Christianity and Islam: Lecture I.

The Origin of Christianity and of Islam.
Sketch of the life and character of Muhammad.

Some said "He is a good man:" others said, "Nay, but he deceiveth the people." (John 7:12)

W. R. W. Stephens: It will be my endeavor in this set of lectures to gather up the principal points of contrast between Christianity and Islam, the Bible and the Koran; between the religion founded by Jesus Christ and the religion founded by Muhammad - between the book which contains, as the Christian believes, the word of God; and the book which contains, as the Muslim no less believes, the words of God conveyed through the mouth of His prophet.

I use the word contrast advisedly, in preference to the word comparison. The difference between the two terms is this:

To contrast is to place two things, which have some resemblances to each other, side by side, in order to detect the points of unlikeness.

To compare, on the other hand, is to place two things, which. present some dissimilarity, side by side, in order to find out the points of likeness.

If two things are exactly alike, there is, strictly speaking, no comparison between them; they are practically identical. If, again, two things are utterly and totally unlike, they cannot fairly be contrasted.

It is possible, for instance, and may be instructive, to contrast a man with an ape, because amidst many differences there are some resemblances between the two animals.

But to contrast a man with a fish, or still more with some inanimate object, would be an idle task, because where nearly all is difference, there are no points to contrast.

The advantage, then, of contrasting is to bring out (where this is desirable) into prominent relief the differences between two objects which in some respects are similar. And I think that an investigation, by this method, of the vital differences between Christianity and Islam is not unprofitable in the present day. Up to at least the beginning of this [19th] century the character of Muhammad and of the work which he accomplished was unfairly depreciated.

In the pages of Prideaux, of Dr. White, and to some extent even of Gibbon, he is represented as a consciously designing and artful impostor, who pretended to be the recipient of divine revelations merely in order to facilitate his schemes of personal ambition.

This view of Muhammad's character has now been abandoned as untenable by all sound critics. But in the eagerness of a better informed and more enlightened age to redress the balance, the danger is that it may be overweighed in the opposite scale. The character of the great prophet of Arabia and of his religion will now no longer be underrated; the fear is lest by many they should be painted in colors too attractive.

It is difficult to doubt that other motives also, besides the praiseworthy desire of repairing past injustice, operate in the same direction.

This is not the time to minutely examine the causes which alienate many in the present day from the Christian faith. With some it may be the bewilderment of the understanding through the manifold difficulties supposed to be experienced in reconciling the discoveries of science or criticism with Holy Scripture; with others it may be that hardening of the spirit against the reception of spiritual doctrine, which is one natural consequence of spending life in the midst of material luxury; with others it may be the aversion of a selfish and impure heart from submission to the severe moral standard of the Gospel: with others it may be that tendency (natural in an age which has made great advances in knowledge) to independence and conceit, which is inclined to dispute the excellence or truth of most things which our forefathers believed and venerated; with others it may be a mixture of some, or all, of these causes.

A fact, however, it remains, that many, in proportion to their disposition to doubt or reject the Gospel of Christ, seem disposed to regard with some favor, even if they do not actually embrace divers forms of philosophy or religion; a favor which to the careful and impartial student seems greatly in excess of the intrinsic merits of those systems. Simple Materialism, Pantheism, Positivism, Islam, Buddhism, even the gross and (one would have thought) palpable imposture of spirit-rapping [spiritualism], have found their advocates and patrons among men who fancy they discover insuperable difficulties in accepting the faith of Christ as it was once delivered to the saints.

Now, of all the systems here alluded to, Islam no doubt presents the nearest parallel to Christianity, both in its origin and progress.

Its beginnings are not lost in the mists of a remote and fabulous antiquity. It was founded, like Christianity, by one person: this person was at first rejected by his own people; gradually he gathered round him a small band of disciples; out of this germ the faith was propagated which in time won Arabia from idolatry, Persia from Magianism, and wrested some of the fairest provinces from Christendom itself. The sacred book, the Koran, might, in sublimity of language, and, to some extent, even in the purity of its teaching, theological and practical, bear comparison with the sacred writings of Jews and Christians.

Finally, the religion thus established has lasted for some 1,250 years, and at the present time [1875] maintains its sway over 120 millions or more of the human race. It is the only other religion besides Christianity which inspires its votaries with much proselytizing zeal; and in missionary success in some parts of the world, it surpasses its rival. It makes fresh advances every year in Africa, Austral[as]ia, and the interior of India which exceed the progress of Christianity in those countries.

Such are a few of the salient points of resemblance between Christianity and Islam. But my aim, as was remarked at the outset, is not to compare but to contrast; to discover the differences which underlie the resemblances, and to estimate their importance.

Let us begin, then, with the origin of the two religions, and consider the circumstances under which each was founded, and the character of the respective founders.


It was an observation of Machiavelli that no man could make himself a prince and found a kingdom without opportunities. What were the opportunities of Muhammad?

To begin with, what was the state of the world when Muhammad appeared? He was born in the year 570 A.D. The civilized world at that epoch was divided between the two great rival empires of [Byzantine] Rome and Persia. Almost incessant warfare was going on between them, and their boundaries were constantly fluctuating. Arabia, being on the confines of the rival powers, was subjugated, so far as the fierce independent spirit of the inhabitants permitted it to be subjugated at all, to each in turn. The religion of the Roman Empire was Christianity; but Christianity on the eastern frontier was distracted and corrupted by a variety of conflicting heresies, which disguised its essential character, and exhausted its vital energy.

