Mind of the Musulman: Chapter VI
|Islam and the |
Psychology of the Musulman
Islam under the successors of Mohammed — Even in Arabia the new faith was only able to impose itself by force — The first Muslim conquerors were actuated by the desire for plunder, not by any anxiety to proselytize — The expansion of Islam in Persia, Syria and Egypt was favored by the hostility of the natives of those countries to the Persian and Byzantine Governments — The struggle for influence between Mecca and Medina, which had contributed to Mohammed's success, was continued under his successors, sometimes favourable to Medina, under the Caliphates of Abu-Bekr Omar and Ali; sometimes to Mecca, under the Caliphate of Othman — The Mecca party finally triumph with the coming of Maowiah — Conflicts between the tribes, between individuals, chronic anarchy: characteristics of Muslim society and the causes of its future ruin.
THE work of Mohammed, too rapidly accomplished, rested upon slender foundations. One cannot profoundly modify the mentality of a people in twenty years, to the extent of extirpating from their brains all germs of former beliefs. To attain such a result, it would be necessary to act upon several successive generations, and the Prophet died before the generation he had conquered for Islam had been replaced by its successor. "Conquered" is the right word; since it was mainly by force that he had imposed his doctrine, and by ministering to the Bedouin's love of plunder. Every recalcitrant tribe was immediately attacked and its goods confiscated; yielding to violence and accepting the new faith, it was in turn won over by the lure of booty, and joined up with the other Muslims to attack and pillage the next one.
It was in this manner that Islam spread rapidly over the whole of Arabia; but this method of expansion had its special danger. When there were no more infidels to be robbed, how were the bellicose instincts of the new believers to be satisfied? Without the attraction of booty, which in their eyes constituted the chief merit of Islam and their reason for remaining faithful to a cause which procured them numerous material satisfactions, would they not abandon it, would they not forsake the Muslim fraternity to return to their old inter-tribal quarrels? Mohammed had thought of all this, and of starting the Bedouins upon the conquest of Syria; but illness had compelled him to delay the execution of this project until death prevented him from undertaking it. This combination of circumstances was very nearly fatal to the new religion. Cowed by force, possibly also influenced by the moral ascendancy of the Prophet, and by the prestige that an uninterrupted series of successes had given him, the tribes had remained faithful because they feared him; but, as soon as his illness became known, the more turbulent among them rose. Before his death, Mohammed learned that in the Yemen a certain Aihala-the-black, who combined the possession of immense wealth with an alluring eloquence, was claiming to be the bearer of a divine message, had driven out the Muslim Sheikhs, and had taken several towns. The Prophet's death was the signal for a general rising. The old rivalry between Mecca and Medina broke out afresh; the importance that had accrued to Medina did not suit the pride and ambition of the Meccans.
The latter, and the tribes who were allied with them, could only bear with simmering impatience the yoke of the shopkeepers of Medina, whom they despised, and who, moreover, made themselves unbearable by their religious bigotry.
Incited by ambition, false messengers from God were arising on all sides and drawing in their train the tribes hungering for pillage. Muslim Sheikhs, refugees, "Defenders" and “Ansars,” driven out by the insurgents, were arriving at Medina every day. The number of false prophets and the success of some of them show what a favourable soil Arab anarchy offered to impostors; they also explain how Mohammed had been able to conceive and carry into effect his own project.
Starting from the most distant regions, the revolt drew nearer and nearer, until the city of the Prophet was in danger. It was a critical moment. In omitting to nominate his successor, Mohammed had left the field clear for every ambition. The Meccans were in a turmoil, intending to seize the power that the Medinans were just as determined to retain.
The man to whom all indications naturally pointed was his cousin and son-in-law, Ali, one of his first converts. But Ali had a deadly enemy in his own family, Aisha, the favourite wife of Mohammed, who had never forgiven Ali for having once cast doubt upon her conjugal fidelity. Her resentment was aggravated by feminine rivalry between herself and Fatima, Ali's wife, and the daughter of the Messenger of God. In short, Aisha was dead against Ali and intrigued against him with such energy as to cause his rejection.
Then, winning over to her party the companions of Mohammed, those who had followed him in his flight from Mecca to Medina, and had shared his good and evil fortunes, she got them to accept her father, Abu-Bekr. The companions resigned themselves to this choice on the instance of Omar, because it was necessary to come to an immediate decision in order to put a stop to Meccan ambitions.
