Mind of the Musulman: Chapter I
France needs a Muslim policy inspired by realities and not by received opinions and legends — We can only understand any given portion of the Muslim people by studying Arab history, because of the solidarity of all Muslims and because Islam is nothing but a secretion of the Arab brain — There is no such thing as Arab civilization — The origins of the legend — How modern historians and the scholars of the Middle Ages were deceived — The Arab is a realist and has no imagination — He has copied the ideas of other peoples, distorting them in the process — Islam, by its immutable dogmas, has paralysed the brain and killed all initiative.
THAT France is a great Mohammedan Power may be a commonplace, but it is a truth that ceases to be a platitude, however often repeated, when we remember that our country holds in tutelage more than twenty million Mohammedans; and that these millions are firmly united by the solidarity of their religion to the formidable block of three hundred million adherents of the Prophet.
This block is divided superficially by racial rivalries, and even at times by conflicting interests. But such is the influence exerted by religion upon individuality, so great is its power of domination, that the mass forms a true nation in the midst of other peoples, a nation whose various portions, melted in the same crucible, obedient to the same ideal, sharing the same philosophic conceptions, are animated by the same bigoted belief in the excellence of their sacred dogma, and by the same hostile mistrust of the foreigner — the infidel.
Such is the Muslim nation.
Islam is not only a religious doctrine that includes neither skeptics nor renegades, it is a country; and if the religious nationalism, with which all Muslim brains are impregnated, has not as yet succeeded in threatening humanity with serious danger, it is because the various peoples, made one by virtue of this bond, have fallen into such a state of decrepitude and decadence that it is impossible for them to struggle against the material forces placed by science and progress at the disposal of Western civilization. It is to the very rigidity of its dogma, the merciless constraint it exercises over their minds, and the intellectual paralysis with which it strikes them, that this low mentality is to be attributed.
But even such as it is, Islam is by no means a negligible element in the destiny of humanity. The mass of three hundred million believers is growing daily, because in most Muslim countries the birth-rate exceeds the death-rate, and also because the religious propaganda is constantly gaining new adherents among tribes still in a state of barbarism.
The number of converts during the last twenty years in British India is estimated at six millions; and a similar progress has been observed in China, Turkestan, Siberia, Malaysia, and Africa. Nevertheless the active propaganda of the White Fathers is successfully combating Muslim proselytism in the Dark Continent. It behooves us then, as Le Chatelier says, to make an intelligent study of Islam, and to found thereon a Muslim policy whose beneficent action may extend not only over our African colonies but over the whole Muslim world.
We have got to realize the necessity of treating over twenty million natives in some better way than tacitly ignoring them. For they will always be the only active population of our Central and West African colonies, whilst their present numerical superiority in Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco cannot fail to increase as time goes on.
Only by a thorough understanding of the mentality and psychology of the Muslim, and by discarding prejudice and legend, can we achieve any really useful and permanent work.
It would be puerile to imagine that we can safely confine this study to our own Muslim subjects, with the object of governing them wisely. As we have already remarked, the Muslim is not an isolated individual; the Tunisian, the Algerian, the Moroccan, the Soudanese are not individuals whose horizon stops at the artificial boundaries created by diplomatists and geographers. To whatever political formation they may belong, they are first and foremost citizens of Islam. They belong morally, religiously, intellectually to the great Muslim Fatherland, of which the capital is Mecca, and whose ruler — theoretically undisputed — is the Commander of the Faithful. Their mentality has in the course of centuries been slowly kneaded, molded and impregnated by the religious doctrine of the Prophet, and as this doctrine is nothing but a secretion of the Arab brain, it follows that we must study Arab history if we want to know and understand any portion of the Muslim world.
Such a study is difficult, not from any dearth of documents — on the contrary, they abound, for Islam was born and grew up in the full light of history — but because the Muslim religion and the Arabs are veiled from our sight by so vast a cloud of accepted opinions, legends, errors, and prejudices that it seems almost impossible to sweep it away. And yet the task must be undertaken if we wish to get out of the depths of ignorance in which we are now sunk in regard to Muslim psychology.