As the extremities of the human body are the most quickly chilled, owing to their distance from the heart, as the fringe of a garment is the part most liable to be torn and stained, owing to its friction with other substances, so the pulse of national Roman life beat but feebly in the eastern extremities; the eastern fringes of the empire were constantly torn by dissension from the established religion, by revolt against the political government.

The associations of their old nationality were too strong for them. Neither the religion, nor the laws, nor customs of the Roman Empire had obtained a firm hold upon them. They were ecclesiastically addicted to heresy - politically addicted to rebellion.

The religion of Persia, whatever it may originally have been, had turned to dualism, or the worship of two co-ordinate powers the spirit of good or light, Ormuzd; the spirit of evil or darkness, Ahriman. But the Sun being venerated as a symbol of the power of light, a superstitious worship of fire and of the heavenly bodies had practically superseded, to a great extent, the purer and more philosophic creed.

As the Arabs were alternately subject politically to their two powerful neighbors, so did they catch some sparks of the religious spirit prevalent in each. Christianity and Magianism each had their votaries in Arabia, and colonies of Jews had settled there more than 600 years before the birth of Muhammad. But the dominant creed of the Arabs was a kind of degenerate Monotheism; the corrupt offspring of the purer faith of their forefather Ishmael.

They believed in one Supreme Deity, but subordinate to Him was a host of inferior divine personages who were supplicated as intercessors. This mixed, mongrel religion had its national home and center in the sacred temple, the Kaaba, in the sacred city of Mecca.

Here was the holy black stone, the relic of an earlier temple built by Abraham and Ishmael, a relic, also, as was believed, of Paradise, where it was originally given to Adam. Once it had been white, but had changed its hue either from contact with sinful lips, or from the repeated kisses of the faithful. There was the print of Abraham's footstep; there was the holy spring, Zemzem, which had burst forth to save Hagar and Ishmael from perishing by thirst.

Thither the devout Arab came to worship the God of Abraham, but also to implore the succor of the 360 intercessory powers whose images were ranged within those sacred walls. Round those holy walls he walked seven times, naked, to signify the putting away of his sins. Seven times did he run to and fro between Mounts Safa and Merwa, to typify Hagar seeking water for her child; seven times did he throw stones into the valley of Mina, in memory of the stones which Abraham flung at the Devil, when disturbed by him in the act of offering up Ishmael; for in Arabian tradition it is Ishmael, not Isaac, who occupies the foremost place.

But, shortly before the rise of Muhammad, a spirit of profound dissatisfaction with the national religion had begun to work among the more reflective and discerning of his countrymen. In the introduction to one of the most ancient biographies of Muhammad there is a chapter inscribed 'an account of four men who without revelation perceived the error of idolatry.'

This is the substance of it. One day the Koreishites, the tribe which was the guardian of the Kaaba, were celebrating a solemn feast in honour of one of the lesser deities. They bowed the knee before the image, walked round it, and offered sacrifices with customary reverence. But four men secretly held aloof from these acts of devotion, and opened their hearts one to another.

`Verily,' said one, 'our tribe does not know the true religion. They have corrupted the faith of Abraham; they worship a stone and walk round about it, though it neither sees nor hears, and can neither do them good nor harm. Friends, let us seek the truth for ourselves, for verily we are not in the right path.'

So they parted and went hither and thither in quest of the pure faith of Abraham.

Of the four inquirers, two it is said became Christians; a third after the preaching of Muhammad embraced Islam, but ultimately he too, on going to Abyssinia, was converted to Christianity, and when he met any disciples of the prophet he was accustomed to say: `We see, and you attempt to see.'

The fourth, Zayd by name, renounced and condemned all the gross superstitions of his countrymen, more especially the custom of sacrificing before images, and the horrible practice of female infanticide; but he remained in a skeptical condition of mind, ever longing, but never able, to come to the knowledge of the truth.

There is a pathetic story of him in his old age: how he was seen leaning with his back against the wall of the Kaaba, and he cried aloud: `O, ye Koreishites! by Him in whose hands my soul is, none of you follow the religion of Abraham.' And he continued: 'O Lord, if I knew which form of worship is most acceptable to Thee, I would adopt it; but I do not know it.' Thus he spake, resting his forehead. on the palms of his hands. He traveled through Mosul, Mesopotamia, and Syria, seeking repose for his troubled, anxious spirit. In the midst of his wanderings he heard of the growing fame of Muhammad. He started for Mecca, but was murdered on the way.

I have related this narrative, not as considering it in all its details deserving of much credence, but because its very existence, whether true or not, is a proof and illustration of a spirit of dissatisfaction and doubt prevalent at the time to which it refers.

To form any just estimate of the prophet of Arabia and of his work, it was necessary to indicate the conditions, political, social, and religious, of his country. To sum up, then, Arabia was on the edge of two great rival empires, both weakened by protracted and exhausting contests. The crisis of the struggle, indeed, was contemporaneous with the preaching of Muhammad.

Heraclius the Roman Emperor overthrew the Persian power in 629. The Roman Empire was itself weakened in the border provinces by this exertion; the Persian Empire never recovered. The Arabs had been partially subject to one or other power, but never absorbed politically or religiously by either. Gross superstition and licentiousness prevailed, but a spirit of discontent and skepticism was at work. There was no national unity. Each tribe was a separate independent atom.

