Duncan Black Macdonald

You may remember how Robertson of Brighton used to say, speaking of his sermons and their inspiration, "I cannot light my own fire; I must convey a spark from another's hearth." The same idea and the same expression occur in Islam. Muhammad, following the usage and speech of the desert, tells (Qur'an, xx, 10, xxvii, 7) how Moses left his family and went aside to the Burning Bush to seek from it a brand, a qabas, for their own fire. Thence iqtibas, "brand-seeking," persists in the rhetorical language of Islam, for such borrowing of fire from predecessors. Permit me, then having both Christian and Muslim authority, to quote, by way of text for these lectures, a couple of sentences from Mr. William James' Varieties of Religious Experience, that give very precisely the thesis which I propose to set before you as illustrated in Islam. At the beginning of his third lecture, when approaching the broad question of the reality of the Unseen, he says:

Were one asked to characterize the life of religion in the broadest and most general terms possible, one might say that it consists of the belief that there is an unseen order, and that out supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto. This belief and this adjustment are the religious attitude in the soul.

This religious attitude, then as developed in Islam, I desire to put before you now. With some danger of cross-division it can be analyzed into three points: first, the reality of the Unseen, of a background to life, unattainable to our physical senses; second, man's relationship to this Unseen as to faith and insight therein; that is, the whole emotional religious life ranging, at the simplest, from a prayerful attitude and a sense of God's presence to the open vision of the mystic with all its complicated theological consequences; and, lastly, the discipline of the traveler on his way to such direct knowledge of the divine, and during his life in it. My training in the schools of philosophy is of the slenderest, but I think I see in these three a metaphysical, a psychological, and an ethical side to our inquiry. Let me beg your indulgence, however, if my philosophical footing ever slips. I am neither metaphysician, psychologist, nor ethicist; I am simply a student of Arabic and of Islam who desires to suggest to those who are metaphysicians, psychologists, and ethicists some of the problems which lie for their science in that vast and so broadly unknown territory. Regard me, then, as a traveler who brings back from far wanderings but partially assorted and understood gatherings, which scientific geographers, botanists zoologists, may further examine and classify. That these will repay the trouble may, I think, be taken for granted by those who consider that in them has lain the faith for life and death of millions of the world's best minds during twelve centuries of time and over a quarter of the earth in space. It is surely worth our while to turn some little of our attention from the so often childish speculations of Indian sages, and see what contributions have been made to the final problems of time and eternity by races far more nearly akin to us in thought, if not in language.

But from this captatio benevolentiae let me return. What, first is to be said on the reality of the Unseen in Islam? What part does that world play; how close is it; what is its relationship to the everyday life of Muslims? How do Muslims think of it? Over this, the reality and nature, for Islam, of the Unseen we must spend some little time. The Muslim attitude is so different from our trodden paths of thought and experience that only a patient turning of all side and an accumulation of example and illustration can make it real to us. I shall have to ask your indulgence for much simple translating in what follows. You want the views of the Muslim writers and thinkers as they have rendered them, and not any lucubrations of mine.

It is plain, I think, and admitted that the conception of the Unseen is much more immediate and real to the Oriental than to the western peoples. I use these two terms in the broadest fashion. But the cause is by no means so plain, and upon it much shipwreck has been made by ingenious students of race and race characteristics. There are also, on both sides, large modifying elements which seem, from time to time, almost to upset the general law. If we say that the Semitic peoples, as a race, believe in and bow in reverence to an Unseen, we may be met by the curious skepticism of the Arabs themselves, a skepticism which nearly baffled Muhammad, and which appears at the present day more or less through the entire desert. The Arabs show themselves not as especially easy of belief, but as hard-headed, materialistic, questioning, doubting, scoffing at their own superstitions and usages, fond of test of the supernatural - tempting God, in a word - and all this in a curiously light-minded, almost childish fashion. They had diviners, it is true, as we shall see hereafter, and were ruled partly by their guidance, but these had always to be prepared to permit tests of their powers and to be regarded with general suspicion. Nothing for the Arab succeeded like success, as Muhammad discovered, and there was no balance of faith to carry them over the cracks in the supernatural scheme. They demanded of Muhammad signs, and their ideas of signs were of the crudest, most non-spiritual description; the Jews in their most trying days, had not the same blindness as these Arabs for non-material things. On the other side, take Europe and faith as developed there. We find everywhere, and again and again, the possibility and the actuality of just such absolute acquiescence in and acceptance of an immediately impinging unseen world, which we commonly ascribe to the devout East. Hereafter, I shall have to tell you many tales, queer to grotesqueness, simple to childishness, devout to ecstasy, marvelous to madness, or oriental saints and their vicissitudes, but I venture to say that you can parallel them all, down to details, in the Legenda Aurea of Jacobus a Voragine, archbishop of Genoa in the late thirteenth century.

Take, for example, the fastidiousness as to their place or burial so often exhibited by saints after their death. The very same trick on their part of making their bier so heavy that it could not be lifted until the bearers had decided to grant them their will is found in the hagiology of both East and West, and several times in the Legenda Aurea1. And further, it was not the West, but the supposedly devout East, which fell on the cynical counter-trick of spinning the bier round rapidly until the saint lost his sense of direction and did not know whither he was being carried.

Again, take the case of al-Ghazzali, perhaps the greatest constructive theologian in the Muslim church, who died A.D. 1111. He, as I trust we shall see in more detail hereafter, had to fight against unbelief of the most absolute during his whole life. In his earlier days it was in himself. At one time he touched the depth of complete skepticism and doubted even the operations of his own mind and the axioms of reason. And when, in the light of the mystic, he was able to see his own way again, he found the mass of the people round him slipping into similar unbelief. The creeds had broken down; the law of Islam was no longer respected; its divine origin was criticized or doubted; the nature and reality of prophecy were questioned. It was his work to build up again the breaches in the Muslim Zion, and that Islam exists still is largely due to him. It would be easy to add other testimonies. In Islam, as in Christendom, he who seeks the ages of faith looks ever backward.

