The Second Object of the Parent Theosophical Society founded in 1875, was the study of ancient and modern religions, philosophies and sciences, and the demonstration of the importance of such study. In order to detect the vital principles common to all religions and thus do away with sectarianism and exclusiveness, a mind free from preconceptions and a tolerant heart are necessary. To evaluate a faith correctly, one should study its original scriptures, applying to them the touchstone of common sense, logical reasoning, and knowledge and appreciation of the great truths common to all faiths, ancient and modern.
Religion per se is Spiritual Knowledge, that true bond which could unite all men together. False religion, false knowledge, separates man from man, by accentuating unimportant temporary differences.
In evaluating the importance of Mohammed and his teachings in the religious and social history of the world, it should be remembered that his system was chiefly influenced by Judaism and Christianity. He drew upon these to illustrate his teachings, because the men and women of his day were familiar with their terms.
In the Koran, one finds some concepts which are constructive and ennobling, reiterations of great principles common to all the great religious movements. To judge of the value of the contribution of Islam from this basis alone, however, would be only a partial appraisement of it. It must be recalled that the Arabia to which Mohammed came had almost no social code. Its traditional religion was worship of the personified powers of Nature and of the Sun, as evidenced by the many idols in the Kaaba. The Arabians' ancient moral teachings had become submerged in debased and superstitious ceremonials. Their old religion had behind it the traditions of a high degree of culture, but the culture to which Mohammed came was illiterate in the modern sense. Mohammed brought to a backward people a conception of the One Life, the Universal Force, or the One God, Allah—the Great Breath, contained in and energizing all things. He offered them a code of social conduct and common-sense laws that could be comprehended and accepted by them at their cultural level, thus enabling them to advance out of the darkness into which they had fallen.
Max Müller, in his introduction to the translation of the Koran in the Sacred Books of the East Series, describes the Arabs thus:
Brave and chivalrous, the Arab was always ready to defend the stranger who claimed his protection, while he would stand by a member of his own clan and defend him with his life, whether he were right or wrong....They were generous and hospitable to a fault....Pride of birth was their passion, and poetry they greatest delight....But their vices were as conspicuous as their virtues, and drunkenness, gambling, and the grossest immorality were very prevalent among them....Cruel, and superstitious too, they were; and amongst the inhuman customs which Mohammed swept away, none is more revolting than that commonly practised by them, of burying their female children alive....The position of women amongst them was not an elevated one....As for government they had, virtually, none.
Before beginning a more detailed study of some of Mohammed's teachings, let us review some of the outstanding events in the Prophet's life.
We have to depend on Muslim chroniclers for the little we know of Mohammed's early years. He was born in 570 A.D. in the tribe of the Quraish, members of which were the hereditary guardians of the Kaaba in Mecca, around which the ancient culture of the Arabian people had been built up by the Ishmaelites. He was early left an orphan and was brought up by his uncle, the powerful and respected Abu Talib. By temperament he was serious, thoughtful and sensitive. He lived a reserved life of exceptional rectitude and nobility. In his dealings with others he was straightforward and outstandingly honest, so that he earned for himself the title of "Al-Ameen," or "the Trusty." Not even the bitterest of Mohammed's opponents in later years could point to a blemish in his personal character and conduct. He travelled widely with trading caravans, visiting Basra at the age of 12, and other cities later. During these journeys he must have learned much of the religious philosophies of the Jews, the Persians, the early Christians, the Egyptians and the Greeks. It is said that the persecuted Gnostics gave the Arabs a knowledge of Greek philosophy. The Nestorians made them acquainted with the Neo-Platonic writers and the persecuted Jews instructed them in the Kabala.
The Nestorian Christians, many of whom had taken refuge in Arabia, seem to have greatly influenced Mohammed; particularly by their aversion to idolatry and their revolt against the carnalized Trinity of the orthodox Christian Church.
When 25 years old, Mohammed entered the service of a rich widow, Khadija, whom he later married. After his marriage, through his wife's elderly cousin Waraqa, he came in closer contact with a small group of thoughtful people in Mecca who called themselves "Hanifa," "the rightly inclined." These people may be considered as the Theosophists of those days: searchers for truth and students of philosophies and religions. They were familiar with the systems of the Jews, the early Christians, the Essenes, the Greek, the Syrian and the Abyssinian Christian Churches; they practised meditation, asceticism, devotion to truth and harmlessness or non-violence. They sought to bring about a return to the original Semitic religion of Abraham, and held that man could achieve salvation only through Islam, or submission to the will of the Universal Spirit called by them the One God, ALLAH. For example, we find in the Koran: "Lo! Religion with Allah is Surrender [to His will and guidance]."