The opportunity, then, was favorable for the action of some master mind which should first of all weld the jarring elements of life in Arabia itself into a compact body; then proceed to annex to it the great neighboring Empire of Persia, already prostrate by its rival; and finally to subdue the weakened fringes of that very rival, the Roman Empire.

And this was the work of Muhammad. By bringing men to believe in himself as a divinely inspired prophet, he established a theocracy wherever that belief was accepted; he united his followers under a political and religious system all in one, for the Koran was to them alike their code of civil law and their oracle of theological truth.

Having now examined the nature of the field in which the prophet of Arabia planted his creed, we will turn for a few minutes to the contemplation of the man himself, from the soil to the sower and to the manner in which the seed were sown.

Muhammad as a Person

The sketch must of necessity be compressed, but I will try not to omit any incidents of real importance.

Who, then, was Muhammad? Muhammad, the son of Abdallah, and the grandson of Abd-al Muttallib, belonged to the tribe of the Koreish, the guardians of the Kaaba, and to the family of Hashem, the most honorable family within that tribe.

His father died a short time before his birth. His mother was of a nervous and superstitious temperament. She fancied that about the time of the child's birth she was surrounded by an extraordinary halo of light; and it may have been partly owing to this circumstance that he was named by his grandfather, Muhammad, or "the Renowned." This meaning of the word should be remembered, since it was afterwards turned, as will be seen, to curious account. For the sake of convenience, I follow the more usual European form of the name, and write it Muhammad.

The birth took place at Mecca, on or about August 20, 570 A.D. The child was nursed according to Meccan custom, not by his mother, but by a Bedouin woman, and was reared by her in the desert. When four years old, he had the first of those epileptic fits to which he was liable during all the earlier half of his life.

Such fits were regarded with superstitious awe by the Arabs, as the supposed effects of diabolical possession; and, on the recurrence of an attack when he was five years old, the Bedouin nurse took the young Muhammad back to his mother, and could not be persuaded to resume her charge.

His mother died when he was six, and his grandfather when he was eight; but he was carefully and kindly brought up by his uncle, Abu Talib, for the duties of a kinsman were scrupulously observed among the Arabs. When he was twelve years old, he accompanied his uncle on a caravan journey to Syria. The story that near Bostra, he made the acquaintance of a Christian monk, tarried with him, and returned under his charge to Mecca, may be true; but it occurs in the midst of such strange tales of incredible wonders that it cannot be accepted as a certain fact.

How much of Muhammad's acquaintance with the Gospel history may have been due to this connection, supposing such to have been formed, it is easy to surmise, but impossible in the absence of information to determine. Much more may probably have been learned at the great annual fair held at Ocatz, three days' journey from Mecca, during the sacred month before the pilgrimage to the Kaaba.

Here a mixed concourse of Arabs, Christian and Jewish, as well as Pagan, assembled, partly for trade, partly for amusement, partly to engage in poetical and martial contests for prizes. Here, according to tradition, Muhammad heard Coss, Bishop of Najran, preach on the great facts and doctrines of the Gospel. Here his poetical imagination and patriotic spirit may have been stimulated; here he may have first conceived the ideal of a religion which should combine truths extracted from many diverse sources.

Time went on, and Muhammad became entitled to the enjoyment of a small patrimony, consisting of a house, five camels, a flock of sheep, and a slave.

He showed little aptitude for practical business, but was fond of the quiet and innocent occupation of tending sheep, in which he was afterwards wont to compare his early life with the lives of Moses and of David.

When twenty-five years old, however, he was entrusted, through his uncle's recommendation, with the conduct of a caravan to Damascus, the property of the wealthy widow Khadijah. He discharged his errand to the complete satisfaction of his employer, who rewarded him with her band in marriage. She was fifteen years older than her husband; but he remained thoroughly faithful to her, and did not wed another till after her death.

Muhammad searches for God

For fifteen years after his marriage - that is, up to the age of forty - Muhammad worshipped the gods of his fathers, but he became increasingly meditative, restless, dejected. He was courteous in company, but spoke little, and with downcast eyes. Gradually he withdrew altogether from worldly business, save such pastoral occupation as milking the goats, or tending the sheep. He spent much time in fasting and prayer in his favorite retreat, a cave on the bare and rugged side of Mount Hira, occasionally even being absent from home all night.

His mind became agitated by doubts respecting the truth of the religion of his forefathers. His seasons of seclusion were more frequent, more prolonged. He renounced the customs which savored of idolatry.

There are several short chapters in the Koran which probably belong to this period. They read like the expression of an earnest, anxious, inquiring spirit, which has grasped some truths, and is searching for more. The vanity of worldly ambition; the sin of covetousness and slander; the inseparable connection between happiness and virtue, misery and vice; the error of supposing that adversity is always a sign of God's displeasure, or prosperity of His favor; the duty of providing for the fatherless, and of almsgiving; the certainty of future rewards and punishments, according to each man's deeds - these are doctrines insisted upon with the earnestness of profound conviction, mingled with prayers for further enlightenment and guidance (Suras 103, 100, 99 and 1).

