Jacob Burckhardt: How Muhammad’s “Victory of Fanaticism and Triviality” Engendered Islam’s “Despotism” and “Periodical Renewal of the Holy War (Jihad)”

An iconic figure in the annals of Western historiography, Jacob Burckhardt (1818–1897) was a pioneering scholar of “cultural history.” Burckhardt, whose best known work is The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860), believed it was the solemn duty of Western civilization’s heirs to study and acknowledge their own unique cultural inheritance—starting with the culture and heritage of classical Athens. Burckhardt emphasized how the Western conception of freedom was engendered in Athens, where its flowering was accompa­nied by the production of some of history’s most sublime literary and artistic works. Moreover, while Burckhardt affirmed the irreducible nature of freedom, and upheld equality before the law, he decried the notion—a pervasive, rigidly enforced dogma at present—that all ways of life, opinions, and beliefs were of equal value. Burckhardt argued that this conceptual reductio ad absurdum would destroy Western culture, heralding a return to barbarism. Burckhardt’s lecture notes for his history courses at the University of Basel during the period from 1865 to 1885 include Weltgeschichtliche Betrachtungen, published in English as Force and Freedom, 1964, and in 1979 as Reflections on History, by the Liberty Fund.

Extracts from these two collections, below, illustrate Burckhardt’s pellucid, frank understanding of the yawning cultural chasm—moral, philosophical, and educational—between Islam, and Western civilization. With unapologetic insight Burckhardt hones in on how Muhammad, Islam’s “radical simplifier,” engendered Islamic “despotism”—in modern parlance “totalitarianism”—and the creed’s eternal impetus for “periodical renewal of the Holy War (i.e., Jihad),” to achieve “world empire,” as “a simple corollary.”


With his Muhammad scanty preaching alone he would have achieved only a modest and temporary success; but from the hegira [migration to Medina, ~ 622 C.E.] on, he constantly procured new goals for his adherents: in addition to Mecca, which he promised them, the robbing of caravans and the conquests in Arabia together with the resulting booty. To this there immediately attaches as something natural the holy war against the outside as well. World empire is a simple corollary.

Muhammad is personally very fanatical; that is his basic strength. His fanaticism is that of a radical simplifier and to that extent is quite genuine. It is of the toughest variety, namely, doctrinaire passion, and his victory is one of the greatest victories of fanaticism and triviality. All idolatry, everything mythical, everything free in religion, all the multifarious ramifications of the hitherto existing faith, transport him into a real rage, and he hits upon a moment when large strata of his nation were evidently highly receptive to an extreme simplification of the religious; his genius lies in his divining this. And the peoples who were now attacked may also have been somewhat tired of their existing theology and mythology. From his youth on, Muhammad, with the aid of at least ten people, looks over the faiths of the Jews, Christians, and Parsis [Zoroastrians], and steals from them any scraps that he can use, shaping these elements according to his imagination. Thus everyone found in Muhammad’s sermons some echo of his accustomed faith. The very extraordinary thing is that with all this Muhammad achieved not merely lifetime success, the homage of Arabia, but founded a world religion that is viable to this day and has a tremendously high opinion of itself.

…The absolute decree; fatalism (Muhammad himself calls it “submission”) which had a highly tonic effect on aspiring forces.

All religions are exclusive, but Islam is quite notably so, and immediately it developed into a state which seemed to be all of a piece with the religion. The Koran is its spiritual and secular book of law. Its statutes embrace all areas of life…and remain set and rigid; the very narrow Arab mind imposes this nature on many nationalities and thus remolds them for all time (a profound, extensive spiritual bondage!) This is the power of Islam in itself. At the same time, the form of the world empire as well as of the states gradually detaching themselves from it cannot be anything but a despotic monarchy. The very reason and excuse for existence, the holy war, and the possible world conquest, do not brook any other form.

The strongest proof of real, extremely despotic power in Islam is the fact that it has been able to invalidate, in such large measure, the entire history (customs, religion, previous way of looking at things, earlier imagination) of the peoples converted to it. It accomplished this only by instilling into them a new religious arrogance which was stronger than everything and induced them to be ashamed [emphasis in original] of their past.

