A religion is, among other things, a mode of moral government. The historian does not ask if a theology is true—through what omniscience might he judge? Rather he inquires what social and psychological factors combined to produce the religion; how well it accomplished the purpose of turning beasts into men, savages into citizens, and empty hearts into hopeful courage and minds at peace; how much freedom it still left to the mental development of mankind; and what was its influence in history.

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam assumed that the first necessity for a healthy society is belief in the moral government of the universe—belief that even in the heyday of evil some beneficent intelligence, however unintelligibly, guides the cosmic drama to a just and noble end. The three religions that helped to form the medieval mind agreed that this cosmic intelligence is one supreme God; Christianity added, however, that the one God appears in three distinct persons; Judaism and Islam considered this a disguised polytheism, and proclaimed with passionate emphasis the unity and singleness of God. The Koran devotes a whole sura (cxii) to this theme; the Moslem muezzin chants it daily from a hundred thousand minarets.

Allah is, first of all, the source of life and growth and all the blessings of the earth. Says Mohammed’s Allah to Mohammed:

Thou seest the earth barren; but when We send down water thereon, … it doth thrill and swell and put forth every lovely kind (xxii, 5)…. Let man consider his food: how We pour water in showers, then split the earth in clefts, and cause the grain to grow therein, and grapes and green fodder, and olive and palm trees, and garden closes of thick foliage (lxxx, 24-30)…. Look upon the fruit thereof, and upon its ripening; lo, herein, verily, are portents for a people who believe (vi, 100).

Allah is also a God of power, “Who raised up the heavens without visible support, … and ordereth the course of the sun and moon, … and spread out the earth, and placed therein firm hills and flowing streams” (xiii, 2-3). Or, in the famous “Throne Verse”:

Allah! There is no God save Him, the living, the eternal! Neither slumber nor sleep overtaketh Him. Unto Him belongeth whatsoever is in the earth. Who is he that intercedeth with Him save by His leave? He knoweth that which is in front of them and that which is behind them … His throne includeth the heavens and the earth, and He is never weary of preserving them. He is the Sublime, the Tremendous (ii, 255).

But along with His power and justice goes everlasting mercy. Every chapter of the Koran except the ninth, like every orthodox Moslem book, begins with the solemn prelude (called bismillah from its first words): “In the name of God the Compassionate, the Merciful”; and though Mohammed stresses the terrors of hell, he never tires of praising the infinite mercy of his God.

Allah is an omniscient deity, and knows our most secret thoughts. “Verily We created man, and We know what his soul whispereth to him, for We are nearer to him than the vein in his neck” (1, 15). Since Allah knows the future as well as the present and the past, all things are predestined; everything has been decreed and fixed from all eternity by the divine will, even to the final fate of every soul. Like Augustine’s God, Allah not only knows from eternity who will be saved, but “sendeth whom He will astray, and guideth whom He will” (xxxv, 8; lxxvi, 31). As Yahveh hardened Pharaoh’s heart, so Allah says of unbelievers: “We have thrown veils over their hearts lest they should understand the Koran, and into their ears a heaviness; and if thou bid them to the guidance, yet even then they will never be guided” (xviii, 58). This—doubtless intended as a spur to belief—is a hard saying in any religion, but Mohammed thrusts it down with more than Augustinian thoroughness: “Had We pleased,” says Allah, “We had certainly given to every soul its guidance. But true shall be the word that has gone forth from Me—I will surely fill hell with jinn [demons] and men together” (xxxii, 13). Once, says a tradition ascribed to Ali, “we were sitting with the Prophet, and he wrote with a stick in the ground, saying: ‘There is not one among you whose sitting place is not written by God whether in fire or in paradise.’”2 This belief in predestination made fatalism a prominent feature in Moslem thought. It was used by Mohammed and other leaders to encourage bravery in battle, since no danger could hasten, nor any caution defer, the predestined hour of each man’s death. It gave the Moslem a dignified resignation against the hardships and necessities of life; but it conspired with other factors to produce, in later centuries, a pessimistic inertia in Arab life and thought.

