« Prev The Home, and the Antecedents of Islâm Next »

§ 41. The Home, and the Antecedents of Islâm.

On the Aborigines of Arabia and its religious condition before Islam, compare the preliminary discourse of Sale, Sect.1 and 2; Muir, Vol. I. ch. 2d; Sprenger, I. 13–92, and Stobart, ch. 1.

The fatherland of Islâm is Arabia, a peninsula between the Red Sea, the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf. It is covered with sandy deserts, barren hills, rock-bound coasts, fertile wadies, and rich pastures. It is inhabited by nomadic tribes and traders who claim descent from five patriarchal stocks, Cush, Shem, Ishmael, Keturah, and Esau. It was divided by the ancients into Arabia Deserta, Arabia Petraea (the Sinai district with Petra as the capital), and Arabia Felix (El-Yemen, i.e. the land on the right hand, or of the South). Most of its rivers are swelled by periodical rains and then lose themselves in the sandy plains; few reach the ocean; none of them is navigable. It is a land of grim deserts and strips of green verdure, of drought and barrenness, violent rains, clear skies, tropical heat, date palms, aromatic herbs, coffee, balsam, myrrh, frankincense, and dhurra (which takes the place of grain). Its chief animals are the camel, “the ship of the desert,” an excellent breed of horses, sheep, and goats. The desert, like the ocean, is not without its grandeur. It creates the impression of infinitude, it fosters silence and meditation on God and eternity. Man is there alone with God. The Arabian desert gave birth to some of the sublimest compositions, the ode of liberty by Miriam, the ninetieth Psalm by Moses, the book of Job, which Carlyle calls “the grandest poem written by the pen of man.”

The Arabs love a roaming life, are simple and temperate, courteous, respectful, hospitable, imaginative, fond of poetry and eloquence, careless of human life, revengeful, sensual, and fanatical. Arabia, protected by its deserts, was never properly conquered by a foreign nation.

The religious capital of Islâm, and the birthplace of its founder—its Jerusalem and Rome—is Mecca (or Mekka), one of the oldest cities of Arabia. It is situated sixty-five miles East of Jiddah on the Red Sea, two hundred and forty-five miles South of Medina, in a narrow and sterile valley and shut in by bare hills. It numbered in its days of prosperity over one hundred thousand inhabitants, now only about forty-five thousand. It stands under the immediate control of the Sultan. The streets are broad, but unpaved, dusty in summer, muddy in winter. The houses are built of brick or stone, three or four stories high; the rooms better furnished than is usual in the East. They are a chief source of revenue by being let to the pilgrims. There is scarcely a garden or cultivated field in and around Mecca, and only here and there a thorny acacia and stunted brushwood relieves the eye. The city derives all its fruit—watermelons, dates, cucumbers, limes, grapes, apricots, figs, almonds—from Tâif and Wady Fatima, which during the pilgrimage season send more than one hundred camels daily to the capital. The inhabitants are indolent, though avaricious, and make their living chiefly of the pilgrims who annually flock thither by thousands and tens of thousands from all parts of the Mohammedan world. None but Moslems are allowed to enter Mecca, but a few Christian travellers—Ali Bey (the assumed name of the Spaniard, Domingo Badia y Leblich, d. 1818), Burckhardt in 1814, Burton in 1852, Maltzan in 1862, Keane in 1880—have visited it in Mussulman disguise, and at the risk of their lives. To them we owe our knowledge of the place.141141    See Ali Bey’s Travels in Asia and Africa, 1803-1807 (1814, 3 vols.); the works of Burckhardt, and Burton mentioned before; and Muir, I. 1-9.

The most holy place in Mecca is Al-Kaaba, a small oblong temple, so called from its cubic form.142142    The Cube-house or Square house, Maison carrée. It is also called Beit Ullah, (Beth-el), i.e. House of God. It is covered with cloth. See a description in Burckhaxdt, Travels, Lond., 1829, p. 136, Burton II. 154, Sprenger II. 340, and Khan Ballador’s Essay on the History of the Holy Mecca (a part of the work above quoted). Burckhardt gives the size: 18 paces long, 14 broad, 35 to 40 feet high. Burton: 22 paces (= 55 English feet) long, 18 paces (45 feet) broad. To it the faces of millions of Moslems are devoutly turned in prayer five times a day. It is inclosed by the great mosque, which corresponds in importance to the temple of Solomon in Jerusalem and St. Peter’s cathedral in Rome, and can hold about thirty-five thousand persons. It is surrounded by colonnades, chambers, domes and minarets. Near it is the bubbling well Zemzem, from which Hagar and Ishmael are said to have quenched their burning thirst. The Kaaba is much older than Mecca. Diodorus Siculus mentions it as the oldest and most honored temple in his time. It is supposed to have been first built by angels in the shape of a tent and to have been let down from heaven; there Adam worshipped after his expulsion from Paradise; Seth substituted a structure of clay and stone for a tent; after the destruction by the deluge Abraham and Ishmael reconstructed it, and their footsteps are shown.143143    Baliador says, l.c.: “The most ancient and authentic of all the local traditions of Arabia ... represent the temple of the Kaaba as having been constructed in the 42d century a. m., or 19th century b.c., by Abraham, who was assisted in his work by his son Ishmael.” He quotes Gen. xii. 7; xiii. 18 in proof that Abraham raised “altars for God’s worship on every spot where he had adored Him.” But the Bible nowhere says that he ever was in Mecca. It was entirely rebuilt in 1627. It contains the famous Black Stone,144144    It is called in Arabic Hhajera el-Assouád, the Heavenly Stone. Muir II. 35. in the North-Eastern corner near the door. This is probably a meteoric stone, or of volcanic origin, and served originally as an altar. The Arabs believe that it fell from Paradise with Adam, and was as white as milk, but turned black on account of man’s sins.145145    Bahador discredits this and other foolish traditions, and thinks that the Black Stone was a Piece of rock from the neighboring Abba Kobais mountain, and put in its present place by Ishmael at the desire of Abraham. It is semi-circular in shape, measures about six inches in height, and eight inches in breadth, is four or five feet from the ground, of reddish black color, polished by innumerable kisses (like the foot of the Peter-statue in St. Peter’s at Rome), encased in silver, and covered with black silk and inscriptions from the Koran. It was an object of veneration from time immemorial, and is still devoutly kissed or touched by the Moslem pilgrims on each of their seven circuits around the temple.146146    See pictures of the Kaaba and the Black Stone, in Bahador, and also in Muir, II. 18, and description, II. 34 sqq.