So Abu-Bekr was proclaimed Caliph. He was a man of simple manners, who, in spite of his unexpected elevation, lived in poverty. When he died, he left behind him a worn-out garment, one slave and one camel. A true patriarch, after the Medinans' own heart; he had one great quality: - energy; and he possessed what had given victory to Mohammed and was lacking to his enemies — an unshakable conviction, a bigoted faith. He was the right man in the right place.
This old man, of good-natured aspect, took his stand in the midst of general insurrection, and with the implacable firmness of a believer began Mohammed's work over again. He knew what men to select as his assistants, notably, one Khalid, a fighting Sheikh of wild character, of cold-blooded, calculating cruelty, whose mere name struck terror. His orders from the Caliph were brief and to the point: "Destroy the apostates without pity by fire and sword, by every sort of torture." Khalid obeyed to the letter: there were tremendous hecatombs in the Nejed and in the Yemen. The insurgents, decimated, hunted and surrounded, were slaughtered by thousands, their goods pillaged or destroyed. Other Sheikhs, worthy rivals of Khalid, accomplished the same task in the central and southern regions, and in a few months order was re-established.
It would be a great mistake to suppose that Islam made its way into men's minds by the attractiveness of its doctrine. Even in Arabia, Mohammed's own country, it could only gain recruits by violence, and it was the same elsewhere. In all countries, nations in subjection to an alien Power, as in Egypt, North Africa and Spain, anxious to change masters in the hope of bettering their condition, received Islam at first as an instrument of liberation; but as soon as their first experiences had revealed to them the intolerable tyranny of a bigoted religion, they revolted. But it was then too late. Islam, with irresistible material force at its disposal, broke down all opposition and drowned all inclination to rebel in a sea of blood. And then, generations passed away; the new generations, brought up in the Muslim faith, enclosed in its narrow dogmas, became fixed in resignation and no longer dreamed of changing either their beliefs or their masters.
The massacres perpetrated in Arabia under the orders of Abu-Bekr compelled the tribes to re-enter the narrow way, not because they were convinced of the truth of Islam, but because they were satisfied that for them the new religion had, in default of any divine right, a tremendous argument of physical force. The insurgents resigned themselves therefore to being Muslims, but their orthodoxy was more than doubtful. If apostasy was not to be thought of because of the implacable severity of its punishment, these converts by force had neither piety nor sincere faith.
Men who considered vengeance as the most sacred of all duties, could not be expected to show any great respect for a religion that had cost them the lives of so many of their kindred. They were ignorant of its most elementary principles. Arab writers have given us some typical examples of this ignorance that throw a curious light upon the morals of the early Muslims. An old Bedouin had arranged with a young man to let him have his wife every other night, and, in return, the young man was to watch the old man's flock. This curious arrangement came to the ears of the Caliph, who ordered the two men to appear before him, and asked them if they were aware that their religion forbade a man to share his wife with anyone else. They swore they had no idea of it. Another man had married two sisters: "Don't you know," asked the Caliph, "that religion forbids what you have done? " - " No," replied the offender, " I hadn't the least idea of it, and I must say I can't see anything wrong in the act you are finding fault with." - "The text of the law is quite clear, nevertheless. You will at once repudiate one of the two sisters, or I shall cut your head off."
"Are you speaking seriously?" - "Very seriously." - Oh, well, it's a detestable religion that won't let you do such things."
The unfortunate man never even suspected, so great was his ignorance, that in answering in such a fashion he was running the risk of being beheaded as a blasphemer or an apostate.
Abu-Bekr had no illusions as to the quality of the new converts, nor as to their real sentiments. And, realizing that it was expedient to give them some opportunity of pillage, he enrolled them forthwith in the Muslim armies he was sending into Syria and Irak.
He thus rid himself of a lot of troublesome people, while making them serve the cause of Islam.
We generally form a false conception of the Muslim armies; they were more of the nature of hordes than of regularly ordered troops; there was no organization and no discipline or cohesion. The tribes formed so many separate corps, each under its own standard carried by the Sheikh or by a warrior appointed by him. The whole presented a spectacle of inconceivable disorder — horse and foot all mixed up together, some half clothed, others loaded up with stolen garments; each man armed according to his own fancy with a bow or a pike, a mace, a sword, or a spear. The women followed up the fighting men to take part in the sack and guard the booty. These hordes have often been represented as dominated by a superhuman faith and courting death with a sort of fanatical joy, in the hope of gaining paradise. This is a mistake: with the exception of some few companions of Mohammed who, as it were, formed the Staff, and who were animated by sincere convictions, the mob of fighting men had but one idea — loot. It was this that made them successful. These starving Bedouins rushed like beasts of prey on the rich provinces offered to their rapacity. Without any sort of organized commissariat, they could only live on the conquered people; to live they must first conquer. Victory to them meant not only loot, it gave them all the material enjoyments they could wish for — food, women and slaves.
