Editor's note: In calling Islam a heresy, Belloc is speaking loosely. A heresy
is a movement of baptized Christians who deny part of the Christian faith;
Muslims are not baptized. Though the early history of Islam was shaped by
Jewish, Christian, and Arab pagan influences, it was a new religion, not simply
a splinter from early Chritianity. The fact that Islam is not technically a
heresy takes nothing away from the accuraby of Belloc's historical exposition
and his prescience regarding the dangers of Islam's global re-emergence.
Mohammedanism was a heresy, not a new religion: That is the essential point to
grasp before going any further. It was not a pagan contrast with the Church; it
was a perversion of Christian doctrine. Its 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
The chief heresiarch, Mohammed, was not, like most heresiarchs, a man of
Catholic birth and doctrine. He sprang from pagans. But that which he taught was
in the main Catholic doctrine, albeit oversimplified. He took over very few of
those old pagan ideas that might have been native to him from his descent. But
the very foundation of his teaching was that prime Catholic doctrine, the unity
and omnipotence of God. 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.
Mohammed gave to our Lord the highest reverence and to our Lady also. On the Day
of Judgment (another Catholic idea that he taught) it was our Lord, according to
Mohammed, who would be the judge of mankind, not he, Mohammed. The Mother of
Christ, "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
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 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
Catholic doctrine was true (he seemed to say), but it had become encumbered with
false accretions; it had become complicated by needless manmade 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 that
they alone could administer. All those corrupt accretions must be swept away.
There is thus a very great deal in common between the enthusiasm with which
Mohammed’s teaching attacked the priesthood, the Mass and the sacraments, and
the enthusiasm with which Calvinism, the central motive force of the
Reformation, did the same. As we all know, the new teaching relaxed the marriage
laws, but in practice this did not affect the mass of his followers, who
remained monogamous. It made divorce as easy as possible, for the sacramental
idea of marriage disappeared. It insisted upon the equality of men, and it
necessarily had that further factor in which it resembled Calvinism: the sense
of predestination or fate, of what the followers of John Knox were always
calling "the immutable decrees of God"
Mohammed’s teaching never developed among the mass of his followers, or in his
own mind, a detailed theology. He was content to accept all that appealed to him
in the Catholic scheme and to reject all that seemed to him, and to so many
others of his time, too complicated or mysterious to be true. Simplicity was the
note of the whole affair; and since all heresies draw their strength from some
true doctrine, Mohammedanism drew its strength from the true Catholic doctrines
that it retained: the equality of all men before God—"All true believers are
brothers." It zealously preached and throve on the paramount claims of justice,
social and economic.
Now, why did this new, simple, energetic heresy have its sudden overwhelming
One answer is that it won battles. It won them at once, as we shall see when we
come to the history of the thing. But winning battles could not have made Islam
permanent or even strong had there not been a state of affairs awaiting some
such message and ready to accept it.
Both in the world of Hither Asia and in the Greco-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
adopted Islam was 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, et
But even more remarkable than the flooding of all near Asia with Mohammedanism
in one lifetime was the wealth and splendor and culture of the new Islamic
empire. Islam was in those early centuries (most of the seventh, all the eighth
and ninth), the highest material civilization of the occidental world. Gaul and
Britain, and in some degree Italy, and the valley of the Danube, fell back
towards barbarism. They never became completely barbaric, not even in Britain,
which was the most remote; but they were harried and impoverished and lacked
proper government. From the fifth century to the early eleventh ran the period
which we call the Dark Ages of Europe.
So much for the Christian world of that time, against which Islam was beginning
to press so heavily; which had lost to Islam the whole of Spain and certain
islands and coasts of the central Mediterranean as well. Christendom was under
siege from Islam. Islam stood up against us in dominating splendor and wealth
and power, and, what was even more important, with superior knowledge in the
practical and applied sciences.
Islam preserved the Greek philosophers, the Greek mathematicians and their
works, the physical science of the Greek and Roman earlier writers. Islam was
also far more lettered than was Christendom. In the mass of the West most men
had become illiterate. Even in Constantinople reading and writing were not as
common as they were in the world governed by the Caliph.
For centuries to come Islam was to remain a menace, even though Spain was
reconquered by Christians. In the East it became more than a menace, and spread
continually for seven hundred years until it had mastered the Balkans and the
Hungarian plain and all but occupied Western Europe itself. Islam was the one
heresy that nearly destroyed Christendom through its early material and
Now why was this? The answer lies in the very nature of the Mohammedan conquest.
It did not, as has been so frequently repeated, destroy at once what it
came across; it did not exterminate all those who would not accept Islam.
