The Character of Mohammed

But there rose up a man whose convictions were too strong to be hushed by the love of family or to be quelled by the fear of death. Partly owing to his age and dignified position and unblemished name, partly owing to the chivalrous nature of his patriarch or patron, he was protected against his enemies, his life was saved. Had there been a government at Mecca, he would unquestionably have been put to death, and as it was he narrowly escaped.

Mohammed was a poor lad subject to a nervous disease which made him at first unfit for anything except the despised occupation of the shepherd.

When he grew up he became a commercial traveller, acted as agent for a rich widow twenty-five years older than himself, and obtained her hand. They lived happily together for many years. They were both of them exceedingly religious people, and in the Ramadan, a month held sacred by the ancient Arabs, they used to live in a cave outside the town, passing the time in prayer and meditation.

The disease of his childhood returned upon him in his middle age; it affected his mind in a strange manner, and produced illusions of his senses. He thought that he was haunted, that his body was the house of an evil spirit. "I see a light," he said to his wife, "and I hear a sound. I fear that I am one of the possessed." This idea was most distressing to a pious man. He became pale and haggard; he wandered about on the hill near Mecca, crying out to God for help. More than once he drew near the edge of a cliff, and was tempted to hurl himself down and so put an end to his misery at once.

And then a new idea possessed his mind. He lived much in the open air, gazing on the stars, watching the dry ground grown green beneath the gentle rain, surveying the firmly rooted mountains and the broad expanded plain. He pondered also on the religious legends of the Jews which he had heard related on his journeys, at noonday beneath the palm-tree by the well mouth, at night by the camp fire; and as he looked and thought, the darkness was dispelled, the clouds dispersed, and the vision of God in solitary grandeur rose up within his mind. And there came upon him an impulse to speak of God; there came upon him a belief that he was a messenger of God sent on earth to restore the religion of Abraham which the pagan Arabs had polluted with their idolatry, the Christians in making Jesus a divinity, the Jews in corrupting their holy books.

In the brain of a poet stanzas will sometimes arise fully formed without a conscious effort of the will, as once happened to Coleridge in a dream; and so into Mohammed´s half-dreaming mind there flew golden-winged verses echoing to one another in harmonious sound. At the same time he heard a Voice; and sometimes he saw a human figure; and sometimes he felt a noise in his ears like the tinkling of bells, or a low, deep hum as if bees were swarming round his head. At this period of his life every chapter of the Koran was delivered in throes of pain. The paroxysm was preceded by depression of spirits; his face became clouded; his extremities turned cold; he shook like a man in an ague and called for a covering. His face assumed an expression horrible to see; the vein between his eyebrows became distended; his eyes were fixed; his head moved to and fro, as if he was conversing; and then he gave forth the oracle or sudra. Sometimes he would fall like a man intoxicated to the ground, but the ordinary conclusion of the fit was a profuse perspiration, by which he appeared to be relieved. His sufferings were at times unusually severe—he used often to speak of the three terrific sudras which had given him grey hairs.

His friends were alarmed at his state of mind. Some ascribed it to the eccentricities of poetical genius; others declared that he was possessed of an evil spirit; others said he was insane. When he began to preach against the idols of the Caaba, the practice of female infanticide, and other evil customs of the town; when he declared that there was no divine being but God, and that he was the messenger of God; when he related the ancient legends of the prophets which he said had been told him by the angel Gabriel, there was a general outburst of merriment and scorn. They said he had picked it all up from a Christian who kept a jeweller´s shop in the town. They requested him to perform miracles; the poets composed comic ballads which the people sang when he began to preach; the women pointed at him with the finger; it became an amusement of the children to pelt Mohammed. This was perhaps the hardest season of his life—ridicule is the most terrible of all weapons. But his wife encouraged him to persevere, and so did the Voice, which came to him and sang: "By the brightness of the morn that rises, and by the darkness of the night that descends, thy God hath not forsaken thee, Mohammed. For know that there is a life beyond the grave, and it will be better for thee than thy present life; and thy Lord will give thee a rich reward. Did he not find thee an orphan, and did he not care for thee? Did he not find thee wandering in error, and hath he not guided thee to truth? Did he not find thee needy, and hath he not enriched thee? Wherefore oppress not the orphan, neither repulse the beggar, but declare the goodness of the Lord."