Jules Lemaitre was once called upon to introduce to the public the work of a young Egyptian writer on Arab poetry. The author, a novice, declared with fine assurance that Arab literature was the richest and the most brilliant of all known literatures, and that Arab civilization was the highest and the most splendid. Jules Lemaitre, who in his judgments resembled Sainte-Beuve in his preference for moderate opinions, felt some reluctance to countersign such a statement. On the other hand the obligations of courtesy prevented him from laying too much stress upon the poverty and bareness of Arab literature. He got out of the difficulty very cleverly by the following somewhat reserved statement:
“It is difficult to understand how a civilization so noble, so brilliant, whose manifestations have never lost their charm, and which in times past had so remarkable a power of expansion, seems to have lost its virtue in these latter days. It is one of the sorrows and mysteries of history.”
As the observation of a subtle mind, accustomed never to accept blindly current opinions as such, this is perfectly justified. For if we admit all the qualities that are habitually attributed to Arab civilization, if we are ready to bow in pious awe before the fascinating splendour with which poets and historians have adorned it, then it is indeed difficult to explain how the Empire of the Caliphs can have fallen into the state of decrepitude in which we see it today, dragging downward in its fall nations who, under other governance, had shown unquestionable aptitudes for civilization.
How is it that the Syrians, the Egyptians, the Berbers, as soon as they became Islamized, lost the energy, the intelligence and the spirit of initiative they exhibited under the domination of Greece and Rome? How has it come about that the Arabs themselves, who, according to the historians, were the professors of science and philosophy in the West, can have forgotten all their brilliant accomplishments and have sunk into a state of ignorance that today relegates them to the barbarous nations?
If we persist in asking these questions, it is for the sole reason that we have never really got to the bottom of the causes of the rapid expansion of Arab conquest, that we have never placed this conquest in its proper historical frame, in a circle of exceptionally favorable circumstances. We have never penetrated the psychology of the Muslim, and are consequently not in a position to understand how and why the immense Empire of the Caliphs went to pieces; how and why it was fated to collapse; how, stricken by paralysis and death by a rigid religious doctrine that dominated and controlled every act of daily life, every manifestation of activity, having no conception of material progress as an ideal worthy to be pursued, how this baneful influence has kept its adherents apart from and outside of the great currents of civilization.
In all that concerns Islam and the Muslim nations, we, in Europe, live under the shadow of an ancient error that from the remotest epochs has falsified the judgment of historians and has often led statesmen to assume an attitude and come to decisions by no means in accordance with actual facts. This error lies in crediting the Arabs with a civilizing influence they have never possessed.
The mediaeval writers, for want of exact documentation, used to include under the designation of Arabs any people professing the Muslim religion; they saw the East through a fabulous mirage of those legends with which ignorance then surrounded all far distant countries; they thus labored unconsciously to spread this error.
In this they were helped by the Crusaders, rough and coarse men for the most part, soldiers rather than scholars, who had been dazzled by the superficial luxury of Oriental courts, and who brought back from their sojourn in Palestine, Syria or Egypt, judgments devoid of all critical value. Other circumstances contributed equally to create this legend of Arab civilization.
The establishment of the government of the Caliphs in the North of Africa, in Sicily, and then in Spain, brought about relations between the West and the countries of the Orient. In consequence of these relations, certain scientific and philosophical works written in Arabic or translated from Arabic into Latin, reached Europe, and the learned clerks of the Middle Ages, whose scientific baggage was of the lightest, frankly admired these writings, which revealed to them knowledge and methods of reasoning that to them were new.
They became enthusiastic over this literature, and, in perfect good faith, drew from it the conclusion that the Arabs had reached a high degree of scientific culture.
Now, these writings were not the original productions of Arab genius, but translations of Greek works from the Schools of Alexandria and Damascus, first drawn up in Syriac, then in Arabic at the request of the Abbassid Caliphs, by Syrian scribes who had gone over to Islam.
These translations were not even faithful reproductions of the original works, but were rather compilations of extracts and glosses, taken from the commentators upon Aristotle, Galen, and Hippocrates, belonging to the Schools of Alexandria and Damascus; notably of Ammonius Saccas, Plotinus, Porphyrius, Lamblichus, Longinus, Proclus, etc.
And these extracts already distorted by two successive translations, from Greek into Syriac, and from Syriac into Arabic, were still further disfigured and curtailed by the spirit of intolerance of the Muslim scribes. The thought of the Greek authors was drowned in the religious formulae imposed by Islamic dogma; the name of the author translated was not mentioned, so that European scholars could have no suspicion that the work before them was a translation, an imitation, or an adaptation; and so they attributed to the Arabs what really belonged to the Greeks.
