1902 Encyclopedia > Mohammedanism (Islam) > Muslim Religious Institutions

(Part 9)


Muslim Religious Institutions

We need not no recur to the subject of the doctrines of Mohammed, which are treated of in their own place; but it is important to show what they became after the time of the Prophet, and what movements they aroused in Islam. The diversity of the conquered races was of itself sufficient to introduce, in the course of ages, serious modifications of the earlier religion.

But, from the very first, the Koran contained within itself the germs if discord. As long as men were content to adopt its teachings without discussion, orthodoxy might boast of maintaining itself unbroken. But as soon as they sought to examine deeply into its meaning, difficulties arose, which necessarily led the strongest minds into doubt and uncertainty. In particular, the conception of God, predestination, and free-will, as presented by the Koran, could not bear examination. As early as the first century of the Flight a theological school was founded at Basra, the most renowened master of which, Hasan al-Basri, introduced the critical study of dogmas. His disciples, who were for the most part Persians, could not fail soon to discover that the Koran often contradicted itself, and especially that it left many dogmatic difficulties unresolved. One of the disciples of Hasan, Wasil b. ‘Ata, set forth his scruples publicly, departing on three points from the orthodox doctrine. The Koran affirms the attributes of God; Wasil b. ‘Ata denied them; because, he says, if the attributes of God are eternal, they constitute in some sort so many deities. We ought not therefore to affirm the existence of an attribute-that of justice, for example –but simply to affirm that God is essentially just. The Koran admits the doctrine of predestination; Wasil rejected it, as incompatible with the theory of rewards and punishments in another life, which presumes absolute free-will in man. The Koran speaks only of paradise and hell; Wasil admitted a purgatory. The sect founded by Wasil received the name of Mo’tazilite (dissident), or Kadarite, that is to say, which recognizes in man a power (Kadar) over his own actions. Another sect, that of the Jabarites (partisans of constraint) agreed with the Mo’tazilites on the question of the attributes, but were diametrically opposed to them on that of free-will. The Jabarites denied to man the slightest share in his own actions, and believed the very smallest actions of men to be the effect of predestination. The Koran, not concerning itself with the contradiction involved, admits at the same time the responsibility of man and the absolute predestination of his actions. The Jabarites rejected all responsibility, and believed that man is predestined from all eternity to paradise or to hell, for no other reason than that God has so willed it. A third sect, that of the Sifatites (Partisans of the Attributes), contended energetically against the two former. Keeping to the text of the sacred book, they alleged, for example, that when it is said in the Koran that God is seated on his throne, the expression must be taken literally. They thus fell into the grossest anthropomorphism, a doctrine which was very far from the ideas of Mohammed. In the face of these heterodox sects, the orthodox made but a poor figure. Rejecting, in their commentaries on the Koran, the explanations alike of the Mo’tazilites, of the Jabarites, and of the Sifatites, but acknowledging their inability to refute them systematically, they merely opposed to them a declaration that the Koran was neither to be explained allegorically nor always taken literally; and they concluded that, where two contradictory expressions could not be reconciled, a mystery must be admitted to exist, which it would be vain to attempt to fathom. But they did not always keep within the limits of discussion. Under the reign of ‘Abd al-Melik they succeeded in bringing about a persecution of the sectaries.

The Mo’tazilites, the Jabarites, and the Sifatites were dangerous only to the Church. Other sects arose, which put the State itself in peril. It will be remembered that, at the time of the dispute between ‘Ali and Mo;awiya, twelve thousand of the partisans of the former deserted him. These revolters, or Kharijites, originated one of the most formidable sects which ever existed in Islam. The Kharijites rejected inprinciple the Caliphate and the Imamate. At all events, they did not acknowledge the exclusive right of the Koraish to the Caliphate, but declared that, if it was absolutely necessary to elect a Caliph, his origin was of little consequence, provided he fulfilled his duties conscientiously and exactly. We have seen for what a length of time they kept the Omayyads in check. When they had been put down in Asia, they passed into Africa, and there made numerous proselytes among the Berbers, disposed as these were, by their independent character, to adopt with enthusiasm the principle of anarchy. The most terrible, however, of the militant sects which were formed in the bosom of Islam was that of the Shi’ites. Originally the Shi’ites were simply the partisans of ‘Ali and of his descendants. In the course of time, when the whole of Persia had adopted the cause of the family of ‘Ali, Shi’ism became the receptacle of allthe religious ideas of the Persians, and Dualism, Gnosticism, and Manicheism, were to be seen reflected in it. Even in the lifetime of ‘Ali, a converted Jew, named ‘Abdallah b. Saba, had striven to introduce foreign elements into Islam. Thus, he alleged that ‘Ali was to be adored as an incarnation of the Deity. These ideas, though rejected with horror by ‘Ali himself, and by the greater part of the first Shi;ites, gradually made way; and all the direct descendants of ‘Ali became veritable deities in the eyes of their respective partisans. A further distinction between the Shi’ites and other sects is, that they introduced the practice of giving the Koran an allegorical interpretation. This system permitted them to see in the sacred book whatever meaning they chose, and was carried out at a later date, as we shall see, by the founder of the Ismalian sect.