The desert men, accustomed to the hardest privations and to the modest profits to be had from robbing caravans, became enthusiastic followers of Islam when once they knew the intoxicating delights of devastated provinces, cities put to sack, women ravished; but religious faith had no part in this enthusiasm.
Such were the hordes that rushed to the conquest of the world.
Under the command of the terrible Khalid, they first attacked Irak, which was then under the rule of the Persian Sassanids. Irak-el-Arabi comprises the valley of the lower Tigris and Euphrates, a flat, fertile alluvial plain, which the moisture of the soil and the mildness of the climate made a regular oasis.
The population, peaceable and hard-working, lived entirely by agriculture: a people of husbandmen and gardeners, who had carried the science of irrigation very far.
The richness of this territory had from all time excited the envy of its neighbors; of the hordes of Turkestan, on the north and east, of Byzantine Emperors on the west.The Bedouins hurled themselves upon it like a herd of famished beasts. The orchards of fruit trees, the verdant gardens intersected by irrigation channels, amid thriving villages, all seemed to them like a paradise.
The inhabitants made a fierce resistance; they held to their property and their religion — Mazdaism or Zoroastrianism, a lofty belief that conceived the world as in prey to two powers in eternal conflict: - good and evil.
But Khalid employed such" frightfulness" against those who held out that the population, terrorized by the spectacle of burnings, rape and murder, resigned themselves to conform to Islam, and thereby saved their property.
As soon as Irak was quiet, Khalid turned upon Syria, where Mothana was already operating. The Byzantines who ruled the country, intoxicated by recent successes gained over the Persians, devoted themselves to the pleasures of life; and, to fill up their time as gentlemen of leisure, gave themselves up to philosophical and religious discussions: vain subtleties of a barren casuistry with which their name is for ever connected. Verbal strife was then very keen between the different Christian sects — the monophysites, the catholics and monothelites, to name only the principal ones.
The Emperor Heraclius, who had a passion for these doctrinal futilities, troubled himself but little about the Muslims; when he heard of their advance, he contented himself with sending a reinforcement of five thousand men to Antioch. He estimated that this would be enough against a ragged horde without discipline; but he forgot that the contest between these ragamuffins and his Greek soldiers was unequal. The former, famished and possessing nothing, were fighting to live, to seize by violence all that they lacked; whereas his Greeks, well endowed with worldly goods, and fond of life, lost everything in losing their lives; so they fought cannily.
The Bedouins, avid for plunder, excited by the promises of their leaders, who extolled the delights and the wealth of Syria, overpowered the Greeks. Possibly they were helped by dissensions among the Christians, and it is probable that, in the blindness of religious passions let loose, certain sectaries, to get rid of their adversaries, favored the Muslim inrush.
It was proved that Romanus, Governor of Bosra, betrayed his own people and sold himself to the invaders.
Syria was abominably pillaged. For the first time the Muslims were fighting a Christian community, and one would have expected, on the faith of the Koran, that they would have shown some moderation towards those whom the Prophet had called "people of the Book," and whom he had on several occasions enjoined them to treat with consideration.
Far from it: the Christians were treated as idolaters and apostates, "with fire and sword and all manner of tortures," according to the letter of Abu-Bekr's barbarous order. And this proves that Islam, a doctrine conceived in a barbarian brain for a nation of barbarians, only enjoins moderation when under restraint; but that, whenever possible, it resorts to violence in every form.
In Syria, as in Irak, massacres alternated with burnings. The citizens of Damascus who, after a furious resistance, had been authorized by a solemn treaty to leave the country and to carry with them part of their belongings, were treacherously attacked as soon as they had got into open country, and were robbed and massacred. It was a singular method of propaganda, but the Bedouins cared little about gaining recruits for Islam, and their leaders had not desired them to proselytize; booty was the only thing that mattered. Abu-Bekr died with the satisfaction of having pacified Arabia in two years, and won two important provinces for Islam. To avoid fresh troubles, he had before his death nominated as his successor Omar, who had been one of his staunchest supporters at the time of his elevation to the Caliphate.
