Christianity and Islam: Lecture IV.

The Practical Results of Christianity and Islam.

`By their fruits ye shall know them.' (Matt. 7:20)

W. R. W. Stephens: We have considered Islam hitherto in itself; the nature of its origin, and the character of its Founder; its Sacred Book, and the teaching theological and moral therein contained. But the best test, after all, of the truth and worth of a religion must be the practical one. What has it effected? Is mankind the better for it or the worse? What are its fruits? Men do not gather figs from thorns, neither from a bramble bush gather they grapes. Caution, however, must be observed in the application of this test.

It is not always easy to trace how far the prosperity or the depression of any given country is owing to the religion which prevails there or to other causes: race, climate, foreign invasion, and the like. Nor is it the primary object of religion to secure man's happiness in this world, but to guide him in his aspirations to the world above. But it seems safe to take our stand upon this principle, which may be called the law of concomitant variations: that if prosperity has followed the establishment of a certain form of religion, increasing where it is strong, and decreasing where it is weak, and this in a multitude of instances, - that is to say, in divers countries, and in divers ages of the world, - there must be something in that religion which is conducive to prosperity; and, in like manner, that if the reverse follows, there must be something in that religion adverse to prosperity, and consequently that such religion cannot as a whole be divine.

`The light which leads astray is not the light from Heaven.'

In Arabia

Let us, then, briefly survey what has taken place in those countries where Islam has been planted. First of all, it must be freely granted that to his own people Muhammad was a great benefactor. He was born in a country where political organization, and rational faith, and pure morals were unknown. He introduced all three. By a single stroke of masterly genius, he simultaneously reformed the political condition, the religious creed, and the moral practice of his countrymen; in the place of many independent tribes he left a nation; for a superstitious belief in Gods many and Lords many he established a reasonable belief in one Almighty yet beneficent Being; taught men to live under an abiding sense of this Being's superintending care, to look to Him as the rewarder, and to fear Him as the punisher, of evil doers.

He vigorously attacked, and modified or suppressed, many gross and revolting customs which had prevailed in Arabia down to this time.

For an abandoned profligacy was substituted a carefully regulated polygamy, and the practice of destroying female infants was effectually abolished.

The Middle East

As Islam gradually extended its conquest beyond the boundaries of Arabia, many barbarous races whom it absorbed became in like manner participators in its benefits. The Turk, the Indian, the Negro, and the Moor, were compelled to cast away their idols, to abandon their licentious rites and customs, to turn to the worship of one God, to a decent ceremonial and an orderly way of life. The faith even of the more enlightened Persian was purified; he learned that good and evil are not co-ordinate powers [Magianism], but that just and unjust are alike under the sway of one All-wise and Holy Ruler, who `ordereth all things in heaven and earth.'

Primitive Cultures

For barbarous nations, then, especially, nations which were more or less in the condition of Arabia itself at the time of Muhammad - nations in the condition of Africa at the present day [1870], with little or no civilization, - and without a reasonable religion - Islam certainly comes as a blessing, as a turning from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God.

Advanced Cultures

But the imposition of a system good for barbarians upon people already possessing higher forms of civilization, and the principles of a purer faith, is not a blessing, but a curse. Nay more, even the system which was good for people when they were in a barbarous state may become positively mischievous to those same people when they begin to emerge from their barbarism under its influence into a higher condition.

The danger, as was remarked at the beginning of the last lecture, attaching to a system which minutely regulates every department of social life, moral conduct, and religious ceremonial, is that it should be held rigorously in force upon men when they have outgrown the need of it.

It may be good as far as it goes; good relatively to certain circumstances, and perhaps, for the circumstances under which it was first devised, the best possible; but if it be not absolutely and perfectly good, good for all times, places, and persons, it must at some time, in certain places, and to certain persons become not a help, but a hindrance, to civilization and moral progress.

The immediate effect, then, of the introduction of Islam among barbarous races, is to raise them considerably in the scale of humanity. Its action in this respect is probably more speedy than the action of Christianity, owing to that definiteness, positiveness, minuteness, with which it is brought to bear on practical life, of which we have already spoken; it lays down rules and enforces conformity to them, and consequently a more immediate return is yielded in a visible reformation of manners, than is possible in the case of a religion which inculcates large principles for the due application of which much must be left to the individual conscience.

