|Wikisource:Islam|| Men of Might: Studies of Great Characters Mahomet|
by Arthur Christopher Benson
THERE are two stories in the Old Testament which excite our sympathy by their description of purely human sorrow and suffering : the story of Hagar and Ishmael, and the story of Esau. Who has not felt for the poor bondwoman when, as the Bible tells us, * she went and sat down over against him a good way off, as it were a bowshot ; for she said, Let me not look on the death of the child'? The water in the bottle was spent, and they were wandering in the desert of Beersheba. Then followed the angel's miraculous aid, and the promise of God : ' I will make him a great nation - And God was with the lad, and he grew ; and he dwelt in the wilderness, and became an archer.'
We remember, too, the story of Esau. ' When Esau heard the words of his father, he cried with an exceeding great and bitter cry : " Bless me, even me also, O my father ! Hast thou but one blessing, my father ?" And Isaac, his father, answered and said unto him, " Behold thy dwelling shall be of the fatness of the earth, and of the dew of heaven from above; and by thy sword shalt thou live, and shalt serve thy brother ; and it shall come to pass when thou shalt have the dominion, that thou shalt break his yoke from off thy neck."' Long after, Esau married the daughter of Ishmael, and from him came the Edomites, and the Arnalekites, and all the people of Arabia. Ishmael and Esau were both, then, of the seed of Abraham, the Father of the Faithful, the Friend of God ; and as such must have taken with them into the Arabian wilderness the knowledge of the true God and Father of all. But if in Judaea itself, among the chosen race, where God was King, and prophecy and miracle, blessing and curse bore witness to His power if even there the people could leave His worship and go after strange gods Moloch, and Remphan, and Ashtaroth, and all the host of heaven what are we to look for among a people where no direct interference checked the yearning for idolatry, the worship of something that the eye could see and the hands could handle?
Out in the open air, tending their flocks by day beneath the burning sun, sleeping by night beneath the innumerable stars of those rainless skies, watching the change of seasons, the ripening of fruits, the real and apparent influence of the host of heaven, it is little to be wondered at if the Arabians, like the Chaldaeans, worshipped the stars and planets, and worshipped them through idols, regarding them perhaps as inferior to God Himself, but still divine. Each tribe had its special divinity, each family its household gods, often in the form of rude, unshapen stones. The temple of the Kaaba at Mecca contained the great sacred stone then as now; and about it there is a legend, which is this. Adam and Eve, driven from Paradise, wandered long apart from each other, till at length, repentant and forgiven, they met on Mount Arafat, near Mecca. There, in answer to the prayer of Adam, a temple of clouds was miraculously let down from heaven, similar to that in which they had worshipped, according to the story, in the garden of Eden.
In proof of their wandering and meeting, Adam's footprint, of gigantic size, is still shown on Adam's Peak in Ceylon, while Eve's tomb is to be seen in Arabia, ninety feet long and eighteen feet wide. With the death of Adam the temple of clouds passed away, but in its place Seth, his son, built one of wood and stone, which the flood destroyed ; but on its site Hagar's well bubbled forth, and near it Ishmael took up his abode. Here Abraham visited him, according to the Mahometans, who assert, by a curious doubling of the tale of Isaac, that he was ordered to offer up Ishmael, but released from the command in the same way ; and Abraham and Ishmael together rebuilt the temple, in which they were helped by the angel Gabriel, who brought them one of the stones of Paradise to assist them, which rose and fell as they progressed with their work, and was finally placed in an outer corner of the wall. It is still kissed by the pilgrims to Mecca, and it is supposed once to have been white, but to have turned black in reflection of the sins of the human race. Few Europeans have seen it, as Mecca is all but inaccessible to them, but it is described as reddish-black, with coloured crystals sprinkled on it, about six inches by eight in size, and raised four feet from the ground. Round it is a border of silver. The Kaaba was the centre of pilgrimages and of the strange mixture of ceremonies based partly on idolatry and partly on the biblical story of Abraham, Hagar, and Ishmael. For more than two thousand years this simple religion sufficed the people of Arabia: all through the period of the Jewish kingdoms and captivities, the rise and fall of Persia, Greece, and Rome, through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ ; but for them, too, a prophet was to arise and effect a change in the destiny of the race a change which was to influence the whole of the civilized world, bringing about even in our own time wars and rumours of wars between the Powers of Europe, and trouble, danger, and disgrace in the unknown heart of Africa.