The election of Omar (634-644), a refugee from Mecca at the time of the Prophet's flight, was another triumph for the Medina party, and greatly exasperated the Meccans. Omar achieved the conquest of Syria and added to it that of Palestine. The Bedouins found themselves all at once in the midst of a refined people, who had inherited the rich treasures of Hellenic culture; and these undisciplined hordes, without laws and without social organization, must have been greatly astonished by the spectacle of a regularly constituted society, in which individuals, each forming part of the machinery of a wisely ordered administration, could not perform the simplest acts without having to conform to rules laid down.
Omar was inspired by this organization to establish the first foundations of Muslim government, of that Caliphate government that was destined to rule so many nations later on. An able administrator, he conceived the idea of turning the Muslim victories into money; he regulated the pillage, and made the vanquished pay indemnities. Thus Jerusalem, by the payment of an annual tribute, purchased the right to preserve its churches and to practice its own religion. The citizens of Aleppo escaped massacre by paying three hundred thousand pieces of gold; and other cities bought themselves off in the same way. In this wise measure of Omar is to be found the origin of the Caliphate treasure, which was to attain such fabulous proportions under the Ommeyads and Abbassids. But if Omar respected for the moment — and from financial considerations — a faith it would have been dangerous to persecute, since it proscribes martyrdom, he took guarantees for the future.
Christian parents were free to practice their religion, but the education of their children was taken out of their hands. Arabic became the official language; all posts, all favors and privileges were granted exclusively to Muslims; so that people were led imperceptibly to renounce their beliefs. This regime of favor limited to Muslims upset Syrian society. The humble and the outcast made haste to adopt the new religion; because, becoming as it were overnight the equals of the conqueror, they passed from the condition of servants to that of masters. Owing to this turn of the wheel of fortune, it was the Syrian proletariat, to borrow a modern expression, who administered the country, under Arab overlordship; while the well-to-do classes, restrained by considerations of self-respect and refusing to make terms with the conqueror, were suddenly impoverished by the loss of their privileges.
Syria, pacified and subjected to tribute, escaped further pillage. This was not to the liking of the Bedouins, whose sole preoccupation was loot; Omar therefore sent them to Egypt under Amru (689). Egypt, under the rule of the Greeks, was at that time profoundly divided, first by race antagonism between the Greek conquerors and the natives of the country, and then by religious quarrels. The Egyptians had adopted Christianity; but, in this Alexandrine centre, where so many new ideas had fermented on the decline of paganism, the Christian doctrines had not been able to preserve their primitive purity. A whole literature had been developed to satisfy the tendencies of Egyptian mentality: apocryphal Acts of the Apostles; Revelations of Elias, and Al Wakedi. of Sophonius, etc.; finally, the Christians, hesitating amid a hundred heresies, had adopted the monophysite doctrine of Eutyches, condemned in 415 by the Council of Chalcedon. They formed under the Patriarch of Alexandria, a church independent of the papacy. Persecuted for their ideas by the orthodox Emperors of Constantinople, and burdened by vexatious taxation, they received the Muslims as liberators. Thus betrayed, and drowned in a hostile population, the Greeks were beaten at the first encounter. Some cities held out, but they were compelled to surrender through the treachery of the Christians, the Copts, as the Arabs called them. By 641 the whole country was in the hands of the invaders.
The Copts were rewarded for their treachery; they first obtained numerous privileges and were authorized to practice their religion in consideration of the payment of an annual tribute of two ducats a head. In the first year, 640, this yielded twelve million ducats; a considerable sum for that period. Encouraged by this result, Omar extended the tax to all the inhabitants, and then proceeded to tax the landed proprietors according to the value of their estates.
As the Copts, by their knowledge of the language and customs of the country, were the only people capable of replacing the Greek officials in the conduct of a complicated administration, it was they who filled the various posts and who especially collected the taxes. They grew rich at this trade; all the money of the country passed through their hands, and some of it stayed there. Their prosperity was their undoing. A century later, as the result of a change of Muslim policy towards foreigners, we see the Copts, whose property had aroused envy, abominably robbed and treated as pariahs. It went to the length of their being compelled to wear blue turbans to distinguish them from Muslims, and of their priests being branded with a red-hot iron. Later still, when religious fanaticism had increased, they were reduced to such a pitiful condition that the greater part of them had to abandon their faith.