But when we turn to consider the effects of the introduction of Islam among nations already acquainted with the civilization of the Roman Empire and the light of the Christian religion, the picture is very different. We are compelled by the facts of history to decline believing that in these cases Islam, viewed as a whole, has been anything but an enormous evil.

Arab Conquests

Claiming, as it did, to be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, it tolerated no rival; Christianity and Christian civilization were voluntarily or by compulsion to bend the knee before it. The most effectual plan was to make a clean sweep of both. Let us see how far the first Muslim conquerors acted upon it.

I will quote the words of that most eminent and trustworthy historian of the Byzantine Empire, Mr. Finlay. `The Arab conquest,' he says, `of Palestine and Syria, not only put an end to the political power of the Romans, which had lasted seven hundred years, but it also rooted out every trace of the Greek civilization introduced by the conquests of Alexander the Great which had flourished in the country for upwards of nine centuries.' (Vol. i. p. 445, 2d edition.)

The celebrated reply of the Caliph Omar, when asked what should be done with the library of Alexandria, illustrates the policy of the Saracens in Egypt as elsewhere. `If,' said he, `these writings agree with the Book of God [Qur'an], they are useless and need not be preserved; if they disagree, they are pernicious, and ought to be destroyed;' and accordingly the library was burned. Here, again, Mr. Finlay remarks, 'political sagacity convinced the Arabs that it was necessary to exterminate Greek civilization in order to destroy Greek influence. The Goths, who sought only to plunder the empire, might spare the libraries of the Greeks; but the Muslims, whose object was to convert or subdue, considered it a duty to root out everything that presented any obstacle to the ultimate success of their schemes for the advent of Muslim civilization.' [And this continues in 2001 in Afghanistan, etc.]

Tracing their career of conquest along the northern coast of Africa, he concludes by observing `The Saracens were singularly successful in all their projects of destruction; in a short time, both Latin and Greek civilization was exterminated on the southern shores of the Mediterranean.' (Vol. i. pp. 450, 451. 2nd edition.)

Moors in Spain

In Spain, after the establishment of the Caliphate of Cordova in 936 A.D., order succeeded a state of anarchy, which had been disastrous alike to the conquerors and to the conquered, and under a happy succession of vigorous, and in many instances, upright and enlightened Caliphs, commerce and agriculture, science, literature, and the arts, were carried to a higher degree of perfection than in any other country under Arabian rule. I am not just yet going to discuss the question, how far Arabic science and art were original, how far borrowed from the lower Greek Empire. What I wish to point out at present, is, that although in Spain a high order, as it seemed, of prosperity grew up, yet it was only partial, it did not extend to the whole of the population; the subject Christians were never conciliated, or assimilated; they were not happy or content; and their resistance to the Moors, as they were called, never ceased, from the day the first Moor set foot in the land until the day the last was expelled from it [ca. 1490 A.D.].

The Byzantine Roman Empire

From this rapid survey of the early conquests of the Saracens, two facts seem abundantly plain: first, that the claim of Islam to supersede every other form of faith and of civilization was so absolute, that it could not tolerate their presence side by side with itself; and that, as a consequence, it never could get a permanent hold upon any country which had become thoroughly leavened with the Christianity, the civilization, and the law of the Roman Empire. It is a very inexact way of speaking to say that it 'crumpled up the empire;' (Bosworth Smith, Lect. i, p. 26, 2nd Edition) it would be more correct to say that it grated on the edges. Countries like Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and northern Africa, on the fringe of the empire, countries whose inhabitants were regarded as rebels by the Emperor, and as heretics by the Greek Church, fell before Islam, but on the heart of the empire it made no impression. Once it menaced Constantinople [later to fall to the Turks, in 1453 A.D.], but it was hurled back by the might and valor of Leo the Isaurian.

The second fact is this; that in those countries on the skirts of the empire where it did succeed in planting itself, this was accomplished at the cost of uprooting as far as possible the religion and civilization which it found there. To quote again from Mr. Finlay:

`Of all the native populations in the countries subdued, the Arabs of Syria alone appear to have immediately adopted the new religion of their co-national race; but the great mass of the Christians in Syria, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Cyrenaica, and Africa, clung firmly to their faith, and the decline of Christianity in all those countries is to be attributed rather to the extermination than to the conversion of the Christian inhabitants. The decrease in the number of the Christians was invariably attended by a decrease in the number of the inhabitants, and arose from the oppressive treatment which they suffered under the Muslim rulers of these countries - a system of tyranny which was at last carried so far as to reduce whole provinces to unpeopled deserts.' (Vol. i. p. 452.)

