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Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. 5, by Edward Gibbon, [1788], at

Chapter L: Description Of Arabia And Its Inhabitants. Part VII.

The good sense of Mahomet  158 despised the pomp of royalty: the apostle of God submitted to the menial offices of the family: he kindled the fire, swept the floor, milked the ewes, and mended with his own hands his shoes and his woollen garment. Disdaining the penance and merit of a hermit, he observed, without effort or vanity, the abstemious diet of an Arab and a soldier. On solemn occasions he feasted his companions with rustic and hospitable plenty; but in his domestic life, many weeks would elapse without a tire being kindled on the hearth of the prophet. The interdiction of wine was confirmed by his example; his hunger was appeased with a sparing allowance of barley-bread: he delighted in the taste of milk and honey; but his ordinary food consisted of dates and water. Perfumes and women were the two sensual enjoyments which his nature required, and his religion did not forbid; and Mahomet affirmed, that the fervor of his devotion was increased by these innocent pleasures. The heat of the climate inflames the blood of the Arabs; and their libidinous complexion has been noticed by the writers of antiquity.  159 Their incontinence was regulated by the civil and religious laws of the Koran: their incestuous alliances were blamed; the boundless license of polygamy was reduced to four legitimate wives or concubines; their rights both of bed and of dowry were equitably determined; the freedom of divorce was discouraged, adultery was condemned as a capital offence; and fornication, in either sex, was punished with a hundred stripes.  160 Such were the calm and rational precepts of the legislator: but in his private conduct, Mahomet indulged the appetites of a man, and abused the claims of a prophet. A special revelation dispensed him from the laws which he had imposed on his nation: the female sex, without reserve, was abandoned to his desires; and this singular prerogative excited the envy, rather than the scandal, the veneration, rather than the envy, of the devout Mussulmans. If we remember the seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines of the wise Solomon, we shall applaud the modesty of the Arabian, who espoused no more than seventeen or fifteen wives; eleven are enumerated who occupied at Medina their separate apartments round the house of the apostle, and enjoyed in their turns the favor of his conjugal society. What is singular enough, they were all widows, excepting only Ayesha, the daughter of Abubeker. She was doubtless a virgin, since Mahomet consummated his nuptials (such is the premature ripeness of the climate) when she was only nine years of age. The youth, the beauty, the spirit of Ayesha, gave her a superior ascendant: she was beloved and trusted by the prophet; and, after his death, the daughter of Abubeker was long revered as the mother of the faithful. Her behavior had been ambiguous and indiscreet: in a nocturnal march she was accidentally left behind; and in the morning Ayesha returned to the camp with a man. The temper of Mahomet was inclined to jealousy; but a divine revelation assured him of her innocence: he chastised her accusers, and published a law of domestic peace, that no woman should be condemned unless four male witnesses had seen her in the act of adultery.  161 In his adventures with Zeineb, the wife of Zeid, and with Mary, an Egyptian captive, the amorous prophet forgot the interest of his reputation. At the house of Zeid, his freedman and adopted son, he beheld, in a loose undress, the beauty of Zeineb, and burst forth into an ejaculation of devotion and desire. The servile, or grateful, freedman understood the hint, and yielded without hesitation to the love of his benefactor. But as the filial relation had excited some doubt and scandal, the angel Gabriel descended from heaven to ratify the deed, to annul the adoption, and gently to reprove the apostle for distrusting the indulgence of his God. One of his wives, Hafna, the daughter of Omar, surprised him on her own bed, in the embraces of his Egyptian captive: she promised secrecy and forgiveness, he swore that he would renounce the possession of Mary. Both parties forgot their engagements; and Gabriel again descended with a chapter of the Koran, to absolve him from his oath, and to exhort him freely to enjoy his captives and concubines, without listening to the clamors of his wives. In a solitary retreat of thirty days, he labored, alone with Mary, to fulfil the commands of the angel. When his love and revenge were satiated, he summoned to his presence his eleven wives, reproached their disobedience and indiscretion, and threatened them with a sentence of divorce, both in this world and in the next; a dreadful sentence, since those who had ascended the bed of the prophet were forever excluded from the hope of a second marriage. Perhaps the incontinence of Mahomet may be palliated by the tradition of his natural or preternatural gifts;  162 he united the manly virtue of thirty of the children of Adam: and the apostle might rival the thirteenth labor  163 of the Grecian Hercules.  164 A more serious and decent excuse may be drawn from his fidelity to Cadijah. During the twenty-four years of their marriage, her youthful husband abstained from the right of polygamy, and the pride or tenderness of the venerable matron was never insulted by the society of a rival. After her death, he placed her in the rank of the four perfect women, with the sister of Moses, the mother of Jesus, and Fatima, the best beloved of his daughters. "Was she not old?" said Ayesha, with the insolence of a blooming beauty; "has not God given you a better in her place?" "No, by God," said Mahomet, with an effusion of honest gratitude, "there never can be a better! She believed in me when men despised me; she relieved my wants, when I was poor and persecuted by the world."  165