At the same time as he was carrying on the conquest of Syria and Egypt, Omar continued that of Persia, rendered more feasible by the previous occupation of Irak under Caliph Abu-Bekr. At the outset, the Persians resisted, with varying fortune; they were finally beaten at Cadesia (684), where Roustem, their national hero, perished, and at Djalulah and Nehavend, where their king Iez-Dedjerd was forced to take flight. The Muslims took possession one after the other of Assyria, Media, Suziana, Perside and the Persian provinces placed under the authority of China. The loot was immense; after the battle of Cadesia alone each horseman received the value of six thousand dirhems, and each foot soldier two thousand dirhems. Islam now ruled over vast territories, but its influence was far from having penetrated the manners of the people. Even in Arabia, with the exception of Medina where a sort of mystic puritanism reigned, its dogmas were little observed, and, for the matter of that, were unknown to the majority of the Bedouins. The Meccans, impatient of the yoke of Medina, and exasperated by the triumph of their rivals, set the example of insubordination. They violated the precepts of the Prophet for the sheer pleasure of disobedience, from the spirit of opposition.
Accustomed to the enjoyments wealth provides, their minds enlarged by foreign travel, it was repugnant to them to have to bow to the mummeries of the ragged bigots of Medina; but, too cunning to engage in any open conflict against the doctrines of Mohammed, they were satisfied with merely not observing them. Thus, they drank wine, they had wives in excess of the number permitted, they neglected the fasts and gave themselves up to gambling; and yet, in spite of their contempt for the men of Medina, they humoured them, waiting for an opportunity of taking their revenge. They intrigued to obtain all the important appointments. It was in this way that Maowiah, son of Abu-Sofian, who had been secretary to the Prophet, managed to get himself appointed Governor of Syria. Omar was glad enough to be rid of an influential and troublesome member of the Koreich party, of a " black sheep," notorious for his disorderly life and perfect contempt of all religious laws.
In Syria Maowiah assumed the style of a grand seigneur. Fascinated by the manners of the inhabitants, who had acquired by contact with Byzantine civilization a love of pleasure and a science of luxury and well-being undreamed of in Arabia, he forgot all about Islam, the Prophet and the Caliph. In the wealthy society of Damascus, where all the subtleties of philosophy, all the refinements of Greco-Latin decadence were known, nobody cared anything about religion or morals; in view of the uncertainty of the future, they made haste to enjoy the present, without stopping at vain scruples. Maowiah lived in a beautiful dream; he wrote his enthusiasm to his friends at Mecca and drew for them so attractive a [portrait of Islam, they] were now charged to watch over the interests of Islam.
Merwan, a cousin of the Caliph, became his secretary and vizier; he was the son of Hakam whom the Prophet had cursed and banished for treachery after the taking of Mecca.
Maowiah was maintained as Governor of Syria; he was the son of Abu-Sofian, leader of the troop that had beaten Mohammed at Ohod, and had besieged him at Medina. His mother, Hind, was a virago who had made herself a necklace and bracelets out of the ears and noses of the Muslims killed at Ohod; she had opened the belly of Hamza, the uncle of the Messenger from God, and had dragged out his liver and torn it to pieces with her teeth.
Abd-Allah, foster-brother of the Caliph, was appointed Governor of Egypt. Formerly, when secretary to the Prophet, he had been cursed by him for having intentionally altered the meaning of certain revelations in order to turn them into ridicule among his friends.
Walid, his half-brother, was Governor of Kufa; he was the son of Okba who had spit into Mohammed's face; on another occasion he had almost strangled him; later, when he was made prisoner by the Prophet, and condemned to death, he had cried: " Who will take care of my children after me? " and Mohammed had replied: "The fire of hell!" The victim's son, the child of hell as he had been called, seemed anxious to justify this prediction. One night, after a supper made merry by wine and the presence of some pretty singing-girls, as the dawn was approaching he heard the muezzin intone the call to prayer from the top of a minaret.
His brain still fuddled with the fumes of wine, and without any other garment but his tunic, he betook himself to the mosque and there stuttered through the customary formulae; then, with the swagger of a drunkard, to prove to himself that he had not drunk too much, he asked the congregation whether he should add another prayer. "By Allah!" thereupon cried a pious Muslim, "I expected nothing else from such a man as thou; but I never thought they would send us such a Governor from Medina."