He was wrought to a high pitch of mental tension, and felt constrained to preach, but he had no commission; he could not point to any credentials to enforce the authority of his messages. By some, indeed, he was respected as a poet or a genius; but by others he was scorned and derided as a soothsayer, a madman, a fool. He began himself to doubt what he was, a prophet or a Kahin, inspired by God or by an evil spirit.

His wife, his cousin Waraca, and a few other intimate friends believed in his divine inspiration. Such pure conceptions of the Deity, and such a lofty standard of moral teaching and moral conduct, could not, they thought, be the offspring of diabolical influence.

When he was yet in the agony of suspense and depression, sometimes even meditating self-destruction, light pierced the clouds.

As he was wandering among the solitudes of Mount Hira, he beheld within two bows' length the dazzling figure of the angel Gabriel, and listened with rapture to the memorable command:

`Cry, cry aloud in the name of the Lord; the most merciful God who hath taught the use of the pen to record revelation.' (Sura 96)

Muhammad hastened home, solaced and encouraged by the assurance that the long-desired commission from on high had come; but for some period, of which the length is uncertain, it was unheeded by all.

At last, as he lay one day on the ground, recovering from one of his fits, and wrapped up in a mantle, he again heard the voice of the heavenly messenger uttering the words:

'O thou that art covered with a mantle arise, and preach and magnify the Lord, and depart from all uncleanness.' (Sura 74)

Muhammad the persecuted prophet

This is the real starting point of Islam. From this date Muhammad's confidence in himself as the accredited messenger of God never wavers, and all the utterances of the Koran are introduced by the words 'speak,' or 'say,' to intimate that they were put into the mouth of the prophet by his Divine Master.

The people, indeed, still demanded some visible evidence of his authority. Let him cause a spring of water to gush forth, or a grove of palms to rise in the desert, or let him ascend to heaven and bring down a book, and they would believe him. But these skeptical taunts no longer harassed the prophet's mind. He could proudly and calmly reply that he was but a man, not empowered to work miracles, but that the divine beauty of his message was its own evidence.

It came from God; and, if men did not listen to it, destruction would, as surely overtake them as it overtook the cities in the plain [Sodom and Gomorrah].

The work of conversion, however, was slow in its progress. In the course of three years Muhammad had gained about forty disciples, consisting chiefly of his own relations, friends, and dependents. As in the early days of Christianity, so in the early days also of Islam, many converts were obtained from the slave class. The slaves in Arabia were most susceptible of conversion, not only from their position, but also because, being for the most part foreigners, many of them had received a tincture in early life of Jewish or Christian teaching, which rendered them at least averse from idolatrous superstitions. But, as Muhammad's influence increased, jealousy and alarm began to be awakened in the tribe of the Koreish.

They were the guardians of the sacred temple, and this heretical son was beginning to shake the fidelity of his countrymen to the ancestral faith, of which that temple was the visible shrine. Some of Muhammad's followers had retired for prayer one day to a valley near Mecca, when a party of unbelieving neighbors unexpectedly passed by. Taunts and retorts led to blows. Saad, one of Muhammad's party, struck an opponent with a camel goad; and this, it was commonly said, was the first blood shed in Islam.

Meanwhile Muhammad waxed bolder.

He took up his abode in the house. of a convert, named Arcam, hard by the Kaaba, and there he preached, especially at the time of pilgrimage, to all who would resort to him, and seldom without some success. The house of Arcam was the cradle of Islam, as the 'Upper Chamber' in Jerusalem was the cradle of Christianity. The burden of Muhammad's message was the same to all: the absolute unity of God; the authority of His prophet; the moral duties of prayer, almsgiving, and fasting; the certainty of a future state of happiness or woe.

The hostility of the Koreish grew more fierce. They seized the converted slaves, and tried to force them to recantation by imprisonment, or exposure to the scorching midday sun, and without food or drink upon the gravel of the Meccan valley. Many yielded under repeated application of this torture, but there were others whose constancy was inflexible. No words could be wrung from the slave Bilal in his agony, but `Ahad! Ahad! one, one only God.'

Muhammad himself was secure under the protection of his uncle Abu Talib. Abu Talib was not a believer in his nephew's mission, but the sacred duty of the kinsman prevailed over all other considerations. 'Beware of killing him,' he said to the leaders of the hostile movement; 'if ye do, verily I shall slay the chiefest among you in his stead.'

For his disciples Muhammad devised a safer means of escape from persecution and possible perversion. By his advice a small party of them sought an asylum in the Christian kingdom of Abyssinia, and their hospitable reception encouraged a larger body to follow their example the year after. This Hegira, or flight to Abyssinia, stands in relation to Islam as the flight of our infant Saviour into Egypt stands to Christianity. It saved the new religion from being crushed in its infancy; and the success of the plan possibly suggested the great Hegira, or migration to Medina some years later. The departure of his converts, however, oppressed Muhammad with a sense of loneliness and isolation, under which his spirits and faith seem for a short time to have given way.

Amidst some conflict of evidence, something like an inclination to make terms with his opponents seems discoverable. He appears to have uttered words which sounded at least like a concession of some intercessory power to the subordinate deities. But the lapse was of short duration; he was probably soon refreshed by good tidings from Abyssinia (like St. Paul, in his loneliness at Corinth, by the good news which Timothy brought from Thessalonica), and the tone of the Koran waxes louder and sterner than ever, in its denunciation of idolatrous worship. 'Why,' it is scornfully asked, `implore help from images which have no power to move even the husk of a date- stone?'

