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The Mystery of Islam

More than in Asia, when you move over to Africa you will be impressed not only by the power of Islam but by its mystery. It is in Africa, more than in Asia, that Islam is spreading rapidly. Mahdi after Mahdi has demonstrated how easily and powerfully the flames of fanaticism can light up. The mystical orders are making their influence felt in the spiritual soil from Khartoum to Rabat. Al Azhar, the university in Cairo, is the most prestigious and most influential of all Muslim schools. I do not wish to belittle the serious influence Islam still holds along the long route from Hayderabad in India to Bosnia on the Adriatic Sea, or along the long line that runs from Orenburg to Batavia. However, in Asia, Islam merely maintains the position she long ago achieved during its heyday. In contrast, in North Africa, Islam is visibly on the march. Even among the Negro people that fill Africa’s interior, Islam continues to win converts.

In the first part of this work I have sufficiently shown that I do not regard Asian Islam a spent force or an exhausted autumn plant. Saudi Arabia, India and Indonesia demonstrate the contrary. However, if you want to learn about the conquering force of Islam, then you must turn to Africa. In this “dark” continent of almost 30 million square kilometers, an area three times the size of Europe, there live 170 million people who, with the exception of Ethiopia and South Africa, increasingly are turning away from Christianity to seek their salvation in Islam. Sixteen centuries ago, the entire northern coast of the Mediterranean and its east coast from Port Said to deep into Sudan was won for the Christian faith, but this has all disappeared. Islam has triumphed along the entire coast. And it now appears that the Crescent is seriously poised to conquer the interior as well.

As it suddenly lit up the sky like a meteor in the seventh century and began its miraculous triumphal march from Mecca, Islam is one of the most difficult phenomena in world history to explain, especially psychologically. Till this day it has still not fully revealed its enigmatic nature. Oh, yes, Christianity also spread very rapidly. Already by its fourth century it had penetrated deep into the heart of Asia, had conquered the entire north coast of Africa and southern Europe. It practically covered the entire width and breath of the once mighty Roman Empire and exercised spiritual authority over this entire area. But what was this Christian expansion compared to the gigantic triumph of Islam that within a century after the Hijira, with the exception of the bulk of Europe, subjected the same expansive territories in Asia and Africa, not merely to its spiritual influence but simultaneously to its sword?

This is psychologically all the more amazing when you consider that Christianity conquered a series of weak, primitive religions, while Islam burrowed its way into country after country where the higher religion of the Cross had blossomed with such unexpected richness. Islam broke through with a force to which no one offered resistance, drove out everything in its path and subdued it. It transformed the reigning spirit of the day by imposing its own. It imposed its stamp on the conquered peoples so thoroughly and deeply that today, fourteen centuries later, all these nations live out of the spirit of Islam, adhere to its traditions and stubbornly resist all other cultures, even the higher, more developed, ones. Wherever train tracks cut through field and farm and telegraph lines snake their way through farms and along modern roadways, everyone, Bedouin as well as sedentary populations, is marked by that ancient unchanging stamp that Muhammad, that mysterious son of Abdullah and Amina with his powerful personality, was able to impress on his followers in Mecca in the seventh century in both their spiritual and cultural makeup.

What actually was this magic wand with which Muhammad won this unprecedented loyalty and brought about this unique turn in the history of the world? It cannot possibly be attributed to conscious deceit. A deceiver lives on basis of his lies and can produce no more than pseudo events that can only control restricted circles and are short-lived. Undoubtedly Muhammad had ecstatic visionary instincts, but such instincts are both quickly enflamed and equally quickly extinguished. Such a person is not likely to possess sustaining power through the centuries. A spiritual power of the first order must have dwelt in Muhammad that, regardless of other factors of lower rank, supplied the essential driving force from which his creativity emerged and that retains its vitality till this day. That driving force undoubtedly was his inspired and resilient call for Monotheism.