This Voice was the echo of Mohammed’s conscience and the expression of his ideas. Owing to his peculiar constitution his thoughts became audible as soon as they became intense. So long as his mind remained pure, the Voice was that of a good angel; when afterwards guilty wishes entered his heart, the voice became that of Mephistopheles.

Mohammed’s family did not accept his mission: his converts were at first chiefly made among the slaves. But soon these converts became so numerous among all classes that the Meccans ceased to ridicule Mohammed and began to hate him. Nor did he attempt to ingratiate himself in their affections. "He called the living fools, the dead denizens of hell-fire." The heads of families took counsel together. They went to Abu Talib, the patriarch of the house to which Mohammed belonged, and offered the price of blood, and then double the price of blood, and then a stalwart young man for Mohammed’s life, and then, being always refused, went off declaring that there would be war. Abu Talib adjured Mohammed not to ruin the family. The prophet’s lip quivered: he burst into tears, but he said he must go on. Abu Talib hinted that his protection might be withdrawn. Then Mohammed declared that if the sun came down on his right hand and the moon on his left he would not swerve from the work which God had given him to do. Abu Talib, finding him inflexible, assured him that his protection should never be withdrawn. In the meantime the patriarchs returned and said, "What is it that you want, Mohammed? Do you wish for riches? We will make you rich. Do you wish for honour? We will make you the mayor of the town." Mohammed replied with a chapter of the Koran. They then assembled in the town hall and entered into a solemn league and covenant to keep apart from the family of Abu Talib. It was sent to Coventry. None would buy with them nor sell with them, eat with them nor drink with them. This lasted for three years, but when as people passed by the house they heard the cries of the starving children from behind the walls, they relented and sold them grain. There was one member of the family, Abu Laheb, who withdrew from it at that juncture and became Mohammed’s most inveterate foe.

Each family agreed also to punish its own Mohammedans. Many were exposed to the glow of the midday sun on the scorching gravel outside the town, and to the torments of thirst. A mulatto slave was tortured by a great stone being placed on his chest, the while he cried out continually, "There is only one God! There is only one God!" Mohammed recommended his disciples to escape to Abyssinia, "a land of righteousness, a land where none was wronged." They were kindly received by the Negus, who refused to give them up in spite of the envoys with presents of red leather who were sent to him from Mecca with that request.

During the period of the sacred months Mohammed used often to visit the encampments of the pilgrims outside the town. He announced to them his mission; he preached on the unity of God and on the terrors of the judgment-day. "God has no daughters," said he, "for how can he have daughters when he has no spouse? He begetteth not, neither is he begotten. There is none but he. O beware, ye idolators, of the time that is to come, when the sun shall be folded up, when the stars shall fall, when the mountains shall be made to pass away, when the children’s hair shall grow white with anguish, when souls like locust swarms shall rise from their graves, when the girl who hath been buried alive shall be asked for what crime she was put to death, when the books shall be laid open, when every soul shall know what it hath wrought! O the striking, the striking, when men shall be scattered as moths in the wind! And then Allah shall cry to Hell, Art thou filled full? And Hell shall cry to Allah, More, give me more!"

But there followed him everywhere a squint eyed man, fat, with flowing locks on both sides of his head, and clothed in raiment of fine Aden stuff. When Mohammed had finished his sermon he would say, "This fellow’s object is to draw you away from the gods to his fanciful ideas; wherefore follow him not, O my brothers, neither listen to him." And who should this be but his uncle, Abu Laheb! Whereupon the strangers would reply, "Your own kinsmen ought to know you best. Why do they not believe you if what you say is true?" In return for these kind offices Mohammed promised his uncle that he should go down to be burned in flaming fire, and that his wife should go too, bearing a load of wood, with a cord of twisted palm fibres round her neck.