The Koran fills out its supernatural world with angels, jinn, and a devil. The angels serve as Allah’s secretaries and messengers, and record the good and wicked deeds of men. The jinn are genii, made out of fire; unlike the angels, they eat, drink, copulate, and die; some- are good, and listen to the Koran (lxxii, 8); most are bad, and spend their time getting human beings into mischief. The leader of the evil jinn is Iblis, who was once a great angel, but was condemned for refusing to pay homage to Adam.

The ethic of the Koran, like that of the New Testament, rests on the fear of punishment, and the hope of reward, beyond the grave. “The life of the world is only play, and idle talk, and pageantry” (lvii, 20); only one thing is certain in it, and that is death. Some Arabs thought that death ends all, and laughed at theories of an afterlife as “naught but fables of the men of old” (xxiii, 83); but the Koran vouches for the resurrection of body and soul (lxxv, 3-4). Resurrection will not come at once; the dead will sleep till Judgment Day; but because of their sleep, their awaking will seem to them immediate. Only Allah knows when this general resurrection will take place. But certain signs will herald its coming. In those last days faith in religion will have decayed; morals will be loosened into chaos; there will be tumults and seditions, and great wars, and wise men will wish themselves dead. The final signal will be three trumpet blasts. At the first blast the sun will go out, the stars will fall, the heavens will melt, all buildings and mountains will be leveled with the earth and its plains, and the seas will dry up or burst into flame (xx, 102f). At the second blast all living creatures—angels or jinn or men—will be annihilated, except a few favored of God. Forty years later Israfel, the angel of music, will blow the third blast; then dead bodies will rise from the grave and rejoin their souls. God will come in the clouds, attended by angels bearing the books of all men’s deeds, words, and thoughts. The good works will be weighed in a scale against the bad, and each man will so be judged. The inspired prophets will denounce those who rejected their message, and will intercede for those who believed. The good and bad alike will move out upon the bridge al-Sirat, which—finer than a hair and sharper than the edge of a sword—is suspended over the chasms of hell; the wicked and unbelievers will fall from it; the good will pass over it safely into paradise—not through their own merits, but only through the mercy of God. The Koran, like the Fundamentalist forms of Christianity, seems more concerned with right belief than with good conduct; a hundred times it threatens with hell those who reject Mohammed’s appeal (iii, 10, 63, 131; iv, 56, 115; vii, 41; viii, 50; ix, 63, etc.). Sins being diverse in degree and kind, there are seven levels in hell, each with punishments adjusted to the offense. There will be burning heat and biting cold; even the most lightly punished will wear shoes of fire. The drink of the damned will be boiling water and filth (lvi, 40f). Perhaps Dante saw some of his visions in the Koran.

Unlike Dante’s, Mohammed’s picture of heaven is as vivid as his description of hell. Good believers will go there, and those who die for Allah’s cause in war; and the poor will enter 500 years before the rich. Paradise is in or above the seventh astronomic heaven; it is one vast garden, watered with pleasant rivers and shaded with spreading trees; the blessed there will be dressed in silk brocades, and be adorned with gems;3 they will recline on couches, be served by handsome youths, and eat fruit from trees bowing down to fill their hands; there will be rivers of milk, honey, and wine; the saved will drink wine (forbidden on earth) from silver goblets, and will suffer no aftereffects.4 By the mercy of Allah there will be no speeches at these heavenly banquets (lxxviii, 35); instead there will be virgins “never yet touched by man or jinn, … in beauty like the jacinth and coral stone, … with swelling bosoms but modest gaze, with eyes as fair and pure as sheltered eggs,”5 and bodies made of musk, and free from the imperfections and indignities of mortal flesh. Each blessed male will have seventy-two of these houris for his reward, and neither age nor weariness nor death shall mar the loveliness of these maidens, or their comrades’ bliss (xliv, 56). Since pious and believing women will also enter paradise, some confusion might result, but such difficulties would not be insuperable to men accustomed to polygamy. To these sensual pleasures Mohammed added certain spiritual delights: some of the saved will prefer to recite the Koran; and all of them will experience the supreme ecstasy of beholding Allah’s face. “And round about them shall go children, never growing old.”6

Who could reject such a revelation?

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