Persia, now Iran

Looking now beyond the limits of the Roman Empire, the country where we might most reasonably expect Islam to have accomplished great things is Persia. There Islam had a fair field to work upon; it became the national religion; there were no infidel Europeans to resist and hinder its free development. But, as if by a strange perverseness, Islam never seems to flourish so well as when it is attacked or attacking. Left to itself unmolested it loses energy, or wastes its strength upon internal strife. In Persia it split into a multitude. of contending sects, more occupied in devouring one another than in promoting the welfare of their common country.

The Persian is probably the most polished, well educated, and literary, of all Muslims; yet his country is the most deplorable specimen of mismanagement, political, commercial, and everything else. Fertile as the country is, and scanty as is the population, there is none which has suffered more cruelly from famine; and, as a last resource, the helpless government was reduced to the ignominious necessity, a short time back [1870], of calling in the aid of a foreigner, a European, to save the country from becoming a total wreck.

India and Pakistan

Incomparably the most favorable example of Muslim rule is to be found in the Empire of the Great Moguls. The greatest man of that illustrious dynasty as far surpasses the best Caliphs of Cordova, as they excel the Shahs of Persia. The wise and noble Akbar, the third Mogul Emperor, presents to us the extraordinary spectacle of an Oriental despot, who during a long reign of nearly half a century was unblemished by a single crime worthy of record. In warfare he was humane, forbidding the sale of captives as slaves, dispensing when possible with the punishment of death, and forbidding it to be inflicted with unnecessary pain, or prolonged torture.

In legislation he was liberal;. he abolished the capitation tax hitherto imposed upon the Hindus, he admitted men of all creeds to the highest offices of state. But, unfortunately, it cannot be maintained that this splendid example of an enlightened Muslim ruler was himself a veritable Muslim. He was in fact an eclectic, and, beyond the doctrine of the unity of God, he paid but little attention to the teaching, theological or practical, of the Koran. He treated Christianity with marked respect, and even permitted one of his sons to be instructed in the Gospel.

The Muslim, too, was free to drink wine, to eat pork, to play at dice, and to withdraw, if he pleased, from the Mosque.

In short, Akbar was so sorry a Muslim that he incurred the displeasure of his Muslim subjects, not, we may suppose, so much from the indulgences which he allowed to them, as for the lenity and impartial justice which he observed towards all other creeds. None of his successors were equally tolerant, and in Aurungzebe Muslim bigotry again mounted the throne.

The mild and equitable rule of Akbar is emphatically the case of an exception which proves [i.e., tests or demonstrates] the rule.

Still it is to be freely granted that the lot of the Hindus under Muslim rule in India has never been so unhappy as the lot of the subject Christians in other countries. While this has been partly due to the character of the rulers, much, no doubt, has been owing also to the character of the ruled. The Hindu was naturally more passive and submissive than the native of western countries, and the mild tolerance of his religious creed inspired him with no earnest zeal either to propagate his own faith, or to resist the faith of his conquerors.


But if there have been a few Muslim dynasties which present some passing gleams, more or less bright, more or less prolonged, of civilization and righteous government, there is one which, from the beginning of its career to the present day, has acted the part of the destroyer and the oppressor with the most fearful and unrelenting consistency. No country under Muslim rule is permanently prosperous, but the Ottoman Turk has succeeded beyond all others who have professed the faith of Islam in making the countries subject to his rule permanently miserable [written when the Ottoman Empire still flourished].

The land may be `as the Garden of Eden before him, but behind him it is a desolate wilderness' (Joel 2:3). There is no country, perhaps, which Providence has blessed with a more bountiful store of natural resources than Asia Minor, especially on the sea coast; its rivers ran with gold, its mountains yielded copper and iron, and costly marble; its plains waved with all manner of crops, and the sides of its hills were clad with the vine and the olive. In the days of Greek and Roman enterprise the coast was thickly studded with populous and opulent cities. Under the care of an industrious people, it once was, and might be again, a paradise of beauty, and a treasure house of wealth.

But now the traveller wanders through a dreary region rich only in ruins, the melancholy relics of departed splendor, and inhabited only by roving bands of Turcomans, and their herds of goats.