Such were the personages, who, favoured by the feebleness of an old man, exercised authority. The Caliphate of Othman was the Caliphate of the comrades; it was the exploitation of Islam by the Koreich party, of whom the most active representative at that time was Maowiah, Governor of Syria. The Meccans took advantage of circumstances to avenge themselves upon the Old Muslims of Medina. Several companions of the Prophet were maltreated; the generals who, under Abu-Bekr and Omar, had conquered Irak, Syria and Egypt, were dismissed, and their places filled by members of Othman's family or by favorites. The commandments of religion were disdained; morals were relaxed; the customs of paganism were once more in the ascendant.
There was an outburst of indignation at Medina; the citizens were exasperated by seeing power escape them; fuel was added to their wrath by Ali, Zobeir and Talha, who were intriguing for the Caliphate, and having based their hopes on the speedy demise of Othman, now dreaded the ambition of the Meccans. On her side, Aisha, displeased with the attitude of the Koreich towards her, was intriguing among the tribes, inciting them to revolt and giving them as leader an ambitious young man named Mohammed, the son of Abu-Bekr, whose vanity she had flattered and played upon.
All this ill-feeling was focused upon Othman. A trivial incident precipitated events: when the Caliph went up into the pulpit at the mosque for the daily sermon, he took the same seat as Mohammed used to do, instead of sitting two steps lower down, as his predecessors had done. This action, probably unconscious, was exploited by the Caliph's enemies, who accused him of making light of the memory of the Prophet. The former companions of Mohammed called upon him for an explanation, and he ill-used their messenger. On the following day, as Othman was about to take his usual place in the mosque, the Old Muslims struck him and he would probably have been killed but for the intervention of Ali, always generous. An excited mob, at the instigation of Mohammed, son of Abu-Bekr, a tool of Aisha's, besieged the Caliph's house and called upon him to resign. Othman refused; the insurgents then forced their way in and killed him. The unfortunate old man paid with his life for his attachment to family solidarity. During his Caliphate, Othman had added Armenia to the countries already subject to Islam. This province, taken from the Byzantines by the Persians, was torn by religious conflicts; the Byzantines had spread Christianity among the people, but the nobles of the country had remained faithful to their old traditions and still practiced Mazdaism. The Persians, taking an opposite line, persecuted the Christians and gave all the government posts to Ghebrs. The latter committed such exactions that the people, dying to get rid of them, welcomed the Muslim. invasion.
In Egypt, the new Governor, Abdallah Ben Saad, the unfaithful transcriber of verses from the Koran, a creature of the Koreich party, invaded Tripolitania and Byzacene (now Tunisia), moved by no very keen desire to make converts to Islam, but rather to give opportunities for pillage to his undisciplined troops. Under Roman rule these provinces had been celebrated for their marvellous prosperity. The Roman colonists were rough peasants, who knew how to force the soil to yield, and had transformed the country into one vast orchard by developing the cultivation of the olive and by a system of irrigation that no other nation has surpassed. But the Vandal invasion had ravaged this fertile country and destroyed the greater part of the irrigation works; and the Byzantines, in their hasty operations, had not succeeded in restoring the former prosperity. A government overburdened by officials, the pet vice of the Emperors, entailed considerable expenditure: the consequent taxation weighed heavily upon the Berbers, who in the exasperation of their poverty were in a chronic state of revolt. Like so many other nations, they saw in the Muslims their chance of freedom. Gregory the patrician, Governor of the Greek possessions in Western Africa from the Barca desert to the Straits of Gibraltar, raised a “scratch" army which was decimated at the first encounter. The Muslims gained considerable booty; at the sack of Suffetula (Sbeitla) alone every horseman received three thousand pieces of gold, and each foot soldier one thousand.
The Greeks, realizing the difficulty of the situation, owing to the hostility of the Berbers, hastened to come to terms with Abdallah Ben Saad who, in consideration of an indemnity of two and a half million dinars, consented to return to Egypt. We can judge from this example that Othman's generals concerned themselves but little with religious propaganda; they preferred cash. Neither Khalid, Amru nor Zobeir would have acted thus. Othman's actual conquests were therefore trifling. After his assassination, the Old Muslims, fearing the intrigues of the Meccans, hastened to raise Ali to the Caliphate, in spite of the active opposition of Aisha. This was the revenge of the Medinans.