It was just the other way. It was remarkable among all the powers that have
ruled these lands throughout history for what has wrongly been called its
"tolerance." The Mohammedan temper was not tolerant. It was, on the contrary,
fanatical and bloodthirsty. It felt no respect for, nor even curiosity about,
those from whom it differed. It was absurdly vain of itself, regarding with
contempt the high Christian culture about it. It still so regards it even today.
But the conquerors, and those whom they converted and attached to themselves
from the native populations, were still too few to govern by force. And (what is
more important) they had no idea of organization. They were always slipshod and
haphazard. Therefore a very large majority of the conquered remained in their
old habits of life and of religion.
Slowly the influence of Islam spread through these, but during the first
centuries the great majority in Syria, and even in Mesopotamia and Egypt, were
Christian, keeping the Christian Mass, the Christian Gospels, and all the
Christian tradition. It was they who preserved the Greco-Roman civilization from
which they descended, and it was that civilization, surviving under the surface
of Mohammedan government, that gave their learning and material power to the
wide territories which we must call, even so early, "the Mohammedan world,"
though the bulk of it was not yet Mohammedan in creed.
The world of Islam became, and long remained, the heir of the old Greco-Roman
culture and the preserver thereof. Thence was it that, alone of all the great
heresies, Mohammedanism not only survived but is, after nearly fourteen
centuries, as strong as ever spiritually. In time it struck roots and
established a civilization of its own over against ours, a permanent rival to
Now that we have understood why Islam, the most formidable of heresies, achieved
its strength and astounding success we must try to understand why, alone of all
the heresies, it has survived in full strength and even continues (after a
fashion) to expand to this day.
Millions of modern people of the white civilization—that is, the civilization of
Europe and America—have forgotten all about Islam. They have never come in
contact with it. They take for granted that it is decaying, and that, anyway, it
is just a foreign religion which will not concern them. It is, as a fact, the
most formidable and persistent enemy which our civilization has had, and may at
any moment become as large a menace in the future as it has been in the past.
There is another point in connection with this power of Islam: Islam is
apparently unconvertible. The missionary efforts made by great Catholic
orders which have been occupied in trying to turn Mohammedans into Christians
for nearly 400 years have everywhere wholly failed. We have in some places
driven the Mohammedan master out and freed his Christian subjects from
Mohammedan control, but we have had hardly any effect in converting individual
It has always seemed to me possible, and even probable, that there would be a
resurrection of Islam and that our sons or our grandsons would see the renewal
of that tremendous struggle between the Christian culture and what has been for
more than a thousand years its greatest opponent.
Why this conviction should have arisen in the minds of certain observers and
travelers, such as myself, I will now consider. It is indeed a vital question:
"May not Islam arise again?"
In a sense the question is already answered because Islam has never departed. It
still commands the fixed loyalty and unquestioning adherence of all the millions
between the Atlantic and the Indus and further afield throughout scattered
communities of further Asia. But I ask the question in the sense, "Will not
perhaps the temporal power of Islam return and with it the menace of an armed
Mohammedan world which will shake off the domination of Europeans—still
nominally Christian—and reappear again as the prime enemy of our civilization?"
The future always comes as a surprise, but political wisdom consists in
attempting at least some partial judgment of what that surprise may be. And for
my part I cannot but believe that a main unexpected thing of the future is the
return of Islam. Since religion is at the root of all political movements and
changes, and since we have here a very great religion physically paralyzed but
morally intensely alive, we are in the presence of an unstable equilibrium which
cannot remain permanently unstable. Let us then examine the position.
I have said that the particular quality of Mohammedanism, regarded as a heresy,
was its vitality. Alone of all the great heresies Mohammedanism struck permanent
roots, developing a life of its own, and became at last something like a new
religion. Like all heresies, Mohammedanism lived by the Catholic truths it had
retained. Its insistence on personal immortality, on the unity and infinite
majesty of God, on his justice and mercy, its insistence on the equality of
human souls in the sight of their Creator—these are its strength.
But it has survived for other reasons than these; all the other great heresies
had their truths as well as their falsehoods and vagaries, yet they have died
one after the other. The Catholic Church has seen them pass, and though their
evil consequences are still with us, the heresies themselves are dead.
The strength of Calvinism was the truth on which it insisted—the omnipotence of
God and the dependence and insufficiency of man; but its error, which was the
negation of free will, also killed it. Men could not permanently accept so
monstrous a denial of common sense and common experience. Arianism lived by the
truth that was in it, to wit, the fact that the reason could not directly
reconcile the opposite aspects of a great mystery—that of the Incarnation. But
Arianism died because it added to this truth a falsehood—to wit, that the
apparent contradiction could be solved by denying the full divinity of our Lord.