The majority of the mediaeval scholars did not even know these works, but only adaptations of them made by Abulcasis, Avicenna, Maimonides and Averrhoës. The latter drew especially from the Pandects of Medicine of Aaron, a Christian priest of Alexandria, who had himself compiled certain fragments of Galen and translated them into Syriac. The works of Averrhoës, Avicenna, and Maimonides were translated into Latin, and it was from this latest version that the mediaeval scholars made acquaintance with Arab science.
It is well to remember that at that epoch the greater part of the works of antiquity were unknown in Europe. The Arabs thus passed for inventors and initiators when in reality they were nothing but copyists. It was not until later, at the time of the Renaissance, when the manuscripts of the original authors were discovered, that the error was detected. But the legend of Arab civilization had already been implanted in the minds of men, where it has remained, and the most serious historians still speak of it in this year of grace as an indisputable fact.
Montesquieu has remarked: “There are some things that everybody says, because somebody once said them.”
Moreover, the historians have been deceived by appearances. The rapid expansion of Islam, which, in less than half a century after the death of Mohammad, brought into subjection to the Caliphs an immense empire stretching from Spain to India, has led them to suppose that the Arabs had attained a high degree of civilization. After the historians, the contemporary men of letters, in their fondness for exoticism, contributed still more to falsify judgment by showing us a conventional Arab world, in the same way as they have shown us an imaginary Japan, China, or Russia.
It is in this way that the legend of Arab civilization has been created. Whoever attempted to combat it was at once assailed with Caliph Haroun-al-Raschid’s presents to Charlemagne — that wonderful clock that struck with astonishment the contemporaries of the old Emperor with the flowing beard.
Then so many illustrious names are quoted: Averrhoës, Avicenna, Avenzoar, Maimonides, Alkendi, to mention only those best known.
We shall show later on that these names cannot be invoked in favor of Arab civilization, and that moreover that civilization never existed.
There is a Greek civilization, and a Latin civilization; there is no Arab civilization, if by that word is meant the effort personal and original of a people towards progress. There may, perhaps, be a Muslim civilization, but it owes nothing to the Arabs, nor even to Islam. Nations converted to Mohammedanism only made progress because they belonged to other races than the Arab, and because they had not yet received too deeply the impress of Islam. Their effort was accomplished in spite of the Arabs, and in spite of Islamic dogma.
The prodigious success of the Arab conquest proves nothing. Attila, Genseric and Gengis Khan brought many peoples into subjection, and yet civilization owes them nothing.
A conquering people only exercises a civilizing influence when it is itself more civilized than the people conquered. Now, all the nations vanquished by the armies of the Caliph had attained, long before the Arabs, a high degree of culture, so that they were able to impart a little of what they knew, but received nothing in exchange. We shall come back to this later. Let us confine ourselves for the moment to the case of the Syrians and the Egyptians, whose Schools of Damascus and Alexandria collected the traditions of Hellenism; to North Africa, Sicily, and Spain, where Latin culture still survived; to Persia, India, and China, all three inheritors of illustrious civilizations.
The Arabs might have learned much by contact with these different peoples, It was thus that the Berbers of North Africa and the Spaniards very quickly assimilated Latin civilization, and in the same way the Syrians and the Egyptians assimilated Greek civilization so thoroughly that many of them, having become citizens of the Roman or of the Byzantine Empire, did honor in the career of art or letters to the country of their adoption.
In striking contrast to these examples, the conquering Arab remained a barbarian; but worse still, he stifled civilization in the conquered countries.
What have the Syrians, the Egyptians, the Spaniards, the Berbers, the Byzantines become under the Muslim yoke? And the people of India and Persia, what became of them after their submission to the law of the Prophet?
What has produced this illusion, and misled the historians, is the fact that Greco-Latin civilization did not immediately die out in the conquered countries. It was so full of life that it continued for two or three generations to send forth vigorous shoots behind a frontage of Mohammedanism. The fact explains itself. In the conquered countries the inhabitants had to choose between the Muslim religion and a miserable fate. “Believe or perish. Believe or become a slave,” such were the conqueror's conditions. Since it is only the rare souls that are capable of suffering for an idea — and such chosen souls are never very numerous — and since the religions with which Islam came into collision — a moribund paganism, or Christianity hardly as yet established — did not exert any considerable influence upon men's minds, the greater part of the conquered peoples preferred conversion to death or slavery.