There was a man by name Abdallah, a descendant of Cussai, guardian of the Kaaba, and sixth in descent from Fehr Coreish, of the race of Ishmael. Abdallah married a wife, Amina, but shortly afterwards died, leaving behind him the moderate fortune of a flock of goats, four camels, and a slave girl. Soon after his death a son was born to his widow, and named Mahomet. Before his birth the oracles, they say, were dumb, the sacred fire of Zoroaster, guarded for centuries by the Magi, was extinguished, and the spirits of evil hid themselves in the depths of the sea.
Eastward over Mecca rises a mountain chain, and under its rocks stood the old house where Mahomet was born. His aged grandfather bore him to the Kaaba in his arms, like Simeon in the temple, and blessed God, and called him Mohammad, or, as we usually spell it, Mahomet. The child, according to custom, was sent to be nursed among the outlying Bedouin tribes by a woman named Halima. There the flocks and herds were blessed for his sake, the water and grasses never failed, and the angel Gabriel was specially sent, says the legend, to take Mahomet's heart from his breast and wring from it the one black drop of original sin, which is in the hearts of all. so as to make him pure and fit to be the prophet of God.
When four years old, he appears to have become subject to epileptic fits, then ascribed to the visitation of evil spirits. So he was then sent back to his mother ; but about a year afterwards she died, to the great grief of the sensitive child ; nor did he ever forget his sorrow, visiting her tomb years afterwards, and weeping and lamenting over it aloud.
Probably the first exciting event in the boy's life was in his twelfth year, when he was allowed by his guardian to accompany the caravan that passed from the south on the way to Syria. He had never been far away from home before for any length of time, and the journey through the desert northwards must have strongly impressed his mind. The imagination of the people had filled these solitudes, as has been the case in all lands, with supernatural inhabitants, monstrous and malignant, the Genii or Djinns of the Arabian Nights. The horror of loneliness, either in the night or the equally silent noontide, found expression in mysterious tales and legends haunting every hill and vale of the regions through which he passed. Again, Mahomet during these journeys must have come across many Christians, but not Christians such as those of the West. They were strange people, these Eastern heretics ; some making the Virgin Mary their only God, others joining her in the Trinity with the Father and the Son, others with confused and confusing theories of the relations of the Three Persons of the Godhead and of the scheme of the Incarnation and the Redemption. If at this time Mahomet felt aspirations for a purer and higher religion than the star-worship of his countrymen, it need not surprise us that Christianity such as this, obscured further by the worship of saints and of images, failed completely to supply what he desired.
Legends tell of miraculous signs manifested on this journey of his. At one time angels' wings shelter him from the noonday heat ; at another, the withered trees are clothed with leaves to give him shade. At Bostra, east of the Jordan, a strange fire is said to have shone round his face to mark out the future prophet of God.
But for the next twelve years or so his life was uneventful. He fought in a tribal war ; he tended sheep on the Mecca hills like David of old, doubtless finding in this pursuit many opportunities for thought and contemplation. In his twenty-fifth year, however, he entered the service of a rich widow of Mecca named Khadija. He was employed in accompanying the yearly caravan in charge of the widow's merchandise, and by skilful trading he succeeded in doubling her fortune. His services, his modesty, his noble character won him the favour of Khadija, and he became her husband, thus rising at one step from the office of a camel-driver to the position of a wealthy chief, the equal of others of his house.
About ten years after there was a serious flood (according to another account, a fire), and some damage was done to the Kaaba, which accordingly had to be repaired. The families in charge of it were so jealous of one another that they had to be divided into four sets, and one side of the shrine entrusted to each set. But a difficulty arose. Who was to set up the sacred black stone ? The dispute which followed almost led to bloodshed; but Mahomet interposed, and spreading his mantle on the ground, laid the stone on it, and gave a corner to the chief of each of the four parties, that each might have the same share in raising it ; but he himself guided it to its final resting-place, and fixed it there.