The truth is, I am persuaded, that we commonly regard this acknowledged difference between East and West from the wrong point and are governed by the wrong word. It is not really faith that is in question here, but knowledge; it is not the attitude to God, but the attitude to law. The essential difference in the oriental mind is not credulity as to unseen things, but inability to construct a system as to seen things. It has been well said, that the Oriental has the most astonishing keenness in viewing, grasping, analyzing a single point, and, when he has finished with that point, can take up a series of others in the same way. But these points remain for him separate; he does no co-ordinate them. They may be contradictory; that does not trouble him. When he constructs systems - as he often does - it is by taking a single point and spinning everything out of it; not by taking many points and building them up together. Thus, he may criticize one point and be quite indifferent to the consequent necessity, for us, at least, of criticizing other points. A good enough example is the oriental method, which I have just mentioned, of thwarting a saint's caprice as to his place of burial. There is no great devoutness of feeling there; no awe at the breaking in of the Unseen, and at their nearness to the direct working of God. There is simply the fact of this obstinate, if deceased saint, and, "Well, we'll try to rattle him," as we may imagine them saying in the slang of the bazaar. Familiarity breeds contempt. The supernatural, to them, is the familiar - the usual; only it is not subject to law, and they never dream that it can be. The most they can do is to set their wits against it in detail.

Start, then, with this, that the difference in the Oriental is not essentially religiosity, but the lack of the sense of law. For him, there is no immovable order of nature. "The army of unalterable law" which we see in the heavens for him may change and pass. There is no necessity in themselves why the things that have been should be the things that will be. You will remember that even Ecclesiastes looks beyond them and finds his unchanging circling fixed by the will of God. So, at every turn, the Oriental is confronted by the possibility of unforetellable, unrationalizable difference. He is like a man who opens his mouth to speak, but utters what he would not, and cannot utter what he would. We would call it aphasia and construct another law. He recognized that God has created for him other words than he intended, instead of the words he did intend. It would be God's creation in either case. We feel vaguely that there is a divine event and element in the world, but it is far off. A deep, and for our experience, impenetrable shell separates us from that event and element. That shell, we find, is subject to law; we can depend upon its action and reaction. We have never pierced beyond it, and are tolerably sure that we never shall; that we shall always find it, however far we go; that it is all the world for us. But to the Oriental, this shell is the merest film. The strict theologian of Islam would tell him that there was no such shell at all; that all action and reaction spring from the immediate will of God. This, probably, would be too hard a doctrine for the wayfaring man in Islam, but he is very well assured of the thinness of the shell. He knows that the supernatural has often peered through it at him. Our ghost-stories and strange experiences are everyday things for him which he never dreams of investigating, for he never doubts them. Our investigations are really attempts to bring these things under law; at that, he would simply shrug his shoulders.

This being so, it is evident that anything is possible to the Oriental. The supernatural is so near that it may touch him at any moment. There is no surprise; and therefore there is need, in verification, of a small test only. In the case of our investigators of occult phenomena, spiritism and the like, the trouble is that no test, however complete, is really enough. There must be something wrong, is our attitude. But even the heathen Arabs, light minded and materialistic as they were, accepted their soothsayer, if he told them any single thing which they were assured he could not know of himself. That he was a soothsayer was not for them a practically unthinkable idea. Give them good evidence, such as they would accept in ordinary life, and they would accept anything. There are some things that we, in the fetters of our sense of law, cannot accept. And when the Oriental has once been thus touched, once had an impulse, however mysterious, in a certain direction, there may be no limits to the results. For example, it has been a favorite subject for argument, about it and about, how much the personality of Muhammad had to do in the Muslim movement; how much Islam is his individual creation, or merely a product of his times and circumstances. The fact is, I suspect, that the Arabs were just in this state of unstable equilibrium. His personality was strong enough to convince them - a sufficient number, at least, of them - that the shell had broken and the supernatural had come near. Once start, then, the idea that this man is a messenger from God and that his words are the words of God, and the oriental mind would carry it out to its utmost limits. A theory of all things in heaven and earth would be developed from this single idea. Other things might not agree with it; they would simply be left aside. The Oriental feels no need to explain everything; he simply ignores the incompatible; and he does so conscientiously, for he sees only one thing at a time. This is not deduction; it is eduction. The idea is an egg from which a complete explanation of life is hatched. For example, once given the idea of Muhammad, it was not long before the Muslim mind reached the persuasion that he must have been the first of all creatures, created before all worlds, existent from the beginning of time - we have exactly the Arian doctrine of the person of Christ. Further, the fact of him became so over-powering that in a tradition Allah is made to declare: "Had it not been for thee, I had not created the worlds."

Inability, then, to see life steadily, and see it whole, to understand a theory of life must cover all the facts, and liability to be stampeded by a single idea and blinded to everything else - therein, I believe, is the difference between the East and the West.

But I have detained you too long over my own speculations, uncertain in much, probably erroneous in much. The certain thing in it all is the thinness of the shell which separates the Oriental from the Unseen. I turn, then, to the standard breakages in the shell, which Islam recognizes.

These may be roughly classified as follows, though the divisions, I fear, will be found often to cross: prophets, diviners, magic and talismans, appearances of the Jinn, dream, saints.