Travellers also in Palestine [then part of the Ottoman Empire] tell us that the sacred soil would be prodigal in its gifts; that it might be again `a land of wheat, and barley, and vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of oil olive and honey; a land wherein men might eat bread without scarceness; they should not lack anything in it; a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose hills men might dig brass;' (Deut. 8:8) (see especially Captain Warren's `Underground Jerusalem,'. chap. xx.), but the curse of Turkish Muslim occupation is upon it, and, save in the neighborhood of Christian villages, the once fruitful land has become barren. [This was before the major Jewish immigration into Palestine started in 1881 A.D.]

The Balkans

The condition of European Turkey [the Balkans, still a major trouble-spot] is too notorious, unhappily, at the present time to require any description or comment. The conclusion to which we are brought by this rapid survey is that sooner or later, in less degree or in greater, historians and travellers have the same tale to tell of all countries under Muslim rule - the tale of lost fertility of the soil, of a diminished and degraded population, of ruined towns, of poverty-stricken villages.

Muslim Culture and Human Character

Turning now from the effect of Islam upon the countries where it was introduced to its effect on human character, some analogy is, I think, discernible between the two. The immediate effect is surprisingly great, and for the most part exceedingly admirable, but it does not last.

The first successors of Muhammad himself were splendid examples of the character which his religion could produce. Abu Bakr and Omar, Othman and Ali, were patterns of temperance, justice, and honour, for parallels to whom we look in vain among the corrupt and effete rulers of the Roman Empire in their day. But this early and speedy promise is followed by a no less rapid deterioration and decay. In the course of a few generations the noble breed of men who founded the Empire of Islam, partly warriors, partly statesmen, partly even saints, has vanished away.

The Christians in the Syrian province of the Roman Empire almost welcomed their Saracenic conquerors as affording them the prospect of a happier lot than that which they endured under the evil administration of a decadent power; but in a few generations these hopes were frustrated: the conquerors became oppressors, and the province was transformed into a desert.

In like manner the earlier Ottoman princes, although never approaching the Saracenic Caliphs in nobility of character, were not destitute of many fine qualities, and Othman at least had some true notions about the duties and obligations of a sovereign to his people. `Rule mercifully and justly,' were the last words he spoke to his son. But his successors quickly degenerated into merciless tyrants, and have finally dwindled into the abject and despicable creatures whom we have now beheld for generations, seated on the throne of Constantinople, and in whom it is often difficult to say whether wickedness or weakness is the more distinctive feature.

Muslim Civilization

With regard to the science, literature, and art of the Saracens, of which one hears and reads so much, I would not for a moment question their reality or underrate their value; but that they were in any sense direct products of Islam is, I think, very much to be doubted.

Where did the Saracens get these things? Did they evolve them from their `own inner consciousness'? They certainly did not bring them with them from Mecca and Medina. The fact is, that though they succeeded in destroying much of Greek and Roman literature and art, they could not destroy all. They could not destroy every copy of Aristotle and Hippocrates; they could not break down every Roman arch, nor did they demolish the mighty dome of St. Sophia at Constantinople [recently converted from a Mosque to a museum, and which still bears Christian inscriptions].

And there were men among the Arabs who were wise enough to study these Greek and Roman masterpieces of thought and art, and clever enough to turn, their study to good practical account. They taught in Persia and in the Western part of the Roman Empire what they had learned in the Eastern part of it; and reproduced, perhaps with improvements, in Cordova or Baghdad, what they had seen in Byzantium. Their range of study amongst Greek authors was limited, and confined to translations of books on physical and metaphysical science.

The research of Gibbon failed to discover a record of any Arabic translation of any Greek poet, orator, or historian. We cannot rate very highly the literary genius of a people who neglected the richest treasury of human thought in these departments which the world possesses. Their native literary productions may be of a very high order; but it is difficult to believe that what is so very insignificant in translation, can be positively first rate in the original, at least in matter, though it may be in style.

Of the value of Arabian contributions to astronomy, mathematics, and medicine, I am quite incompetent to decide. Astronomy, we may say, is indigenous in the East, where the climate favors and facilitates the study. The so-called Arabic numerals appear to be of Indian origin.

What if?