Mohammed frequently retired to a secluded cave in the mountains outside Mecca for long periods of fasting and meditation. It is recorded that he was sometimes so weakened by fasting and the exertion of his search and meditation on the iniquities of his people, of which he was deeply aware, that he was overpowered physically, and occasionally lost consciousness. During one of these spells, when he was about 40 years old, an Angel holding a scroll is said to have appeared to him in a vision, and commanded him to read a passage from the heavenly book:
Read! for thy Lord is the most beneficent, who hath taught thee the use of the pen, who hath taught man that which he knew not. Nay, truly man is deeply plunged in wickedness because he finds himself attached to wealth. Verily unto the Lord is the return of all things. (Sura XCVI)
Rushing home in frenzy, Mohammed told his wife of this experience. What did it mean? Was he possessed? Was it authentic? Khadija urged him to believe the evidence of his vision and accept the command from the messenger of Allah; since, surely, because of his blameless and noble life, Allah would not permit him to be oppressed by an evil spirit. In spite of these assurances, Mohammed continued to doubt, and in the agony of his mind, he is said to have even contemplated suicide. After two or three years of this uncertainty, the vision appeared a second time, and in a similar fashion commanded him to reveal the truth about the One God, and to be His mouthpiece in the instruction of the Arabs in the ways of righteousness. After this, he doubted no more and began with confidence his appointed work.
He gained followers first from within his own household and then from among his friends. Many of his supporters were drawn from the youth, the poor and the slaves of the city. Soon a small community was formed which professed and practised Hanif teachings. Mohammed thus did not found a new religion, but rather attempted to reform an existing one which had become corrupted. He had little to say that was new. His first "Revelations," delivered impersonally, proclaimed monotheism; One God, who required one-pointedness in worship, self-surrender, obedience, temperance, prayer, charity and non-violence. What Mohammed brought to these old teachings was his enthusiasm and his intense earnestness.
His fellow citizens looked upon him with disfavour because of his preaching against their licentious ways of life. It would seem that as a result of this, his preaching became more personal, threatening those who rejected his teachings with the disfavour of Allah. Further, he directly attacked the old tribal worship of many gods and goddesses and thus incurred the anger of the powerful and orthodox Meccans.
Until 620 A.D., when he was 50 years of age, Mohammed was under the powerful protection of his uncle Abu Talib and, though subjected to daily insults from his enemies in Mecca, he was not physically attacked, though some of his followers had been cruelly treated and found their lives in danger. Some of these fled across the Red Sea to Abyssinia, finding protection with the Abyssinian Christians.
In that same year, both his faithful wife Khadija and his uncle died. Bereft of their encouragement and protection, Mohammed, after struggling on for a time, almost decided that his cause in Mecca was hopeless. At this time of despair he received encouragement from a group of people from the city of Yathrib (Medina) who were visiting Mecca on pilgrimage. They were interested in, and sympathetic with, his teachings. For those who wanted to become his disciples he then formulated a pledge: to associate no material thing with God, to be honest, not to seek the unjust acquirement of others' goods, to be chaste, not to kill newborn infants, to avoid slander and calumny, and to obey Mohammed in everything that was right. The pilgrims returned home to Medina and, when their solicitations for support there had been sufficiently fruitful to ensure success, the Islamic community of Mecca made a secret exodus in 622 A.D.
Mohammed and Abu Bakr, his close friend, escaped together. Once, when danger approached very near, old Abu Bakr lost faith and feared for them. "We are but two," said he. "Nay," answered Mohammed, "we are three, for God is with us." In this spirit they overcame their difficulties. From this flight, called the Hejira, the Muslim era dates.
In Medina rapid success attended Mohammed's efforts. There, under the stress of circumstances, he was not only the religious leader but became also the ruler and general of his followers. He set an example of frugality and abstinence, hard work, justice, friendliness and an unbroken devotion to his mission. War was made against Medina by the infuriated Meccans who desired to exterminate the Muslims. As a general, Mohammed proved himself wise. History records that he was just to friend and foe alike and forgiving and tolerant to the vanquished.
Some of his declarations, issued in time of stress, might lead one to believe that he advocated violence and extreme measures in war. But side by side with these are exhortations to mildness, forgiveness and mercy.
Fight in the way of Allah against those who fight against you, but begin no hostilities. Lo! Allah loveth not aggressors.
We should not forget the fiery and warlike nature of the people to whom Mohammed came and whose unrestrained violence had laid Arabia waste with fratricidal wars for centuries. Through his teachings the tribes were welded together, but at no time did he preach any kind of religious conversion through fear, oppression, injustice, or war.
Converts to Islam increased and, when Mohammed finally advanced on Mecca shortly before his death, with a large number of followers, the city submitted peacefully to him. He forgave all the unjust and harsh treatment to which he and his followers had been subjected, letting the power of his tolerance and non-revengefulness turn the hearts of his enemies to an appreciation of Islam, which many freely embraced.
History records that all the battles fought by the early Muslims under Mohammed were of a defensive nature. Resistance by arms was resorted to only after the greatest provocation, or attack upon the community. But short is the path from defensive war to offensive war, when passions are aroused. After the Prophet's death, Islam became a strong, self-confident faith with a hostile attitude on the part of many towards non-Muslims. Forgotten were the Prophet's teachings that:
The ink of the scholar is more holy than the blood of the martyr. (Sayings of Mohammed, p. 94)
And in the Koran:
There is no compulsion in religion. (Sura II, 256)
(To be concluded)
Here is the test of wisdom,