First, then, Prophets and prophecy. Here I can begin on familiar ground. The Hebrews, a Bedawi tribe which abandoned the desert and turned, more or less, to the agricultural life, exhibit the essential characteristics of Arab prophetism. Nowhere does their unity with Arabia come out more strongly and yet nowhere is the essential difference of the religiosity of the Hebrew more marked. Such a figure as Elijah, so far, at least, as the Old Testament has preserved for us his legend, must have appeared again and again in the earlier desert, and certainly did among the saints of Islam. The schools of Sons of the Prophets of which from time to time we have fleeting glimpses can be exactly paralleled by the darwish fraternities of Islam. Their relations to the people, their ceremonies and usages, their mode of life, their ecstasies and religious excitements, were evidently precisely the same. The soil, in a word, from which the great prophets sprang was alike among the Hebrews and the Arabs.

Let me illustrate this vital matter of soil and the growth therefrom by a parallel in creative literature. I take the case of a single poet, though the broad literature of a whole people always exhibits the same phenomena. The mind of Wordsworth was a constant poetic soil, and from it there sprang in luxuriant and bewildering tangles all manner of plants. The most of these were scrub and brush, underwood often commonplace and even grotesque. There only a small coterie of sworn worshipers finds delight. But above that scrub and brush there rise, from time to time, great trees, glorious in their unique and tranquil beauty as any beneath the sky of English letters. What kindly influences there had intervened we cannot tell; the processes of the poet's mind are as mysterious as that spirit of the Lord which leapt upon the Hebrew prophet. But at one time, as one has said, harshly but not untruly, the voice of Wordsworth is that

of an old half-witted sheep,
Which bleats articulate monotony
And indicates that two and one are three.

and at another, and that in a flash, the very heavens are cloven by some clear creative thought clothed in noble words. So after trivialities of college life there suddenly rise the memory of

Newton with his prism and silent face,
The marble index of a mind forever
Voyaging through strange seas of thought, alone.

Or in still stranger context of placid commonplace there is struck, one of the half-dozen times in all English verse, the clear faery note,

or lady of the mere,
Lone sitting by the shores of old romance.

What spirit touched Wordsworth then, we know not, but we do know that some relation lay between his painful crawlings and those lofty flights.

So, when we turn from the common soul of prophetism to the great Hebrew prophets, how wide is the difference! Isaiah - any of the Isaiahs - rises from the howling, frenzied mob nebhi'im; of them and not of them. He could have part in their orgies, yet his head was high above their sensuous fogs, his brain and conscience were never swept away by their gusts of passionate ecstasy. So Samuel moved clear eyed through the turbid airs of the religious life of his fellows. He and his like had seen the Lord, and the beauty of holiness was theirs. In these lectures, I shall not often have opportunity for comparison, still less for apologetics. Let me seize this one to say, as fixedly and broadly as in me is, that, while the soil of Semitic prophecy is one, I know nowhere in the Semitic world any appearance like that of the great prophets of the Hebrews. They stand as clear from their soil as love in Christian marriage from the lust of the flesh, and the relation is much the same.

In Islam some few attempted the same heights, but never reached them. Muhammad, a figure now strangely sympathetic and attractive, now repellently weak, once and again in his early life, has touches of the ethical glory of Amos, but never saw the vision of love in Hosea. In his later life he fell, and it is not for us to judge him. Perhaps, if Jeremiah had come to rule with absolute sway some small but conquering remnant of Judah, he, too, might have fallen. In Isaiah, from wazir in Jerusalem, had come to be sultan, his robes might have been spotted by the flesh and his soul by ambition. But, apparently from the last unhappy ten years of Muhammad's life, he was not of the goodly fellowship of the Hebrew prophets.

Al-Ghazzali, I have mentioned already. He was a man of the intellectual rank of Augustine. Yet he was himself a darwish, and had part in their religious exercises. These he knew with sympathy, and he has, in a treatise which I have translated elsewhere2, applied the methods of science to the analysis of their emotional and theological value. But though his mind was probably keener than that of any Hebrew, and though the root of the matter was in him, yet no one can mistake the difference of atmosphere in his writings and that of the Old Testament. In the latter there is the freshness of life and, in spite of everything, of hope; he is an ascetic scholastic, and all his endeavor is to gain assurance of the world to come. Whatever may have been the cause, it was well for the Hebrews that they were not blinded to the facts and duties of this life by the vision of another. Islam, like mediaeval Europe, could think of nothing but the unending hereafter with its sharply divided weal or woe.

Yet, for all this, the soil was the same, and from it we must start. But here we are landed in another question. How wide was that soil? How much of the life, thought, emotional output and literature, in a sense, of the people, is to be included in this broad prophetism? Let me meet this with another question. How is it that we do not find in the extant remains of Hebrew literature anything but the directly or indirectly religious? Further, and still more incisively, even if, by a strange chance, their profane literature has all been lost - there is some tolerably profane still in the Old Testament - why is there almost no mention of poets among them? I speak subject to correction, but I know in Hebrew no unmistakable word for poet; moshel certainly is not. Did they classify and name poets in some other way? Put them in some other category? Further, they did have stories, current among the people, of their heroic age, of their great warriors and deliverers. What were the channel down which these passed? Who played the part of the wandering gleeman, scalds, bards, minstrels of mediaeval Europe? That there were such we cannot doubt. The desert knows them to this day. May I hazard another questioning answer? Was their part taken by nebhi'im, solitary or in bands? Was poetry and legend - production, preservation, transmission - all in the Schools of the Prophets? This, you may say, is as absurd as to bring under one hood the mendicant friars and the gleeman of Europe. Sometimes, even these did come most queerly together, but that in Christendom was exceptional. In the Semitic world, I venture to say, it was the rule, and for the desert it can be proven.