And now two great sorrows fell upon Mohammed. He lost almost at the same time his beloved wife and the noble-hearted parent of his clan. The successor of Abu Talib continued the protection, yet Mohammed felt insecure. His religion also made but small progress. The fact is that he failed at Mecca as Jesus had failed at Jerusalem. He had made a few ardent disciples who spent the day at his feet, or in reading snatches of the Koran scrawled on date leaves, shoulder-blades of sheep, camel bones, scraps of parchment, or tablets of smooth white stone. But he had not so much as shaken the ruling idolatry, which was firmly based on custom and self-interest. No doubt his disciples would in course of time have diffused his religion throughout Arabia. Islam was formed; Islam was alive; but Mohammed himself would never have witnessed its triumph had it not been for a curious accident which now occurred. The Arabs belonging to that city which was afterwards called Medina had conquered a tribe of Jews. These had consoled themselves for the bitterness of their defeat by declaring that a great prophet, the Messiah, would soon appear, and would avenge them upon all their foes. The Arabs believed them and trembled, for they stood in great dread of the book which the Jews possessed, and which they supposed to be a magical composition. So, when certain pilgrims from Medina heard Mohammed announce that he was a messenger from God, they took it for granted that he was the man, and determined to steal a march upon the Jews by securing him for themselves. At their request he sent a missionary to Medina; the townsmen were converted, and invited him to come and live among them. In a dark ravine near Mecca, at the midnight hour, his patriarch or father delivered him solemnly into their hands. Mohammed was now no longer a citizen of Mecca; he was no longer "protected"; he had changed his nationality, and he was hunted like a deer before he arrived safely in his new home.

Had Mohammed been killed in that celebrated flight he would have been classed by historians among the glorious martyrs and the gentle saints. His character before the Hegira resembled the character of Jesus. In both of them we find the same sublime insanity, compounded of loyalty to God, love for man, and inordinate self-conceit; both were subject to savage fits of wrath, and having no weapons but their tongues, consigned souls by wholesale to hell-fire. Both also humbled themselves before God, preaching the religion of the heart, led pure, unblemished lives, devoted themselves to a noble cause, and uttered maxims of charity and love at strange variance with their occasional invectives. Of the life of Jesus it is needless to speak; if he had any vices they have not been recorded. But the conduct of Mohammed at Mecca was apparently not less pure. He was married to an old woman; polygamy was a custom of the land; his passions were strong, as was afterwards too plainly shown; yet he did not take a second wife as long as his dear Khadijah was alive. He never frequented the wine-shop or looked at the dancing girls or talked abroad in the bazaars. He was more modest than a virgin behind the curtain. When he met children he would stop and pat their cheeks; he followed the bier that passed him in the street; he visited the sick; he was kind to his inferiors; he would accept the invitation of a slave to dinner; he was never the first to withdraw his hand when he shook hands; he was humble, gentle, and kind; he waited always on himself, mending his own clothes, milking his own goats; he never struck any one in his life. When once asked to curse someone he said, "I have not been sent to curse but to be a mercy to mankind." He reproached himself in the Koran for having behaved unkindly to a beggar, and so immortalised his own offence. He issued a text, "Use no violence in religion."

But this text, with many others, he afterwards expunged. When he arrived at Medina he found himself at the head of a small army, and he began to publish his gospel of the sword. Henceforth we may admire the statesman or the general; the prophet is no more. It will hence be inferred that Mohammed was hypocritical, or at least inconstant. But he was constant throughout his life to the one object which he had in view—the spread of his religion. At Mecca it could best be spread by means of the gentle virtues; he therefore ordered his disciples to abstain from violence which would only do them harm. At Medina he saw that the Caaba idolatry could not be destroyed except by force; he therefore felt it his duty to make use of force. He obeyed his conscience both at Mecca and Medina, for the conscience is merely an organ of the intellect, and is altered, improved, or vitiated according to the education which it receives and the incidents which act upon it.

