Before starting on the main subject of my essay it will be remiss of me to not write a brief review of the whole book of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of Roman Empire. It should not be confounded with a detailed analysis of the book for that will distract us from our main thesis.
BRIEF REVIEW OF GIBBON’S DECLINE AND FALL OF ROMAN EMPIRE
Edward Gibbon was born in 1737 to an affluent family of English Aristocracy. He was educated at oxford where he converted for a brief period to Catholicism. He later reverted to Protestant faith when his father threatened to disinherit him. The idea to write about the Decline of Roman Empire and to trace the obscure roots of Christianity and European ascendancy came to him when he visited Italy and European Continent. This tour also established him in the literary circles of France where he contracted a lasting friendship with Voltaire. The influence of Voltaire is immense on the writing style of Gibbon and easily palpable in his scathing footnotes.
For the material of his book Gibbon was heavily indebted to the Latin histories of Roman prelates and other European historians. The early volumes of his book are related to the main subject of the Roman Empire and the rise of Christianity on both sides of the Mediterranean. In these volumes his skill as a historian is exemplary. He studied more than one source materials and with critical reading of both sides of the equation tried to reach a more credible conclusion. The Roman society in the times of Augustus and later Constantine is described with minute diligence which brings those bygone days to life.
His commentaries on Christian sects and their internal discords are less perfect though. Even a person unaware of the details of Christian dogma can discern the partial tilt towards European sects. His disdain for the extinct sects of Arianism, Monphysitism etc who deviated from Orthodox concepts of Trinity is obvious. In the later conflict of Roman pontiffs and Greek Patriarchs the weight of the author is undoubtedly on the side of the Pope. As the book is written for European audiences so the subject of Christianity dominates most of the later volumes.
The review of Gibbon’s enormous work would take up more than a simple essay but I would like to relate one more important eminence of Gibbon’s toil which makes it an important study for all aspiring historians. In the earlier Volumes he discusses in detail the social and civic changes occurring over time in Rome. The corruption of absolute military power and the social vices that sapped the strength of a martial race are depicted with accuracy and many important lessons are drawn from it for the benefit of the reader.
Thus his work assumes the form of more than a simple chronicle of all the revolutions inside the palaces. Instead he focuses on a wider landscape of a general history of the people of Rome. In the decline when Roman senate completely lost its importance in the proceedings of Roman government and society he stopped paying attention to their empty resolutions and awards but focused on more important players and determinants of that time no matter how ordinary. In this respect one cannot but discern some similarities in both Gibbon’s and Ibn Khaldun’s works. And in my opinion a true historical book must be written on a similar pattern for the vicissitudes of nations are a product of both rulers and the general population. The influence and prominence of each factor on a specific event can be contested though.
In his later volumes as the theater of Roman and Christian History is forced to encounter foreign Nations of Muslims this important attribute is sadly absent.We see a gradual deterioration and corruption of his own precepts of honest criticism and comparison in his last progeny.He solely relies on Latin and late European versions of History and ignores the Muslim historians . Nonetheless, his work holds a significant place in Historical sciences with lessons for both emulation and avoidance.
With this background we can now proceed with an easy mind to our subject.
MUSLIMS or MAHOMETANS :
Gibbon first mentions Muslims as a main subject in the fifth and sixth volume of his book. He proceeds from a general description of Arabia to the life and times of Prophet Muhammad S.A.W.to the conquests of Arabs and finally terminates the subject with Crusades and the Muslim invasion of Constantinople.
I have extracted the main themes of my essay from this part of his book. They are classified below under their respective themes.
1- Prophet Muhammad S.A.W.
“While the state was exhausted by the Persian war, and the church was distracted by the Nestorian and Monophysite sects, Mahomet, with the sword in one hand and the Koran in the other, erected his throne on the ruins of Christianity and of Rome. “
Thus, begins the narration of Muslim history by Edward Gibbon in the 50th chapter. It soon becomes apparent that our lofty historian has descended from the eminence of true research and criticism into simple acceptance of Papal propaganda. He admits his personal ignorance of Oriental tongues but for the source material he selects the French and Latin versions of Muslim history.