What was the belief of the ancient Arabs as to the nature of poetry, and what their attitude toward the person of the poet? Since Ignaz Goldziher's investigations, published in his Arabische Philologie, Part I, there can be no doubt as to the answers to these questions. The answers which the Arabic sources give us are those, too, which the analogy of other primitive peoples would suggest. Poetry is magical utterance, inspired by powers from the Unseen, and the poet is in part a soothsayer, in part an adviser and admonisher, and in part a hurler of magical formulae against he enemies. The most common and primitive word in Arabic for poet is sha'ir and that means simply, "he who perceives, knows." In meaning it is parallel to the Hebrew yiddi'oni, but that Hebrew word never passed from the idea of divination to that of poetic utterance. On the other hand, the Hebrew moshel, which in Arabic suggests only proverb, likeness, parable, has passed over to mean a poet of a special type, the utterer of reproach and malediction, whose words bear sure fruit. In Hebrew history, the outstanding example of the moshel and an example of the Arabic sha'ir, poet, on this side of his activity, is the remarkable figure of Balaam. So in the Semitic world the bard and the prophet join. Balaam was evidently thought to stand in some very real relation to the unseen world, a relation which gave his words supernatural force - if they were once uttered and not checked on his lips by a higher power; the poet of the Arabs drew his knowledge, wisdom, skill, and destroying utterance from his relationship to the Jinn, those beings which for the heathen Arabs were as the fauns, nymphs, and satyrs of the classical world, which often seem to have been regarded as simple divinities and which Islam has accepted as a class of created beings and pictured to itself partly as Muslim, partly as unbelieving, and partly as diabolic in nature. Such, then, is the situation in a nutshell.

But let me illustrate in detail. A good example is given in the stories told about Hassan ibn Thabit, a close personal follower of Muhammad, and, in a sense, his poet-laureate. Muhammad in general was opposed to poetry; the poets were mostly opposed to him; but Hassan upheld his cause with poetry of a kind, and was especially useful in replying to satirical and abusive attacks. But this Hassan, while still a young man in the days before Islam, and before he had made any verses, was initiated into poetry by a female Jinni. She met him in one of the streets of Medina, leapt upon him, pressed him down, and compelled him to utter three verses of poetry. Thereafter he was a poet, and his verses came to him as to other Arab poets from the direct inspiration of the Jinn. He refers himself to his "brothers of the Jinn" who weave for him artistic words, and tells how weighty lines have been sent down to him from heaven in the night season. The curious thing is that the expressions he uses are exactly those used of the "sending down," that is, revelation, of the Qur'an. Evidently in his case there was a struggle between the idea of the Jinn - those half or wholly heathen spirits - as inspirers and the diving inspirations of the angels.

Further, the story runs that Muhammad used to set up for him a pulpit in the mosque and stand by in evident enjoyment, while Hassan hurled from it stinging verses against the enemies of Islam. This was one of the few occasions on which Muhammad seems to have tolerated poetry, and his reported comment is significant, "Allah aids Hassan with the Holy Spirit so long as he is defending or boasting of the Apostle of God." But by the Holy Spirit here, you must not understand any conception like that of the third person of the Christian trinity. For Muhammad the phrase referred only to the angel messenger who brought to him his revelations. The theological consequences of the lack of the conception of the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life, in Islam were wide, but this is not the place to enter upon them. Here Muhammad simply ascribed to Hassan the same kind of inspiration that he had himself, and that is remarkable enough.

Another point to observe is the close parallel between the terms used in the story of Hassan's initiation and that of the first revelation to Muhammad. Just as Hassan was thrown down by the female spirit and had verses pressed out of him, so the first utterances of prophecy were pressed from Muhammad by the angel Gabriel. And the resemblances go still farther. The angel Gabriel is spoken of as the companion (qarin) of Muhammad, just as though he were the Jinni accompanying a poet, and the same word nafatha, "blow upon", is used of an enchanter, or a Jinni inspiring a poet and of Gabriel revealing to Muhammad. It was, of course, the nightmare of Muhammad's earlier years - a fear of his own and an accusation of his enemies - that he was simply a poet possessed by a Jinni; it dictated his whole attitude to poets and poetry, and it is very plain how near the fact, the fear and accusation lay. He was in truth a poet of the old Arab type, without skill of verse, and with all his being given to the prophetic side of poetry. Add to this a strange jumble of Jewish and Christian conceptions, and you have the key to Muhammad.

I need not go into detail of the many stories told of the intercourse between poets and their inspiring spirits: how a poet would sit helpless without an idea, until his "comrade" would call to him from the corner of the chamber; how another, in desperate need, saddled with his camel, rode off into the desert, and having come to a certain place, alighted and cried out, "Come to the aid of your brother, your brother!" how the aid came swiftly, the poet lay down, and did not rise until he had one hundred and thirteen lines. Of such stories, which later came to be told in jest, there are many.

But we can draw the connection closer between the poet and the prophet; and especially between the Arabs and the Hebrews? You will remember how we are told in Numbers 9:18, 23, that the children of Israel broke up camp and encamped according to the word of Yahwe at the hand of Moses. Through Moses, that is, came the guidance of Yahwe for these significant elements in the nomad life, the right time and place for encamping and departing. Now it is curious that among the old Arab tribes exactly the same place was taken by the poets, the sha'irs. For instance, of Zuhayr ibn Janab, the poet, it is narrated:

Whenever Zuhayr said, "Ho, the tribe journeyeth," then it journeyed; and whenever he said, "Ho, the tribe abideth," they alighted and abode.

Similarly we are told of others.