And now Mohammed’s glory expanded, and at the same time his virtue declined. He broke the Truce of God: he was not always true to his plighted word. As Moses forbade the Israelites to marry with the pagans and then took unto himself an Ethiopian wife, so Mohammed, broke his own marriage laws, beginning the career of a voluptuary at fifty years of age. His Koran sudras were now official manifestoes, legal regulations, delivered in an extravagant and stilted style differing much from that of his fervid oracles at Mecca. But whatever may have been his private defects, when we regard him as a ruler and lawgiver we can only wonder and admire. He established for the first time in history a united Arabia. In the moral life of his countrymen he effected a remarkable reform. He abolished drunkenness and gambling—vices to which the Arabs had been specially addicted. He abolished the practice of infanticide, and also succeeded in rendering its memory detestable. It is said that Omar, the fierce apostle of Islam, shed but one tear in his life, and that was when he remembered how in the days of darkness his child had beat the dust off his beard with her little hand as he was laying her in the grave. Polygamy and slavery he did not prohibit, but whatever laws he made respecting women and slaves were made with the view of improving their condition. He removed that facility of divorce by means of which an Arab could at any time repudiate his wife: he enacted that no Moslem should be made a slave, that the children of a slave girl by her master should be free. Instead of repining that Mohammed did no more, we have reason to be astonished that he did so much. His career is the best example that can be given of the influence of the individual in human history. That single man created the glory of his nation and spread his language over half the earth. The words which he preached to jeering crowds twelve hundred years ago are now being studied by scholars or by devotees in London and Paris and Berlin; in Mecca, where he laboured, in Medina, where he died; in Constantinople, in Cairo, in Fez, in Timbuktu, in Jerusalem, in Damascus, in Basra, in Baghdad, in Bokhara, in Kabul, in Calcutta, in Pekin; on the steppes of Central Asia, in the islands of the Indian Archipelago, in lands which are as yet unmarked upon our maps, in the oases of thirsty deserts, in obscure villages situated by unknown streams. It was Mohammed who did all this, for he uttered the book which carried the language, and he prepared the army which carried the book. His disciples and successors were not mad fanatics but resolute and sagacious men, who made shrewd friendship with the malcontent Christians among the Greeks and with the persecuted Jews in Spain, and who in a few years created an empire which extended from the Pyrenees to the Hindu Kush.

This empire, it is true, was soon divided, and soon became weak in all its parts. The Arabs could conquer, but they could not govern. Separate sovereignties or caliphates were established in Babylonia, Egypt, and Spain, while provinces such as Morocco or Bokhara frequently obtained independence by rebellion. It is needless to describe at length the history of the Caliphs and their successors—it is only the twice-told tale of the Euphrates and the Nile. The caliphs were at first Commanders of the Faithful in reality, but they were soon degraded both in Cairo and Baghdad to the position of the Roman Pope at the present time. The government was seized by the Praetorian Guards, who in Baghdad were descended from Turkish prisoners or negroes imported from Zanzibar, and in Egypt from Mamelukes or European slaves, brought in their boyhood from the wild countries surrounding the Black Sea, and trained up from tender years to the practice of arms—the sons of Christian parents, but branded with a cross on the soles of their feet that they might never cease to tread upon the emblem of their native creed.

However, by means of the Arab conquest the East was united as it had never been before. The Euphrates was no longer a line of partition between two worlds. Arab traders established their factories on both sides of the Indian Ocean and along the Asiatic shores of the Pacific. Men from all countries met at Mecca once a year. The religion of the Arabs conquered nations whom the Arabs themselves had never seen. When the Mohammedan Turks of Central Asia took Constantinople and reduced the caliphates to provinces, although the people of Mohammed were driven back to their wilderness the strength and glory of his religion was increased. In the same manner the conquest of Hindustan was an achievement of Islam in which the Arabs bore no part, and in Africa also we shall find that the Koran reigns over extensive regions which the Arabs visit only as travellers and merchants.

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