The malignity, however, of the Koreish increased in proportion. They tried again to induce Abu Talib to abandon his nephew. The uncle remonstrated with Muhammad for his obstinate persistence in heresy. 'If they brought the sun to my right hand and the moon to my left,' replied the nephew, 'to force me from my undertaking, I would not desist from it until the Lord made manifest my cause, or I perished in the attempt.' But, while inflexible in his purpose, the thought of desertion by his kind protector overcame his feelings, and he burst into tears. The heart of Abu Talib also melted. 'Come back,' he said, 'son of my brother,' as Muhammad had turned to depart; I go in peace, and say whatsoever thou wilt, for by the Lord I will not in any wise give thee up for ever.'

The Koreish were now thoroughly alarmed, and, to complete their discomfiture, two new converts were won by Muhammad - Hamza and Omar; men of high position, ability, and influence. Omar had formerly been among his bitterest adversaries.

As a last resource the Koreish placed the whole family of Hashem under a ban. The solemn deed of excommunication was hung up in the Kaaba. The Hashemites were assigned an isolated quarter in the suburbs, and all intercourse with them was strictly forbidden. They managed, indeed, to get provisions in by stealth, but were often reduced to great straits for food. The spirit, however, of Muhammad faltered not. At the season of the pilgrimage to the Kaaba, he would boldly enter the precincts and preach, promising temporal dominion and future paradise to all who would become his disciples. But his day was not come, and the people jeered.

The blockade lasted three years (616-619 A D.). At length some of Muhammad's friends heard that the parchment on which the deed of excommunication was written had been almost devoured by insects. An examination of the document proved the truth of the report. It was represented to the Koreish as a divine judgment cancelling their unbrotherly act. Some of the Koreish relented, and five of their chief men let the Hashemites out of durance, and made themselves responsible for their safety.

Fresh troubles, how ever, were in store for Muhammad. His wise and loving wife Khadijah died, and very soon afterwards his faithful protector, his uncle Abu Talib. Another uncle, also an unbeliever, but with a feebler sense of the duties of a kinsman, promised him protection; but it did not last long, and the situation of Muhammad was again critical.

But new light began to dawn from Medina. Powerful Jewish tribes dwelt there, and in their contentions with Arab neighbors they were wont to say: 'A great prophet shall one day rise among us; him shall we follow, and then we shall overcome you.' Some pilgrims from Medina were attracted by the preaching of Muhammad at Mecca. They said among themselves: 'This surely is the prophet with whom the Jews threaten us; let us then be the first to follow him.' They declared to Muhammad their conviction of the truth of his claims: they promised to enlist their fellow tribesmen in his cause, and to report progress to Muhammad at the next pilgrimage. (The dramatic details of this account by Ibn Ishac may not be trustworthy, but they forcibly illustrate feelings which most probably were realities.)

A year of anxiety and suspense wore away, and in the spring of 621 A. D. the pilgrims came again. At an appointed spot, the secluded glen [valley] of Akaba near Mina, Muhammad sought his friends, and to his relief was greeted by twelve men, disciples, who plighted their faith to him in the simple formula: `We will not worship any but the one God: we will not steal, nor commit adultery, nor kill our young children; neither will we slander in any wise, and we will not disobey the prophet in anything that is right.' The pilgrims departed, and Muhammad returned to Mecca.

He still patiently waited his opportunity for decisive action; but the Koran begins to take a wider scope, a sterner, a more defiant tone. The contest between Heraclius and Persia was coming to a crisis; the Koran confidently predicts the triumph of the Roman Emperor (Sura 30).

Vengeance is declared as imminent to those who will not believe (Sura 21); a dearth at Mecca is interpreted as a judgment on unbelief, and a call to repentance. Solemn imprecations are invoked by the prophet on himself if the Koran be not a true revelation (suras 23, 69).

And now another pilgrimage came round, 622 A.D., another meeting in the lonely glen. It was an hour before midnight when Muhammad waited there in a flutter of hope. Presently by twos and threes his converts might be seen stealing from behind the dark rocks into the moonlight, until Muhammad beheld a muster of seventy-three devoted believers in his mission. They spoke in low tones for fear of spies. 'Stretch out thy hand, O Muhammad,' said Bara, the aged chief of the party; and he stretched if out, and Bara struck his own upon it, as the manner was when one took an oath of fidelity to another, and all the rest did the like. Muhammad chose out twelve of the chief men, saying: `Moses chose twelve leaders from among his people. Ye shall be sureties for the rest as were the Apostles of Jesus, and I will be surety for my own people.' And all answered, 'So be it.' Thus was ratified the second pledge of Akaba.

And now Muhammad felt that the hour was come. The memorable command was issued to his disciples in Mecca: ` Depart unto Medina, for the Lord hath given you brethren and a home in that city.' Gradually the believers stole away. The Koreish were startled day by day to see house after house deserted. In about two months none remained in Mecca except the prophet himself, his faithful friend Abu Bakr, and his nephew Ali.