But now the crisis of his life was approaching the period at which he came forward as the prophet of the one God whose existence he taught. It is hard to judge rightly of his motives in thus proclaiming himself. Nowadays, of course, we do not necessarily regard the founder of a religion different from our own as a wilful impostor, much less as one inspired by Satan. But such was once the opinion Christians held of Mahomet. The Protestant Luther said he was ' a devil.' His Roman Catholic opponents could find nothing worse to say of Mahomet than that he was like Luther. But for us it is no longer necessary to recognise only wickedness or imposture in Mahomet. We may well see in him at first an honest seeker after God, convinced of His unity, His mercy, His justice ; and if he turned aside from the straight path, if he allowed pride and ambition to blind him to the true light, and came to believe that his bodily seizures and mental paroxysms were the true workings of God in him, we need not therefore regard him as insincere, though he was no doubt the victim of a self-delusion, which led him, in the end, to consider even the sinful impulses of his heart manifestations of the direct will of Heaven.
In the fortieth year of his life, the year of our Lord 610, he was, according to the story, meditating at night in the cave of Hira, on a mountain three miles north of Mecca. There, in the highest part of the horizon, there appeared to him an angel, mighty in power, endowed with understanding, who drew near to the prophet, till he was within two bows' length of him; and he revealed,' says the Koran, ' unto his servant, that which he revealed.' The angel Gabriel for it was he held in his hand a silken cloth covered with writing, and bade Mahomet read ; but he replied that he could not. Then the angel spoke as follows : ' Read in the name of the Lord, who hath created all things. Read by the most beneficent Lord, who taught the use of the pen ; who teacheth man that which he knoweth not.' Then the angel left him, with the words graven in his heart, but his mind sunk in doubt and despondency. But a second vision followed, and then the words were clearer: 'Oh, Mahomet, of a truth thou art the apostle of God, and I am Gabriel.' Then he no longer doubted, nor did those to whom he told the glad tidings. His wife Khadija, his adopted sons Ali and Zeid, his friend Abu Bekr, were his earliest converts. Others soon followed ; and in the first three or four years, when his preaching was secret, probably the number of his followers increased to thirty or forty. Then came the command to preach his doctrines openly.
But let us wait for a moment to see what manner of man this was in outward appearance, who was to work so great a change in the world. Mahomet was of middling size, broad-shouldered and large-boned, fleshy but not fat. His head was immoderately large, and his hair hung in curls on either side of his face, almost to the lobes of his ears. His face was fair for an Arab, his forehead broad, his eyes black and blood- shot. Between them was a prominent vein which throbbed when he was angry. His nose was large and hooked, his mouth wide, his teeth good, but set wide apart in front.
they lay for three days, fed by faithful relations and shepherds. Abu Bekr was afraid, perhaps more for his friend than for himself. Their pursuers were on all sides, and they might be discovered at any moment. "There be many that fight against us," said he, "and we are but two." ' Not so,' replied Mahomet, ' we are but two, but God is in the midst a third.' Legend states that a spider spun her web over the cave's mouth, and that a tree grew there miraculously, on which the brooding wood-pigeons sat undisturbed, to show to the pursuers that no one could be hiding within.
On the fourth day they mounted two camels which had been provided, and in four days more looked down from a ridge of rocks upon Medina, lying amid palm-groves and orchards, with its promise of safety and peace. There the new converts received them with joy; and so ended the Hejira, or Flight of Mahomet, from which the Mahometans reckon their years, as we do from the Nativity. The date was June 28th, in the year of our Lord 622.
And here, before relating the story of the last years of Mahomet's life, spent mainly at Medina, it may be as well to explain a little more fully the religion which he taught and the method by which it was made known to the world. The inspired book of the Mahometans is called the Koran, containing 114 chapters of different lengths. It is supposed to consist of revelations made direct to Mahomet, and written down by his followers on palm-leaves, white stones, pieces of leather, shoulder-blades of animals ; all being subsequently collected and preserved in a chest.