Mohammad had a weak moment once in Mecca. Under pressure of a threat to his life, he recited a verse still found in the Qur’an, Sura 53:19-21—“Have you seen Lata and ‘Uzza, and another, the third (goddess), Manat? What! For you the male sex, and for Him, the female?”1616I use the translation of the Qur’an by Abdullah Yusuf Ali, p. 495. This was weakness. Uzza and Manat were well-known idols. Since then he has with relentless severity preached Allah, the god of the ancient Hanifites, as the only true God and held up this as Allah, the All Compassionate and All Merciful, as the exclusive object of worship for his adherents.

Religion in general stirs us in the deepest of our being; it is more powerful than any other factor in our personal lives as well as in the history of nations. Among religions, it is Monotheism that does this most powerfully, because it reduces all things to their single origin, propels them along a single consistent line and guides all things towards their destiny or end where it unites them in one elevated focus. The courage that welled up from all this to break with all forms of Polytheism and everything associated with it, reached so deeply into the existing regime, that the glow it emitted consumed nearly all resistance and called up a totally new life motif or worldview. The courage of such a heroic spirit evokes enthusiasm, and elevated enthusiasm transports the masses, propels them along and raises them to heights and powers far above their normal levels.

The spiritual centre of Muhammad was embedded in both his deep conviction of the evil of Polytheism and in his bold confession of Monotheism. However, his purely spiritual power would never have guaranteed him his triumph if the effects of his principle had not opened the way for the ongoing penetration of his spiritual message. This penetration was due not so much to clever manipulation as to the expression of his personality in relation to both his own local and international environments at the time. Muhammad did not develop his confession next to or outside of daily life. His religion was not a mystery suitable only for the inner chamber. Rather, he was so deeply and ideologically convinced of the all-encompassing rule of Allah’s omnipotence, that he spread his confession of Allah as a net over the full range of human culture, and demanded its dominance over the personal and family as well as economic and political life. Religion as a private affair was unthinkable for him.1717 See J. Boer, 2005, pp. 61-76, for a fuller discussion of Muslim wholism. Monotheism did not only exclude all rival gods but Allah, but just as much every other commanding or deciding power whether in the human will, in established cultural customs or in the power of the State. Allah alone rules and controls everything. The universe is like a gigantic clock designed by Allah, artfully assembled by Him, wound up by Him, and operating according to His fixed rules. Allah’s will and law alone apply and decide the direction of all of life and of all existence. This is not only currently the case, but has been so in the past and will be so in the farthest reaches of the future.

That is the reason Muhammad connected to earlier revelations of Monotheism. He did not consider his a new religion. Neither was it a religion that syncretistically was cobbled together by mixing existing religions. Allah had always reigned, had all the while revealed His will and had from the beginning counted in history. It is just that mankind was not capable of comprehending the full mystery of Allah’s rule all at once. Hence Allah revealed Himself gradually, progressively, step by step. The prophets of all the ages were the vehicles for these revelations. They numbered in the thousands, but most of them were of minor significance. Some were mere sparks that flamed up quickly but extinguished just as quickly. A few among them became leading vehicles in this development of the service of Allah. Adam was the first in that series. The series includes Noah and Shem. After them, especially Abraham, Moses and Jesus Christ. All of these not only struggle zealously for Monotheism and proclaimed the majesty of Allah, but in their successive appearances they formed an unbroken chain, a continuous progressive revelation from Allah. Jesus was the last among them before Muhammad, and the highest. However, even Jesus Christ was merely one of the many prophets, the latest in order and the highest, but no higher than Moses and other predecessors in rank and kind. That is why even in Jesus, divine revelation had not yet come to a close. Did the Gospels themselves not predict that after Jesus there would be another Comforter? That final closure to revelation came in the person of Muhammad. He completed what was begun with Adam, Abraham, Moses and Jesus. Muhammad received the closing revelation. At the eschaton, that is, the end of all things, at the closure of world history, there will be more appearances, but these will no longer belong to history, for that history will also have come to its close. From now until that ending, that is, during this present dispensation, there will not come any further, higher or more complete revelation after Muhammad. What began with Adam or, if you prefer, with Abraham, is one single unified process that found its finale in Muhammad. That is why all faith comes down to two articles: first, the confession that Allah controls all things; second, that Muhammad represents His full and closing revelation.