When Allah sent the breaking of the dam of ‘Arim on the people of Marib, which was the tribe of Azd, there arose their leader who said, "Whoever has a sufficient camel and a milk-skin and a strong water skin, let him turn from the herds of cattle, for this is a day of care, and let him betake himself to Ath-thinyu min shann - it is said to be in ash-Sahra, and those who settled there were Azd of Shanu'a; then he continued, "And whoever is in misery and poverty and patience against the straits of this world, let him betake himself to Batn Marr" - those who dwelt there were the tribe Khuza'a; the he continued, "And who of you desireth wine and leaven, and rule and government and brocade and silk, let him betake himself to Busra and al-Hufayr" - these are in the land of Syria and those who dwelt there were the tribe of Ghassan; then he continued, "and who of you hath far-aiming purpose and a strong camel and a new provender-sack, let him betake himself of the New Castle of ‘Uman" - those who settled there were Axd of ‘Uman; then he continued, "And who desireth things rooted in mud and nourished of dust, let him betake himself to Yathrib, rich in palm trees" - those who settled there were the tribes of Aws and Kahzraj.3

All this is in the solemn language of rhymed prose, the language of the soothsayers, and the leader divides his people in a scene not unlike that of the blessing of Jacob or of Moses. You will notice, too, how the narrator weaves in notes exactly in the style of Deuteronomy.

Still more in the tone of these Blessings is a narrative that has come down to us of the part played by Sawada bint Zuhra, the Prophetess, or Kahina, of her tribe, that of Quraysh, in prophesying the birth of the future warner of his people. She bade them bring to her all their daughters, "For," said she, "one of them is a woman-warner, and will bear a man-warner." As they passed before her, she uttered over each saying, the truth of which time showed, until Amina, the future mother of Muhammad appeared and was shown as the warner spoken off.4

But to return - such a poet as speaks here is called the leader (qa'id) of his tribe. Another boasts himself to Muhammad as their poet and representative. To another his tribe intrusted all its warlike undertakings. Another tribe rejected the warning of their poet, just as the Hebrews those of their prophets, and repented it. Here is his speech, and you will observe how closely its tone resemble that of a prophecy:

Go not in against the Banu ‘Amir; I of men know best of them. I have fought with them, and they have fought with me; I have overcome them and they have overcome me. I never saw a people more restless in a halting-place than the Banu ‘Amir. By Allah, I can find no likeness to them but Bravery itself, for they abide not in their hole for restlessness, and will surely come out to you. By Allah, if ye sleep this night, ye will not know when they descend upon you.

Of the poet sitting as judge like Samuel, Dr. Godlziher can quote no case from heathen Arabia. But that certainly is due to our very defective sources. It must be regarded as significant that in very early Muslim times, the poet al-Akhtal, though a Christian, sat in the mosque of his tribe as judge. Evidently, this points at once to old pre-Muslim custom, and to a religious authority and dignity encircling the poet.

We must not, therefore, think of the poet as being given this position by any respect for the beauty or vigor of his verses, or even for his human insight and wisdom in matters of tribal conduct and politics. The idea that the Arab tribes so respected their poets - in the first instance at least - because of their keen artistic sense, their appreciation of the beauties of poetry, must be given up. Their attitude was much more practical. The separateness of the poet from other men had struck them. So, too had the way in which his verses came to him, out of the sky apparently, apart from his labor and will. We must remember that the Arab poet was a lyrist, first and last; intensely subjective and personal as regarded both himself and his hearers. When he sang before the tribe on the day of battle and onset, it was as though a spirit sang through him. When he brooded in the council and then suddenly arose and flung out his judgment in clanging words and ringing rhymes, it was as the utterance of a god. From time to time, too in the intense nervous susceptibility of the Arab race in the keen desert air, there fell upon him cataleptic rigors, swoons, and dreams, from which he returned with strange words in his mouth. If any could hear or see the Jinn in the desert stillness and solitude, or in the dark recesses of the mountains, it would be he with his strained nerves and loaded imagination. Often, as with Socrates, his own decision must have come as with a voice from without, and it would take little to add a visible form. This night-side of human nature, in which the nerves and the senses conspire to mislead, is only gradually being cleared to us, but we know enough of its possibilities to see fully how the Arabs thought their poets were illumined from the Unseen, and could make little if any distinction between them and diviners and prophets.

As a matter of fact, the Arabic writers on these old things are put to it to distinguish between the sha'ir, "poet", as we have called him, the kahin or diviner, and the 'arraf, also a kind of diviner. All were supernaturally guided, but the last was on the lowest step. He told - again like Samuel - about stolen things, and where wandered beasts might be found. Curiously enough we find him consulted, too, as a physician; perhaps with thought of the lost or stolen health. The kahin foretold the future and secret things generally. He was limited mostly to a certain sanctuary - you will remember, of course, that kahin is exactly the Hebrew kohen, "priest" - and there he had to be consulted. He was, as Goldziher, following Wellhausen, well puts it, an institution. The sha'ir, on the other hand, was free. He was the counselor of his people, and his counsel was inspired from the Unseen, by the Jinn, exactly as was the case with others. But he was also a man and a warrior, free as the desert, and bound to no sacred shrine, no Urim and Thummim. Not only wisdom came to Him but words, beautiful or fiery and terrible; which could give life or death by a mysterious power in them, but also give delight by their sheer loveliness. And this belief long survived the coming of Islam. The oriental poet cannot rid himself of the faith that verses come from without. His method is inspirational, not that of the labor of the file. If he is a religious man, a hatif, a wandering voice, the Hebrew bath qol, will reach him, or he may have an interview even with al-Khadir, that undying wandering saint, the most picturesque figure in Muslim mythology, who journeys through the earth, rescuing, guiding, counseling. Even as late as the seventh Muslim century we find a Hanbalite theologian, the narrowest sect of all, arguing that the Qur'an must be uncreated, for otherwise it would be no better than poetry with which God, as is accepted, inspires the poet. But if the poet were not a religious man, or if the attitude to all poetry were hostile, then its inspiration was easy to seek elsewhere. The Jinn and the devils have become hopelessly confused in Islam, and we can never be sure whether with the word shaytan, "devil," an Arabic write means the personal evil spirit borrowed from Christianity and Judaism, or merely a malignant member of the Jinn. So it was easy to say that the inspiration of poetry was from the devil, and even to brand all poetry as the Qur'an of the devil.