The unity of God is clearly asserted in the Koran in the following words : ' In the name of the most merciful God. Say, God is one God, the eternal God ; He begetteth not, neither is He begotten, and there is not any one like unto him.' This doctrine is the foundation of the belief of the Mahometans, whose creed is : ' There is no God but God, and Mahomet is the prophet of God.'
The heaven and hell of the Moslems is also described. The former is a place of purely material and sensual delights, full of soft couches, shady gardens, and murmuring streams, doubtless attractive enough to the dwellers in a burning desert : while of hell the Koran says : ' The wicked shall be cast into scorching fire ; they shall have no food but dry thorns and thistles They shall dwell amidst burning winds and scalding water, under the shadow of a black smoke.'
Heaven is only for true believers, and not at once even for them. Christians, Jews, idolaters, are all sunk into one or other of the seven hells ; the lowest of all being reserved for hypocrites. Then the believers will be judged by their actions. All must pass over the bridge, sharper than a sword edge, finer than a hair, which, spanning the abyss of hell, leads to Paradise beyond. The innocent, treading in the footsteps of Mahomet, will pass over in safety, while the guilty will fall into the first and mildest of the seven hells, which is a purgatory where their sins are expiated by suffering for periods varying from 900 to 7,000 years.
The Koran recognises four chief angels or archangels : Gabriel, the Angel of Revelation ; Michael, the champion of the faith, and the friend of the Jews ; Azrael, the angel of death, and Israfil, who is to sound the trumpet at the last day. The devil is called Eblis, and he is said to have fallen because he refused to worship Adam.
The book deals both with the Jewish and the Christian religions. But it mingles the Old Testament narrative with absurd stories, such as that in which the Seven Sleepers remain in a cave for 309 years ; or the people of the city of the sea are turned into apes for fishing on the Sabbath, or Solomon talks with a lapwing, and commands the winds and the Genii, one of whom brings him the Queen of Sheba's throne in the twinkling of an eye.
The story of Christ Mahomet appears to have derived chiefly from Jewish authorities, from heretical Christian sects, and the Apocryphal Gospels. Thus the Holy Child speaks in its cradle, makes clay birds fly, and performs miracles while still quite young ; all of which, it is carefully added, is done only by per- mission of God. Then the institution of the Lord's Supper and the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000 are confused. Again, about the death of Christ the Koran says : ' The Jews say, Verily we have slain Christ Jesus the Son of Mary, the Apostle of God. Yet they slew Him not, neither crucified Him, but He was represented by one in His likeness ; they did not really kill Him, but God took Him up unto Himself, and God is mighty and wise.' Then, according to the Koran, the Saviour was allowed to descend for awhile to comfort His mother and disciples. It must be remembered that certain early Christian heretics also maintained that our Lord never suffered Himself, but that Simon of Cyrene, or even Judas Iscariot, was crucified in His place. Finally the Koran, while acknowledging Christ Jesus to be ' honourable and one of those who approached near to the presence of God,' declares that ' He is no other than a servant, whom God favoured with the gift of prophecy, but not to be associated with the worship of God ;' and when He comes again at the last day it will be to confute the Christians who believed on Him as God, no less than the Jews who rejected and crucified Him.
Of course, the Koran is full of moral precepts, to many of which no one could take exception. Wine and gambling are forbidden. Crimes are to be punished on the principle of retaliation an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Prayer, fasting, almsgiving, are all duties to be carefully observed. War against infidels is expressly commanded ; the warrior who dies in such battle passes straight to heaven a belief which, combined with their idea of inevitable fate, renders the Moslems desperately brave and careless of death, as our soldiers found in the recent battles in the Soudan. But there are two special faults in the Mahometan system it degrades women to an inferior level, and it encourages slavery.
