The conversion to the religion of the Prophet Mohammed of Alexander Russell Webb, F.T.S., and his establishing in New York a paper devoted to Islamism, together with his lectures on the subject, have caused a great deal of attention to be given to Mohammedanism. Bro. Webb is still a member of the Society, with an interest in its progress, and this is another illustration of the broadness of our platform. But he says that it has surprised him to find the members in general paying slight regard to the life of the Prophet, his sayings and his religion, as one of our objects calls for the study of all religions. In India he found many followers of the Prophet in our Branches, and among them much knowledge of formerly so-called esoteric doctrines, which are common to all religions. That such would be the case must have long ago been evident to those who have read the admirable articles which were printed some years ago in the PATH upon Sufi poetry, as the Sufis really preserve the inner doctrines of Islam. But it is natural that the religion of Mohammed has not received from Western people very great consideration. They judge it in the mass, and not from some of its teachings. The West has developed its social system and its religious belief on its own lines, and having seen that many of the followers of the Prophet are polygamists, which is contrary to Western notions, the entire Islamic system has been condemned on that ground, both in a social and religious sense.
The best Mohammedans say that the Prophet did not teach polygamy, but only permitted it in case a man could treat many wives in exactly the same way in every respect that he could one. Although over against this the Prophet himself had but one wife, and was in fact a celibate, it was quite natural that his followers should liberally construe what he said on the subject and take unto themselves as many wives as their means permitted. This is human nature, and would probably be the result today in the West if our people placed reliance on the words of a Teacher who had made a similar statement.
The words of the Koran upon the subject of polygamy, as given by Mr. Webb, are:
And if ye are apprehensive that ye shall not deal fairly with orphans, then of other women who seem good in your eyes, marry but two, or three, or four; if ye still fear that ye shall not act equitably, then one only.—Koran, Sura IV, verse 3.
The next prominent conception held by Western people about the Mohammedans is that they have forced an acceptance of their doctrines. We have such stories as that they carried sword in one hand and the Koran in the other, compelling people to accept the book under threat of the sword; that they burned books containing matter other than that in the Koran, on the ground that if it was in the Koran the books were unnecessary, and if it was not in the Koran the books were wrong and should be burned. But the disciples of the Prophet assert that he never taught any such thing, and point to much learning on the part of the Mohammedans in the past. Doubtless these disciples are right, but we know that many Mohammedans tried to coerce people, and that there is some foundation for the story in respect to destruction of that which was not found in the Koran. For these reasons the West has been opposed to Islamism without really knowing much about it. The religion has been judged by the proceedings of its followers. Similar charges might be made against Christian peoples, who notoriously both individually and as nations are in the habit of going directly contrary to the commands of their Founder.
A student of these subjects, then, comes to consider lastly the claims of Islamism on philosophical and religious grounds, and naturally asks the question whether it has any better philosophy than any other religion, and if its religion is supported by a correct philosophy. If it be found that the truths given out by the Prophet were known and written down before his time, then why should the Western student turn to the later religion, the product of a more or less undeveloped people, when he may go to the original from which it undoubtedly came? And if in that original we can find broader and more definite expositions of cosmogenesis and anthropogenesis, we may very properly use Islamism to illustrate the Theosophic truism that one single truth is the basis upon which all religions stand, but we are not necessarily obliged to adopt it to the exclusion of anything else.
Islamism seems to many to exact a belief in a God, and the conception of a God demands that that being shall be separate from those who believe in him. This view does not appeal to many Western Theosophists, because they assert that there can be no God different or separate from man. In the Rig Veda of the Brahmans there are as grand, and some think grander, conceptions of God and nature, as can be found in any Islamic book. If the two are equal in this regard, then the Rig Veda, being admittedly the elder, must have the first place by reason of age; but if the Rig Veda and the philosophy growing out of it are broader and grander than the other, then for that reason it must be more acceptable.
The five fundamental precepts of Islam are given in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, as follows:
“First, Confession of the Unity of God; second, stated prayer; third, almsgiving; fourth, the fast of Ramadan; fifth, observance of the festival of Mecca.”
In the latest English publication on the subject, Mr. Webb says:
“Orthodox Mohammedanism may be divided into six heads: First, faith in God, the one God, the creator of all things, who always was and ever will be, the single, immutable, omniscient, omnipotent, all-merciful, eternal God; second, faith in angels, ethereal beings perfect in form and radiant in beauty, without sex, free from all gross or sensual passion and the appetites and infirmities of all frail humanity; third, belief in the Koran as a book of Divine revelation, given at various times to Mohammed by God or through the Angel Gabriel; fourth, belief in God’s prophets, the most preeminent of whom were Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed; fifth, belief in the resurrection and final judgment, when all mankind shall appear before God, who will reward or punish them according to the deeds they have done on earth; sixth, belief in predestination, or the inability of man to avoid, by any act of his own, the destiny irrevocably predetermined by God and written down in the eternal book previous to the creation of the world.”
The religion of the Prophet contains, in common with all other religions, a secret doctrine which is the same as that found in those differently named. As referred to above, the Sufis taught a very high kind of mysticism, but not any higher than that of the Hindus, nor any different from the mysticism of the Christians, both of early and later times. They taught union with God; so do the Hindu and the Christian. They spoke of their wife and their mistress and their concubines or houris; so do mediaeval alchemists, and many of the Indian Yogis speak in a similar strain; so that in whatever direction we turn it is found that there is no substantial difference between Islamism and any other religion except in respect to age, and it is really the youngest of all, excepting perhaps the later Christian development found among the Mormons of America or Latter-day Saints. In fact, some Western Theosophists have said that it would be just as well to accept Mormonism as Islamism, since the teachings are identical and the practices are also. The Mormons say that polygamy is not taught, but they practice it; they have their mysticism, their prophecy, their various kinds of frenzy, and among them are many extraordinary examples of prevision, notably with Brig-ham Young, the second prophet.
Americans might be inclined, if they were about to make a change, to accept their own natural product in preference to an Arabian one. Certainly in regard to morality, honesty, thrift, temperance, and such virtues, the Mormons stand as well as the followers of the Prophet Mohammed. But as we know little about true Islamism, a careful consideration of it will no doubt add to our knowledge and broaden our conceptions, since it must end in our seeing once more that none of the religions of the day are true ones, but that a single body of truth underlying them all must be the religion of the future.