But now, according to Muhammad, that revelation is complete. That is to say, that revelation, being the final revelation of God’s will, must have priority over the law and rule over all other things. Here is where the Qur’an came in and then, next to it, a variety of sources of orthodoxy. There are the Hadith [the Traditions or record of individual actions and sayings by the Prophet as reported by his Companions], the Sunnah [the sacred collection of the Hadiths, the second highest Islamic authority next to the Qur’an] and the Ijima as the vox populi [the voice of the people] comprising the entire body of learned Islamic scholars and their output. The last is associated with the Ijtihad, a controversial method of logical deduction that may lead to innovation within Islam.1818Kuyper knew the terminology he is using here, but I am not sure he understood the relations between them accurately. I have not tried to upgrade him here, except that I have inserted in the text brief explanations of these Arabic terms so important to Islam. Nothing could be left to human initiative. Everything had to be arranged according to higher ordinances. Allah had to govern the life of his true worshippers in all its breadth and depth. Here you have the origin of the rigorous Nomism or legalism that has penetrated all of Islam as a yeast. Later, a struggle arose about the freedom of the will, but this had to do only with moral responsibility. Every Muslim was convinced that all laws for human life derived from Allah, a factor that created that all-encompassing focus for all of Muslim life, the source of the power of their solidarity. The worship of Allah and the subjection of everything to Him were not two components of the faith, but one.

We have here the root of both the pride of the Muslim and the command to holy war. Only those who bow before Allah and honour His highest Prophet were considered genuine human beings, Allah’s allies1919I am not sure Islam allows this terminology. It is Kuyper’s. and Allah’s protected. Because Allah rules everything, only His true worshippers can rule on earth. They are the only ones to carry out His holy will and honour Him; all others are opponents and enemies. Consequently and logically, all individuals and all nations that are not part of the Muslim community either partially or wholly, are in a state of resistance to Allah, fail to honour Him and go against His ordinances. Should mankind raise the sword on behalf of worldly interests but not for the highest of interests, namely the honour of Allah? Should we shed blood for minor misdeeds but not when human beings assault the majesty of Allah, especially if people purposely persist in this evil?

This rigorous concept of holy war would not have gone further than did Israel’s campaign in Canaan, if Muhammad had brought them a national religion as Moses has done. Such a national idea was totally foreign to Muhammad. His religion was to be an absolute religion, the religion of the world, the only religion. The Muslim community was therefore to encompass and rule the entire world. Allah is not a national god. Neither is He a god whose revelation is merely temporary or for a time as in the case of his temporary arrangements with Israel. That was possible at the time of Moses, but no longer, for in Muhammad the final revelation appeared. That revelation made high demands of all humanity. Islam crossed all borders and where there were still idols or where Allah was not acknowledged, people were considered to be in a mode of rebellion, of scorn, and of provocation of the Almighty. Therefore, the jihad,2020  the holy war against unbelievers, is not an incidental matter in the Qur’an, but an obligation that flows directly out of the principle of absolute Monotheism, at least, in its Nomistic form. The Qur’an states it in a harsh and relentless tone in Sura 9:5—“But when the forbidden months are past, then fight and slay the Pagans wherever you find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war); but if they repent and establish regular prayers and pay Zakat, then open the way for them, for Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.” That this harsh commandment was later re-interpreted and attributed a “softer” meaning by Muslim authorities does not change anything in principle. The Hanifites later declared that as long as someone, somewhere, was waging a holy war, the rest of the faithful would be relieved of this duty, but the principle itself has never been relinquished and, in fact, cannot be renounced. To disobey Allah is the greatest of all misdeeds, in fact, the only misdeed. All who call upon Allah have the duty to break such resistance and to punish that repugnant misdeed.