The inaccuracy of his narration often stems from his personal bias against the repudiators of Trinity. The pre-Islam Arab is a “robber” who plunders caravans fearlessly and post-Islam he is transformed into a “fanatic”. Whenever, Gibbon is forced to mention a Muslim source it completely negates all the Latin and Greek versions of Prophet’s life. This clear discord must alarm a shrewd historian of the suspect credibility of his source material but unfortunately he puts the Muslim sources far below the pedestal to actually compare and contrast.
There are some rare instances when he partially repudiates the Christian propaganda, for example
“The base and plebeian origin of Mahomet is an unskillful calumny of the Christians , who exalt instead of degrading the merit of their adversary. “
These moments of truth are drowned in false and baseless calumnies which the author accepts for absolute facts. He admits that Prophet S.A.W. was barely thirteen years old when He went with His uncle to Syria and that the language barrier would further restrict his converse with locals on the way thus falsifying the famous claim of Christians that Prophet S.A.W might have learned traditions of Moses and Jesus there. He also fails to provide any proof of another allegation that Holy Prophet had three monks who taught him Christian, Hebrew and Persian traditions in Makah during his childhood. Absence of evidence might have moved the pen in the favor of Truth but instead our Author consoles himself that “such transactions might still have occurred in secrecy”.
Nevertheless, Personal merits of our Holy Prophet PBUH and the eternal goodness present in the five pillars of Islam forces a reluctant admission from Gibbon.
“The creed of Mahomet is free from suspicion or ambiguity; and the Koran is a glorious testimony to the unity of God. The prophet of Mecca rejected the worship of idols and men, of stars and planets, on the rational principle that whatever rises must set, that whatever is born must die, that whatever is corruptible must decay and perish…..”
“……The charity of the Mahometans 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. Mahomet, perhaps, is the only lawgiver who has defined the precise measure of charity; but the Mussulman does not accomplish the law, unless he bestows a tenth of his revenue; and if his conscience accuses him of fraud or extortion, the tenth, under the idea of restitution, is enlarged to a fifth. Benevolence is the foundation of justice, since we are forbid to injure those whom we are bound to assist.”
After these aforementioned frank admissions Gibbon once again plunges into the darkness of forgery and malice of Roman clergy. And his main reference during this tirade is Louis Maracci, the professor in the official Papal University at Rome. And to supposedly strengthen the baseless allegations against the person and life of Holy Prophet PBUH he provides references to Voltaire who wrote a play and many essays insulting Prophet S.A.W without any reason or evidence. I will not soil this blog with narration of those profanities which are a lasting stain on the whole work of Edward Gibbon.
When he presumes to pass Judgment on Prophet PBUH on the basis of such gross insults his reasoning is blinded by double relief of his own faith and conformity of other European authors.
I will conclude this chapter with his comments on Holy Quran whose Latin version he read. It was compiled with additions and forgeries by the same Louis Maracci of Pontificate University. The protestant aversion and clear knowledge of the propaganda of Roman Church did not persuade Gibbon against solely relying on such suspect authority in the case of Muslims and their Holy Book.
“The harmony and copiousness of style will not reach, in a version, the European infidel: he will peruse with impatience the endless incoherent rhapsody of fable, and precept, and declamation, which seldom excites a sentiment or an idea, which sometimes crawls in the dust, and is sometimes lost in the clouds.”
I might have termed his response to some personal misunderstanding or mischief until I read similar comments by other notable western thinkers. His remark strangely resembles the response of another Eminent English thinker of Victorian times Thomas Carlyle;
“ I must say, it [the Koran] is as toilsome reading as I ever undertook. A wearisome confused jumble, crude, incondite; endless iterations, long-windedness, entanglement; most crude, incondite; — insupportable stupidity, in short! Nothing but a sense of duty could carry any European through the Koran .”
Dear readers! Believe me when I say that these comments are the most neutral and less insulting I could find amid the openly hateful and disgusting remarks made by every leading European ranging from Rulers and Pontiffs to the still famous classical philosophers and poets.
