Front Page Titles (by Subject) 21.: Mohammed as the Founder of a Religion, and Islam - Judgments on History and Historians
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
21.: Mohammed as the Founder of a Religion, and Islam - Jacob Burckhardt, Judgments on History and Historians 
Judgments on History and Historians, ed. Alberto R. Coll (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1999).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The copyright to this edition, in both print and electronic forms, is held by Liberty Fund, Inc.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
Mohammed as the Founder of a Religion, and Islam
A brilliant people, capable of self-denial, with boundless self-reliance of individuals and tribes, was to be summoned to a new faith and to world hegemony in the name of this faith.
There was a great variety of religions in Arabia; paganism glittered in every hue, and side by side with it there existed an old belief in Allah; Jewish tribes and Christians of diverse origin were living in the country; in front of them the Byzantines were engaged in a dispute among one another about the natures in Christ; the Sassanids had their dualistic religion; both empires were shaken to their foundations politically and militarily.
The specific thing that Mohammed encountered was the rite of the pilgrimage to the Kaaba toward which the entire existence of Mecca had been oriented from ancient times. He did not make it an object of loathing, did not try to create a rival sanctuary; the age-old Kaaba required only “purification”; the Black Stone was retained as a necessary mystery.
Since Mohammed could not evade the Kaaba and the pilgrimage (although they had per se no necessary connection with his faith), he had not only to incorporate them in his system, but to make them the center of his entire cult. For a while he has to flee from Mecca; then the enthusiasm of his entire following becomes all the more the desire for the Kaaba, and his decisive victory is then the capture of Mecca. That in the future all peoples would be infected with the longing for the Kaaba he can hardly have suspected. For the time being he enjoined all non-believers from the Kaaba and the pilgrimage.
With his scanty preaching alone he would have achieved only a modest and temporary success; but from the hegira on, he constantly procured new goals for his adherents: in addition to Mecca, which he promised them, the robbing of caravans and the conquests in Arabia together with the resulting booty. To this there immediately attaches as something natural the holy war against the outside as well. World empire is a simple corollary.
Mohammed is personally very fanatical; that is his basic strength. His fanaticism is that of a radical simplifier and to that extent is quite genuine. It is of the toughest variety, namely, doctrinaire passion, and his victory is one of the greatest victories of fanaticism and triviality. All idolatry, everything mythical, everything free in religion, all the multifarious ramifications of the hitherto existing faith, transport him into a real rage, and he hits upon a moment when large strata of his nation were evidently highly receptive to an extreme simplification of the religious; his genius lies in his divining this. And the peoples who were now attacked may also have been somewhat tired of their existing theology and mythology. From his youth on, Mohammed, with the aid of at least ten people, looks over the faiths of the Jews, Christians, and Parsis, and steals from them any scraps that he can use, shaping these elements according to his imagination. Thus everyone found in Mohammed’s sermons some echo of his accustomed faith.
The very extraordinary thing is that with all this Mohammed achieved not merely lifetime success, the homage of Arabia, but founded a world religion that is viable to this day and has a tremendously high opinion of itself.
In this new religion, everything had to be within the common range of the Arabs, i.e., it had to be possible. Therefore Islam has the simplest catechism, and the main elements of this simplicity are as follows:
Oneness of God and his predicates.
Allah is neither procreated nor procreating.
Revelations by the prophets Adam, Noah, Moses, Christ, and Mohammed as the last of the prophets, but with intimations of a Mahdi.
The absolute decree; fatalism (Mohammed himself calls it “submission”) which had a highly tonic effect on aspiring forces. In connection with untoward things one speaks of “Mektub.”
Belief in angels (because Mohammed found devas, jinn, and peris).
Immortality and Last Judgment, Heaven and Hell (“Paradise lies under the shadow of swords”).
Moral laws, all kinds of moral precepts, among them “No lying” (for Mohammed reserved lying for himself); part of this is the civil law of the Koran which is in force to this day.
Finally, prayer, fasting, pilgrimage.
Aside from any absolute value, it may be assumed that this religion and Weltanschauung corresponds in large measure to the universally human on a certain level of inner development. Genuine devotion, mysticism, and philosophy can and have been able to attach themselves to this religion. But the more profound elements in Islam come to it from forces outside it.
Islam trains its heads and hearts in such a manner that afterwards they produce only this form of state and culture and no other, whether or not Mohammed planned it that way.
This paltry religion (did it have a better moral effect than Arabian idolatry?) destroys over wide areas two far higher and deeper religions, Christianity and dualism, because they are undergoing crises. It holds sway from the Atlantic to deep into India and China, and makes advances among the Negroes to this day. Only few countries could be wrested away again from Islam, and this only with the utmost exertion. Where Christian governments rule over Islamitic populations today, they wisely leave them their faith; the Christian religion has no effect on it whatsoever.
Döllinger’s prediction is idle when he says that Islam contains “seeds of transitoriness.” This is his argument: “Of course, Islam contains seeds of transitoriness [and what about our Europe? Does it not also contain such seeds?* ] if only because of the fact that it is a religion of set, rigid dogmas which encompass all areas of life and impede any development [alias “progress”: does Islam live because it excludes progress?]* These dogmas, the product of a single people and a definite low level of culture, must prove inadequate and harmful upon their continuance and transfer to other nations, and finally must be shattered by the inner contradictions they arouse as well as by the requirements of life.”
But as of now, this religion has lasted for a desperately long time, and the Islamic world at present subsists on this narrowness! For the Islamitic peoples, no matter how they fare, regard it as a vast misfortune for anyone not to belong to this religion and culture. This world religion has a high opinion of itself and considers the unbelievers unfortunate.
It is the general tendency of our minds to deduce great causes from great effects, thus, in this case, from Mohammed’s achievement, greatness of the originator. At the very least, one wants to concede in Mohammed’s case that he was no fraud, was serious about things, etc. However, it is possible to be in error sometime with this deduction regarding greatness and to mistake mere might for greatness. In this instance it is rather the low qualities of human nature that have received a powerful presentation. Islam is a triumph of triviality, and the great majority of mankind is trivial. (Present-day admirers of Mohammed pay themselves the compliment of mediocrity.) But triviality likes to be tyrannical and is fond of imposing its yoke upon nobler spirits. Islam wanted to deprive distinguished old nations of their myths, the Persians of their Book of Kings, and for 1200 years it has actually prohibited sculpture and painting to tremendously large populations.
Was Mohammed a soothsayer? A poet? A sorcerer? He is none of these, but rather a prophet.
The crisis of his life and his religion begins with the alliance with Arabs living outside of Mecca. His adherents begin to emigrate. In July of 622 his own hegira takes place.
[* ]Burckhardt’s interjection. (Translator’s note.)
[* ]Burckhardt’s interjection. (Translator’s note.)