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regard to Mahometanism. Tried by our own ideal standard, its shortcomings were condemned, while the good in it was passed over in silence, as a matter of course. Consequently, Mahometanism was assumed to be a system of lies invented by one man for his own personal interest, which, by mere chance, had become the law of one-fifth of the whole human race, and the basis of a brilliant epoch of arts and literature. The stationary civilisation of the East, and the resistance there made to the introduction of all foreign elements, have been solely attributed to the evil influence of Mahometanism; and it therefore was believed to be the cause, and not the natural growth, of the Eastern character. It is only of late that a less prejudiced age has been able to appreciate the real effects of this extraordinary phenomenon in the history of the Eastern races.
At the birth of Mahometanism, the people of the East were divided into many separate religious and social unions, which, growing like parasitical plants, and intermingling with local and individual laws and habits, rendered all further development impossible, and became the most active agent in an ever-progressive debasement of the races themselves. At whatever fragment of this chaotic mass we look, we perceive an absence of true vigour, mental and physical. The Arab tribes had fallen into a corrupt idolatry, which, with its vices, was in a fair way to enervate the whole family. The Persian Zend religion had become a mystical jugglery for the benefit of its acolytes. Even Eastern Christianity had entangled herself in a labyrinth of sectarianism and of miscalled philosophy; the great fundamental truths of her religion were buried amidst petty jealousies and party animosities.
The social state was not less decayed. The Eastern Empire was exhibiting its last convulsions, covering them with an attempted show of grandeur, which made it quite grotesque, and turned pity into contempt. Her Emperors—the successors of the rulers of the world, were trembling in their palace before every stray barbarian tribe that chose to insult them under the walls of their capital.
The immigration of the Sclavonic tribes had extinguished the last rays of Greek glory which had lingered around the wreck of its national existence. Even the divine spirit of Christianity, stified by formalism and heresy, failed to revive this lifeless body.
In Persia, the successors of Nushirvan the Just exhibited the same spectacle as those of Constantine the Great. The leathern apron of the blacksmith-their royal standard-served no longer as a point of union to the nation ; it became the bloody emblem of party and of family wars. The sacred fire, whose glare had once been reflected in the waves of the Hellespont, still burned indeed on the altars of Susa and Ctesiphon, but it had ceased to warm the hearts of the Parsee. Its flame, contaminated by the admixture of base superstitions, had lost its ancient glory, and ceased to be the beacon of the national existence. The sun of Persia was fast setting among the dark clouds of barbarous hosts which surrounded it on all sides.
The numerous branches of the Semitic race were in a yet more miserable condition. In Syria they had all yielded to foreign rule. The latest independent State had fallen with Jerusalem centuries before, and all traces of former greatness and national existence were obliterated. They were, so to say, in an intermediate condition between life and death. The memory of bygone ages of grandeur was too tenacious to be altogether extinguished, therefore they did not assimilate with their conquerors; but they could not raise themselves out of this state of degradation by their own power. On the other hand, their kindred in Arabia and in the desert had desecrated the Kaaba, the palladium of their race, by introducing foreign idols into the sacred precincts of this symbol of national unity. With the foreign gods foreign corruption came; and the spirit of the people was gradually becoming extinct.
The whole Eastern world thus exhibited that state of decay which indicates a resurrection, and paves the way for the advent of new ideas. Everything was corrupt and degenerate, -religion and morality — nations and empires — arts and sciences. The sublime ideas of Christianity, which had regenerated the nations of the West, had little effect upon the Eastern races. Its character was too spiritual for their more material nature. They were unable to comprehend the kingdom which is not
of this world.' Their feeble, childish spirit could not encounter the freedom of action, and the weight of responsibility which Christianity implies. They wanted a faith more congenial to their nature, and were, therefore, ready eagerly to grasp the easy fatalism of the creed of Islam.
In this their desolate state there arose a longing after some new idea which would raise the Eastern world from its abject condition. This primarily took hold of the Semitic race, which had fallen the lowest, but had not forgotten its past splendour. Here we see not only the fragments of the Jewish nation, which were dispersed all over Arabia, but the Arab tribes themselves, longing and hoping for the Deliverer, who should unite the kindred families of the Semitic people, and revenge the wrongs they had suffered. The attempts of several re
formers and prophets before Mahomet arose, prove the extent of this desire. These hopes were much fostered by the fugitive Jews, who carried with them into their exile the expectations of a coming Messiah. They thus strengthened the anticipations which the Arab tribes preserved of an impending glorious future of their common race.
At this moment Mahomet appeared, and was hailed as the expected Deliverer. The traditions of his own people formed the basis of his doctrines. But he did not stop there. He also incorporated those of other branches of the Semitic race, and thus laid the foundations for a comprehensive religion for the whole race. According to his assertions he did not promulgate anything new, but came only to re-establish the old faith of Adam, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus, which, he pretended, had been corrupted by the world.
