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History of the Christian Church, Volume IV: Mediaeval Christianity. A.D. 590-1073.
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§ 40. Position of Mohammedanism in Church History.


While new races and countries in Northern and Western Europe, unknown to the apostles, were added to the Christian Church, we behold in Asia and Africa the opposite spectacle of the rise and progress of a rival religion which is now acknowledged by more than one-tenth of the inhabitants of the globe. It is called “Mohammedanism” from its founder, or “Islâm,” from its chief virtue, which is absolute surrender to the one true God. Like Christianity, it had its birth in the Shemitic race, the parent of the three monotheistic religions, but in an obscure and even desert district, and had a more rapid, though less enduring success.

But what a difference in the means employed and the results reached! Christianity made its conquest by peaceful missionaries and the power of persuasion, and carried with it the blessings of home, freedom and civilization. Mohammedanism conquered the fairest portions of the earth by the sword and cursed them by polygamy, slavery, despotism and desolation. The moving power of Christian missions was love to God and man; the moving power of Islâm was fanaticism and brute force. Christianity has found a home among all nations and climes; Mohammedanism, although it made a most vigorous effort to conquer the world, is after all a religion of the desert, of the tent and the caravan, and confined to nomad and savage or half-civilized nations, chiefly Arabs, Persians, and Turks. It never made an impression on Europe except by brute force; it is only encamped, not really domesticated, in Constantinople, and when it must withdraw from Europe it will leave no trace behind.

Islâm in its conquering march took forcible possession of the lands of the Bible, and the Greek church, seized the throne of Constantine, overran Spain, crossed the Pyrenees, and for a long time threatened even the church of Rome and the German empire, until it was finally repulsed beneath the walls of Vienna. The Crusades which figure so prominently in the history of mediaeval Christianity, originated in the desire to wrest the holy land from the followers of “the false prophet,” and brought the East in contact with the West. The monarchy and the church of Spain, with their architecture, chivalry, bigotry, and inquisition, emerged from a fierce conflict with the Moors. Even the Reformation in the sixteenth century was complicated with the Turkish question, which occupied the attention of the diet of Augsburg as much as the Confession of the Evangelical princes and divines. Luther, in one of his most popular hymns, prays for deliverance from “the murdering Pope and Turk,” as the two chief enemies of the gospel137137    “Erhalt uns,Herr, bei deinem Wort,
   Und steur’ des Papst’s und Türken Mord.”
; and the Anglican Prayer Book, in the collect for Good Friday, invokes God “to have mercy upon all Turks,” as well as upon “Jews, Infidels, and Heretics.”138138    The words “all Jews, Turks, Infidels, and Heretics,” were inserted by the framers of the Prayer Book in the first edition (1547); the rest of the collect is translated from the old Latin service. In the middle ages the word “infidel” denoted a Mohammedan. The Mohammedans in turn call Christians, Jews, and all other religionists, “infidels” and “dogs.”

The danger for Western Christendom from that quarter has long since passed away; the “unspeakable” Turk has ceased to be unconquerable, but the Asiatic and a part of the East European portion of the Greek church are still subject to the despotic rule of the Sultan, whose throne in Constantinople has been for more than four hundred years a standing insult to Christendom.

Mohammedanism then figures as a hostile force, as a real Ishmaelite in church history; it is the only formidable rival which Christianity ever had, the only religion which for a while at least aspired to universal empire.

And yet it is not hostile only. It has not been without beneficial effect upon Western civilization. It aided in the development of chivalry; it influenced Christian architecture; it stimulated the study of mathematics, chemistry, medicine (as is indicated by the technical terms: algebra, chemistry, alchemy); and the Arabic translations and commentaries on Aristotle by the Spanish Moors laid the philosophical foundation of scholasticism. Even the conquest of Constantinople by the Turks brought an inestimable blessing to the West by driving Greek scholars with the Greek Testament to Italy to inaugurate there the revival of letters which prepared the way for the Protestant Reformation.

Viewed in its relation to the Eastern Church which it robbed of the fairest dominions, Mohammedanism was a well-deserved divine punishment for the unfruitful speculations, bitter contentions, empty ceremonialism and virtual idolatry which degraded and disgraced the Christianity of the East after the fifth century. The essence of true religion, love to God and to man, was eaten out by rancor and strife, and there was left no power of ultimate resistance to the foreign conqueror. The hatred between the orthodox Eastern church and the Eastern schismatics driven from her communion, and the jealousy between the Greek and Latin churches prevented them from aiding each other in efforts to arrest the progress of the common foe. The Greeks detested the Latin Filioque as a heresy more deadly than Islâm; while the Latins cared more for the supremacy of the Pope than the triumph of Christianity, and set up during the Crusades a rival hierarchy in the East. Even now Greek and Latin monks in Bethlehem and Jerusalem are apt to fight at Christmas and Easter over the cradle and the grave of their common Lord and Redeemer, unless Turkish soldiers keep them in order!139139    Archbishop Trench, l.c. p. 54: “We can regard Mohammedanism in no other light than as a scourge of God upon a guilty church. He will not give his glory to another. He will not suffer the Creator and the creature to be confounded; and if those who should have been witnesses for the truth, who had been appointed thereunto, forsake, forget, or deny it, He will raise up witnesses from quarters the most unlooked for, and will strengthen their hands and give victory to their arms even against those who bear his name, but have forgotten his truth.” Similarly Dr. Jessup, l.c. p. 14: “The Mohammedan religion arose, in the providence of God, as a scourge to the idolatrous Christianity, and the pagan systems of Asia and Africa—a protest against polytheism, and a preparation for the future conversion to a pure Christianity of the multitude who have fallen under its extraordinary power.” Carlyle calls the creed of Mohammed “a kind of Christianity better than that of those miserable Syrian Sects with the head full of worthless noise, the heart empty and dead. The truth of it is imbedded in portentous error and falsehood; but the truth makes it to be believed, not the falsehood: it succeeded by its truth. A bastard kind of Christianity, but a living kind; with a heart-life in it; not dead, chopping, barren logic merely.”