Mohammed subsequently cleared the Kaaba of all relics of idolatry, and made it the place of pilgrimage for his followers. He invented or revived the legend that Abraham by divine command sent his son Ishmael with Hagar to Mecca to establish there the true worship and the pilgrim festival. He says in the Koran: “God hath appointed the Kaaba, the sacred house, to be a station for mankind,” and, “Remember when we appointed the sanctuary as man’s resort and safe retreat, and said, ’Take ye the station of Abraham for a place of prayer.’ And we commanded Abraham and Ishmael, ’Purify my house for those who shall go in procession round it, and those who shall bow down and prostrate themselves.’ ”147147    Rodwell’s translation, pp. 446 and 648. Sprenger, II. 279, regards the Moslem legend of the Abrahamic origin of the Kaaba worship as a pure invention of Mohammed, of which there is no previous trace.

Arabia had at the time when Mohammed appeared, all the elements for a wild, warlike, eclectic religion like the one which he established. It was inhabited by heathen star-worshippers, Jews, and Christians.

The heathen were the ruling race, descended from Ishmael, the bastard son of Abraham (Ibrahim), the real sons of the desert, full of animal life and energy. They had their sanctuary in the Kaaba at Mecca, which attracted annually large numbers of pilgrims long before Mohammed.

The Jews, after the destruction of Jerusalem, were scattered in Arabia, especially in the district of Medina, and exerted considerable influence by their higher culture and rabbinical traditions.

The Christians belonged mostly to the various heretical sects which were expelled from the Roman empire during the violent doctrinal controversies of the fourth and fifth centuries. We find there traces of Arians, Sabellians, Ebionites, Nestorians, Eutychians, Monophysites, Marianites, and Collyridians or worshippers of Mary. Anchorets and monks settled in large numbers in Wady Feiran around Mount Serbal, and Justinian laid the foundation of the Convent of St. Catharine at the foot of Mount Sinai, which till the year 1859 harbored the oldest and most complete uncial manuscript of the Greek Scriptures of both Testaments from the age of Constantine. But it was a very superficial and corrupt Christianity which had found a home in those desert regions, where even the apostle Paul spent three years after his conversion in silent preparation for his great mission.

These three races and religions, though deadly hostile to each other, alike revered Abraham, the father of the faithful, as their common ancestor. This fact might suggest to a great mind the idea to unite them by a national religion monotheistic in principle and eclectic in its character. This seems to have been the original project of the founder of Islâm.

It is made certain by recent research that there were at the time and before the call of Mohammed a considerable number of inquirers at Mecca and Medina, who had intercourse with Eastern Christians in Syria and Abyssinia, were dissatisfied with the idolatry around them, and inclined to monotheism, which they traced to Abraham. They called themselves Hanyfs, i.e. Converts, Puritans. One of them, Omayah of Tâif, we know to have been under Christian influence; others seem to have derived their monotheistic ideas from Judaism. Some of the early converts of Mohammed as, Zayd (his favorite slave), Omayab, or Umaijah (a popular poet), and Waraka (a cousin of Chadijah and a student of the Holy Scriptures of the Jews and Christians) belonged to this sect, and even Mohammed acknowledged himself at first a Hanyf.148148    Sprenger I. 45: ”Die bisher unbekannt gebliebenen Hanyfen waren die Vorläufer des Mohammad. Er nennt sich selbst einen Hanyf, und während der ersten Periode seines Lehramtes hat er wenig anderes gethan, als ihre Lehre bestätigt.” Waraka, it is said, believed in him, as long as he was a Hanyf, but then forsook him, and died a Christian or a Jew.149149    According to Sprenger, I. 91 sqq., he died a Christian; but Deutsch, l.c., p. 77, says: “Whatever Waraka was originally, he certainly lived and died a Jew.” He infers this from the fact that when asked by Chadijah for his opinion concerning Mohammed’s revelations, he cried out: ”Koddus! Koddus! (i.e., Kadosh, Holy). Verily this is the Namus (i.e., νόμος, Law) which came to Moses. He will be the prophet of his people.”

Mohammed consolidated and energized this reform-movement, and gave it a world-wide significance, under the new name of Islâm, i.e. resignation to God; whence Moslem (or Muslim), one who resigns himself to God.

« Prev The Home, and the Antecedents of Islâm Next »
VIEWNAME is workSection