The greatest problems of the moralist are first to make co-operation attractive, and then to determine the size of the whole or group with which he will counsel pre-eminent co-operation. A perfect ethic would ask the paramount co-operation of every part with the greatest whole—with the universe itself, or its essential life and order, or God; on that plane religion and morality would be one. But morality is the child of custom and the grandchild of compulsion; it develops co-operation only within aggregates equipped with force. Therefore all actual morality has been group morality.
Mohammed’s ethic transcended the limits of the tribe in which he was born, but was imprisoned in the creedal group which he formed. After his victory in Mecca he restricted, but could not quite abolish, the plundering raids of tribe against tribe, and gave to all Arabia, implicitly to all Islam, a new sense of unity, a wider orbit of co-operation and loyalty. “The believers are naught else than brothers” (xlix, 10). Distinction of rank or race, so strong among the tribes, was diminished by similarity of belief. “If a negro slave is appointed to rule you, hear and obey him, though his head be like a dried grape.”25 It was a noble conception that made one people of diverse nations scattered over the continents; this is the glory of both Christianity and Islam.
But to that transcendent love, in both religions, corresponded an astringent antagonism to all who would not believe. “Take not the Jews and the Christians for friends…. Choose not your fathers nor your brothers for friends if they take pleasure in disbelief rather than in faith” (v, 51, 55; ix, 23). Mohammed interpreted these principles with some moderation. “Let there be no violence in religion. If they embrace Islam they are surely directed; but if they turn their backs, verily to thee belongs preaching only.”26 “Give a respite to the disbelievers. Deal thou gently with them for a while” (xxxvi, 17). But against Arab unbelievers who did not peaceably submit Mohammed preached the jihad or holy war, a crusade in the name of Allah. After the war with the Quraish had begun, and when the “sacred months” of truce were past, enemy unbelievers were to be killed wherever found (ix, 5). “But if any of the idolaters seeketh thy protection, then protect him that he may hear the word of Allah. … If they repent and establish worship” (accept Islam), “then leave their way free” (ix, 5-6). “Kill not the old man who cannot fight, nor young children, nor women.”27 Every able-bodied male in Islam must join in the holy war. “Lo, Allah loveth those who battle for His cause…. I swear by Allah … that marching about, morning and evening, to fight for religion is better than the world and everything in it; and verily the standing of one of you in the line of battle is better than supererogatory prayers performed in your house for sixty years.”28 This war ethic, however, is no general incitement to war. “Fight in the way of Allah against those who fight against you, but begin not hostilities. Allah loveth not aggressors” (ii, 90). Mohammed accepts the laws of war as practiced by the Christian nations of his time, and wages war against Quraish unbelievers holding Mecca precisely as Urban II would preach a crusade against Moslems holding Jerusalem.
The inevitable gap between theory and practice seems narrower in Islam than in other faiths. The Arabs were sensual, and the Koran accepted polygamy; otherwise the ethic of the Koran is as sternly puritan as Cromwell’s; only the uninformed think of Mohammedanism as a morally easy creed. The Arabs were prone to vengeance and retaliation, and the Koran made no pretense at returning good for evil. “And one who attacks you, attack him in like manner…. Whoso defendeth himself after he hath suffered wrong, there is no way” (of blame) “against them” (ii, 194; xlii, 41). It is a virile ethic, like that of the Old Testament; it stresses the masculine, as Christianity stressed the feminine, virtues. No other religion in history has so consistently tried to make men strong, or so generally succeeded. “O ye who believe! Endure! Outdo all others in endurance!” (iii, 200). Thus also spake Nietzsche’s Zarathustra.
Revered to the edge of idolatry, copied and illuminated with loving skill and care, used as the book from which the Moslem learned to read, and then again as the core and summit of his education, the Koran has for thirteen centuries filled the memory, aroused the imagination, molded the character, and perhaps chilled the intellect, of hundreds of millions of men. It gave to simple souls the simplest, least mystical, least ritualistic, of all creeds, free from idolatry and sacerdotalism. Its message raised the moral and cultural level of its followers, promoted social order and unity, inculcated hygiene, lessened superstition and cruelty, bettered the condition of slaves, lifted the lowly to dignity and pride, and produced among Moslems (barring the revels of some caliphs) a degree of sobriety and temperance unequaled elsewhere in the white man’s world. It gave men an uncomplaining acceptance of the hardships and limitations of life, and at the same time stimulated them to the most astonishing expansion in history. And it defined religion in terms that any orthodox Christian or Jew might accept:
Righteousness is not that ye turn your faces to the East or to the West, but righteousness is this: whosoever believeth in God, and the Last Day, and the angels, and the Book, and the Prophets; and whosoever, for the love of God, giveth of his wealth unto his kindred, unto orphans, and the poor, and the wayfarer, and to the beggar, and for the release of captives; and whoso observeth prayer … and, when they have covenanted, fulfill their covenant; and who are patient in adversity and hardship and in the times of violence: these are the righteous, these are they who believe in the Lord! (ii, 177).