Such, in outline, was the faith which has spread over a great part of Asia and Africa, and at one time threatened to contend successfully with Christianity in Europe. Even now it dominates Egypt, the Turkish Empire, Arabia, Persia, and Turkestan, prevails along the north coast of Africa and irregularly southward to the equator, has great influence in India and among the Malays, and has found a footing in China. Its followers number 100 millions, or one-thirteenth of the inhabitants of the world, against 490 million Buddhists and 360 million Christians, But now that external conquest has ceased to supply the Moslem powers with a motive for energy, they have sunk lower and lower, neglecting all reform and attempt at political progress. ' It is Kismet, or Fate,' they say ; it is no use struggling against the inevitable. Nor is it possible for them ever to govern nations subject to them with justice, so long as they obey the Koran, which com- mands them to hold unbelievers under tribute, and to bring them down in every possible way.
But we must return to Mahomet at Medina. He entered the city in triumph, and allowed his camel unchecked to choose a spot for his future home. It stopped near the east side of the city, and there houses for Mahomet and his family, and a temple, in which regular services were conducted, were built.
He was now secure, and in his turn wished to attack his enemies at Mecca. He plundered the caravans that came thence, and in November, 623, eight of his men surprised a Meccan convoy, and a fight took place, in which one man of the Coreish was killed, and two were taken prisoners. This was the first blood shed by the Mahometans. But soon after Mahomet, with 300 followers, encountered and routed nearly a thousand of his enemies at Badr, killing and taking prisoners over 100 men, and losing only fourteen. Two of the prisoners were put to death in cold blood, and the rest released for a heavy ransom. The sword was now fairly drawn.
The Meccans determined on revenge ; 3,000 strong, they advanced within four miles of Medina. Mahomet took up a position at Ohod, with 1,000 men, weakened by a desertion to 700. Nevertheless, at first, the fiery valour of the Moslems carried all before them ; but pursuing too hotly, they fell into confusion, and Khalid, the champion of the other side, restored the ,fight. Mahomet was wounded in the mouth, and his men were driven from the field. The brave Hamza, the Lion of God, was slain by a negro, and the savage wife of one of the enemy's leaders tore his heart from his breast and gnawed it with her teeth.
Yet the battle had no decided results. The Coreish withdrew to Mecca; and some smaller expeditions sent out by Mahomet were successful. Two years after, 10,000 Meccans were repulsed from the walls of Medina, and in the subsequent year Mahomet attempted to lead his followers, to the number of 1,500, on a pilgrimage to the Kaaba at Mecca. They encountered the enemy, but instead of fighting, a treaty for ten years was concluded, by which the Moslems were allowed a yearly visit of three days to the holy shrine.
The next year they performed their pilgrimage in peace, and Mahomet gained some converts at Mecca ; but he had not forgotten his revenge, and in 630 some quarrels among the neighbouring tribes gave him an excuse for interfering and attacking Mecca at the head of 10,000 men. He entered unopposed, cleansed the temple, and touched the Black Stone. In the hour of his triumph he was merciful to his fallen enemies.
Then all Arabia submitted to him, and he announced that there must be no league with idolaters; no unbelievers must visit the holy place; war must be waged on them, they must be besieged, killed, or compelled to pay tribute if they were Jews or Christians.
In the hour of his success he suffered a heavy loss in the death of his little son, fifteen months old. This was a blow from which he never recovered, and about a year afterwards, at Medina, in May, 632, he was seized with a violent fever. On the 8th of June he recovered sufficiently to attend at the mosque. But the effort was too great for him, and he returned exhausted and fainting to the room of his faithful wife Ayesha. In great pain he lay with his head in her lap to wait for the approach of death. At last he fainted with the intensity of the agony ; but recovering again, he opened his eyes, and raising them upwards saw, or seemed to see, some vision of heaven ; then, in a broken voice : ' O God,' he cried, ' pardon my sins ! Yes, I come among my fellow-citizens on high !' And so he died, and the wild, untaught soul went out to learn the truth.
A strange man surely, but not uninspired, not without some spark of fire from heaven ; else how can we explain his influence during life, and still more the influence of his religion after his death ? For he who was once the camel-driver of Mecca is now the prophet, almost the Messiah of millions, standing before their God to intercede for their sins. He fell before the temptation which Christ resisted in the wilderness the temptation to make all the kingdoms of the world his own, by worldly power and force of arms ; and in this lies the weak point of his religion. But he was not an impostor, he was not a hypocrite.