Of a generous disposition, and, moreover, well pleased to be at the head of affairs, Ali would willingly have avoided reprisals; but, to satisfy the people about him he had to put orthodox Muslims into all government posts in place of Othman's favorites. But this did not prevent them from forming factions.
Talha, Zobeir, and Mohammed, the son of Abu-Bekr, in causing Othman to be assassinated had calculated on taking his place. Disappointed in ambition, they took up a position hostile to Ali; they left Medina with rage in their hearts and joined forces with Aisha who was cursing the new Caliph with all the passion of a woman and an Oriental.
Posing hypocritically as the avengers of Othman, secretly supported by the Meccans, they took refuge in Mesopotamia where they collected together all the malcontents. Ali followed them and defeated them in the battle of the Camel (656). Talha and Zobeir were killed; Aisha, taken prisoner, had to implore her enemy's pardon. This success assured to the Caliph the submission of Arabia for the time being as well as of Irak and Egypt: there remained Syria.
The Governor, Maowiah, gave out that he could not serve under a man who had not only left the murder of his kinsman unpunished, but had even granted favors to the assassins. As a matter of fact, Maowiah cared little about the call of the blood, but was tortured by ambition. He was very popular in Syria through his open-handedness, his luxurious court, and his liberalism; he had, moreover, amassed considerable wealth, had set up an army of his own, and aspired to the Caliphate.
The moment seemed to him to be propitious. Ali counted but few friends; the murder of Othman, of which he was innocent, but which was, nevertheless, laid to his charge, had cost him the moral support of the masses. Maowiah calculated that, whenever he should take up the position of the avenger of his old relative, he would receive unanimous approval; but above all he counted upon his money to bring him adherents. He had besides one valuable auxiliary, Amru, the conqueror of Egypt, who was popular throughout Islam and who, on his dismissal by Omar, had thrown in his lot with the Koreich.
At the head of an army of eighty thousand men, Amru marched against Ali. The rivals met in the plain of Sellin on the western bank of the Euphrates. The Caliph, feeling little confidence in the fidelity of his troops, hesitated to give battle, and attempted negotiations, but without result.
Battle was joined; on the side of Ali, the old companions of the Prophet accomplished prodigies of valor; their staunchness was on the point of succeeding, when Ali was the victim of an act of treachery of which the Arab authors have related all the details. It will be well to give a resume of them, as they throw a clear light upon the psychology of the Muslim.
At the moment when Maowiah, certain of his defeat, was making ready to fly, he caught sight of one of his counsellors, Amr, the son of Aci: "You, who pride yourself upon your cunning," he said, "have you found a remedy for the disaster that is threatening us ? You know I have promised you the governorship of Egypt if we win. What is to be done?"
Amr, who had spies among Ali's people, replied: "You must order all your men who possess a copy of the Koran to tie it to the end of their lances; at the same time you will declare that you appeal to the decision of the book. I guarantee that this is good advice."
Foreseeing the possibility of defeat, Amr had arranged this stratagem in advance with several of the leaders of the opposing army, notably with a certain Akhath, a man of well-known perfidy. Maowiah followed Amr's advice and ordered the Korans to be tied to the lances. So little had the Holy Book spread that in this army of eighty thousand men only five hundred copies could be raised. But that was enough in the eyes of Akhath and his friends, who, pressing round the Caliph exclaimed: “We accept the decision of the Book of God; we desire a suspension of hostilities.” - "This is an infamous trick," said Ali with indignation, "the Syrians hardly know what the Koran is." - " But since we are fighting for the Book of God, we cannot refuse to admit it."
"We are fighting to compel the pagans to submit themselves to the laws of God. Do you suppose then that this Maowiah and Amr and all the rest of them trouble themselves about religion and the Koran? I have known them from childhood, they are scoundrels."
"That does not matter, they are appealing to the Book of God, and you are appealing to the sword."
"Alas! I see only too clearly that you mean to desert me. Go then, and rejoin the coalition formed formerly against our Prophet! Go and reunite yourselves with these men who say: ‘God and his Prophet, all that is lies and imposture!’ ”
"Send an order at once to Akhtar (the leader of the cavalry) to retire; if you don't, the fate of Othman awaits you."
Knowing that they would not shrink from carrying out their threat, Ali yielded. He sent the order to retreat to the victorious general who was pursuing the enemy at
the sword's point. Akhtar refused to obey. Then a new tumult arose. Ali repeated his order.