But all that was long after our period, and we must go back to the winged words of the old Arab poets. Our connection with Balaam is not yet absolutely made out, but it must be beginning to sweep before you. It is well known how among primitive peoples there has always been supposed to lie in words a certain fetish-power. Words for them are things; they are strict realists. So the curse once spoken is an existent entity, which must strike and rest somewhere; if not the one against whom it is hurled, then the hurler himself. In Islam this had endured longer than anywhere else. I doubt whether in the scholastic theology of any other people you could find passages like the following:

When two men curse one another, the curse falls on him who deserves it; if neither deserves it, then it returns and falls upon the Jews, who conceal what God has revealed.

And again:

When a curse is sent against any one, it goes toward him, and if it finds access to him it goes unto him. But if it finds no access, it returns to its Lord, whose are Might and Majesty, and says "O my Lord, so and so sent me against so and so, but I find no access to him; so what dost thou command me?" he then says, "Return whither thou camest."

But all this is only a reduction to scheme and method of a belief which Islam, for the first, has held unshaken, and before Islam the earlier Semitic faiths. It meets us amongst the Hebrews; there the story of Balaam is unmistakable. And in early Arabia it was the custom that the poet of the tribe, on the day of battle, should advance and recite satirical and abusive verses against the opponents. This was not simply to hearten his own tribe, or to strike with shame and confusion the other. There was a magical power in his words, and they show the trace often, as preserved in the diwans of the greater poets, or simple cursing.

Similarly, among the Hebrews, Goliath mocked and ridiculed (hereph) the armies of Israel. In all this it was a spirit which had entered the poet, and which spoke through him. Hence the magical efficacy of his words; he was only the channel of communication along which the unseen world worked. Gestures, too, and symbols often aided. So long as the hands of Moses were upheld, even mechanically, the Israelites prevailed against Amalek. In later Muslim times certain poets came to have the reputation of possessing peculiarly unlikely tongues. Whom they cursed, some misfortune befell; and we have even traces of their using for the purpose certain symbolic actions and methods of dress.

I have now, I think, made tolerable clear the Semitic belief that the poet was inspired - was a vates, in short - and that his poem, or rather song, was a Carmen, a charm. For further details I would refer you to the epoch-making paper of Dr. Goldziher, which I have already used. Whether you will follow me in my further explanation of the absence of definite references to poets and poetry in the Hebrew literature - that they are swept into the general category of prophecy and prophets - does not greatly matter for my present object. That poetry and prophecy, for the early Arabs and Hebrews, both go back to inspiration from the Unseen, and are, for many purposes, a practical unit, I now take for granted.

Before dealing directly with the position of the prophet among the Arabs and in Islam, it may be in place here to take up the kahin, or soothsayer. As I have already said, this word is the exact linguistic equivalent for the Hebrew kohen, and - without entering on the vexed questions which lie round that word - I would only remind you that Potiphar, Jethro, and David's sons are all called kohens in the Old Testament. In Arabia the matter is much simpler. The kahins were soothsayers, connected with a sanctuary, or sometimes with a tribe, and played much the same part as Eli and Samuel at Shiloh. All mysterious and obscure things seem to have been referred to them. They were judges, but they also foretold the future and the Unseen. How real this was to the Arabs of Muhammad's time is evident from the fact that he felt compelled to admit their foreknowledge, if only in part, and to ascribe that part - in agreement, probably, with Arab belief - to the help of the Jinn.

But what in them most claims our attention is the invariable form of their utterance, which was the form of utterance, also, of all mysterious knowledge limited to a narrow circle, and professionally guarded. As the Greek oracles were couched in verse, so the oracles of the Arab kahins were cast in that primitive verse which was called saj', literally "pigeon-cooing." You will remember in Isaiah (8:19) how the Yidde'onim chirp and mutter. The word there for "mutter" (haga) is used also of the cooing of the pigeon, and there seems little question that we have an allusion to a similar phenomenon. This saj', which has now become the normal rhetorical form of language in Islam, consists essentially of a series of short phrases in prose - that is without fixed meter, but it may be with rhythm - all rhyming together. Reduce the rhythm to rule, and monorhymed verse appears; take away the rhymes, and you have more or less rhythmical prose. This rhymed prose, then, was the essential characteristic of the speech of the kahins, and is evidently a very elementary first feeling-out toward verse. You will remember that it appears from time to time in Hebrew. Riddles and the like are cast in it; and some long passages, such as Job, chap. 10, and Proverbs, chap. 31, exhibit monorhyme, though incompletely. But among the Hebrews, there is no such limitation of it to messages dealing with the mysterious and the Unseen, as we find among the Arabs at the time of Muhammad and immediately before. With the Hebrews it appears to be simply a literary form; if we may speak of literature, where there need not be letters. Among the Arabs poetical form had fully developed, with all its wealth of meters, and the primitive saj' survived as the vehicle of only the most primitive modes of poetry, the shamanistic utterances of the kahins. But that this saj', in those early days, was fully recognized as a form of poetry (shi'r) and not as such a separate literary form as it came to be in later Islam is perfectly clear.

