January 2002 -- Reprinted by permission of the publisher. From The Role of Religion in History, by George Walsh (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers, 1998).
Islam is an Arabic religion. The Arabs were a Semitic people who had become relatively isolated from other Semitic people; a larger proportion of them had remained nomads than was the case with other Semites. And yet there were many inhabitants of Arabia that lived a settled and urban life in the south and around Mecca. Still, among the urban Arabs, the influence of the old desert life was very great and you had the same conflicts that you had in Judaism. A good part of the values were old tribal desert values and these conflicted with town living. Islam, in part, sought to bring about the revival of these desert values. But we cannot say simply that Islam is a religion of the desert any more than we can say that of Judaism. To understand either of them, we must see the clash between desert values and urban values.
The nomad of the desert is not a natural monotheist, he is a worshipper of stone pillars, trees, groves, sacred bushes; he propitiates serpents and hyenas, he is an animist. In the time of Muhammad, the nomads were basically polytheistic in their attitude, yet there was a contrary factor: the presence of wandering hermits with a monotheistic tendency—these were called Hanifs—desert hermits who were monotheists and who worshipped the God of Abraham even though they were not Jewish.
Mecca was an important trade center on the way from India to the Mediterranean Basin, but it was famous for more than that. It was famous for its shrines, especially the Kaaba, the central shrine in Mecca. In prehistoric times, a great black meteorite had fallen on the future location of Mecca, and, when people moved in and founded a town there, they built a shrine around the meteorite. There you have the connection between extraterrestrial events and religion very concretely brought out. They were stone worshippers, and it was natural for them to do this. They put the meteorite in a big box, the meteorite being exposed in the southeast corner. The box had inside it the idols of three goddesses. One Meccan tribe was made the guardian of this shrine and there was an annual all-Arabian pilgrimage, which was a major festival, and brought in much money for the people who ran Mecca. The pilgrimage to Mecca, therefore, was an institution which preceded Muhammad.
Now let us look at the early career of Muhammad. He was born in Mecca in 570 of a poor family of the tribe that was the guardian of the Kaaba. He was orphaned at an early age and was sent out with a nurse to live with a nomadic tribe in the desert, so he knew both the desert values and the values of the city. He felt very keenly that, being an orphan, he was deprived of his inheritance. This is the origin of a very important feature of Islam, the high valuation placed on taking care of orphans. In time Muhammad was taken under the care of the head of his clan, and he began to go on trade journeys, camel journeys, to Syria.
At the age of twenty-five, he was in charge of the merchandise of a wealthy widow of forty named Khadija, and she became interested in him, and eventually, married him. She later bore him six children, two boys and four girls. This marriage was the turning point of Muhammad's life. Had it not been for Khadija, there might have been no Islamic civilization. She set him on the road and saw to it he remained on it. After their marriage, Muhammad had sufficient capital to invest in mercantile activities and he became well known as a businessman of ability.
At this time, Mecca itself was becoming more and more urban. The old tribal values were breaking down. Individual merchants more and more pursued their own individual interests, disregarding the ancient tribal injunctions that they were to share their wealth with the poor and unfortunate and especially with the orphans. Muhammad had lived under both tribal and urban conditions and he was torn between the two sets of values. At about age forty he suffered the loss of both his sons, and he went into a sort of mental depression and began to look disheveled and to spend more and more time out in the desert. His friends joked that "our Muhammad is becoming a Hanif."
One night when he was out in the desert he had a vision of a majestic being who said to him, you are the messenger, (rasul) of Allah. Allah was the same being, the same high God, as bore the name "El" in the Hebraic tradition. Muhammad rushed home and told his wife he thought he was going crazy and she said, "You're not going crazy, Muhammad, just have a little more self-confidence, maybe you are the messenger of Allah." She took him to her Christian cousin, who listened to the verses and the Christian cousin said this sounds like the laws of Moses to me. You are naabi (the word for prophet). From now on, at frequent intervals, Muhammad would go into seizures during which he would sweat profusely and receive what he regarded as revelations. With the help of his Christian relative, he came to interpret these messages as, in general, identical with those given to Jews and Christians. Soon he gathered around himself a group of followers who joined him in worship that culminated in an act of prostration toward Jerusalem. They touched their heads to the ground in acknowledgment of the majesty of Allah.