If, then, it be true that the Muslims picked up their science and art, for the most part second-hand, from those fragments of both in the Roman Empire which escaped destruction from the early Muslim invaders, this question naturally occurs:- supposing Eastern and Western Christianity had been left to pursue their course unmolested in Syria, Palestine, Asia Minor, Egypt, Northern Africa, Spain, and Turkey, would not science, literature, the arts, and everything else which makes up civilization, have flourished as well as they have done in those countries under Muslim rule, or do now in those whose are still under it? It is hard to believe that they would not have flourished, not only as well, but a great deal better.

At any rate, they could not have flourished less than they do in most of those countries at the present moment. Mr. Palgrave bears strong testimony to the high intellectual and practical qualities of the Arabs; he sees capacities and aptitudes in the race for accomplishing great things in science and art, but he adds:

`When the Koran and Mecca shall have disappeared from Arabia, then, and then only, can we expect to see the Arab assume that place in the ranks of civilization from which Muhammad and his book have, more than any other cause, long held him back.'

Here again, then, we see, as in the case of Persia, that Islam left to itself has somehow the unpleasant knack of consuming energy and retarding progress.

Great Muslims weren't Muslim!

And this brings me to the last point in connection with this part of our subject. As the greatest and noblest specimen of a so called Muslim sovereign, Akbar, was not, strictly speaking, a Muslim at all, so we find that, in all Muslim states, many of the most eminent men in all departments, politics, war, and literature, belonged, originally at least, to an alien race, and an alien creed, most commonly Christian or Jewish.(He who thinks it worth while to plod through the lists of learned men in the pages of Abdulpharagius may soon convince himself of this fact.)


The most remarkable illustration of this fact, because it is one which lasted for several centuries, was the employment by the Ottoman Turks of the corps known by the name of the Janissaries. From the end of the fourteenth up to the middle of the seventeenth century, the great military conquests of the Turks were mainly due to this celebrated body of soldiers.

And who were the Janissaries ? They were the offspring of Christians in the provinces which the Turk had already subdued - Greece, Albania, Bulgaria, and Romania. They were a human tax levied by the conqueror on his victims; the very flower of their strength. Torn at an early age from their homes, they were carefully trained up as Muslims, in ignorance of any home but the camp, and of any earthly power to whom allegiance was due, save the representative of the great prophet of Islam.

`From the seminaries of the Janissaries,' says Von Hammer, `issued the greatest men of the Ottoman Empire. As long as the yearly levy of Christian children continued, their most famous statesmen and generals were for the most part born Greeks, Albanians, and Bosnians; seldom native Turks.' `And thus,' he proceeds in cogent and indignant language, `thus the strength of Turkish despotism repaired itself in the heart-blood of Christendom; and by means of this cunning engine of statecraft Greece was compelled to tear herself to pieces by the hands of her own children.'

The words of Von Hammer are only a repetition of an observation made centuries before, in 1573, by a Venetian diplomatist at the court of Selim II. `It is in the highest degree remarkable,' he said, `that the wealth, the administration, the force, in short the whole body politic of the Ottoman Empire rests upon, and is entrusted to, men born in the Christian faith, converted into slaves, and reared up as Muhammadans.'

The saying remains in a great measure true to the present day. Whatever vital energy there is in Turkey, whatever agricultural industry, whatever commercial enterprise, appears to depend upon Jews or Christians; in fact upon any people but the Turks; and though the common Turk can fight with courageous obstinacy [as in WWI Gallipoli], the conduct of the fleet and army of that poor shadowy thing men call the Sublime Porte, appears to be entrusted in a great measure to foreigners.

We do not say that the barbarism of the Turk is the product of Islam; far from it. It is, no doubt, in a great measure inherent in the Tartar race; but we do say that Islam has not cured it, or even improved it. As he was barbarian in the beginning, so is the Turk barbarian now, and so, as long as he remains Muslim, barbarian to all human appearance he will continue to be.

On the other hand, experience warrants the assertion that there is no race, barbarian or civilized, of which Christianity has taken a firm hold, that has not advanced, and that does not manifest capacities of further progress to an indefinite extent. (I use these words advisedly because Abyssinia [Ethiopia] is an instance of a state which has long professed Christianity, and yet is barbarous; but Christianity in Abyssinia is so very imperfect and impure that it can hardly be said to have more than touched it.)