The reason for this brings us at once to Muhammad. What are we to think of his as a literary artist? To what form of literary art current in his time did he fall heir? The answer is very simple, and will at once come to any one who read a few lines of the Qur'an, especially of its older portions. The Qur'an is written in rhymed prose throughout. The portions rhymed, verses as we may call them, vary greatly in length. In the earlier chapters these verses are short, just as the style is living and fiery; in the later chapters they are of lumbering length, prosaic and slow, and the rhyme comes in with often a most absurd effect. It is very plain that Muhammad's first utterances were in genuine kahin form and kahin spirit; that they boiled forth from him as though under uncontrollable external pressure. Here is a curious narrative from the heathen times which gives an excellent picture of a kahin under prophetic influence.

King Hujr, the father of the great pre-Islamic poet, Imr al-Qays, had grievously oprresed the Banu Asad and driven them from their territory. The author of the Aghani, an immense collection of pre-Islamic and early post-Islamic history, legend and song, then goes on thus in his life of Imr al-Qays (Vol. VIII, 66):

Then the Banu Asad advanced until, when they were a days journey from Tihama, their Kahin, who was 'Awf ibn Rabi'a, prophesied and said unto them, "O my servants!" They said, "With thee! O our Lord!" He said, "Who is the king, the ruddy one, the all-conqueror, the unconquered, among camels as if they were a herd of gazelles, with no clamor by his head? He! his blood is scattered wide! He, tomorow, is the first of the stripped and spoiled!" They said, "Who is it, O our Lord?" He said, "If my heaving soul were not disquieted, I would tell you that he is Hujr openly." Then they mounted all, every beast broken and unbroken, and the day had not risen upon them when they came upon the army of Hujr charged upon his tent.

The story goes on how the words of the kahin were fulfilled to the letter, but we have no further interest with that. Our point is the manner and tone of this prophecy. The word which I have rendered, "he prophesied," takahhana, means, "a prophetic fit came upon him;" it is evident that he, for the time, was out of himself. The form of his utterance is the rhymed prose (saj') of which I have spoken, the language peculiar to the ecstatic life. He speaks, you will notice, to the people, not as their fellow, but directly as their God; they are his "servants," strictly "slave." They reply with the formula used only to a God, "With thee! O our Lord!" Labbayka ya rabbana. The phenomena of the double personality are most curious. At one moment his voice is the direct voice of God; at another, he is hampered by his laboring and disquieted human soul. The metaphor is of boiling water and high-running waves.

Now, all this is exactly paralleled in Muhammad's early utterances. They form pictures like this, and they are as if spoken by Allah himself. And his later utterances were cast in this form only because he had begun in it. That was the way in which prophets gave forth their message; he had begun in that way, and must keep it up to the bitter end. Probably, if Muhammad had been in a state to realize from the first, all that was implied in the use of this form he would have done anything rather than use it. It identified him at once with the kahins as a class, and, as one possessed by a Jinni - so only could his contemporaries explain him - connected him directly with the old Arabian heathenism and polytheism from which he was striving to break loose. But the spirit came upon him in his hours of weakness and solitude, and naturally the form which it took and its manifestations were those characteristic of appearances and workings from the Unseen in the world of his time. That he was subject to fits of some kind can be open to no doubt. The narratives are too precise, and his own fears too evidently genuine. That he was possessed by a Jinni - for him, with his beliefs, an evil spirit - was his first thought, and only gradually did he come to the conviction that this was divine inspiration, and not diabolical obsession.

But it is plain that these seizures, to which he was liable, and his general condition puzzled him to the end. When he had worked out the practical conclusion that they were the means of divine inspiration, he continued to be interested in allied phenomena. In part he was driven to this. For example, he had to explain how the kahins were sometimes right in their predictions. But one very singular group of traditions shows him puzzling over the case of a Jewish boy named Ibn Sayyad, who exhibited exactly the same phenomena as he himself. Naturally the subject is obscure in the extreme; the traditionists have no liking for it. But on that very account there narratives may be taken as genuine. The boy had just attained puberty, ie, was some twelve or thirteen years old. He was liable to epileptic or cataleptic fits, and in these was wrapped up in a rough mantle5 and lay muttering to himself. In this way he was supposed to have revelations, and appears to have been regarded by the Jews of al-Medina as a prophet of their own. One tradition is that Muhammad met him playing with other boys, struck him on the back with his hand, and said, "Dost thou testify that I am the messenger of God?" He looked at him and said, "I testify that I am the messenger of God." Muhammad struck him to bruising6, and then said, "I believe in God and his messengers." Then to Ibn Sayyad, "What dost thou see?" He replied, "There comes to me a truth-teller and a liar." Muhammad said, "The matter is confused to thee." Then he went on, "I conceal from thee something."7 the boy said, "It is ad-dukh." Muhammad was thinking of his chapter of the Qur'an, Ad-dukhan, "The Smoke," and this answer came to close. So he replied, "Get away; thou wilt never exceed thy power." ‘Umar asked permission to strike off his head, but Muhammad refused and said, "If it is he, then thou hast no power over him, and if it is not he, there is no good to thee in slating him." The question was whether he was the Jewish Antichrist or not, and Muhammad could not make up his mind. On another occasion, Muhammad tried to catch him unawares in one of his fits. He sent out to the palm grove where the boy was and hid himself behind the palm stems to listen. The boy was lying on his side, wrapt in the mantle, out of which a murmuring came. But the boy's mother caught sight of Muhammad, and warned her son, who ceased. Apparently, he was able to shake off the fit at once. But Muhammad was much displeased; "If she had let him alone, the thing would have been cleared up."8

