged in a higher worshipand the nobler energies of the Arab race obtained a religiousconsecration.
Islam became the starting point for the Arabs for conquests,alike spiritual and temporal. With Islam became the prerogativeof the Arab race to be “an ensign to the nations;” to bearand to carry the banner of the true God to the remotest cornerof the earth. Hence the unceasing campaigns and hence thefar-extending conquests.
 Wellhausen, Reste Arabischen Heidentums, p. 226.
 I have avoided further details here, as I have dealt with this subject, atlength, in my Contributions to the History of Islamic Civilisation, pp. 146-169.
 Deutsch, Literary Remains, p. 87. For further information see VonKremer, Culturgeschichtliche Streifzüge (my translation, p. 49.)
 Wellhausen, Reste, pp. 230-231.
 Lyall, Ancient Arabian Poetry, p. 93.
 In Wellhausen’s Reste, p. 229 will be found the passage in question fromImra-ul-Qais.
 Journal of the Asiatic Society October, 1903 p. 773. Khuda Bukhsh, IslamicCivilisation p. 147 and the authorities therein cited.
It is clear beyond doubt that Christian and Jewish influences,to a large extent, unsettled and disturbed the beliefs of thePagan Arabs and paved the way for the prophet. Resistanceto his faith there was, but it was resistance on the part of those,who sought to maintain the old faith and superstition; not onaccount of any warmth of conviction or sincerity of zeal, but onaccount of the fear and apprehension that the success of Islamwould mean loss of large incomes derived from the temples and[Pg 6]old heathen practices. But resistance, founded upon such aselfish basis, could not prevent, and indeed did not prevent, theonward progress of Islam. In the deadly conflict between Islamand the Arab Heathenism Islam triumphed.
We, now, proceed to enquire as to what was the basis or, inother words, what were the sources from which Islam was derived.Islam freely borrowed from Judaism and Christianity and even didnot hesitate to adopt practices prevalent in Pre-Islamic Arabia.In fashioning his religion the prophet adopted an eclectic method,retaining or rejecting from the