A Celebration of Women Writers

"The Faith of Islam." by Mrs. Laura H. Clark.
Publication: Eagle, Mary Kavanaugh Oldham, ed. The Congress of Women: Held in the Woman's Building, World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, U. S. A., 1893. Chicago, Ill: Monarch Book Company, 1894. pp. 512-515.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

[Page 512] 



I hope that my brief talk today on the "Faith of Islam" or "Mohammedism" may not be devoid of interest and profit. I shall purposely refrain from much allusion to Mohammed biographically. I prefer to speak of him as a reformer, coming into the world at a date peculiarly ripe for instituting and successfully prosecuting such radical and blessed reforms as his. I will sketch, superficially of course, the prominent doctrines of the sacred book of Islam, the Koran, referring to the debt the world owes the mighty power of the desert reformer. Another word, Islam or Mohammedism is greatly changed from its early days; it is sadly degenerated. We must charge the condition of countries under its sway not to their religion but to its abuse, and to evils inherent in the Tartar and other races. We might recall also that Christianity itself was once so corrupt as to need a great purification–the Reformation.

Within the memory of many, Mohammed has only been regarded as a monster, a sort of diabolic warrior whose precepts are written in blood and whose followers must needs be the very incarnation of cruelty. To this I reply that conquerors have ever been cruel, and religious wars the most bitterly relentless the world has ever known. Witness the expulsion of the inhabitants of Canaan by the Jews, as well as the wars in Africa, Asia and Europe, following the establishment of Christianity down almost to our own century.

(At first those opposed to Islam in war were indiscriminately slain, afterward three offers were made: First, to embrace Islam and enjoy equal privileges with their conquerors; second, to submit to tribute and retain their own religion should it not be exceedingly idolatrous or immoral; third, to decide the contest by the sword. See Joshua's conditions to the Canaanites–"Let him fly who will, let him surrender who will, let him fight who will.")

But the world moves, and in this year of the World's Columbian Exposition, and just preceding the Parliament of Religions, Mohammed is recognized as a mighty leader for good, a benefactor for the race, perhaps the most remarkable human character the world has ever known.

At the time of Mohammed's birth incessant warfare had raged for many years between the great empires of Rome and Persia. Arabia, lying between them, was held by one, then by the other. The wild Arab tribes had drawn religious ideas from Pagan, Rome, and the fire-worshiping Persian. They knew something, too, of the Jewish faith, for after the destruction of Jerusalem, Jewish colonies had settled throughout Arabia. The Old Testament Scriptures had been translated into Arabic, so that the purer ideas of Monotheism and Christianity were not unknown to them. It can occasion no sur- [Page 513]  prise that the religion of the Arabs was a mongrel one, sadly straying from the precepts of Abraham, their great ancestor. They worshiped in their sacred city, Mecca, surrounded by scores of revolting idols, a holy black stone called the "Kaaba," believed to be a relic of a temple built by Abraham; this was a shrine for devout pilgrims. But the hour was ripe for beneficent change. A mighty spirit appeared who could unite these warring tribes into a powerful nation; his teachings should inspire them into purer life; his daring enthusiasm should endue them with courage to overturn the nations of the earth.

In Mecca, 570 A. D., was born a posthumous child, who was reared in the desert until five years old, when the frequent occurrence of epileptic attacks (always regarded with superstitious fears among the Arabs) determined his return to his mother. I mention this fact because many have ascribed to this nervous disease the religious exaltations and so-called visions of Mohammed.

His youth and early manhood passed uneventfully. For forty years he was a faithful worshiper of the gods of his fathers, yet growing yearly more abstracted, dejected, frequently retiring to pass months in solitary fasting and prayer. Whilst in wretched suspense, meditating self-murder, the Divine call was heard. Through Gabriel, dazzling with supreme glory, the heavenly message came. "Oh, Mohammed, of a truth thou art the prophet of God; arise, preach, and magnify the Lord." This is the real starting-point of Islam. It was the call of the supreme God to forsake idolatry and assume the office of prophet.

I must pass over the long years of weary effort to win disciples. Four years draw but forty around him. During the yearly pilgrimage season he preached constantly; his theme–"There is no God but God, and Mohammed is his prophet." He exorted to prayer, almsgiving and fasting, and declared of future judgments to come. When seventy disciples had been won persecutions began with the usual results. Converts multiplied rapidly, and the "Hegira," or flight from Mecca, followed.