In the largest indulgence of polygamy, the founder of a religion and empire might aspire to multiply the chances of a numerous posterity and a lineal succession. The hopes of Mahomet were fatally disappointed. The virgin Ayesha, and his ten widows of mature age and approved fertility, were barren in his potent embraces. The four sons of Cadijah died in their infancy. Mary, his Egyptian concubine, was endeared to him by the birth of Ibrahim. At the end of fifteen months the prophet wept over his grave; but he sustained with firmness the raillery of his enemies, and checked the adulation or credulity of the Moslems, by the assurance that an eclipse of the sun was not occasioned by the death of the infant. Cadijah had likewise given him four daughters, who were married to the most faithful of his disciples: the three eldest died before their father; but Fatima, who possessed his confidence and love, became the wife of her cousin Ali, and the mother of an illustrious progeny. The merit and misfortunes of Ali and his descendants will lead me to anticipate, in this place, the series of the Saracen caliphs, a title which describes the commanders of the faithful as the vicars and successors of the apostle of God.  166

The birth, the alliance, the character of Ali, which exalted him above the rest of his countrymen, might justify his claim to the vacant throne of Arabia. The son of Abu Taleb was, in his own right, the chief of the family of Hashem, and the hereditary prince or guardian of the city and temple of Mecca. The light of prophecy was extinct; but the husband of Fatima might expect the inheritance and blessing of her father: the Arabs had sometimes been patient of a female reign; and the two grandsons of the prophet had often been fondled in his lap, and shown in his pulpit as the hope of his age, and the chief of the youth of paradise. The first of the true believers might aspire to march before them in this world and in the next; and if some were of a graver and more rigid cast, the zeal and virtue of Ali were never outstripped by any recent proselyte. He united the qualifications of a poet, a soldier, and a saint: his wisdom still breathes in a collection of moral and religious sayings;  167 and every antagonist, in the combats of the tongue or of the sword, was subdued by his eloquence and valor. From the first hour of his mission to the last rites of his funeral, the apostle was never forsaken by a generous friend, whom he delighted to name his brother, his vicegerent, and the faithful Aaron of a second Moses. The son of Abu Taleb was afterwards reproached for neglecting to secure his interest by a solemn declaration of his right, which would have silenced all competition, and sealed his succession by the decrees of Heaven. But the unsuspecting hero confided in himself: the jealousy of empire, and perhaps the fear of opposition, might suspend the resolutions of Mahomet; and the bed of sickness was besieged by the artful Ayesha, the daughter of Abubeker, and the enemy of Ali.  *_0017

The silence and death of the prophet restored the liberty of the people; and his companions convened an assembly to deliberate on the choice of his successor. The hereditary claim and lofty spirit of Ali were offensive to an aristocracy of elders, desirous of bestowing and resuming the sceptre by a free and frequent election: the Koreish could never be reconciled to the proud preeminence of the line of Hashem; the ancient discord of the tribes was rekindled, the fugitives of Mecca and the auxiliaries of Medina asserted their respective merits; and the rash proposal of choosing two independent caliphs would have crushed in their infancy the religion and empire of the Saracens. The tumult was appeased by the disinterested resolution of Omar, who, suddenly renouncing his own pretensions, stretched forth his hand, and declared himself the first subject of the mild and venerable Abubeker.  *_0018 The urgency of the moment, and the acquiescence of the people, might excuse this illegal and precipitate measure; but Omar himself confessed from the pulpit, that if any Mulsulman should hereafter presume to anticipate the suffrage of his brethren, both the elector and the elected would be worthy of death.  168 After the simple inauguration of Abubeker, he was obeyed in Medina, Mecca, and the provinces of Arabia: the Hashemites alone declined the oath of fidelity; and their chief, in his own house, maintained, above six months, a sullen and independent reserve; without listening to the threats of Omar, who attempted to consume with fire the habitation of the daughter of the apostle. The death of Fatima, and the decline of his party, subdued the indignant spirit of Ali: he condescended to salute the commander of the faithful, accepted his excuse of the necessity of preventing their common enemies, and wisely rejected his courteous offer of abdicating the government of the Arabians. After a reign of two years, the aged caliph was summoned by the angel of death. In his testament, with the tacit approbation of his companions, he bequeathed the sceptre to the firm and intrepid virtue of Omar. "I have no occasion," said the modest candidate, "for the place." "But the place has occasion for you," replied Abubeker; who expired with a fervent prayer, that the God of Mahomet would ratify his choice, and direct the Mussulmans in the way of concord and obedience. The prayer was not ineffectual, since Ali himself, in a life of privacy and prayer, professed to revere the superior worth and dignity of his rival; who comforted him for the loss of empire, by the most flattering marks of confidence and esteem. In the twelfth year of his reign, Omar received a mortal wound from the hand of an assassin: he rejected with equal impartiality the names of his son and of Ali, refused to load his conscience with the sins of his successor, and devolved on six of the most respectable companions the arduous task of electing a commander of the faithful. On this occasion, Ali was again blamed by his friends  169 for submitting his right to the judgment of men, for recognizing their jurisdiction by accepting a place among the six electors. He might have obtained their suffrage, had he deigned to promise a strict and servile conformity, not only to the Koran and tradition, but likewise to the determinations of two seniors.  170 With these limitations, Othman, the secretary of Mahomet, accepted the government; nor was it till after the third caliph, twenty-four years after the death of the prophet, that Ali was invested, by the popular choice, with the regal and sacerdotal office. The manners of the Arabians retained their primitive simplicity, and the son of Abu Taleb despised the pomp and vanity of this world. At the hour of prayer, he repaired to the mosch of Medina, clothed in a thin cotton gown, a coarse turban on his head, his slippers in one hand, and his bow in the other, instead of a walking-staff. The companions of the prophet, and the chiefs of the tribes, saluted their new sovereign, and gave him their right hands as a sign of fealty and allegiance.

The mischiefs that flow from the contests of ambition are usually confined to the times and countries in which they have been agitated. But the religious discord of the friends and enemies of Ali has been renewed in every age of the Hegira, and is still maintained in the immortal hatred of the Persians and Turks.  171 The former, who are branded with the appellation of Shiites or sectaries, have enriched the Mahometan creed with a new article of faith; and if Mahomet be the apostle, his companion Ali is the vicar, of God. In their private converse, in their public worship, they bitterly execrate the three usurpers who intercepted his indefeasible right to the dignity of Imam and Caliph; and the name of Omar expresses in their tongue the perfect accomplishment of wickedness and impiety.  172 The Sonnites, who are supported by the general consent and orthodox tradition of the Mussulmans, entertain a more impartial, or at least a more decent, opinion. They respect the memory of Abubeker, Omar, Othman, and Ali, the holy and legitimate successors of the prophet. But they assign the last and most humble place to the husband of Fatima, in the persuasion that the order of succession was determined by the decrees of sanctity.  173 An historian who balances the four caliphs with a hand unshaken by superstition, will calmly pronounce that their manners were alike pure and exemplary; that their zeal was fervent, and probably sincere; and that, in the midst of riches and power, their lives were devoted to the practice of moral and religious duties. But the public virtues of Abubeker and Omar, the prudence of the first, the severity of the second, maintained the peace and prosperity of their reigns. The feeble temper and declining age of Othman were incapable of sustaining the weight of conquest and empire. He chose, and he was deceived; he trusted, and he was betrayed: the most deserving of the faithful became useless or hostile to his government, and his lavish bounty was productive only of ingratitude and discontent. The spirit of discord went forth in the provinces: their deputies assembled at Medina; and the Charegites, the desperate fanatics who disclaimed the yoke of subordination and reason, were confounded among the free-born Arabs, who demanded the redress of their wrongs and the punishment of their oppressors. From Cufa, from Bassora, from Egypt, from the tribes of the desert, they rose in arms, encamped about a league from Medina, and despatched a haughty mandate to their sovereign, requiring him to execute justice, or to descend from the throne. His repentance began to disarm and disperse the insurgents; but their fury was rekindled by the arts of his enemies; and the forgery of a perfidious secretary was contrived to blast his reputation and precipitate his fall. The caliph had lost the only guard of his predecessors, the esteem and confidence of the Moslems: during a siege of six weeks his water and provisions were intercepted, and the feeble gates of the palace were protected only by the scruples of the more timorous rebels. Forsaken by those who had abused his simplicity, the hopeless and venerable caliph expected the approach of death: the brother of Ayesha marched at the head of the assassins; and Othman, with the Koran in his lap, was pierced with a multitude of wounds.  *_0019 A tumultuous anarchy of five days was appeased by the inauguration of Ali: his refusal would have provoked a general massacre. In this painful situation he supported the becoming pride of the chief of the Hashemites; declared that he had rather serve than reign; rebuked the presumption of the strangers; and required the formal, if not the voluntary, assent of the chiefs of the nation. He has never been accused of prompting the assassin of Omar; though Persia indiscreetly celebrates the festival of that holy martyr. The quarrel between Othman and his subjects was assuaged by the early mediation of Ali; and Hassan, the eldest of his sons, was insulted and wounded in the defence of the caliph. Yet it is doubtful whether the father of Hassan was strenuous and sincere in his opposition to the rebels; and it is certain that he enjoyed the benefit of their crime. The temptation was indeed of such magnitude as might stagger and corrupt the most obdurate virtue. The ambitious candidate no longer aspired to the barren sceptre of Arabia; the Saracens had been victorious in the East and West; and the wealthy kingdoms of Persia, Syria, and Egypt were the patrimony of the commander of the faithful.


158 For the domestic life of Mahomet, consult Gagnier, and the corresponding chapters of Abulfeda; for his diet, (tom. iii. p. 285 - 288;) his children, (p. 189, 289;) his wives, (p. 290 - 303;) his marriage with Zeineb, (tom. ii. p. 152 - 160;) his amour with Mary, (p. 303 - 309;) the false accusation of Ayesha, (p. 186 - 199.) The most original evidence of the three last transactions is contained in the xxivth, xxxiiid, and lxvith chapters of the Koran, with Sale's Commentary. Prideaux (Life of Mahomet, p. 80 - 90) and Maracci (Prodrom. Alcoran, part iv. p. 49 - 59) have maliciously exaggerated the frailties of Mahomet.

159 Incredibile est quo ardore apud eos in Venerem uterque solvitur sexus, (Ammian. Marcellin. l. xiv. c. 4.)

160 Sale (Preliminary Discourse, p. 133 - 137) has recapitulated the laws of marriage, divorce, &c.; and the curious reader of Selden's Uror Hebraica will recognize many Jewish ordinances.

161 In a memorable case, the Caliph Omar decided that all presumptive evidence was of no avail; and that all the four witnesses must have actually seen stylum in pyxide, (Abulfedae Annales Moslemici, p. 71, vers. Reiske.)

162 Sibi robur ad generationem, quantum triginta viri habent, inesse jacteret: ita ut unica hora posset undecim foeminis satisfacere, ut ex Arabum libris refert Stus. Petrus Paschasius, c. 2., (Maracci, Prodromus Alcoran, p. iv. p. 55. See likewise Observations de Belon, l. iii. c. 10, fol. 179, recto.) Al Jannabi (Gagnier, tom. iii. p. 287) records his own testimony, that he surpassed all men in conjugal vigor; and Abulfeda mentions the exclamation of Ali, who washed the body after his death, "O propheta, certe penis tuus coelum versus erectus est," in Vit. Mohammed, p. 140.

163 I borrow the style of a father of the church, (Greg. Nazianzen, Orat. iii. p. 108.)

164 The common and most glorious legend includes, in a single night the fifty victories of Hercules over the virgin daughters of Thestius, (Diodor. Sicul. tom. i. l. iv. p. 274. Pausanias, l. ix. p. 763. Statius Sylv. l. i. eleg. iii. v. 42.) But Athenaeus allows seven nights, (Deipnosophist, l. xiii. p. 556,) and Apollodorus fifty, for this arduous achievement of Hercules, who was then no more than eighteen years of age, (Bibliot. l. ii. c. 4, p. 111, cum notis Heyne, part i. p. 332.)

165 Abulfeda in Vit. Moham. p. 12, 13, 16, 17, cum Notis Gagnier

166 This outline of the Arabian history is drawn from the Bibliotheque Orientale of D'Herbelot, (under the names of Aboubecre, Omar Othman, Ali, &c.;) from the Annals of Abulfeda, Abulpharagius, and Elmacin, (under the proper years of the Hegira,) and especially from Ockley's History of the Saracens, (vol. i. p. 1 - 10, 115 - 122, 229, 249, 363 - 372, 378 - 391, and almost the whole of the second volume.) Yet we should weigh with caution the traditions of the hostile sects; a stream which becomes still more muddy as it flows farther from the source. Sir John Chardin has too faithfully copied the fables and errors of the modern Persians, (Voyages, tom. ii. p. 235 - 250, &c.)

167 Ockley (at the end of his second volume) has given an English version of 169 sentences, which he ascribes, with some hesitation, to Ali, the son of Abu Taleb. His preface is colored by the enthusiasm of a translator; yet these sentences delineate a characteristic, though dark, picture of human life.

*_0017 Gibbon wrote chiefly from the Arabic or Sunnite account of these transactions, the only sources accessible at the time when he composed his History. Major Price, writing from Persian authorities, affords us the advantage of comparing throughout what may be fairly considered the Shiite Version. The glory of Ali is the constant burden of their strain. He was destined, and, according to some accounts, designated, for the caliphate by the prophet; but while the others were fiercely pushing their own interests, Ali was watching the remains of Mahomet with pious fidelity. His disinterested magnanimity, on each separate occasion, declined the sceptre, and gave the noble example of obedience to the appointed caliph. He is described, in retirement, on the throne, and in the field of battle, as transcendently pious, magnanimous, valiant, and humane. He lost his empire through his excess of virtue and love for the faithful his life through his confidence in God, and submission to the decrees of fate.

Compare the curious account of this apathy in Price, chapter ii. It is to be regretted, I must add, that Major Price has contented himself with quoting the names of the Persian works which he follows, without any account of their character, age, and authority. - M.

*_0018 Abubeker, the father of the virgin Ayesha. St. Martin, vol. XL, p. 88 - M.

168 Ockley, (Hist. of the Saracens, vol. i. p. 5, 6,) from an Arabian Ms., represents Ayesha as adverse to the substitution of her father in the place of the apostle. This fact, so improbable in itself, is unnoticed by Abulfeda, Al Jannabi, and Al Bochari, the last of whom quotes the tradition of Ayesha herself, (Vit. Mohammed, p. 136 Vie de Mahomet, tom. iii. p. 236.)

169 Particularly by his friend and cousin Abdallah, the son of Abbas, who died A.D. 687, with the title of grand doctor of the Moslems. In Abulfeda he recapitulates the important occasions in which Ali had neglected his salutary advice, (p. 76, vers. Reiske;) and concludes, (p. 85,) O princeps fidelium, absque controversia tu quidem vere fortis es, at inops boni consilii, et rerum gerendarum parum callens.

170 I suspect that the two seniors (Abulpharagius, p. 115. Ockley, tom. i. p. 371,) may signify not two actual counsellors, but his two predecessors, Abubeker and Omar.

171 The schism of the Persians is explained by all our travellers of the last century, especially in the iid and ivth volumes of their master, Chardin. Niebuhr, though of inferior merit, has the advantage of writing so late as the year 1764, (Voyages en Arabie, &c., tom. ii. p. 208 - 233,) since the ineffectual attempt of Nadir Shah to change the religion of the nation, (see his Persian History translated into French by Sir William Jones, tom. ii. p. 5, 6, 47, 48, 144 - 155.)

172 Omar is the name of the devil; his murderer is a saint. When the Persians shoot with the bow, they frequently cry, "May this arrow go to the heart of Omar!" (Voyages de Chardin, tom. ii. p 239, 240, 259, &c.)

173 This gradation of merit is distinctly marked in a creed illustrated by Reland, (de Relig. Mohamm. l. i. p. 37;) and a Sonnite argument inserted by Ockley, (Hist. of the Saracens, tom. ii. p. 230.) The practice of cursing the memory of Ali was abolished, after forty years, by the Ommiades themselves, (D'Herbelot, p. 690;) and there are few among the Turks who presume to revile him as an infidel, (Voyages de Chardin, tom. iv. p. 46.)

*_0019 Compare Price, p. 180. - M.

Next: Chapter L: Description Of Arabia And Its Inhabitants. Part VIII.