The essence of this new faith was the unity of God. He maintained that there never was, and never could be, but one true religion; the particular laws and ceremonies might change, but the substance of real religion was eternal and unchangeable truth. The system of laws which Mahomet erected on this broad basis, was modelled according to the nature of the Semitic race, and was accommodated to their existing habits and customs. It had for its object the sanction and consolidation of old usages and traditions, rather than the introduction of new ones.
The common and most characteristic mark of all these laws and regulations, as adopted by him, is their generality, fitting them for the widest possible range, and making them acceptable to all those idolaters who could raise their minds to the worship of One Divine Being. This tendency shows itself in the adoption of so many Christian, Jewish, Sabian, and Magian ideas and rites. For instance, all ideas about prophets were taken from the Christians and the Jews. Those about angels and genii
, paradise and hell, from the Jews and the Magi. The like with all points of religious practice. The ablutions before, and the prostrations during prayer - the almsgiving the fastings and the pilgrimage to Mecca, were already customs of the Arabs themselves, and with the exception of the pilgrimage were also practised by the Jews and the Persian Magi.
By taking these elements from the different religious communities similar in ideas, character, and condition, and uniting them in one centre, the ancient, local, and special theocracies were broken up, and, for the first time, a theocratical union of these races was accomplished. This new theocracy was essentially different from the old ones. They had been confined to individual nations, and in many cases to portions of nations only. Mahometanism, on the contrary, was based on an idea which does not belong to any one nation, but is common to all mankind. The comprehensiveness and grandeur of the fundamental idea pervaded and influenced the whole structure. It invited all the races of the East to worship the One God, and to practise charity and benevolence. It abolished the monopoly as well as the class distinctions of the priest caste, and rolled up the curtains of the sanctuary that every believer might enter in.
With the priest caste were abolished all their fantastic ceremonies ; in place of which the worship by simple prayer was instituted. In lieu of bloody sacrifices to appease an offended Divinity, the distribution of alms to the poor, and the exercise of kindness to every human and animal creature, were commanded. Vice in every shape, and amongst all classes, was condemned and stigmatised as an offence against Allah, while equity and benevolence were made the keys of paradise. One nation after another flocked to embrace these simple and grand doctrines, which were wide enough to comprehend without extinguishing those minuter shades of opinion, in which each people had given expression to its peculiar mind, and which it jealously desired to retain. The Eastern races perceived in Mahometanism the identification of their common Orientalism, and hailed it as a standard round which they could array themselves, and resist all encroachments of heterogeneous or foreign elements.
Mahometanism became thus in the East what Catholicism was at that time in the West. Both were preparations to a maturer national life. Both were destined to shelter the growth of the new nationalities then striving to emerge out of the chaos into which East and West had been plunged by the convulsions which followed the great migrations. These two systems, one in the East and the other in the West, united all homogeneous, and rejected all heterogeneous elements; establishing two distinct groups of nations, whose associated strength served to protect the subordinate nations until each should be strong enough to assert its claim to an independent existence.
Thus two hostile camps, containing the regenerated nations of the East and the West, stood arrayed against each other, and a war of centuries ensued. The two adverse elements were, for the first time, brought into collision in their entirety. There had been wars of conquest, but never before wars of ideas, between the East and the West. Neither the Greeks nor the Romans fought against the Asiatic States for religion.
On the contrary, the latter adopted the gods of the nations which they subdued, and incorporated them with the national worship, without ever imposing their own on the conquered.
The contrast in ideas, habits, and customs which had been gradually developed between the Eastern and Western races, had previously remained unnoticed, or at least had not been conspicuously manifested, because there was no union between the homogeneous races, until it was effected in the East by Mahometanism, and in the West by Catholicism. The strife which then began, while it served to strengthen the contrast between the two opposing elements, nourished the vitality of both. It increased the distinctiveness of the Eastern character, by threatening it with absorption ; and became the chief agent for effacing the last remains of the old superstitions, and leading to an universal acceptation of the purer laws of Mahometanism. In the West the crusades, by undermining the feudal system, raised the middle classes, and smoothed the way for the modern systems of government. On the other hand, by facilitating the extension of hierarchical power, these religious wars led to the rapid corruption of the priesthood, and the advent of the Reformation speedily followed.
The strife of East against West subsided when the balance between their respective elements was established; but the contrast exists unimpaired, and shows itself whenever they come into contact. In the East we see an innate tendency to steadiness, repose, and indolence, - in the West to progress,
activity, and energy. This causes in the former the disposition to cling to soil and family, and the want of individuality to which we have before alluded; and produces in the latter that roaming and investigating spirit which leads to great enterprises, and that feeling of personal dignity which finds its expression in the idea of honour, an idea which belongs so exclusively to the Western races that no word expressive of it can be found in any of the Eastern languages. In the social sphere this contrast shows itself in the equality and submissiveness to unity of rule which form the basis of all the despotic states of the East, and in the West by the spirit of liberty which makes the Western races energetically seek for constitutional and democratic forms of government.
A well known and characteristic feature in the contrast between East and West is the position of Woman. In the former, the Mahometan doctors dispute about the existence of her soul. In the latter, Woman animates the whole social sphere. In the former polygamy, in the latter monogamy, is the basis upon which the family relations are constructed.