Under the ‘Abbasids it seemed for a moment that the Shi;ite doctrines were about to triumph. We know, in fact, that the founder of that dynasty gave himself out as theheir of the house of ‘Ali. But reasons of State prevailed, and the ‘Abbasids, false to their first professions, on the whole supported orthodoxy. Under their reign were established the four orthodox sects-Malikite, Hanafite, Shafi’ite, and Hanbalite, which even at this day divide between them the whole Moslem world. They are named after their founders – Malik, Abu Hanifa, Shafi’I, and Ibn Hanbal. These sects only differ from each other on a few points of civil and religious jurisprudence. They agree on questions of dogma. It was not, however, without difficulty that orthodoxy succeeded in obtaining the victory. Under Ma’mum and other Caliphs several doctors, as we have seen, were persecuted for believing that the Koran was the uncreated word of God. From the time of Motawakkil, however, orthodoxy regained the upper hand. Still, this reaction would not have lasted long, in face of the advance in science which marked the accession of Ma’mum to power, if the orthodox had had no other defensive weapons than material force and the assent of the majority. As philosophy made its way in Islam, thanks, to the translations from Greek authors, which were made principally during the Caliphate of Ma’mum, it called forth in men’s minds a movement of scientific curiosity which might have been fatal to orthodoxy. In the tenth century of our era a society of encyclopedists was formed at Basra, who, under the name of Ikhwan al-Safa, or Brothers of Purity, put forth a number of very curious treatises, in which all sorts of physical and metaphysical questions were discussed and resolved in a scientific manner. There is no doubt that these lucid and attractive writings would have led to a great religious revolution, if the orthodox had not understood the danger of their position, and applied themselves also to the study of philosophy, for the purpose of employing it in the service of the faith. It was thus that, towards the middle of the tenth century, a certain Abu’l-Hasan al-Ash’ari, a descendant of that Abu Musa al-Ash’ari who had formerly acted the part of arbitrator in the dispute between Mo’awiya and ‘Ali, struck out a system in which religion appeared to be reconciled with philosophy; a system which was naturally sure to attract all commonplace minds-that is to say, the greater number. Ash’arism, or philosophic theology (Kalam), was adopted with enthusiasm by the triumphant orthodox doctors, and thenceforth pure philosophy and the heterodox sects ceased to extend their influence.

The creation, however, of this philosophical theology had not done away with all dangers for orthodoxy. We have seen above that the Shi’a were divided into several sects, each holding for one of the direct descendants of ‘Ali, and paying him the reverence due to a deity. One of these sects, called the Ismailian, because it acknowledged. Isma’il, the seventh Imam or Pontiff of the posterity of ‘Ali, as its chief, was the source of the greatest disorders in the Moslem empire, and wasnot far from being triumphant in Asia, as it was for a long time in Egypt. The Ismailians, like all te others Shi’ites, believed in the coming of a Messiah, whom they called the Mahdi, and who, according to them, was one day to appear on earth, inorder to establish the reign of justice and equity, and to take vengeance on the oppressors of the family of ‘Ali. They also believed in a God of far more elevated character than the God of the Koran, one who was unapproachable by human reason, and who had created the universe, not directly, but by the intermediate action of a sublime being, the Universal Reason, produced by an act of God’s will. The Universal Reason, in its turn, had produced the Universal Soul, which, on its part, had given birth to primitive Matter, to Space, and to Time. These five principles were the causes of the universe. Man, emanating from them, had a tendency to reascend towards his source. The chief end of his being was to attain to perfect union with the Universal Reason. But, left to himself, man would have been powerless to attain this end. The Universal Reason and the Universal Soul therefore became incarnate among men, in order to guide them towards the light. These incarnations were no other than the prophets in all ages, and, in the last period, the Imams of the posterity of ‘Ali. In the second half of the ninth century, a Persian, born in Susiana and named ‘Abdallah b. Mainum al-Kaddah, nourished the dream of destroying Islam, and thought these doctrines, suitably modified, likely to be highly useful in carrying out his purpose. He devised a system at once religious, philosophical, political, and social, in which, as he thought, all beliefs were to meet and mingle,- but and in this consisted its originally – a system so graduated to suit different degrees of intelligence, that the whole world should become one vast Masonic association. The chief of the Ismailians, the Imam Isma’il, having died, ‘Abdallah asserted that his son Mohammed b. Isma’il was to succeed him as the founder of this new religion, which it was ‘Abdallah’s mission to announce to the world. Since the creation of the world, as ‘Abdallah asserted, there had been six religious periods, each marked by an incarnation of the Universal Reason in the person of a prophet. Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed had been the prophets of these periods. Their mission had been to invite men to accept more and more perfect forms of religion. The seventh and last religion, and the most perfect of all, was that of Mohammed b. Isma’il, the true Messiah. The Ismalians, as may be imagined, readily embraced the theories of ‘Abdallah. In addressing other sects and religious. ‘Abdallah used special arguments with each. With the philosophers he dwelt on the philosophical principles of his doctrine. The conversion of Christians, Moslems, or Jews, was a more difficult task.. ‘Abdallah had established several degrees of initiation, and it was only slow degrees, and with the most minute precautions, that he gained a mastery over the mind of the future proselyte. His curiosity was first aroused by allegorical interpretations of the Old Testament, the Gospels, and the Koran, and by proposing to him religious problems which could not be solved by any of the existing religions. The solution of these problems was not to be given to him till he should have signed a compact, and sworn never to reveal the mysteries with which he was made acquainted. If he took this pledge, he thenceforward belonged, body and soul, to the sect; and woe to him if he made any attempt to withdraw himself from the authority of his chiefs! The compact signed, the newly-initiated disciple had to make a certain payment, which went to swell the treasury of the sect. The secret society founded by ‘Abdallah soon had a great number of members, and its missionaries spread themselves over the Moslem world. Towards 887A.D., an Ismailian, Hamdan, surnamed Karmat, founded the branch sect of the Carmathians, whose exploits have been recorded above. The Ismailian preachers also made numerous proselytes in Africa and in Egypt; and in A.D. 909, ‘Obaid, Allah, a descendant of the founder of the sect, but who passed as a member of the family of ‘Ali, founded the Fatimite dynasty. Under the Fatimited Caliph Hakim, a new religion sprang out of Ismailism, that of the Druses, so called from its inventors a certain Darazi or Dorzi. This religion differs little from Ismailism, except that it introduces the dogma of the incornation of God himself on earth, under the form, of the Caliph Hakim. This heresy did not survive the reign of Hakim in Egypt. When the Fatimite Caliph Mostansir ascended the throne, here-established the Ismailian belief; and the Druses, driven from Egypt, took refuge in the Lebanon, where they still exist. As for the Egyptian Ismailians, they disappeared at the time of the conquest of that province by the pious and orthodox. Ayyubite Saladin. This, however, was not a final deliverance of Islam from that formidable heresy. A hundred years before the return of Egypt to orthodoxy, a Persian named Hasan Sabbah, who had been initiated into Ismailism at Cairo, in the household of the Caliph Mostansir, had founded at Alamut, on the southern shores of the Caspian Sea, that Persian branch of the Ismailians known to all the world under the name of the Assassins, who held in check the most powerfull princes of Islam, till they were destroyed by the Mongol invasion. From Persia, Hasan Sabbah succeeded in filling Syria with his Assassins, and every one knows the part they played during the Crusades. The Assassins of Syria have never entirely disappeared. Even at this day some are to be found in the Lebanon. There are also some representatives of the sect in Persia, in India, and even in Zanzibar; but since the 13th century they have become completely inoffensive.