This is the real answer to those superficial remarks often made that the Russian or the Bulgarian is as barbarous as the Turk, that the Turk `is a gentleman,' and so on. It is not indeed true, even now; but if it were true, we might be quite sure that it would not remain true, because history and experience teach us, that while in Christian states, there is an indefinite power of advance, Muslim states, after quickly reaching a certain point, become stationary, or else retrograde.

In the most degraded, the most barbarian Christian state, there are untold germs, endless possibilities of growth. Is it thus with Muslim nations? Let the past history or the present condition of Arabia, of Persia, of Syria, of Egypt, of Northern Africa, of Spain, of Asia Minor, of Turkey in Europe supply the answer.

It is easy to point to individual Muslims who have been better than individual Christians, just as it is easy to point to special eras when some Muslim states have been more civilized than some Christian states. But this proves nothing. The question is, not whether Islam has produced here and there fine types of character, or splendid eras of civilization, but whether, as a system, in the long run, it promotes a higher and ever increasing order of civilization and virtue. Are Muslim countries, as a rule, prosperous and progressive, or are they depressed, stationary, retrograde?

Take a practical test. Would any one as willingly live in the London, the Paris, the Vienna, the St. Petersburg, of 200 years ago, as he would live in the London, the Paris, the Vienna, the St. Petersburg of the present day, notwithstanding all the abominations which yet remain there? I think not. This is because the countries of which those cities are the capitals have advanced in civilization.

Could we apply the same test with equal confidence to cities under Muslim rule, Smyrna [in Turkey], for instance? In fact, from a review of the past history, and a survey of the present condition, of the principal countries in the world, there seems no escape from the conclusion that Christianity and real civilization are practically co-extensive; where the one ends, the other ends also.

And if this be the case; if, though with occasional gleams of sunshine, the presence of Islam acts like an east wind on prosperity and progress, the question yet remains why is this?

The three worst elements of Barbarism

The explanation may be found in the fact that three of the worst elements of barbarism, three conditions the most fatal to human civilization and moral improvement, are incorporated in Islam as integral parts of the system. The three evils to which I allude are polygamy, despotism, and its counterpart, slavery. They are indigenous in the East; Muhammad alleviated; them indeed, but they are distinctly adopted in the Koran, and consequently are invested with a kind of divine sanction.

They stamp upon the religion of Muhammad an essentially Oriental character. Christianity and the Western nations abhor and repudiate these three evil things, and consequently Islam has ever been the most implacable foe to Christianity and the Western nations, the most impervious barrier to the advance of Christianity and Western civilization in an eastward direction.

The establishment of a regulated polygamy by Muhammad was, of course, a great advance upon the unrestrained licentiousness which in Arabia had preceded it; but then polygamy, although controlled, is established, with all its concomitant evils: degradation on the side of the woman who belongs to the husband, while the husband does not belong to her: jealousies on both sides, an overgrown and divided household. Yet all who acknowledge the Koran must accept polygamy as a divinely sanctioned condition of life.

Under the law of Moses, polygamy was tolerated; under the law of Muhammad it is established. All honour to him for endeavoring to mitigate its evils by restriction. The practice was so deeply rooted in Oriental life, that this was probably all which he could venture to attempt.

The divine wisdom of the Mosaic law is manifested in the fact that while it seems to do less for the evil, while it tolerates and places no defined limitations on the practice, it thereby left the way more clear for its ultimate abolition.

To the votary of Islam, again, there is no escape from the recognition of absolute despotism as a divinely ordered form of government. By virtue of his alleged commission from God, Muhammad claimed the right to regulate every item in the life of his disciples; and his successors are suffered [allowed] to inherit his divine right of absolute power, only limited in their case by deference to the directions of the Koran. That sacred volume is the only groundwork of jurisprudence for nations professing the faith of Islam ["Islamic Law"]. It is for the Muslim his code of civil law, as well as of theology and ethics.

The ultimate appeal in every question of law in any Muslim nation, whether it be in the East or the West, whether it be in the ninth century or the nineteenth, is to some sentences inscribed on a palm leaf or mutton bone in Arabia in the middle of the seventh century.

The rigidity of the Koran is often so incapable of adaptation to the necessities of particular cases that, in order to prevent a deadlock, an ingenious method of evasion is adopted. To quote the words of Gibbon:

`The Kadi respectfully places the sacred volume on his head, and substitutes a dexterous interpretation more apposite to the principles of equity, and to the manners and policy of the times.'