Abu Bakr urged flight, but Muhammad delayed: 'the command,' he said, `had not yet come from the Lord.' Abu Bakr, however, was determined to be ready when it did come. Two swift camels were bought, and kept tied and highly fed in the yard of his house. A private hoard of money was concealed about his person. The Koreish meanwhile were known to be plotting mischief, and at last Muhammad declared that the decisive hour had arrived.

He and Abu Bakr stole away by night, and took refuge in a cave on Mount Thaur, a few miles to the south of Mecca, in order to delude their pursuers, Medina being 250 miles to the north. As they were crouching in the cave, Abu Bakr looking up saw light through a crack in the rock. 'What if the enemy were to spy us out!' he exclaimed; 'we are but two.' 'There is a third,' replied the dauntless prophet, `God Himself.'

A goat-herd in the employ of Abu Bakr brought them supplies of milk, and on the third day they were informed that the Koreish had abandoned the search after them as fruitless. The daughter of Abu Bakr brought them the two swift camels, and a guide. Muhammad mounted the swifter of the two, Al Caswa, thenceforward his favorite, and with his friend reached Medina in safety in June 622 A.D., where he was greeted with honour by his new allies, and congratulations by his old disciples.

Success and Muhammad

The Hegira is the epoch in the prophet's career from which his worldly success dates, but it marks the beginning also of a grave deterioration in his moral character. The earnest preacher of a pure theology and a strict righteousness, undaunted in the day of his weakness and danger, becomes in the day of his power a fanatical despot, and is at times cruel with the cruelty peculiar to fanaticism. The single aim of propagating his faith overrides at times all considerations of justice and mercy, and it is often hard to draw the line between religious zeal and personal ambition.

After the flight to Medina the Koran is pitched in a tone of pitiless animosity against the unbelieving Koreish; and the severity of its utterances was matched by deeds of corresponding violence. The prophet would lead the prayers in the mosque, and then conduct a predatory raid upon some caravan of the miscreant tribe.

He became a polygamous pope, and the mosque was his St. Peter's and the Vatican in one. Here he preached, here he received embassies, here he planned his campaigns. The Koran, about the fifth year of the Hegira, becomes little better than a military gazette. It announces victories, bestows commendation on their valiant, and incites to further deeds of prowess.

A fresh revelation was produced to meet every emergency, removing all obstacles to the advance of the faithful which might arise from a too scrupulous deference to ancient customs, or even to the principles of common humanity and justice. By special divine permission, the sanctity of the month Rajan was violated, which from immemorial antiquity in Arabia, had been consecrated to peace (Sura 2); by special permission captives were executed (Sura 47, 48). Obnoxious unbelievers in Medina were assassinated with the connivance, if not by the command of the prophet, and a blessing was publicly pronounced in the mosque by himself on the assassins.

By special revelation, the destruction of some date trees, which interfered with some military operation of the prophet's, was authorized. By special revelation the marriage of the prophet with another man's wife was sanctioned, and he was exempted from confining himself to four wives, the limit placed by himself on the polygamy of his disciples.

The deeds of cruelty which darkened the career of Muhammad at Medina culminated in the cold-blooded massacre of all the men belonging to a hostile Jewish tribe, the Bani Coreitza, and the subjugation of all the women to slavery. To cite the words of Gibbon: 'Seven hundred Jews were dragged in chains to the marketplace of the city, they descended alive into the grave prepared for their execution and burial, and the apostle beheld with an inflexible eye the slaughter of his helpless enemies.'

In spite of these repulsive cruelties few will refrain from a feeling of sympathy with the prophet, when the dream of his life was accomplished and his beloved and native city Mecca opened her gates to him. Few will refrain from admiration as they contemplate him gravely and majestically pointing with his staff to the idols which lined the walls of the Kaaba, commanding their destruction one by one, and exclaiming as the largest fell with a crash: `Truth has come, and falsehood vanishes away.'

Few can contemplate without interest mingled with awe, the last days and dying moments of the man who had achieved so great and wonderful a work. Two years only after his reception at Mecca, in the sixty-third year of his age, he was smitten with a mortal fever. He anticipated his end: 'The choice hath been offered me,' he said, 'of longer life, with Paradise hereafter, or of meeting my Lord at once; I have chosen to meet my Lord.' He crawled from his bed one night to select a spot for his burial.

For several days he still conducted, but with feeble and fainting strength, the public prayers in the mosque. At last he transferred this duty to his faithful friend Abu Bakr. Yet once more there was a flash of vital energy; he even mounted the pulpit, and, in tones which reached far beyond the outer doors, he called upon the people, like Samuel, to witness that he had not defrauded any, nor taught anything but what God had put in his mouth. This final exertion probably hastened his death. He returned to his bed; he knew the end was near. 'Oh Lord, I beseech Thee assist me in the agonies of death,' he was heard to murmur; and presently in broken whispers, 'Lord pardon my sins .... eternity in Paradise ... pardon, yes! I come .... among my fellow citizens on High.' These were the last words of the prophet of Arabia.

Muhammad contrasted with Jesus

The contrast between the origin of Christianity and Islam is made perhaps sufficiently plain by such a sketch even as I have at tempted of the career of Muhammad.

Yet it may be instructive to complete and clench this contrast by summing up a few salient points.

The Human Muhammad or the Superhuman Jesus

Contrast then, first of all, the essentially human character of the career of the founder of Islam with the essentially superhuman character of the life of the Founder of Christianity.

