The History of Islam by Robert Payne

Usually I don’t buy a book and then let it sit around, unread, but somehow I don’t remember where I acquired this book, and I just got around to reading it. It was originally published in 1959 under the name, “The Holy Sword,” which says a lot. Although they gussied up the titled for the reprint, the author used “Muhamadanism,” throughout the text instead of “Islam.” Even three hundred pages later, that’s still jarring.

I hope it’s no longer in fashion to write tomes analysing an entire group of millions of people as if they were a single entity. Robert Payne does a lot of comparing of “Muhamadans” to “us.” It’s weird and uncomfortable no matter which side you’re on.

There are so many quotes to choose from. I’ll post a few here, and then I think I may revisit this book again in a future post.

From the very beginning there were differences so vast that no human mind has been able to reconcile them. It is not only that Muhamadans are incapable of understanding a God who is expressed in terms of the Trinity and cannot bring themselves to believe He was crucified in the flesh, but their normal habits of mind, their aims and preoccupations, are at variance with ours.

Here we are already with the us-and-them mentality and we haven’t even hit the body of the book yet; this is from the introduction.

Anyway, I’m not sure I know anybody who is comfortable with the concept of the Trinity. And let’s not even start on the cannibalistic aspect of the eucharist ceremony.

Muhamadanism has no priesthood, no rounded tradition of scholarship, none of those elements of sensuous ceremonial which go with western worship.

I included that one because it’s true, Islam has no priesthood, although we persist in calling their scholars “clerics.”

Their strength lies in their humanness. They are ruthless and at ease in a world where we are increasingly restless and incapable of decision. Hamlet still walks our fortress walls, but an Arab Hamlet is unthinkable.

So I have written this book in the hope that men will look closer at Arab origins, and I have called it after the strange two-pointed sword which Muhammad won as a trophy at the battle of Badr, because the sword became the symbol of his imperial pretensions.

I find this a little weird, because I hadn’t yet come across any reference to that sword in any of the Muslim literature I’ve read.

To this day the Arabs worship stones, an so do all the followers of Muhammad.

No one knows why Muhammad changed so abruptly from a benevolent despot, the devoted servant of the Merciful and Compassionate God, into a ruthless conqueror. Perhaps power corrupted him; perhaps he knew the faith would never survive without unsheathing the sword.

For the Muhamadan the jihad, or “holy war,” has become an essential element of the faith; all of Islam would have to be turned upside down if the doctrine were eliminated.

This paragraph left me gaping:

Though [the caliph] Muawiya shows an astonishing modern temper in his mingling of indolent ease and efficient ruthlessness, he remained a man of his own time. Beneath the silks and damasks he remained essentially an Arab at war with the incomprehensible civilized world, hating Byzantium with an inextinguishable passion, employing Christians in his service only because he needed them as scribes and teachers and government officials, and because he himself could learn from the. His aim, like Muhammad’s, was to conquer the whole world.

Here’s one that transcends religion, race, national identity, and so on:

Sulayman, the fat voluptuary, belongs to the great tradition of Umayyad monarchs: he possessed, like many enormously fat people, a steady, driving intelligence.

I think that’s enough for one post. More later.

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1 Comment

Filed under arab, arabian, arabist, books

One response to “The History of Islam by Robert Payne

  1. Anonymous

    In “The Holy Sword”, Payne claims that once the conflict with the Russians is over, Islam will rise as an important political force to challenge the west. That he saw this in 1959 shows that he was not a total dolt.

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