Such strict nomistic/legalistic Monotheism is the natural friend of democracy and freedom. A clerical class could easily have usurped power by inserting itself between the faithful and Allah—thus a power over the people next to or in addition to Allah, but this could not be tolerated. Even though such a class did arise in the form of the Khalif and the Ulama, who did in fact serve as intermediaries, the principle that “all people are like the teeth of a comb” as Muhammad used to put it, was maintained. There is no central authority that ties the Muslim community together. Islam depends on the confession of the faithful. That is the only force that keeps it together. Hence the endless splinter groups within Islam into sects and cults, almost worse than in Christianity. This freedom is inherent to Islam. But in the end, no matter how adherents differ from each other, all those who call upon Allah and follow the Prophet see themselves as one body, regardless of their country of origin.

Out of this situation an all-pervasive power emerges that is far above any hierarchical power. It is exactly this sense of freedom that provides every Muslim with a deep consciousness of obligation and responsibility for the honour of Allah. Not even the practice of circumcision unites them, for which reason it is sometimes grossly neglected. Only the confession of Allah and His Prophet unites them. Even negligence in worship and failure to adhere to the ordinances of the Qur’an and the Sunna can be tolerated and forgiven, as long as the believer boldly and openly resists all opposition to Islam and calls loudly on Allah and His Prophet. No matter the differences over the Caliphate or issues of succession or anything else, even, as is done in Zanzibar, supporting a different Sheriphate from that of Mecca, still every believer in Islam feels himself one with all his fellow believers, as members of the same holy ummah or community. Islam finds its unconquerable strength not in some pseudo organization but in the personal confession of each Muslim. For that reason, Muhammed neither founded a Caliphate dynasty nor appointed a successor. Upon his death, the Muslim community itself had to appoint its next leader.

But there is a darker side to Islam that also flows out of its nomistic character, namely its lack of spiritual depth. It knows nothing about regeneration or being born again; it does not realize the deeper reality of sin and evil; it is short on soteriology or doctrine of salvation that goes beyond mere formal declaration of reconciliation. This does not mean that it has renounced all higher moral principles. To the contrary, if you compare the moral standards in vogue in the Arabia of Muhammad’s day with his principles, then Islam clearly represented progress and higher purpose. His declaration concerning marriage and alcohol pointedly collided with the traditional immoral standards in the areas of sex and alcohol. But this was no more than a repositioning of the principial line that indicated the new norm. Muhammad himself was infatuated with sex.2121This is a strong statement that I am not sure can stand scrutiny. By breaching his own prohibition of having more than four wives he reduced the seriousness of this restriction. The provision of concubinage of female slaves further lowered his ethical and moral standards.

It is therefore impossible to develop a higher level of domestic life under Islam: It prevents women from reaching their full potential. The loose and easy divorce introduced by Muhammad may have been an improvement over the customs of the day, but it, too, served to keep the ethical level of Islam low. As soon as you compare the moral standards of Christendom with those of Islam, you will immediately note the profound difference. On the moral side, Islam is a system of accommodation, a partial elevation of the low level he found on the ground, but definitely not a return to first [creational] principles. His self-presentation as the last and final divine ambassador constituted a serious obstacle, for that forever cut off the possibility of developing a higher ethical standard in the future. This ethical norm may have been progress over the existing moral level, but it was still at a low principial level and so it has remained ever since among Muslims. It has served to weaken the seriousness of their moral life.2222Remember that Kuyper is comparing the two religions a century ago. Since then, Christendom has disappeared, secularism has taken over with its very loose moral standards that have even affected Christians in the 21st century. Had he written this comparison today, he undoubtedly would have been more nuanced. Comparing and contrasting today’s Christian moral standards with those of Islam is tricky. Both will win some and loose others.

