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§ 46. Mohammedan Worship.


“A simple, unpartitioned room,

Surmounted by an ample dome,

Or, in some Iands that favored he,

With centre open to the sky,

But roofed with arched cloisters round,

That mark the consecrated bound,

And shade the niche to Mecca turned,

By which two massive lights are burned;

With pulpit whence the sacred word

Expounded on great days is heard;

With fountains fresh, where, ere they pray,

Men wash the soil of earth away;

With shining minaret, thin and high,

From whose fine trellised balcony,

Announcement of the hour of prayer

Is uttered to the silent air:

Such is the Mosque—the holy place,

Where faithful men of every race

Meet at their ease and face to face.”

                                   (From Milnes, “Palm Leaves.”)


In worship the prominent feature of Islâm is its extreme iconoclasm and puritanism. In this respect, it resembles the service of the synagogue. The second commandment is literally understood as a prohibition of all representations of living creatures, whether in churches or elsewhere. The only ornament allowed is the “Arabesque,” which is always taken from inanimate nature.199199    The lions in the court of the Alhambra farm an exception.

The ceremonial is very simple. The mosques, like Catholic churches, are always open and frequented by worshippers, who perform their devotions either alone or in groups with covered head and bare feet. In entering, one must take off the shoes according to the command: “Put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground.” Slippers or sandals of straw are usually provided for strangers, and must be paid for. There are always half a dozen claimants for “backsheesh”—the first and the last word which greets the traveller in Egypt and Syria. Much importance is attached to preaching.200200    For an interesting description of a sermon from the pulpit of Mecca, see Burton’s Pilgrimage, II. 314; III. 117, quoted by Stanley, p. 379. Burton says, he had never and nowhere seen so solemn, so impressive a religious spectacle. Perhaps he has not heard many Christian sermons.

Circumcision is retained from the Jews, although it is not mentioned in the Koran. Friday is substituted for the Jewish Sabbath as the sacred day (perhaps because it was previously a day for religious assemblage). It is called the prince of days, the most excellent day on which man was created, and on which the last judgment will take place; but the observance is less strict than that of the Jewish Sabbath. On solemn occasions sacrifice, mostly in the nature of a thank-offering, is offered and combined with an act of benevolence to the poor. But there is no room in Islâm for the idea of atonement; God forgives sins directly and arbitrarily, without a satisfaction of justice. Hence there is no priesthood in the sense of a hereditary or perpetual caste, offering sacrifices and mediating between God and the people.201201    Gibbon’s statement that “the Mohammedan religion has no priest and no sacrifice;” is substantially correct. Yet there are Mufties and Dervishes, who are as powerful as any class of priests and monks. The Mussulmans have their saints, and pray at their white tombs. In this respect, they approach the Greeks and Roman Catholics; yet they abhor the worship of saints as idolatry. They also make much account of religious processions and pilgrimages. Their chief place of pilgrimage is Mecca. Many thousands of Moslems from Egypt and all parts of Turkey pass annually through the Arabian desert to worship at the holy Kaaba, and are received in triumph on their return. The supposed tomb of Moses, also, which is transferred to the Western shore of the Dead Sea, is visited by the Moslems of Jerusalem and the neighboring country in the month of April.

Prayer with prostrations is reduced to a mechanical act which is performed with the regularity of clock work. Washing of hands is enjoined before prayer, but in the desert, sand is permitted as a substitute for water. There are five stated seasons for prayer: at day-break, near noon, in the afternoon, a little after sunset (to avoid the appearance of sun-worship), and at night-fall, besides two night prayers for extra devotion. The muëddin or muëzzin (crier) announces the time of devotion from the minaret of the mosque by chanting the “Adan” or call to prayer, in these words:

God is great!” (four times). “I bear witness that there is no god but God” (twice). “I bear witness that Mohammed is the Apostle of God” (twice). “Come hither to prayers!” (twice). “Come hither to salvation!” (twice). “God is great! There is no other God!” And in the early morning the crier adds: “Prayer is better than sleep!”

A devout Mussulman is never ashamed to perform his devotion in public, whether in the mosque, or in the street, or on board the ship. Regardless of the surroundings, feeling alone with God in the midst of the crowd, his face turned to Mecca, his hands now raised to heaven, then laid on the lap, his forehead touching the ground, he goes through his genuflexions and prostrations, and repeats the first Sura of the Koran and the ninety-nine beautiful names of Allah, which form his rosary.202202    They are given in Arabic and English by Palmer, l.c. I., Intr, p. lxvii. sq. The following are the first ten:
   1. ar-Ra’hmân, the Merciful.

   2. ar-Ra’hîm, the Compassionate.

   3. al-Mâlik, the Ruler.

   4 . al-Quaddûs, the Holy.

   5. as-Salâm, Peace.

   6. al-Mû’min, the Faithful.

   7. al-Muhâimun, the Protector.

   8. al-Haziz the Mighty.

   9. al-Gabbâr, the Repairer.

   10. al-Mutakabbir, the Great.
The mosques are as well filled with men, as many Christian churches are with women. Islâm is a religion for men; women are of no account; the education and elevation of the female sex would destroy the system.

With all its simplicity and gravity, the Mohammedan worship has also its frantic excitement of the Dervishes. On the celebration of the birthday of their prophet and other festivals, they work themselves, by the constant repetition of “Allah, Allah,” into a state of unconscious ecstacy, “in which they plant swords in their breasts, tear live serpents with their teeth, eat bottles of glass, and finally lie prostrate on the ground for the chief of their order to ride on horseback over their bodies.”203203    Description of Dean Stanley from his own observation in Cairo, l.c., p. 385.

I will add a brief description of the ascetic exercises of the “Dancing” and “Howling” Dervishes which I witnessed in their convents at Constantinople and Cairo in 1877.

The Dancing or Turning Dervishes in Pera, thirteen in number, some looking ignorant and stupid, others devout and intensely fanatical, went first through prayers and prostrations, then threw off their outer garments, and in white flowing gowns, with high hats of stiff woolen stuff, they began to dance to the sound of strange music, whirling gracefully and skilfully on their toes, ring within ring, without touching each other or moving out of their circle, performing, in four different acts, from forty to fifty turnings in one minute, their arms stretched out or raised to heaven their eyes half shut, their mind apparently lost in a sort of Nirwana or pantheistic absorption in Allah. A few hours afterward I witnessed the rare spectacle of one of these very Dervishes reeling to and fro in a state of intoxication on the street and the lower bridge of the Golden Horn.

The Howling Dervishes in Scutari present a still more extraordinary sight, and a higher degree of ascetic exertion, but destitute of all grace and beauty. The performance took place in a small, plain, square room, and lasted nearly two hours. As the monks came in, they kissed the hand of their leader and repeated with him long prayers from the Koran. One recited with melodious voice an Arabic song in praise of Mohammed. Then, standing in a row, bowing, and raising their heads, they continued to howl the fundamental dogma of Mohammedanism, Lâ ilâha ill’ Allâh for nearly an hour. Some were utterly exhausted and wet with perspiration. The exercises I saw in Cairo were less protracted, but more dramatic, as the Dervishes had long hair and stood in a circle, swinging their bodies backward and forward in constant succession, and nearly touching the ground with their flowing hair. In astounding feats of asceticism the Moslems are fully equal to the ancient Christian anchorites and the fakirs of India.



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