Should the employment of this subterfuge become more common, as in some Muslim countries seems probable, the way will be indefinitely opened to moral and social, if not religious reformation; but then Islam will cease to be Islam.

Where the religion of Muhammad is maintained in its integrity, the sciences of divinity and law coalesce; the jurist and divine is the same person, only looked at from different points of view, and one name is common to him in both capacities. In like manner the functions of monarch and chief pontiff are united in the same person [i.e., the Ayatollah].

Such is the impotence of the Ottoman Sultans at the present day, that the administration of government (if the word government can be so far dishonored as to be applied to what is, in fact, merely a system of rapine) must practically be conducted by other wills than theirs; yet the Grand Vizier and the Mufti are in theory only the ministers, and obedient slaves of the Sultan's will in temporal and ecclesiastical affairs.

And in the early days of Saracenic and Turkish power, the great Caliphs and Sultans exercised a despotic power exceeding that of any Roman Emperor or Pope; for the will even of the most despotic emperors or popes was subject to the control of some forms of constitutional law, and that law, again, was leavened more or less by the principles of the Gospel. Even the tyranny of the first [Napoleon] Bonaparte was not that purely arbitrary will, that mere personal agency, which in its origin is essentially Oriental, and which is embodied in the religious system of Muhammad.

In describing the effects of the early Saracenic conquests, Mr. Finlay remarks:

`No attempt was made to arrange any systematic form of political government, and the whole power of the state was vested in the hands of the chief priest of the religion, who was only answerable for the due exercise of this extraordinary power to God, his own conscience, and the patience of his subjects. The moment, therefore, that the responsibility created by national feelings, military companionship, and exalted enthusiasm ceased to operate on the minds of the Caliphs, the administration became far more oppressive than that of the Roman Empire. No local magistrates elected by the people, and no parish priests connected by their feelings and interests both with their superiors and inferiors, bound society together by common ties; and no system of legal administration, independent of the military and financial authorities, preserved the property of the people from the rapacity of the government. Socially and politically the Saracen Empire was little better than the Gothic, Hunnish, and Avar monarchies; and that it proved more durable with almost equal oppression is to be attributed to the powerful enthusiasm of Muhammad's religion which tempered for some time its avarice and tyranny.'

We may add, that where the conscience of the sovereign and the patience of the people are the only bounds to the exercise of his power, conscience is apt to become hardened, and patience amazingly enduring. Inured to subjection, and deprived of any ready means of discussing their wrongs, or concerting resistance, the people are apt to lapse into apathetic indolence, and stupid resignation.


It is unnecessary to add that where polygamy and despotism exist, there also slavery must be found. Slavery, in fact, pervades the whole social and political life of a people under Muslim rule. The wife is the slave of the husband rather than his partner; the domestic servant is the slave of both. The Pasha is the slave of the despot; he is a despot himself over the province which is in bondage to his rule.

Slavery appears to be mild in Muslim countries, and so it is; not only because kind treatment of the slave is enjoined in the Koran, but also because where all are reduced more or less to the condition of slaves, servitude is no disgrace. Where all are equally subject to the absolute will of the monarch, the sharp distinctions of rank are removed. Servitude becomes no barrier to the elevation of a man to the highest offices in the State.

The favor of the despot indeed is more likely to be bestowed on a slave than on a man of noble origin; the policy of the despot being to depress the aristocracy, who might by their position become leaders of rebellion, and to reduce all ranks as much as possible to one dead level of subjection. And, as a matter of fact, the men who have risen to the highest offices in Muslim States, especially at Constantinople, have been commonly men who began by discharging the most menial and often the basest and most disgraceful functions about the court of the sovereign.

Islam tied to Middle Eastern ethics

We repeat that we do not affirm these evils to be the direct products of Islam. They are indigenous in the East, and are deeply rooted in Oriental [Middle-Eastern] habits of life; but we do say that they are the concomitants of Islam; that where Islam is established they are established, and further that, though alleviated in degree, they are more closely riveted upon Muslim countries than any others, because they are there invested with a divine sanction.

Islam has taken up into itself and consecrated these evil forms of Oriental life, and consequently it opposes the most solid obstacle to the reception in the East of Christian and Western civilization.