In about the year 613, he began to preach publicly. Now, the people of Mecca, in general, took religion very lightly. Although they worshipped a number of gods and idols, they depended on rational planning for the conduct of their lives. They ardently pursued wealth and the enjoyment of life. They did worship Allah as a kind of high god, but regarded him as distant, having no more than honorary status, nothing like the important goddesses that dwelt inside the Kaaba. They were perhaps willing to go so far as to say "In Allah we trust," but they didn't take him very seriously.
The earliest revelations of Muhammad call on the people of Mecca to acknowledge that their prosperity was due to Allah alone—this is a very important concept—their prosperity is due to Allah and not to themselves. Gratitude to Allah for prosperity should be expressed by sharing one's wealth with the poor. These points are driven home with a threat; everyone will appear before Allah on the last day to be judged for his deeds.
In 627, a great army of 10,000 men from many Arab tribes marched against Medina to stop this new, increasingly strong threat. Muhammad exhibited brilliant military, economic and political strategy. He saw to it that the crops were all harvested before the besieging army arrived, he had a large trench dug around the city, and he sent agents to sow dissension among the attacking tribes. After a night of wind and rain, the enemy melted away.
Muhammad then turned to his chief enemy in Medina, and he became reconciled with him. This was a man who had seriously slandered him. Then they agreed to attack the Jews who had been intriguing to overthrow Muhammad. They executed all the men and sold the women and children into slavery.
This was the beginning of a new policy for Muhammad; this is how he began to build Islam: divert the feuding of the Arabs outward, make peace with your lesser enemies and go against your greater enemies. He saw the tremendous energy the Arabs spent on bloody feuds, killing somebody whose great-grandfather had insulted one's own great-grandfather. This was something special to the Arabs, something they didn't share with the Jews. If only this energy could be united in one force and directed outward, it could be used for conquest. How to unite them? By offering them his religion as a platform of unity and by making every kind of diplomatic concession, including offers of economic advantage, to the tribe.
First, the return to tribal values. In Mecca, there had been, before Muhammad, a change from a pastoral, nomadic economy to a mercantile one. The Meccans had retained some of their tribal customs, such as clan solidarity and the blood feud, but these were in conflict with the business ethic. By this I mean, if you find your business partner's great-grandfather has insulted your great-grandfather, you cannot simply walk into his office and shoot him dead; it's bad for business. The new business ethic, however, also meant the businessman was no longer in a position to protect the weaker members of his clan, for his wealth was no longer derived from tribal raids and looting, but from his own shrewdness in business. This was the great Semitic conflict of values, and it was seen wherever desert nomadic tribes settled down to do business. Blood brotherhood, feuding, protection of the weak had to go by the board. So did the old concept of tribal honor. According to this older concept, the meaning of life, the sense of being a worthy person, is bound up in how one appears to one's tribe.
How does one appear worthy? By recognizing that one is one's brother's keeper, by helping him when he's in trouble, by defending his honor. Brotherhood is all important to the tribal ethic. This is how the nomadic desert tribes survived, and the individual survived, or failed to survive, with his tribe, for, once the tribal connection was broken, one would wander in the desert without helper, or protector; one bore the mark of Cain, so to speak. The tribeless man—in modern terms—is the man without a country.
Now, the merchants in the town had found a different way to survive: it was by individualistic free enterprise and rational planning. They found that one could survive and live well through the accumulation of wealth. This became the great goal in life. Those who were successful were full of pride and self-confidence, yet many of them were filled with guilt because they remembered those old tribal values from out on the desert. Inwardly, they had not rid themselves of those values. Others were frustrated because they failed to make it in the wealthy establishment, and this played on their guilt. They began to wonder if they should have ever lived in city life. So there was social conflict in Mecca.