“Paris is well worth a Mass:” we know the formula.
The first generation, made Mohammedans by the simple will of the conqueror, received the Islamic impress but lightly, keeping its own mentality and traditions intact; it continued to think and act, in consideration of some few outward concessions to Islam, as it had always been used to do. Arabic being the official language, it expressed itself in Arabic; but it continued to think in Greek, in Latin, in Aramaic, in Italian or in Spanish. Hence those translations of the Greek authors, made by Syrians, translations that led our mediaeval scholars to believe that the Arabs had founded philosophy, astronomy and mathematics.
The second generation, brought up on Muslim dogma, but subject to the influence of its parents, still showed some originality; but the succeeding generations, now completely Islamized, soon fell into barbarism.
We observe this rapid decadence of successive generations under the Muslim yoke in all countries under Arab rule, in Syria, in Egypt and in Spain. After a century of Arab domination there is a complete annihilation of all intellectual culture.
How is it that these people who, under Greek or Latin influence, have shown such a remarkable aptitude for civilization, have been stricken with intellectual paralysis under the Muslim yoke to such a degree that they have been unable to uplift themselves again, notwithstanding the efforts of Western nations in their behalf?
The answer is that their mentality has been deformed by Islam, which in itself is only a product, a secretion of the Arab mind.
Contrary to current opinion, the Arab is devoid of all imagination. He is a realist, who notes what he sees, and records it in his memory, but is incapable of imagining or conceiving anything beyond what he can directly perceive.
Purely Arab literature is devoid of all invention. The imaginative element apparent in cerlain works, such as the Arabian Nights, is of foreign origin.
We shall prove that in the course of this study. It is, moreover, this absence of the inventive faculties, a Semitic failing, that accounts for the utter sterility of the Arab in the arts of painting and sculpture. In literature, as in science and philosophy, the Arab has been a compiler. His intellectual beggary shows itself in his religious conceptions. In pagan times, before Mohammad, the Arab gods had no history, no legend lends poetry to their existence, no symbolism beautifies their cult. They are mere names, borrowed in all probability from other peoples, but behind these names there is . . . nothing.
Islam itself is not an original doctrine; it is a compilation of Greco-Latin traditions, biblical and Christian; but in assimilating materials so diverse, the Arab mind has stripped them of all poetical adornment, of the symbolism and philosophy he did not understand, and from all this he has evolved a religious doctrine cold and rigid as a geometrical theorem: — God, The Prophet, Mankind.
This doctrine is sometimes adorned by the nations who have adopted it and who have not the barren brain of the Arab, with quite an efflorescence of poetry and legend. But these foreign ornaments have been attacked with savage violence by the authorized representatives of Islamic dogma, and since the second century of the Hegira the Caliphs have decided, so as to avoid any variation of the religious dogma, to lay down exactly the spirit and the letter in the works of four orthodox doctors. It is forbidden to make any interpretation of the sacred texts not sanctioned by these works, which have fixed the dogma beyond all possibility of change, and by the same stroke have killed the spirit of initiative and of intelligent criticism among all Muslim peoples, who have thus become, as it were, mumified to such an extent that they have stayed fixed like rocks in the rushing torrent that is bearing the rest of humanity onward towards progress.
From this time forward, the doctrine of Islam, reduced to the simplicity of Arab conception, has carried on its work of death with perfect efficiency inasmuch as it governs every act of the believer's life; it takes charge of him in his cradle, and leads him to the grave, through all the vicissitudes of life, never allowing him in any sphere of thought or activity the least vestige of liberty or initiative. It is a pillory that only allows a certain number of movements previously fixed upon.
To sum up: the Arab has borrowed everything from other nations, literature, art, science, and even his religious ideas. He has passed it all through the sieve of his own narrow mind, and being incapable of rising to high philosophic conceptions, he has distorted, mutilated and desiccated everything. This destructive influence explains the decadence of Muslim nations and their powerlessness to break away from barbarism; it equally explains the difficulties that confront the French in Northern Africa.