The family of the Hashemites, belonging to that tribe, possessed by inheritance the sacerdotal office. Of this family, the most sacred and the most respectable in the eyes of their country, Muhammed was born (569).
His grandfather had rescued Mecca from the yoke of the Abyssinians, and had died leaving behind him six daughters and thirteen sons. Of these, Abdullah was the father of the prophet. Of his uncles, Abu Talib, the father of Ali, was the most celebrated, and acted as Muhammed's guide and guardian in his early youth when the prophet was bereft of his parents.
In his twenty-fifth year he entered into the service of Kadijah, a rich and noble widow of Mecca, who soon rewarded his fidelity with the gift of her hand and fortune. This judicious matron was content with her husband's domestic virtues, until in his fortieth year he assumed the title of a prophet and proclaimed the religion of the Koran.
According to the tradition of his companions Muhammed was distinguished by the beauty of his person; an outward gift which is seldom despised except by those to whom it has been refused. His memory was capacious and retentive, his wit easy and social, his imagination sublime, his judgement clear, rapid and decisive. But with these powers, Muhammed was an illiterate barbarian; yet, though never instructed in the arts of reading and writing, the book of nature and of man was open to his view, and while discountenancing the legend of his travels, we may suppose that among the throng of pilgrims that came yearly to Mecca, and in his association with the Jews and Christians who frequented the city of his birth, he gathered the material which enabled him to formulate and establish a new faith.
That faith, under the name of Islam, is compounded of an eternal truth, and necessary fiction, that there is only one God, and that Muhammed is the apostle of God.
The creed of Muhammed is free from the suspicion of polytheism, which was characteristic alike of paganism and the Christianity of the seventh century, and the Koran is a glorious testimony to the unity of God. All through the universe Muhammed's rational enthusiasm confessed and adored an infinite and eternal Being without form or place, present to our most secret thoughts, existing by the necessity of his own nature, and deriving from himself all moral and intellectual perfection.
WHILE rejecting idolatry, Muhammed recognized the claim of all the Jewish patriarchs and prophets from Adam to Jesus. To the Founder of the Christian faith in particular, Muhammed taught his disciples a high and mysterious reverence. The wonders of the genuine and apocryphal gospels are profusely heaped on his head, and the Latin Church did not disdain to borrow from the Koran the immaculate conception of his mother. The piety of Moses and of Christ rejoiced in the assurance of a future prophet more illustrious than themselves; the evangelic promise of the Paraclete, or Holy Ghost, was prefigured in the name and accomplished in the person of Muhammed.
The Koran was delivered to Muhammed by the angel Gabriel, and was made known to the faithful in fragments, at the discretion of the prophet. These were taken down by his disciples on palm leaves and the shoulder-bones of mutton, and two years after his death were collected and published by his friend and successor, Abu Bekr. God alone could dictate this incomparable performance, but by the European the endless incoherent rhapsody of fable, precept and declamation will be read with impatience. The loftiest strains of the Koran must yield to the sublime simplicity of the Book of Job, composed in a remote age, in the same country, and in the same language.
The precepts of Muhammed inculcate a simple and rational piety. Five prayers a day, frequent illustrations, certain seasons of fasting and alms, are the religious duties of a Mussulman, who is encouraged to hope that prayer will carry him half-way to God, fasting will bring him to the doorway of His palace, and alms will gain him admittance.
The interdiction of wine, peculiar to some orders of priests or hermits, is converged by Muhammed alone into a positive and general law. The charity of the Mahomedans descends to the animal creation; and the Koran repeatedly inculcates, not as a merit, but as a strict and indispensable duty, the relief of the indigent, and unfortunate. The day of judgement, and the slow distribution of rewards and punishments, copied from the Magian theology, fostered the faith of the disciples. The term of expiation in hell varies from 900 to 7,000 years; but the prophet has judiciously promised that all his disciples, whatever may be their sins, shall be saved, by their own faith and his intercession, from eternal damnation.
The abode of the blest, as imagined by Muhammed, was a paradise of the senses. Seventy-two houris, or black-eyed girls, of resplendent beauty, blooming youth, virgin purity and exquisite sensibility, will be created for the use of the meanest believer. The gates of Heaven will be open to both sexes, but Muhammed has not specified the male companion of the female elect, lest he should either alarm the jealousy of their former husbands, or disturb their felicity by the suspicion of an everlasting marriage. This image of a carnal paradise has provoked the indignation of the monks; they declaim against the impure religion of Muhammed, and his modest apologists are driven to the pure excuse of allegories.
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