But viewed in relation to the heathenism from which it arose or which it converted, Mahommedanism is a vast progress, and may ultimately be a stepping-stone to Christianity, like the law of Moses which served as a schoolmaster to lead men to the gospel. It has destroyed the power of idolatry in Arabia and a large part of Asia and Africa, and raised Tartars and Negroes from the rudest forms of superstition to the belief and worship of the one true God, and to a certain degree of civilization.

It should be mentioned, however, that, according to the testimony of missionaries and African travelers, Mohammedanism has inflamed the simple minded African tribes with the impure fire of fanaticism and given them greater power of resistance to Christianity. Sir William Muir, a very competent judge, thinks that Mohammedanism by the poisoning influence of polygamy and slavery, and by crushing all freedom of judgment in religion has interposed the most effectual barrier against the reception of Christianity. “No system,” he says, “could have been devised with more consummate skill for shutting out the nations over which it has sway, from the light of truth. Idolatrous Arabs might have been aroused to spiritual life and to the adoption of the faith of Jesus; Mahometan Arabia is, to the human eye, sealed against the benign influences of the gospel .... The sword of Mahomet and the Coran are the most fatal enemies of civilization, liberty, and truth.”140140    Life of Mahomet, IV. 321, 322.

This is no doubt true of the past. But we have not yet seen the end of this historical problem. It is not impossible that Islâm may yet prove to be a necessary condition for the revival of a pure Scriptural religion in the East. Protestant missionaries from England and America enjoy greater liberty under the Mohammedan rule than they would under a Greek or Russian government. The Mohammedan abhorrence of idolatry and image worship, Mohammedan simplicity and temperance are points of contact with the evangelical type of Christianity, which from the extreme West has established flourishing missions in the most important parts of Turkey. The Greek Church can do little or nothing with the Mohammedans; if they are to be converted it must be done by a Christianity which is free from all appearance of idolatry, more simple in worship, and more vigorous in life than that which they have so easily conquered and learned to despise. It is an encouraging fact that Mohammedans have, great respect for the Anglo-Saxon race. They now swear by the word of an Englishman as much as by the beard of Mohammed.

Islâm is still a great religious power in the East. It rules supreme in Syria, Palestine, Asia Minor, Egypt, North Africa, and makes progress among the savage tribes in the interior of the Dark Continent. It is by no means simply, as Schlegel characterized the system, “a prophet without miracles, a faith without mysteries, and a morality without love.” It has tenacity, aggressive vitality and intense enthusiasm. Every traveller in the Orient must be struck with the power of its simple monotheism upon its followers. A visit to the Moslem University in the Mosque El Azhar at Cairo is very instructive. It dates from the tenth century (975), and numbers (or numbered in 1877, when I visited it) no less than ten thousand students who come from all parts of the Mohammedan world and present the appearance of a huge Sunday School, seated in small groups on the floor, studying the Koran as the beginning and end of all wisdom, and then at the stated hours for prayer rising to perform their devotions under the lead of their teachers. They live in primitive simplicity, studying, eating and sleeping on a blanket or straw mat in the same mosque, but the expression of their faces betrays the fanatical devotion to their creed. They support themselves, or are aided by the alms of the faithful. The teachers (over three hundred) receive no salary and live by private instruction or presents from rich scholars.

Nevertheless the power of Islâm, like its symbol, the moon, is disappearing before the sun of Christianity which is rising once more over the Eastern horizon. Nearly one-third of its followers are under Christian (mostly English) rule. It is essentially a politico-religious system, and Turkey is its stronghold. The Sultan has long been a “sick man,” and owes his life to the forbearance and jealousy of the Christian powers. Sooner or later he will be driven out of Europe, to Brusa or Mecca. The colossal empire of Russia is the hereditary enemy of Turkey, and would have destroyed her in the wars of 1854 and 1877, if Catholic France and Protestant England had not come to her aid. In the meantime the silent influences of European civilization and Christian missions are undermining the foundations of Turkey, and preparing the way for a religious, moral and social regeneration and transformation of the East. “God’s mills grind slowly, but surely and wonderfully fine.” A thousand years before Him are as one day, and one day may do the work of a thousand years.



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