There is humor enough in this picture of one prophet trying to investigate another after the method of the Society for Psychical Research, but for the boy it was not a humorous situation. Muhammad apparently satisfied himself that he was not dangerous. He became a Muslim and was alive in the year 63 of the Hijra. But all his life this suspicion followed him, and though one of his sons handed down traditions which were accepted9 he himself was ostracized. The poet al-Farazdaq took refuge once at al-Medina, and unwittingly entered the house of Ibn Sayyad; he found that the people would have no dealing with him10. Other traditions11 show him complaining of this, and pointing out that he was a Muslim, with children, living both in al-Medina and Mecca - none of these things being possible in the Antichrist. But others, again, show him with a certain malicious sense of his own importance, and fond of scaring people. His diseased personality - without Muhammad's genius - is made very distinct.

To return to Muhammad, it is plain, as I said, that he recognized here phenomena similar to his own, but was gradually satisfied that no danger lay in them, however, they were to be explained.

So while the general vocabulary as to his revelations was borrowed from that used in describing how their knowledge came to the kahins, it had to be made very clear that the influence upon him was an angel or even the Holy Spirit - for him a convertible term - of all which the Christians and Jews spoke. But, in spite of his utmost endeavors to emphasize this distinction, his opponents called him a poet - evidently thinking not of the later artistic poet who wrote verses in correct meter, or which Muhammad by nature was absolutely incapable, but of the ecstatic poet who stood in relations with the Unseen; or they called him possessed of a Jinni, on the same idea; or, which was striking the closest of all, a kahin, soothsayer. He was a kahin, but with an enormous difference, the difference which separated what I have called the soil of prophetism among the Hebrews, the mass of nebhi'im with their ecstatic excitements without ethical content or clear religious ideas, from the great reforming and constructive figures, from Amos and Hosea, from Isaiah and Jeremiah.

But again I must guard myself: Muhammad cannot be compared to these last, on any absolute scale. Only as both contrast with their soil will the comparison hold. What raised Muhammad from it was two ideas: the duty of the care of the poor, of almsgiving and helpfulness; and the unity and absolute sovereignty of Allah. Of those germinative conceptions of the relations between God and man to which the Hebrew prophets attained, he had no idea except in one point. With his hard doctrine of the unity of Allah, intermediaries were swept away. The whole polydaemonisitic scheme with a one God somewhere in the background, to which the Arabs seem to have attained, vanished. There was left no interceder with that one God; no beings from whom revelations might come. When an angel spoke with him - Gabriel or the Holy Spirit, or whatever the term might be - there was no semi-divine personality there. On the one hand there was Allah; on the other, his creation, including angels, Jinn, devils, men. Even such a conception of a unity of nature with God as we find among the Hebrews in the Bene Elohim, the Sons of God, has vanished with him. The angels were created of light - that is their only distinction. Allah is throned alone - the Creator, Ruler, Destroyer - unto him there is none like.

But having swept away at one stroke all lesser beings from whom revelations could come, having apparently closed the unseen world to man, and fixed a gulf that none could pass, with another stroke he bridged that gulf and drew man immediately into the presence of God. God, himself, the One, reveals himself to man through the prophets and otherwise, and man, in prayer, can come directly to God. This is Muhammad's great glory. The individual soul and its God are face to face. Yet in the absoluteness of this conception lay its philosophical weakness and failure. How can the One know and be known by that which is other than itself? How can unlike ever meet? The conception of a fatherhood of God, of a genetic relationship, runs through the Hebrew prophets, and breaks down his aloofness and separateness. The conceptions again, on the one hand, of a suffering God, who has borne our flesh and knows it sorrows and, on the other hand, of a Holy Ghost, the God immanent who works in mankind, from the soul of the Christian church. But to these Islam can come, only by breaking with Muhammad.

As we shall see abundantly hereafter, the devout life within the Muslim church led to a more complete pantheism than ever did the Christian trinity. In the struggle to bring God and his creation together, the creation had to become an aspect of the creator, and finally to vanish into him. Only in this way could the crass dualism be overcome, and that monism which is the basis or result of all mysticism be reached. There are stray expressions which suggest that Muhammad - a devout soul, if ever there was one and a mystic in spite of his creed - was adrift himself on that sea, and was nearing that shore. But his brain, oriental to the core, contradictoriness never troubled, and Allah could be throned apart in unapproachable grandeur and yet near to every human heart. His creed remained frankly dualistic, and to the clearly thinking mind, the ladder between earth and heaven seemed removed. How the inevitable pressure of religious inspiration restored it must be our future subject.

1 E.g., Vol. IV, p. 170, and Vol. VII, pp. 145, 169, of the edition in "Temple Classics."

2 "Emotional Religion in Islam", Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1901-2.

3 Aghani, Vol. XIX, p. 95.

4 Damiri, Vol. II, p. 328, edition of Cairo, A.H. 1313.

5 Cf. Qur. xxiii, lxxiv.

6 The word is uncertain; cf. Goldziher, Muhammedanische Studien, Vol. II, 244.

7 Apparently the formula for testing a soothsayer before accepting his advice; cf. pp. 4 and 9.

8 Sahih of al-Bukhari, Vol. VIII, p. 40 (Book of Adab), edition of Bulaq, A.H. 1315.

9 Nawawi, p. 789.

10 Aghani, Vol. XIX, p. 25.

11 Masabih, Vol. II, p. 140, edition of Cairo, A.H. 1318.

Duncan Black Macdonald, Haskell Lectures in Comparative Religion, University of Chicago, 1906, pp. 1-39.

Essays by Duncan Black Macdonald
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