Mohammed's penetrating mind realized well human weakness. To keep his followers firm in their purer religious faith he formulated a creed and gave positive precepts for the actions of every day. So was Moses instructed of God to train the Jews. Through minute practical details they were transformed from a rabble of superstitious slaves into brave, God-fearing, free men. So likewise the founders of great orders in the Christian church, Ignatius Loyala, Dominic, Francis of Assisi, etc., each instituted a minute code of rules for the practical life of their followers.

The principles of Islam's faith are essentially orthodox–"Faith and Works." Faith is defined as "confession with the mouth and belief in the heart." "There is no God but God, and Mohammed is his prophet." Their creed was brief: "I believe in God, angels, books, prophets, the day of judgment, the predestination of evil and the resurrection of the dead."

The devotion of the Mohammedan to the Koran is intense, its authority is absolute in science, ethics and religion. Lest by chance they shall touch its sacred pages unwashed they inscribe upon its cover: "Let none touch it, but they who are clean." They guard it with care and such respect, never holding it below their girdles. They carry the precious book with them to war, inscribe its precepts upon their floating banners, on the walls of their homes and tombs of their loved ones, in gold and precious jewels. Let me quote this little gem, from the Koran, often called the "Lord's prayer of the Moslem."

"In the name of God the compassionate compassioner. Praise is to God, the Lord of the worlds, the compassionate compassioner, the Sovereign of the day of judgment. Thee we do worship, and of Thee we do beg assistance. Direct us in the right way, in the way of those to whom Thou hast been gracious, on whom there is no wrath who go not astray."

The moral motive of Islam is a solemn sense of implicit obedience and submission to the Divine Ruler–the very name Islam expresses "resigned to the will of [Page 514]  God." The ethics of the Koran are essentially those of the New Testament. Our Saviour was held in highest reverence as an inspired prophet, His benign precepts are incorporated therein, thus: "He is righteous who believeth in God and who for love of God shares his wealth with the needy, who observeth prayer, is faithful to promises, patient under hardships and quiet in seasons of distress." "Deal not unjustly with others and ye shall suffer no injustice." "Scorn not thy fellow-man, neither walk the earth with pride, for God loveth not the arrogant and boastful." (Sir William Muir asserts that to this day devout Mussulmen never mention the Saviour's name without adding "on whom be peace." "Say unto the Christians, their God and my God is one." The Koran.)

Mohammed fully realized the inherent evils in polygamy and slavery, and though their practices are recognized in the Koran, he greatly alleviated the wrongs of both. The impositions he placed upon polygamy were a great advance upon the unrestrained licentiousness before prevalent. The legal number of a man's wives was reduced to four. These limitations Mohammed relaxed in his own case, not, however it is believed, through grossness, but because of intense desire for male heirs. The transmission of wives as chattels was forbidden, and the rights of a woman to share in her father's or husband's estate declared.

Slavery had always existed in a mild form in Arabia. Mohammed did much to ameliorate its evils. Slavery and polygamy should not be associated with Islam any more than with Christianity. Both Moses and Mohammed took the institutions of their people as they found them and sought to mitigate their severest features. (Have not Christians tried to justify human slavery in this century, in our own land?) The vices most prevalent in Arabia were sternly denounced and absolutely forbidden. Drunkenness, female infanticide, incestuous marriages, gambling, art of divination and magic entirely disappeared. (What efforts is nineteenth-century Christendom making against the alarming growth of gambling?) Mohammed solved the "temperance question" for his people. Neither "high license" nor "low license" vexed his soul; he was a strict Prohibitionist. All pictures or representatives of living objects were wisely prohibited, being considered a violation of the second commandment. (Mohammed recognized the authority of the Pentateuch, psalms, etc.)

The four acts or duties of faith are "prayer, fasting, alms-giving and the pilgrimage." "Cleanliness," says the prophet, "is the key to prayer." Minute rules for ablutions before prayer were given. The entire body was to be washed daily, parts of it oftener–all the while appropriate prayers were repeated. Thus "I am going to purify my bodily uncleanliness, preparatory to commencing prayer, that holy act of duty which draws my soul near to God. In the name of God, great and mighty, praise be to Him who has given me grace to be a Moslem. Islam is a truth, infidelity a falsehood." When cleansing the teeth: "Vouchsafe, O Lord, as I cleanse my teeth, to purify me from all fault and accept my homage. May the purity of my teeth be a pledge of the whiteness of my soul at the day of judgment," and so on throughout the entire body.

