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.'

Nineteen caliphs of the race of Omar succeeded Ali, and after these came the dynasty of the Abassydae, descended by the male line from Mohammed. The second caliph of this race, named Almanzor, removed the seat of empire to Bagdad (762), and introduced learning and the culture of the sciences, which his successors continued to promote with zeal and liberality. This was some recompense for those indignities which had been cast upon literature by the brutal Omar. Perhaps the obligations of modern Europe to Arabia at this time have been overstated; but it is not to be denied that learning, almost totally excluded and extinct in Europe during the eight and ninth centuries, found an asylum here. It has been matter of dispute how the tastes of these fierce Arabians became thus first directed. They probably owed it to the Greeks; but it is certain that what they got they returned with interest. We are said to derive our present arithmetical figures from this , strange people; and geometry, astronomy, and alchemy were their favorite pursuits. The graces of light literature were not neglected, as is shown by the One Thousand and One Nights' Entertainments, a production of this period, which still continues to solace the hours of childhood and old age among ourselves, and attests the extent of fancy and the variety of genius among those that gave it birth. Haroun al Raschid, who flourished in the beginning of the ninth century, is celebrated as a second Augustus. He was contemporary with Charlemagne, and communications of a friendly nature are said to have passed between them.

Within fifty years from the death of Mohammed, the Saracens had raised an empire, not only temporal, but also spiritual, more extensive and more powerful than what remained of the empire of Constantinople; and within a hundred, they had subdued not only Persia, Syria, Asia Minor, and Arabia, but also Egypt, North Africa, and Spain. It seemed, indeed, in the course of the eight century, as if Asia and Europe both should yield o their victorious arms, and become one great Mohammedan dominion. But the mighty fabric, of mushroom growth, crumbled into dust with equal speed. After the first extension of their conquests, they ceased to acknowledge any one head of their empire, and the successful generals of the provinces contented themselves by paying a religious respect to the caliphs of Bagdad, as the successors of the prophet, while they retained the power of conquerors for themselves. In the year 732 they sustained a great defeat in France from Charles Martel, who became the father of an illustrious race of kings. No fewer than 375,000 Saracens are said to have been left dead on the field of this battle, and it is certain that they never after cherished the hope of subduing Europe. About the middle of the ninth century (848), they projected the conquest of Italy, and even laid siege to Rome itself. But they were entirely repulsed by Pope Leo IV; their ships were dispersed by a storm, and their army cut to pieces. Spain was the only European country in which they were able to obtain a permanent footing, and in it alone have they left traces of their existence.