Arabia - Mohammed - Empire of the Saracens

It was not before the sixth century that Arabia became peculiarly remarkable in the history of the world. The wild Arabs, as they have been generally called, had already signalized themselves by incursions on the Empire of the East, when Mohammed was born, in the year 569 (some say, 571) of the Christian era, at Mecca, the principal city of their country. He is said to have been descended from some great families but it is certain that his immediate progenitors were poor, and he had little education but what his own means and his own mind could give him. Yet this man became the founder of a great empire, and the fabricator of a religion which has continued to our own day to affect greater numbers of mankind than Christianity itself. At an early period of life, we are told, 'he re tired to the desert, and pretended to hold conferences with the Angel Gabriel, who delivered to him, from time to time, portions of a sacred book or Koran, containing revelations of the will of the Supreme Being, and of the doctrines which he required his prophet (that is, Mohammed himself) to communicate to the world.' The Mohammedan religion, as the so-called revelations of this great imposter have since been designated, was a strange mixture of the superstitions of Arabia, the morality of Christ, and the rites of Judaism. It was to this happy mixture of tenets, usages and traditions already existing among his countrymen, and to the applicability of the precepts of the Koran to all legal transactions and all the business of life, that Mohammed seems to have owed his extraordinary success. Others, indeed, have attributed this to certain indulgences allowed in the Koran but in reality these indulgences existed before, and the book breathes upon the whole an austere spirit. This extraordinary work inculcated elevated notions of the Divine nature and of moral duties: it taught that God's will and power were constantly exerted towards the happiness of His creatures, and that the duty of man was to love his neighbors, assist the poor, protect the injured, to be humane to inferior animals, and to pray seven times a day. It taught that, to revive the impression of those laws which God had engraven originally in the hearts of men, He had sent his prophets upon earth Abraham, Moses, Jesus Christ, and Mohammed - the last, the greatest, to whom all the world should owe its conversion to the true religion. By producing the Koran in detached parcels, Mohammed had it in his power to solve all objections by new revelations. It was only after he was well advanced in years that his doctrines began to be received. At first, indeed, they were so violently opposed by his fellow-citizens of Mecca, that the prophet was obliged to flee from the city to save his life. This event is called by his followers Hegira, or the Flight: it occurred in the 622d year of the Christian era; and they reckon dates from it as we do from the birth of Christ. Mohammed took refuge in the city of Medina, and by the aid of his disciples there, he was soon able to return to Mecca at the head of an armed force. This enabled him to subdue those who would not be convinced; and henceforward he proceeded to make proselytes and subjects together, till at length, being master of all Arabia and of Syria, his numerous followers saluted him king (627). This extraordinary man died suddenly, and in the midst of successes, at the age of sixty-one (632). Abubeker, his father-in-law and successor, united and published the books of the Koran, and continued and extended the empire. which Mohammed had left him.

A more powerful caliph (such was the title given to this series of monarchs) was Omar, the successor of Abubeker (635). Barbarity, ferocity, and superstition seem to have been mingled and to have reached their height in the person of Omar. It was by his order that the most magnificent library of antiquity, that of Alexandria, consisting of 700,000 volumes, was burned to ashes. The reason which he gave for this act is worth preserving: 'If these writings,' he said, 'agree with the Koran, they are useless, and need not be preserved; if they disagree, they are pernicious, and ought to be destroyed.' By himself and his generals this ferocious conqueror added Syria, Phoenicia, Mesopotamia, Chaldea, Egypt, Lybia, and Numidia, to his empire. Next came Otman, and then Ali, the son-in-law of Mohammed himself. The name of Ali is still revered by Mussulmans. His reign was short, but glorious. 'After some internal troubles,' says Hallam, 'the Saracens won their way along the coast of Africa, as far as the pillars of Hercules, and a third province was irretrievably torn from the Greek empire. These Western conquests introduced them to fresh enemies, and ushered in more splendid successes. Encouraged by the disunion of the Visigoths [in Spain], and invited by treachery, Muza, the general of a master who sat beyond the opposite extremity of the Mediterranean Sea, passed over into Spain, and within about two years the name of Mohammed was invoked under the Pyrenees.'