To conclude this sketch of the development of religious beliefs, it remains to say a few words on one of the most remarkable manifestations of Islam – its mysticism, or Sufism. In principle, mysticism is rather a mode of practicing religion than a distinct religion; it depends on the character of the believer’s mind, and adapts itself to all dogmas. It is the especial tendency of tender and dreamy spirits. Thus among the Moslems it is a woman who is considered to have founded mysticism. This woman, named Rabi’a, lived in the first century of the Hijra, and was buried at Jerusalem. Her doctrine was simply the theory of Divine love. She taught that God must be loved above all things, because he alone is worthy of love; and that everything here below must be sacrificed in the hope of one day attaining to union with God. These views were too similar to the Neo-Platonic ideas respecting the union of the human intellect with the Universal Reason notto have an attraction for the Gnostics, who abounded in the Shi’ite sects. Mysticism therefore made great progress in Persia, and assumed the character of a sect towards the year 200 of the Flight. A certain Abu Sa;id b. Abi’l- Khiar was the first who advised his disciples to forsake the world and embrace a monastic life, in order to devote themselves exclusively to meditation and contemplation; a practice which may very probably have been borrowed from India. The disciples of Abu Sa’id wore a garment of wool (Suf), whence they received the name of Sufis. Sufism spread more and more in Persia, and was enthusiaatically embraced by those who wished to give themselves up undisturbed to philosophical speculation. Thus, under the color of Sufism, opinions entirely subversive of the faith of Islam were professed. In its first form Sufism was quite compatible with Moslem dogma. It was satisfied or profess a contempt for life, and an exclusive love of God, and to extol ascetic practices, as the fittest means of procuring those states of ecstasy during which the soul was supposed to contemplate the Supreme Being face to face. But by degrees, thanks to the adepts whom it drew from the ranks of heterodoxy, Sufism departed from its original purpose, and entered on discussions respecting the Divine nature, which in some cases finally led to Pantheism. The principal argument of these Pantheistic Sufis was that God being one, the creation must make a part of his being; since otherwise it would exist externally to him, and would form a principle distinct from him; which would be equivalent to looking on the universe as a deity opposed to God. In the reign of Moktadir, a Persian Sufi named Hallaj, who taught publicly that every man is God, was tortured and put to death. After this the Sufis showed more caution, and veiled their teachings under oratorical phrases. Moreover, it was not all the Sufis who pushed logical results so far as to assert that man is God. They maintained that God, is all, but not that all is God. Sufism exists in Persia even in our own day.

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