2-Portraits of Heroes:
After narrating the earlier days of Muslims the second biggest sally of Gibbon into the Muslim world is the Turkish Invasions and the fateful Crusades in which Christians and Muslims finally collided with each other after a long scuffle of Centuries. Once again our Historian forsook his cloak of impartiality and openly supported the cause of Christians, no matter how corrupted they were by his own accounts, in favor of “savage” Saracens.
It’s another vast subject to which he devoted many chapters, describing in detail the fluctuations of a long and arduous war spanning whole length of two Centuries. I would like to quote his portrayal of heroes of opposite sides to further elaborate that his treatment of Muslims was not a rash personal endeavor but rather part of a systematic pattern which is similar across the entire West.
“….and the reluctant praise of his foes has endowed him with the heroic qualities of a soldier and a statesman. His lofty stature surpassed the tallest of his army; ….His eyes sparkled with fire, and his voice, like that of Achilles, could impress obedience and terror amidst the tumult of battle…..”
He adds later, “…in the pursuit of greatness he was never arrested by the scruples of justice, and seldom moved by the feelings of humanity; though not insensible of fame, the choice of open or clandestine means was determined only by his present advantage……his primitive indigence had taught the habits of frugality; the gain of a merchant was not below his attention; and his prisoners were tortured with slow and unfeeling cruelty to force a discovery of their secret treasure.”
“….and if heroism be confined to brutal and ferocious valor, Richard Plantagenet will stand high among the heroes of the age. The memory of Cur de Lion, of the lion-hearted prince, was long dear and glorious to his English subjects; and, at the distance of sixty years, it was celebrated in proverbial sayings by the grandsons of the Turks and Saracens, against whom he had fought: his tremendous name was employed by the Syrian mothers to silence their infants; and if a horse suddenly started from the way, his rider was wont to exclaim, “Dost thou think King Richard is in that bush?”
His cruelty to the Mahometans was the effect of temper and zeal…”
The unlikely anecdote of mothers hushing their children by scaring them of an enemy or a villain will surely force a smile from those who have seen a similar dialogue in a famous Indian cinematic picture. The reference of this anecdote is Jean De Joinville, a French biographer of Roman Pope in the times of seventh Crusade, while Richard Plantagenet took part in the Second Crusade. I will leave the reader to judge the accuracy of this yarn.
Sultan Muhammad Fateh, Conqueror of Constantinople:
“The siege of Constantinople by the Turks attracts our first attention to the person and character of the great destroyer……and though his mother has been decorated with the title of Christian and princess, she is more probably confounded with the numerous concubines who peopled from every climate the harem of the sultan….But the influences of religion and learning were employed without effect on his savage and licentious nature… but it cannot be denied that his passions were at once furious and inexorable….he was doubtless a soldier, and possibly a general; Constantinople has sealed his glory….”
The mother of Sultan Muhammad the second was a Muslim named Huma Hatun and was the last wife of his father, not a concubine. It’s not needless to say that for the character and life of such important personage our Author once again relied solely on baseless allegations of European and Greek Historians who never met the Sultan nor had any evidence of these and many more vile allegations.
I shall conclude his portrait with a Prophecy of our Holy Prophet S.A.W.;
“Verily you shall conquer Constantinople. What a wonderful leader will he be, and what a wonderful army will that army be”
_ Musnad Ahmad.
Above are some of the few examples which I selected from Gibbon’s last volumes to show his treatment of Muslims and Islam. Indeed words fail after recounting such an insulting and false account of Prophet PBUH, Holy Quran and of our national Heroes. The general rules of recounting History were conveniently forgotten by our good author and at times even Wikipedia ,quite ironically, sounded more accurate and a safer source of History than the great” Decline and Fall”. With regards to Muslims and their history the protestant, the catholic, the enlightened , the bard , the sage, in brief all the machinery of Europe’s thought and reason stands firm beneath the banner of the Roman Pontiff. Their mutual discords and feuds are forgotten under the threat of a “common enemy”.