In the midst of this conflict, Muhammad appeared, preaching a return to tribal values, but touting it as a return to general communal values. Instead of the values of our tribe, it is going to be the values of the whole community of Islam. For what he wished to see was not a return to primitive tribes, but the establishment of one great universal tribe. Muhammad's message, like St. Paul's, begins with a declaration that man is puffed up with a pride that is not justified. Man, he preaches, is fundamentally a metaphysical dependent. Here he harks back to the experience of the nomad. True, the survival of the nomad does depend on his reason and the sharpness of his mind, but there is another factor and this factor is what the old nomads, the old pagan nomads, had called time.
Suppose that one starts out on a camel journey one Saturday morning, one rounds a dune at 11:00 rather than 11:10 when he should have rounded it; suddenly he meets the brother-in-law of a man he had insulted nine years ago, there is a fight and one of them is killed. He lives twenty years rather than the seventy he would have otherwise lived. His time has come. Everything has a fixed time.
So there came to the nomad a belief that time was some kind of fate that accounted for all the chance factors, and within a certain context, this belief had a certain survival level, for a great many things were really out of the control of the nomad, really out of his control; sandstorms, the sudden discovery of a cave for shelter, or of a hidden spring, or a cave wherein someone had deposited some wealth, some diamonds or something else. Recall the Arabian nights and Aladdin's journey into the cave, if you will.
Now suppose a given nomad is a worrier, an obsessive worrier, always rushing around the backside of dunes to see if an enemy of his is there, or always poring over genealogical tables, to find whom his grandfather's brother-in-law has cursed. Such a man would never have the time or the energy to control what is controllable. The belief in fate will relieve him of such worry, and therefore, is a kind of metaphysical, psychological defense mechanism that promotes his survival. Within the limits of the nomad's very limited world and in the absence of a rational alternative, it aids him in moment-to-moment survival. The Arab, therefore, scorns the man who is always obsessively trying to control everything. His hero is not the nomad who lives his life worrying, but Aladdin, who suddenly stumbles on a cave full of diamonds, a pile of diamonds with a beautiful girl sitting on top of the pile. It is the decree of fate, or, they began to say in Islam, it is the will of Allah. Did the diamonds turn out to be fake and the girl faithless? It is the decree of fate, the great allotter. As a poet said, go your way without getting angry until it becomes clear what the allotter allotted to you. In other words, don't look backward and think of all the possible different things that could have happened to you.
Now what Muhammad did was to take this belief in time or fate and turn it into the eternal decree of Allah. Allah is good, he has the whole world in his hand. Man is dependent on the inscrutable decrees of a God who is, by definition, good, but whose goodness one is not allowed to question. As the Qur'an says, "Have you considered the seed you spill, do you yourself create it or are we the creator? Had you considered the water you drink? Did you send it down from the clouds or did we send it? Have you considered the fire you kindle? Did you make the timber grow or did we make it?" Now, since man is dependent on God, it is the height of presumption to think that he can control his destiny. The denial of dependence on his part is the sin of pride.
God is the author of those old tribal values of brotherhood and help to the poor. These values arose from metaphysical dependence. Those who pursue wealth and oppress the poor deny these values of dependence, so they commit the sin of greed. But, they go further, and they deny their dependence and this is the sin of pride, which is the greatest sin. God has prepared for them the punishment of hell. For those who observe the old values, on the other hand, he has prepared paradise. These are the sanctions that are very important in Islam.
Let us now look at the religious and social systems welding these values into one community religion. The religion is called Islam, which means surrender. An adherent to Islam is called a Muslim, which means "one who surrenders." What you have surrendered to is the will of Allah, who is the one God. This one God is the creator, the sustainer, and the restorer of the universe. He revealed himself to a whole line of prophets from Noah through Moses to Jesus; Muhammad is his final prophet. The revelation to Muhammad consummates all previous revelations and cancels them.