Where, on the other hand, the, Muslim rules over a population which is Christian and European, he can never assimilate them or be assimilated by them; the Koran forbids him to treat an infidel as his equal; the alien invader can maintain his conquest only by becoming an oppressor; the two elements may live centuries side by side, but like oil and vinegar they will not fuse; the one is Muslim, Asiatic, stationary; the other Christian, European, progressive.

Christianity is International

As the character of the Great Head of the Christian Church, when He became incarnate, was Catholic [=International], so is the character of the Church which He founded. It is capable of adaptation to human nature everywhere, because it is not like an inanimate machine which, once made, can work only in one way, but is a living organism instinct with a divine life, even the spirit of its Head. It can move in a hundred different ways according to His direction, and accommodate itself to every race, and to every form of social or political condition; it can live under a despotism or a republic, amongst the rich and the poor, the Teuton, the Celt, the African, the Indian, the Melanesian.

On the other hand as the character of the founder of Islam was essentially Oriental, so is the character of the religion which he founded; it is acceptable to the Oriental nature, but repugnant to the Western; it has made rapid progress and obtained a firm footing among Eastern countries; and, as it will not easily recede from its pretensions to the possession of absolute truth it is the most formidable rival which Christianity has to encounter in the East.

Relations between Christianity and Islam

And what tone, it may be asked, ought the Christian Church to assume towards its rival? Certainly not that of denunciation or defiance, nor, on the other hand, of approbation and concession.

In the face of the fact that Christians never have been able to live peaceably and happily under Muslim rule, although at the present day Muslims live in great peace and prosperity under Christian rule, it is, we think, rather hard that Christians should be reproached as inclined to an attitude of harsh hostility or contempt towards the Muslim faith. (Bos. Smith, Lect. iv. p. 259, 279, and Preface to second edition, p. 9.)

By all means let us recognize to the full what was great and noble in Muhammad himself and in the work which he accomplished; let us recognize to the full all the good which the religion of Muhammad has done, as well as all the evil, all its truth as well as all its error; let us hold out the right hand of fellowship to the Muslim as a brother, though an erring brother, whom we are bound to honour, to respect, and even to love.

But, on the other hand, do not let us disguise or gloss over the fact that there is error, and most mischievous error in his religion; do not let us talk of it as if it were almost as good as Christianity, or because Muhammad had a sort of reverence for Christ, go to the ridiculous length of calling Islam `a form of Christianity;' (Bos. Smith, Lect. iv. p. 260) although it expressly denies the very essence of Christianity, the Divinity and Incarnation of our blessed Lord.

Do not let us make apologies for praying that the Muslim may be brought to the knowledge of a nobler and purer faith than his own as if it was an insult. (Ibid. p. 259.)

To cultivate friendship and good-will with men of a different creed it cannot be necessary, because it cannot be right, to surrender one jot or tittle of the essential principles of our own faith; conscientious unbelievers would despise us if we did. What is needed is the exercise of that large-hearted charity which seeks their good in every possible way; endeavors to win them to the truth; acts with them where it can, and, where it cannot, stands respectfully and courteously aside.

It was a common saying of one of the most uncompromising Churchmen, the late Dean Hook, to Dissenters with whom he was brought much in contact and always lived on the most friendly terms: 'There is a line between us, but across that line we shake hands.' The saying would equally illustrate the proper attitude of Christians towards the Muslim, or any other kind of unbeliever. There is a line between us; if we can persuade them to cross the line and to be one with us, we will receive them with open arms; if they will not cross it, let us shake hands over the line, and work hand in hand whenever they will move in a parallel direction with us.

But do not let us pretend that there is no line, that Christianity is only a few shades better than Islam, the Bible only `as a whole' better than the Koran, and that the difference between the two religions is one not of kind, but only of degree. (Bos. Smith, Lect. i., p. 64, 67.) In short, in our laudable anxiety to make our Christianity pleasant and attractive to men of another creed, let us take heed not to dilute Christian doctrine so far as to find some day that we have lost what was of vital value for ourselves, and only bestowed on others a residuum which was hardly worth their acceptance.

From "Christianity and Islam" by W. R. W. Stephens, Chichester, England. New York: Scribner, Armstrong & Co. 1877

  1. Preface: Summary and sources.
  2. Lecture 1: The The Life of Muhammad.
  3. Lecture 2: The Bible and the Qur'an.
  4. Lecture 3: Moral Values of the Bible and the Qur'an.
  5. Lecture 4: Practical Effects of the Qur'an.

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