The third duty was that of fasting. The Koran prescribes the month "Ramadan" as a very strict fast. (This fast is so strictly enjoined that it is broken if they but smell a perfume, take a bath or injection, or purposely swallow spittle, kiss or touch a woman. Some devout Moslems will not open their mouths to speak lest they breathe the air too freely.) The command is, "from sunrise to sunset neither food nor drink might pass the lips." In the course of time, the Mohammedan year being lunar, "Ramadan" falls in the midst of summer, and necessitates real suffering in the hot countries of Arabia and the East.

Almsgiving, the third duty, is obligatory. One-tenth of a man's income was devoted to the poor.

The last duty was the pilgrimage to Mecca. This was enjoined at least once in a lifetime. Those dying on the way were considered as martyrs. Each step toward Mecca blotted out a sin. [Page 515] 

What does the world not owe to Islam during the dark ages? For full five hundred years Islam bravely bore up the torch of learning to the world. Let us glance at Spain where, under a fortunate succession of Caliph's literature, arts and sciences blossomed into a perfection before unknown. The Arabs collected, translated, and preserved for us the masterpieces of Greek thought, who advanced upon the generosity of Euclid, who developed agriculture and astronomy into sciences. They were noted too for their philosophical lore. Universities existed in all their large cities, Cordova, Granada, Seville, with immense libraries attached, where lectures on classics, rhetoric, mathematics, and other sciences were constantly given. Encyclopædias and lexicons in Hebrew, Greek and Latin were written. Jews and Christians alike presided with Moslems, a degree of toleration unknown in Continental Europe today. So favorable were all their conditions that all Christendom desiring learning and refined surroundings sought to enter there. The Arabs were the introducers of rhyme, their poetry crossed the Pyrenees and reappeared in the Troubadors of Provence which is today recognized as the first impulse of European literature. All mathematical computations were revolutionized by their invention of the nine digits and cipher. While all Christendom was declaring the world was flat, the Arabs were teaching geography by the use of globes. Every mosque was a public school where the poor were gratuitously taught the Koran and elements of education.

In the practical arts our benefits are as great. They gave us the use of gunpowder, artillery and mariners compass. They introduced rice, sugar and many of our fine garden and orchard fruits and our medicinal herbs. To them Spain owes the culture of silk and the celebrity of its wines. Irrigation was brought by them with the manufacture of all sorts of fabrics, rugs, cambrics, silks and cottons for wearing apparel, earthenware, iron, steel and all metal work of every description. (Professor Draper may be consulted for further facts upon this subject.)

Such was the record of Mohammedanism in Western Europe, such its luxury, splendor and knowledge, such are a few only of Christendom's debts to it and which with strange injustice Christendom is loth to acknowledge.

Finally, Islam is essentially a spiritual religion. As instituted by Mohammed it needed no priests and had no sacrifices, it offers no theories of Apostolic succession, gives no powers of absolution. Absolutely nothing intervenes between each human soul and God. Forbidding alike the representation of all living things as objects of admiration, veneration or worship, Islam is more opposed to idolatry than Christianity itself. The interior of every mosque bears witness to this.

Shall the world longer deny Mahomet his true place in history? He exalted and purified his own nation and the age in which he lived. His precepts have brought comfort and benefactions to unnumbered millions. Surely his name should be forever enrolled not as one worthy only of "hero-worship," but as a benefactor deserving the immeasurable gratitude of mankind.

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Mrs. Laura H. Clark is descended from French-Huguenot stock which emigrated to South Carolina in the earliest years of our country. She was educated at Cincinnati and has been a considerable traveler in our own country and Europe. She has always been a student of religions, and is also much interested in art, literature and ethnology. In religious training and profession Mrs. Clark is a Presbyterian. She has resided in Chicago for twenty-two years. Her postoffice address is No. 318 Belden Avenue, Chicago, Ill.


Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

This chapter has been put on-line as part of the BUILD-A-BOOK Initiative at the
Celebration of Women Writers.
Initial text entry and proof-reading of this chapter were the work of volunteer
Mary Hitchcock.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom