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The great and enduring heresy of Mohammad

TBR has a post up on a documentary that will be screening in Britain of the Islamic version of Jesus. Suffice to say, Muslims do not consider Jesus to have been divine. Or as Hilaire Belloc says in his book (available to read online) The Great Heresies, Islam is a simplified version of Catholicism:
Mohammedanism was a heresy: that is the essential point to grasp before going any further. It began as a heresy, not as a new religion. It was not a pagan contrast with the Church; it was not an alien enemy. It was a perversion of Christian doctrine. It vitality and endurance soon gave it the appearance of a new religion, but those who were contemporary with its rise saw it for what it was - not a denial, but an adaptation and a misuse, of the Christian thing. It differed from most (not from all) heresies in this, that it did not arise within the bounds of the Christian Church. The chief heresiarch, Mohammed himself, was not, like most heresiarchs, a man of Catholic birth and doctrine to begin with. He sprang from pagans. But that which he taught was in the main Catholic doctrine, oversimplified. It was the great Catholic world - on the frontiers of which he lived, whose influence was all around him and whose territories he had known by travel - which inspired his convictions. He came of, and mixed with, the degraded idolaters of the Arabian wilderness, the conquest of which had never seemed worth the Romans' while.

He took over very few of those old pagan ideas which might have been native to him from his descent. On the contrary, he preached and insisted upon a whole group of ideas which were peculiar to the Catholic Church and distinguished it from the paganism which it had conquered in the Greek and Roman civilization. Thus the very foundation of his teaching was that prime Catholic doctrine, the unity and omnipotence of God. The attributes of God he also took over in the main from Catholic doctrine: the personal nature, the all-goodness, the timelessness, the providence of God, His creative power as the origin of all things, and His sustenance of all things by His power alone. The world of good spirits and angels and of evil spirits in rebellion against God was a part of the teaching, with a chief evil spirit, such as Christendom had recognized. Mohammed preached with insistence that prime Catholic doctrine, on the human side_the immortality of the soul and its responsibility for actions in this life, coupled with the consequent doctrine of punishment and reward after death.

If anyone sets down those points that orthodox Catholicism has in common with Mohammedanism, and those points only, one might imagine if one went no further that there should have been no cause of quarrel. Mohammed would almost seem in this aspect to be a sort of missionary, preaching and spreading by the energy of his character the chief and fundamental doctrines of the Catholic Church among those who had hitherto been degraded pagans of the Desert. He gave to Our Lord the highest reverence, and to Our Lady also, for that matter. On the day of judgment (another Catholic idea which he taught) it was Our Lord, according to Mohammed, who would be the judge of mankind, not he, Mohammed. The Mother of Christ, Our Lady, "the Lady Miriam" was ever for him the first of womankind. His followers even got from the early fathers some vague hint of her Immaculate Conception.[1]

But the central point where this new heresy struck home with a mortal blow against Catholic tradition was a full denial of the Incarnation.

Mohammed did not merely take the first steps toward that denial, as the Arians and their followers had done; he advanced a clear affirmation, full and complete, against the whole doctrine of an incarnate God. He taught that Our Lord was the greatest of all the prophets, but still only a prophet: a man like other men. He eliminated the Trinity altogether.

With that denial of the Incarnation went the whole sacramental structure. He refused to know anything of the Eucharist, with its Real Presence; he stopped the sacrifice of the Mass, and therefore the institution of a special priesthood. In other words, he, like so many other lesser heresiarchs, founded his heresy on simplification.

Catholic doctrine was true (he seemed to say), but it had become encumbered with false accretions; it had become complicated by needless man-made additions, including the idea that its founder was Divine, and the growth of a parasitical caste of priests who battened on a late, imagined, system of Sacraments which they alone could administer. All those corrupt accretions must be swept away.

Belloc goes into more detail here, but I thought that pointing out his reasoning for why Mohammedanism grew quickly and survived over the centuries as it took over cultures most interesting and frightening for those of us alive today. First he says that it won battles, but the second point is even worse:

Both in the world of Hither Asia and in the Graeco-Roman world of the Mediterranean, but especially in the latter, society had fallen, much as our society has today, into a tangle wherein the bulk of men were disappointed and angry and seeking for a solution to the whole group of social strains. There was indebtedness everywhere; the power of money and consequent usury. There was slavery everywhere. Society reposed upon it, as ours reposes upon wage slavery today. There was weariness and discontent with theological debate, which, for all its intensity, had grown out of touch with the masses. There lay upon the freemen, already tortured with debt, a heavy burden of imperial taxation; and there was the irritant of existing central government interfering with men's lives; there was the tyranny of the lawyers and their charges.

To all this Islam came as a vast relief and a solution of strain. The slave who admitted that Mohammed was the prophet of God and that the new teaching had, therefore, divine authority, ceased to be a slave. The slave who adopted Islam was henceforward free. The debtor who "accepted" was rid of his debts. Usury was forbidden. The small farmer was relieved not only of his debts but of his crushing taxation. Above all, justice could be had without buying it from lawyers. . . . All this in theory. The practice was not nearly so complete. Many a convert remained a debtor, many were still slaves. But wherever Islam conquered there was a new spirit of freedom and relaxation.

It was the combination of all these things, the attractive simplicity of the doctrine, the sweeping away of clerical and imperial discipline, the huge immediate practical advantage of freedom for the slave and riddance of anxiety for the debtor, the crowning advantage of free justice under few and simple new laws easily understood - that formed the driving force behind the astonishing Mohammedan social victory. The courts were everywhere accessible to all without payment and giving verdicts which all could understand. The Mohammedan movement was essentially a "Reformation," and we can discover numerous affinities between Islam and the Protestant Reformers - on Images, on the Mass, on Celibacy, etc.
The whole chapter is worth reading: The great and enduring heresy of Mohammad


  1. Without looking it up, I'm not convinced that Belloc is quite right about slavery and ursury. After all, several of the first popes were slaves, and the Church had quite a good record in freeing slaves.. in a practical manner that recognised the value of slaves to the owner as well as the right of men to free will and freedom. And usury and taxation was more a temporal thing?

    Muhammad worked his magic on fellow pagans, and then they took what they wanted from those that had more.

    However, some of the things mentioned by Belloc got me thinking about a US humorist of some time ago. He said, that if the US wanted to be successful in Iraq, it should join the insurgents and sort out the injustices under which Iraqis had to live.. and bugger me, isn't that the guts of what the very successful Surge is doing?

    And again, here's a fascinating article that shows anarchy works very well, compared to the predations of bad and corrupt government:

    Christ, Muhammad and particulaly General Petraeus would have no difficulty understanding this concept of there being better alternatives than corrupt governance.

    In a roundabout way, I'm suggesting that a religion, a political movement or an insurrection is most likely to succeed where the Govt or religion of the day is corrupt, and the new movement is able to tap into the dissatisfaction that has arisen. In such circumstances, genuine revelation is unecessary and more likely to be added later as a justification.

    Similarly, Christianity was successful because it built on the solid rock of Judaism, as Islam built on the Rock of Peter, as Protestantism built on Catholicism.

    Truly, isn't Abraham the real rock and inspiration of over half the world's population?


  2. JC

    Yes many claim him as an ancestor. Catholicism does not claim him as a founder though. That belongs to Jesus. In Catholic thought, Abraham was a prefigure of what God was prepared to do, and what his Son willingly did.

    I happen to think Belloc is right. Islam is a strange synthesis of Judeo-Christian thought when you get down to it. And in being so of course it has good points.

  3. And Mea culpa Lucyna, I don't know why I writ Islam as Jewish heresy at TBR. you are quite correct.


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