The basic belief is expressed in the formula of faith, which you should learn and repeat to the angel who wakes you up the last day—"there is but one God and Muhammad is the prophet of God." From this essential belief is derived belief in angels, commandments, the series of prophets, the Qur'an as the final statement of God's revelation, the doctrines of the resurrection, the last judgment, heaven and hell, and the Five Pillars of Islam. The Five Pillars of Islam are as follows: (1) to say from one's heart, and, sincerely, the profession of faith; (2) the five daily prayers, including congregational prayer on Friday; (3) the welfare tax; (4) fasting; and (5), the pilgrimage to Mecca.
Now we get to the conflict with Hellenism. The forces of Islam quickly conquered the southern and eastern Mediterranean basin. There they encountered the Hellenistic culture which was already absorbed into Christianity. Translations of Aristotle had been made into Syriac in the sixth century by Eastern Christians, and these translations were in turn translated into Arabic in the ninth century. Other writings in Greek philosophy also became available. The Greek viewpoint was at first admired in Islam, unaware of what they were getting into, and it was advocated up to a point by a party called the Mutazilites, the pro-reason party in Islam. Greek philosophy, however, especially Aristotle, contradicted the whole Islamic viewpoint. The points of conflict were the following:
The Greek point of view was based on reason, the Islamic on faith and revelation. Greek philosophy regarded all of reality as knowable—this was true even of divine beings like the Prime Mover—knowable by reason. Whereas Islam believed that God was transcendent and unknowable. That is the second conflict. First is reason versus faith, second is the knowability of divine beings. Third, the Greeks believed the universe was fundamentally orderly and subject to regular law, but the Muslims believed that each event was separately decided by God's arbitrary predestination. Fourth, the Greeks believed in an ethics and politics based on reason. For the Muslims, ethics and politics were based on the Qur'an and sacred tradition.
Those who subscribed to any Greek philosophy, especially that of Aristotle, were soon in deep trouble. This is especially evidenced by the fate of the largely pro-Greek party, the Mutazilites. The sect of the Mutazilites represented a strong pro-reason reaction against the traditional doctrine of Islam. The traditional doctrine about the Qur'an was that it was part of the mind of God and therefore co-eternal with God. The real meaning of this doctrine is that it is a blasphemy to raise the slightest question about the Qur'an. The Mutazilites rejected this doctrine, and they said that it is making the Qur'an into a second God to make it unquestionable. The Qur'an, they said, is a creature just like a beast of the field, therefore it does not necessarily express the essential nature of God any more than a cockroach does (they didn't put it that way). The Qur'an must be subject to the interpretation of reason. If we find that a given thing is irrational and seems to be taught in the Qur'an, we conclude that God didn't really mean it this way; he merely talked obscurely at that point. If anything in the Qur'an seems contrary to reason, we must then reinterpret it in accord with reason.
This had an influence on the Christian Middle Ages. In this Mutazilite doctrine, we do not erect a second God and, at the same time, reason is saved. This is called the doctrine of the unity of God; it is really the doctrine of the priority of reason. Secondly, we apply this immediately to sections of the Qur'an which seem to teach predestination. Now predestination takes away moral responsibility and man, the Mutazilites said, is morally responsible. A good God would not reward or punish eternally unless man were morally responsible. This the Mutazilites called the doctrine of the justice of God and they presented themselves as defenders of the justice of God. But of course it was really the assertion of man's free will. These two pro-reason doctrines were accompanied by a strong emphasis on moral virtue and uprightness.
The Mutazilite position began to make some headway when, unfortunately, their own zeal proceeded to fanaticism, as does indeed happen sometimes with people advocating reason, as well as anything else. They sabotaged their own cause. They came into power and issued a requirement that all public officials swear that the Qur'an is created and not divine. Some who refused this doctrine were put to death. This is sometimes called the Muslim Inquisition, from 830 to 845 (ironic that the only real inquisition in Islam was initiated by the pro-reason faction). Of course there was a religious reaction and the Mutazilites were thrown out of power.
This article was originally published in the January 2002 issue of Navigator magazine, The Atlas Society precursor to The New Individualist.