Muhammad did not lay claim to the power of working miracles; such as have been ascribed to him bear on the very face of them the marks of being the dress with which the real personality has been clothed by the adoration of a later age. Strip it off, and the true man stands out clear, consistent, and intelligible. You see a bold reformer who in early life rises to the conception of a purer theology and morality than the mass of his countrymen, who gradually persuades himself that he is the depositary of divine revelations, commissioned to unite the manifold and conflicting elements of national life under one simple rigid religious system. There is nothing miraculous in his career, except so far as all genius rises above the ordinary level of character, and produces extraordinary effects.

But in the life of our blessed Lord, the superhuman is of its essence. His birth is superhumanly announced, superhumanly effected. `He came by a new and living way!' (Heb. 10:20). Prophecy upon prophecy, uttered ages before His coming, are fulfilled in the circumstances of His life, even to the most minute particulars. Superhuman He is in deed and in speech every day, although inexpressibly lowly in manner of life. Superhuman He is above all in the hour of death and in the resurrection from the grave. And these circumstances do not belong to the accidents, but to the essence, of the life. Take them away, especially, for instance, the Incarnation and the Resurrection, and the whole fabric of the life, so to say, falls to pieces.

We cannot deal with the history of that life as we can with the history of Muhammad or of Christian saints, round whom a parasitical growth of the miraculous has accumulated, concealing the real shape beneath. We cannot expunge the miraculous from the life of Jesus, and leave a consistent and intelligible residuum.

The experiment has been tried, but it breaks down. The rationalizing process which would divest our Lord's life of the miraculous, brings out an irrational result. It leaves us a hazy and shadowy figure, totally inadequate to stand for the founder of a religion which has produced such results as the Rationalist is constrained to admit that Christianity has produced. The phenomena of Christianity remain, but without an explanation. They hang, as it were, in the air, without a foundation to support them.

Self-aggrandizement or self-depreciation?

Take another point:- the moral declension of Muhammad, parallel with the advance of his career. The period when he stands on the highest moral level is early in life. The meditative, musing, retiring shepherd lad, pondering amidst the solitude of his native hills, feeling his way to a purer theology and higher morality than his forefathers, then racked by doubts and fears concerning his mission, then, when convinced of it, calmly and tenaciously adhering to his aim, amidst persecution and distress, this is an interesting, an elevating, and beautiful picture to look at. But of the pure, innocent, kindly youth, very much is effaced in the picture of mingled fanaticism and sensuality which Muhammad presents to us in later years.

Islamic authors say:
Muhammad had a "sweet personality" and "ideal character".

It is perfectly true that he retained, to the last, many of the simple, frugal habits which were characteristic of his earlier life. To the last he loved to tend the flock and to milk the goats. He was playful and tender in his treatment of children and of his intimate friends. Neither in dress, nor in fare, nor the appointments of his house, did he affect any of the luxury and splendor of an Oriental despot. But the retention of these innocent customs cannot redeem his character from the stains of sensuality and cruelty occasionally very great. Facts are stubborn things, and facts are conclusive on these points. The best excuse for these blots is that Muhammad became fanatic; and that fanaticism unhinges both the mental and moral equilibrium. To the fanatic the end is everything, and he relentlessly pursues it, without misgivings and without remorse. His moral sense at last becomes so confused and perverted that he gets to think whatever he does in promotion of his one great end must be right.

How far fanaticism itself, or at least the tendency to it, may be due to peculiarities of physical temperament is too deep and complicated a subject to enter upon here. It belongs, indeed, rather to the physiologist than to the historian. It will suffice to remark that in the case of Muhammad there were certainly many symptoms common to his epileptical or hysterical fits, and to his fits of supposed inspiration. Both were generally preceded by great depression of spirits, and accompanied by a cold perspiration, a tinkling or humming noise in the ears, a twitching of the lips, stertorous breathing, and convulsive movements of all the limbs, at times communicated by a kind of electric sympathy even to the camel on which he rode.

The Dervish and Fakir testify to the common Oriental notion that a kind of frenzy or ecstasy must be the natural concomitant of the reception of divine revelation.

The most essential mark of high Christian character is enthusiasm, deep, fervent indeed and intense, but sober in its manifestation. This is only the faint reflex where it is found, of the character of the founder of Christianity. A calm, consistent enthusiasm, to be about His Heavenly Father's business, and to finish the work which was given him to do, constitutes the divine, the matchless beauty of that life. Serenely, he moves on, neither with fanatical haste, nor stoical resolution, but in the unwavering enthusiasm of love to His appointed end - the cross on Calvary, the triumph over death and sin, the accepted sacrifice, the return to the place whence He came. The earthly life rises in grandeur, majesty, and beauty as it advances, not because it is not faultless at the beginning, but because, as it approaches the consummation of the great act to which all the prelude has been working up, it naturally takes a deeper, a more awful tone. It is in the final scene that the superhuman character of the great Actor and of the great tragedy itself, as well as the clear perception of its momentous consequences on the human race, is most deeply impressed upon us. Then it is more than ever that we bow our heads, and exclaim with the centurion: 'Truly this was the Son of God.' (The popular 'Life of Jesus Christ,' by Dr. Farrar, seems, in our humble judgment, to labor under a fatal defect in failing to bring out this upward, onward, continuous movement: it presents a series of brilliant pictures, instead of presenting one great picture.)