"But doesn't the Caliph know that the victory is ours?" cried brave Akhtar. "Shall I turn back at the moment when the enemy is about to suffer a complete rout?"
"And what good would victory do you if in the meanwhile Ali was killed?" said an Irak Arab, one of the messengers.
The general resigned himself to retreat; fighting ceased; Ali sent to ask Maowiah n what way he counted upon adjusting their differences by the Koran. Maowiah replied that they should each name an arbiter, and that these two personages should decide according to the Book of God.
Maowiah chose his faithful counsellor Amr, son of Aci. Ali had at first named his cousin, Abd’Allah; but as it was objected that his near kinsman would naturally be partial, he proposed Akhtar, the victorious general. This choice was also rejected, under the pretext that Akhtar, being one of the principal actors in the struggle could hardly be looked to for counsels of moderation.
"Very well," said Ali, "name the arbiter yourself!" Akhath, the treacherous ally of Maowiah, was chosen.
"But," cried Ali, in a climax of indignation, "Akhath is my enemy, he detests me because I took the governorship of Kufa away from him." This protest was in vain; Ali was given to understand that he must conform to the general opinion, otherwise he would be forced to do so.
The result of the arbitration could not be doubtful; Maowiah was proclaimed Caliph. Refusing to accept such a judgment, Ali collected together the few faithful followers who stood by him and wished to continue the fight. Deserted by his troops, who had been won over by the bribes of his rival, he lost Egypt and Arabia one after the other. It was then that the fanatics resolved to suppress the authors of this fratricidal contest, Ali, Amru, and Maowiah, in order to restore calm. But Amru and Maowiah were only wounded, while the unlucky Ali, the poor Don Quixote of Islam, was killed.
His son Hassan was proclaimed Caliph by the inhabitants of Kufa; but Maowiah was the real sovereign since he reigned over Syria, Egypt, and Arabia (661).
The period of which the chief events have just been sketched is chiefly occupied with the rivalry between Mecca and Medina. The Medina party triumphed at first with Mohammed, when he fled from Mecca and took refuge with them; they also triumphed under his successors, Abu-Bekr and Omar. The Mecca party took their revenge with Othman; fortune forsook them with Ali, but returned to them with Maowiah. This rivalry between Mecca and Medina dominates the whole history of Islam. It reveals the individualist spirit of the Arab, at the same time as it exposes to view the germ of the evil that later on was to contribute to the ruin of the Empire of the Caliphs.
The period between the death of Mohammed (632) and that of Othman (656) was of capital importance to the Arabs and to Islam. In the short space of twenty-four years, the Bedouins, driven by poverty and the lust of plunder, left their deserts and rushed upon countries of Greco-Latin civilization. In Persia, Syria, and Egypt, they came into close contact with populations impregnated with Hellenism and Latinism, and naturally fell under their influence: they passed in a stride, as it were, from barbarism to civilization.
The Islam that they carried with them in their warlike onslaught was then but a poor sort of faith, bare as the desert, empty as a Bedouin brain; but this faith, still only a babbling of religion, was not yet codified, drawn up and fixed; it rested merely upon two or three general principles, thus leaving room for a whole development of religious sentiments. The Arabs, incapable of invention, ignorant and illiterate, brought nothing to the peoples they subjected; on the contrary, they borrowed everything from them — methods of government, scientific knowledge, arts, and crafts. Their education was to be begun and carried through by the people they had vanquished; they became Latinized and Hellenized to the very feeble extent permitted by the coarseness of their nature. Islam loaded itself with foreign beliefs, especially with what it borrowed from Christianity. If this process of assimilation could have gone on, if it had not been arrested in the second century of the Hegira by the Abbassid Caliphs, the Arabs would have been completely Latinized and Islam would have been dissolved in the Christian religion. But, from their contact with Greco-Latin civilization and with Christianity, the Arabs and Islam have preserved a sort of reflected luster which has been mistaken for a civilization of their own, and has induced belief in an originality they never possessed.
Nevertheless, these foreign contributions were so little in accord with the Arab spirit that they produced a hostile reaction which, from the beginning of the second century of the Hegira, has tended furiously to purify Islam, and to bring it back to its primitive nakedness. It was this reaction that dragged down into barbarism the nations subjected to the Arabs and stifled the last efforts of Greco-Latin civilization.