And so on with the other heresies. But Mohammedanism, though it also contained
errors side by side with those great truths, flourished continually, and as a
body of doctrine is flourishing still, though 1,300 years have passed since
its first great victories in Syria. The causes of this vitality are very
difficult to explore, and perhaps cannot be reached. For myself I should ascribe
it in some part to the fact that Mohammedanism being a thing from the outside, a
heresy that did not arise from within the body of the Christian community but
beyond its frontiers, has always possessed a reservoir of men, newcomers pouring
in to revivify its energies.
Whatever the cause be, Mohammedanism has survived, and survived vigorously.
Missionary effort has had no appreciable effect upon it. It still converts pagan
savages wholesale. It even attracts from time to time some European eccentric,
who joins its body. But the Mohammedan never becomes a Catholic. No fragment of
Islam ever abandons its sacred book, its code of morals, its organized system of
prayer, its simple doctrine.
In view of this, anyone with a knowledge of history is bound to ask himself
whether we shall not see in the future a revival of Mohammedan political power,
and the renewal of the old pressure of Islam upon Christendom.
The recrudescence of Islam, the possibility of that terror under which we lived
for centuries reappearing, and of our civilization again fighting for its life
against what was its chief enemy for a thousand years, seems fantastic. Who in
the Mohammedan world today can manufacture and maintain the complicated
instruments of modern war? Where is the political machinery whereby the religion
of Islam can play an equal part in the modern world?
I say the suggestion that Islam may re-arise sounds fantastic, but this is only
because men are always powerfully affected by the immediate past: one might say
that they are blinded by it.
Cultures spring from religions; ultimately the vital force that maintains any
culture is its philosophy, its attitude toward the universe; the decay of a
religion involves the decay of the culture corresponding to it—we see that most
clearly in the breakdown of Christendom today. The bad work begun at the
Reformation is bearing its final fruit in the dissolution of our ancestral
doctrines. The very structure of our society is dissolving.
In the place of the old Christian enthusiasms of Europe there came, for a time,
the enthusiasm for nationality, the religion of patriotism. But self-worship is
not enough, and the forces that are making for the destruction of our culture,
notably the Communist propaganda from Moscow, have a likelier future before them
than our old-fashioned patriotism.
In Islam there has been no such dissolution of ancestral doctrine—or, at any
rate, nothing corresponding to the universal breakup of religion in Europe. The
whole spiritual strength of Islam is still present in the masses of Syria and
Anatolia, of the East Asian mountains, of Arabia, Egypt, and North Africa.
The final fruit of this tenacity, the second period of Islamic power, may be
delayed; but I doubt whether it can be permanently postponed.
There is nothing in the Mohammedan civilization itself that is hostile to the
development of scientific knowledge or of mechanical aptitude. I have seen some
good artillery work in the hands of Mohammedan students of that arm; I have seen
some of the best driving and maintenance of mechanical road transport conducted
by Mohammedans. There is nothing inherent to Mohammedanism to make it incapable
of modern science and modern war. Indeed the matter is not worth discussing. It
should be self-evident to anyone who has seen the Mohammedan culture at work.
That culture happens to have fallen back in material applications; there is no
reason whatever why it should not learn its new lesson and become our equal in
all those temporal things which now alone give us our superiority over
it—whereas in faith we have fallen inferior to it.
People who question this may be misled by a number of false suggestions dating
from the immediate past. For instance, it was a common saying during the
nineteenth century that Mohammedanism had lost its political power through its
doctrine of fatalism. But that doctrine was in full vigor when the Mohammedan
power was at its height. For that matter Mohammedanism is no more fatalist than
Calvinism; the two heresies resemble each other exactly in their exaggerated
insistence upon the immutability of divine decrees.
There was another more intelligent suggestion made in the nineteenth century,
which was this: that the decline of Islam had proceeded from its fatal habit of
perpetual civil division, the splitting up and changeability of political
authority among the Mohammedans. But that weakness of theirs was present from
the beginning; it is inherent in the very nature of the Arabian temperament from
which they started. Over and over again this individualism of theirs, this
"fissiparous" tendency of theirs, has gravely weakened them. Yet over and over
again they have suddenly united under a leader and accomplished the greatest
Now it is probable enough that on these lines—unity under a leader—the return of
Islam may arrive. There is no leader as yet, but enthusiasm might bring one.
There are signs enough in the political heavens today of what we may have to
expect from the revolt of Islam at some future date—perhaps not far distant.
Along with his friend G. K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc was one of the great
Catholic writers in Britain during the first half of the twentieth century. This
article is condensed from a much longer essay contained in his book The
Great Heresies (available from Catholic Answers). It was written in March