All of this can only be explained by the nomism or legalism of Islam and the absence of any attempt to raise the moral life through regeneration or being born again. The Christian emphasis on the contrast between the old and the new born-again person is completely foreign to Islam. This situation has not prevented the rise of revivals, as for example the Wahabis, that represented a return to more puritanical attitudes, or the various Mahdi movements with similar goals. But such movements never elevated themselves morally beyond the standards of the Qur’an. Whenever moral standards sunk below those of the Qur’an, Muslims were called upon to return to its standards, but it never came to a process of ethical development that welled up from the ethical principle itself.2323Kuyperian thought emphasizes creation ordinances, including moral ordinances, that are out there and can be discovered in rough outline through experience, but for which fallen man needs the Bible to understand them in their full depth. That did not and could not happen.

Christendom has its three pillars on which it rests: faith, hope and love. Or, if you prefer: regeneration, faith and sanctification. In contrast, Islam has five pillars that support the religion: faith in Allah and His Prophet; prayer; fasting in the month of Ramadan; alms giving; pilgrimage to Mecca. Nothing demonstrates the external character that so disfigures Islam more than this row of pillars when set side by side. Even Muhammad’s expectation for the afterlife betrays a similar lack of ethical elevation. To be sure, Muslim scholars have repeatedly sought to allegorize the rough outlines of the Paradise image Muhammed held up before his followers, but it remains a fact that most Muslims understand Paradise in a purely sensual sense. Muhammad’s language was purposefully designed to imprint that sensual image permanently.

It was only the mystics, in their ascetic as well as their ecstatic strains, who provided a more holy glow for this barren ethical scheme. It would be doing Islam an injustice if we were to regard this mysticism as a totally foreign implant in the garden of Islam. Mysticism is an indispensable component of all legalistic religions, but it is not for everyone. The lifestyle of the masses is too superficial for this approach. Mysticism requires a special aptitude and a unique orientation of the spirit, so that it always is the monopoly of a small group. You do not find much of mysticism in the Qur’an, for it addresses the masses. Neither would it need to be in the Qur’an, for regardless of which form the religion were to adopt, mysticism develops spontaneously as soon as its seed is present. Even though it does not win over the masses, it always commands respect, especially in nomistic or legalistic circles. Thus it can be said that this spontaneously-erupted mysticism, though always behind the veil of officialdom, has deepened and intensified the emotional and spiritual life of the people. Without the mystical movements such as the Dervishes, Sufism and other forms, Islam would definitely not have retained the spiritual power that millions and millions of Allah worshippers continue to exude, especially not after the cessation of holy wars. Without this glow of mysticism, Pan-Islam would simply be unthinkable.

It is possible to debate the question whether the more rigid form of asceticism did not emerge long after Muhammad. It is generally agreed that the Qur’an excludes rather than encourages the mystical version of asceticism. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that the ecstatic visionary founder of Islam himself found part of his powers in mysticism. Besides, mysticism is such an integral part of the Semitic worldview that it is impossible to imagine a Semitic religion—and Islam is and will always remain that—without this mysterious background of mysticism.

But even if we accept mysticism as an inseparable ingredient of Islam, this will never serve to elevate its ethical standard. All mysticism is religion-specific and as such never adopts an imposed ethical character. Even in its ascetic form it merely aims either to achieve communion with the Divine Being or to insure its salvation after death. It normally does not have any influence on moral life in society. Rather, history teaches that all mysticism throughout the ages tends to end up “in the flesh,” that is to say, become “worldly,” even though it begins “in the spirit.”

If Islam had spread exclusively in regions where idolatry and Polytheism constituted the traditional religion, as in Arabia itself or in parts of Persia, we would be able to understand how the higher religion of Islam without great difficulty would have pushed out these lower religions. The riddle that the rapid rise of Islam confronts us with is that it almost exclusively spread in fully Christianized nations and that in these higher cultures this even higher Christianity disappeared almost without a trace after only a short struggle. I have already done full justice to the inspiration inherent in Monotheism. I have expressed full appreciation for the enthusiasm instilled in the emotions by the command for holy war, while I also have fully accounted for the enthusiasm generated by the consciousness that the faithful were to dominate the entire world. To all these factors we must also add that the militant spirit and the lust for booty, so native to the Arab, were among the less noble factors that led to the triumph of Islam.


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