Selfish worldly victory or altruistic spiritual victory

Take another point. In the beginning of his career Muhammad was a preacher of righteousness and of the unity of God, regardless of opposition and danger. He relied simply, on the intrinsic merits of his message to make its own way. But, as time went on, he appealed to the pride, ambition, and love of enterprise and plunder inherent in the Arab to promote the propagation of this faith.

War, the natural occupation of the Arab, became invested with a sacred character. Religious zeal and military ardor coalesced in the followers of Muhammad to a degree not equalled in the Scotch Covenanters, or the Ironsides of Cromwell. The joys of paradise were dangled before the eyes of the Muhammadan warrior as an incitement to his valor; the horrors of hell were ever urged as a deterrent from faint-heartedness and sloth. In Muhammad's first encounter with the Roman army, one of his soldiers complained of the intolerable heat. 'Hell is much hotter,' was the indignant reply of the apostle.

His flight to Medina was a direct renunciation of purely moral and spiritual influence in favor of more material and carnal aids.

His entrance into Medina savors more of the political than religious leader. The chief men of the town went out to meet him, and conducted him into it with pomp, riding by his side, and arrayed in glittering armor. The disciples of Muhammad have from that day to this relied largely upon force for the propagation of the faith.

Diametrically opposite to this was the method of the Founder of the Christian religion. The opportunity of His coming was favorable for the assertion of pretensions to temporal dominion. The Jews were fretting under the yoke of foreign conquerors. The least spark would have sufficed to kindle the flame of insurrection. They had persuaded themselves that their Messiah would appear as the champion of their freedom, to restore their long-lost national independence, and to extend the dominion and glory of their empire far beyond the limits reached in the golden days of King Solomon.

The Apostles, even, and familiar friends of Jesus, were affected with this material view of the Messiah's kingdom. We see it in the request of St. James and St. John to sit `the one on His right hand, the other on His left, in His kingdom.' We see it again in the observation of the two disciples walking to Emmaus: `We trusted that it had been He which should have redeemed Israel,' implying that His death on the cross was in their view the final frustration of the national hopes. We see it for the last time in the question of the Apostles after the Resurrection: `Lord, wilt Thou at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?' It was the steadfast opposition offered by Christ to this view of His kingdom, coupled with His searching exposure of national sins, which, humanly speaking, cost Him His life.

Had He ever acceded to the Devil's suggestion to command stones to become bread in the sense of using His divine power to obtain material and earthly advantages, or had He yielded to that other temptation to fall down and worship Satan as the price of earthly kingdoms - that is, had He resorted to artifice, to intrigue, to violence - it is plain that He would have been supported by the Jews, and that a worldly kingdom might have been His.

Into such snares of the Devil the founder of Islam fell. The power of Islam as one of the religions of the world dates from the day when Muhammad, flying from his enemies, was received by his partisans at Medina with all the honors of a worldly prince.

The power of the Gospel dates from the day when its Founder surrendered Himself to His enemies saying; 'If ye seek Jesus of Nazareth, I am He;' when He refused to summon legions of angels to His rescue, and was abandoned by all His earthly friends.

The power of Islam dates from an appeal to the sword of the flesh; the power of Christianity dates from the day when Christ bade His disciple put up the sword into his sheath, because 'all they that took the sword should perish by the sword.'

In the steady decay of all countries under Muslim rule we see the fulfillment of that prophecy. The immediate strength of Islam is that which ultimately everywhere becomes its weakness - its appeal to material aids for extension and support; its appeal in some degree also to the material and sensual rather than to the spiritual element in the nature of the convert.

Muhammad the Arab and Jesus the Universal

Lastly, the character of Muhammad, however much, owing to the elevation of his genius, it rises above the ordinary type of his countrymen, is yet as a whole thoroughly Oriental, thoroughly Arabian. Oriental dreaminess, Oriental frenzy, Oriental endurance and fortitude, Oriental sensuality, Oriental despotism, Arabian enterprise, Arabian vindictiveness, Arabian subtlety, all have their place along with higher and nobler qualities in the composition of the great prophet's character.

The pure character of the Founder of Christianity does not bear the mark of any nationality. It was constructed, as has been beautifully said, 'at the confluence of three races, the Jewish, the Roman, and the Greek; each of which had strong national peculiarities of its own. A single touch, a single taint of any one of those peculiarities, and the character would have been national, not universal; transient, not eternal. It might have been the highest character in history, but it would have been disqualified for being the ideal. Supposing it to have been human, whether it were the effort of a real man to attain moral excellence or a moral imagination of the writers of the Gospels, the chances were infinite against its escaping any tincture of the fanaticism, formalism, and exclusiveness of the Jew, of the political pride of the Roman, of the intellectual pride of the Greek. Yet it has entirely escaped them all." (`Lectures on the Study of History,' by Professor Goldwin Smith, p. 137.)

Most true words! To those who would fain expunge the miraculous from the life of Jesus we may well reply there is one miracle which we defy you to remove, and that is the character of Jesus himself. In the literal senses of the expression, 'in Christ Jesus there is neither male nor female, Jew nor Greek, Barbarian or Scythian, bond nor free.' He was the Son of Man because His character was not the offspring of any one race, or caste, or class of men; and we may say boldly that no one could be such a Son of Man unless He was also what Jesus declared Himself to be, the Son of God.

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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