Islam proselytized either not at all or only at times and in places. As long as it could, it spread not by mission, but by conquest. It even welcomed the presence in its midst of infidel tax payers, though killing them by means of contempt and ill-treatment, or even massacring them in outbursts of fury

In Islam, where this fusion [between State and Church] took place, the whole culture was dominated, shaped and colored by it. Islam has only one form of polity, of necessity despotic, the consummation of power, secular, priestly and theocratic, which was transferred from the Caliphate to all dynasties. Thus all its parts were mere replicas of the world empire on a small scale, hence Arabized and despotic.

This aridity, this dreary uniformity of Islam, which is so terribly limited on the religious side, probably did more harm than good to Culture, if only because it rendered the peoples affected by it incapable of going over to another culture. Its simplicity much facilitated its expansion, but was marked by that extreme exclusiveness which is a feature of all rigid monotheism, while the wretched Koran stood, and still stands, in the way of any political and legal growth. Law remained half priestly. The best that might be said of the cultural influence of the Koran is that it does not prohibit activity as such, fosters mobility (by travel)—hence the unity of this culture from the Ganges to the Senegal…

Yet Christian contemplation even at its gloomiest was less pernicious culturally than Islam, as will at once appear from the following consideration. Quite apart from the general servitude imposed by despotism and its police, from the lack of any sense of honor in anyone connected with power, for which the absence of a nobility and clergy offers no compensation, a diabolical pride is engendered towards non-Islamic populations and countries, involving a periodical renewal of the Holy War [Jihad], and that pride cuts it off from what is, after all, far and away the greater part of the world and from any comprehension of it.

The sole ideals of life are the two poles—the monarch and cynically ascetic dervish-sufi…

In Islamic education, we are struck by the predominance of linguistics and grammar over substance, by the sophistical nature of philosophy, of which only the heretical side is free and significant, further, by the poor quality of historical learning—poor because everything outside of Islam is indifferent and everything within Islam a prey to parties and sects—and by a scientific teaching the defects of which immediately become apparent when it is compared with free and unrestricted empiricism. Men were not able to investigate and discover nearly as much as they might have done in freedom. What was lacking was a general impulse to fathom the world and its laws.

Islamic poetry is mainly characterized by its repugnance to the epic, born of the fear that the souls of the several peoples might continue to live in it; Firdausi only exists as contraband. It has, further, a didactic bias which is mortal to the epic, and a tendency to value narrative only as the shell of a general thought, as a parable. For the rest, poetry took refuse in the tale, thronged with figures, but devoid of characters. Further, there was no drama. Fatalism makes it impossible to show fate as born of the interplay of passion and justification—indeed, it may be that despotism of its very nature checks the objective poetic expression of anything at all. And no comedy could come into being, if only because all comic feeling was consumed by the joke, the lampoon, the parable, the juggler, etc.

In the visual arts, architecture alone developed, firstly through Persian builders and subsequently with the help of Byzantine and any other styles which lay to hand. Sculpture and painting were practically non-existent, because the decree of the Koran was not only observed but carried far beyond its letter. What the intellect forfeited in these circumstances may be left to the imagination.

And now we must again turn back to Islam, with its stranglehold on national feeling and its miserable constitutional and legal system grafted on to religion, beyond which its peoples never advanced. The State, as a political picture, is here extremely uninteresting; in the Caliphate, practically from its outset, a despotism without responsibility to heaven or earth was taken for granted, and even, by a highly illogical twist, by its renegades. What is supremely interesting is how this organization came into being and could not but come into being, given the nature of Islam and of its rule over Giaours [Infidels]. There lies the explanation of the great similarity of Islamic States from the Tagus [a river in the Iberian peninsula] to the Ganges, the only difference being the former with less steadfastness and talent. A kind of division of power can be dimly descried only among the Seljuk nobility.

It would seem that the belief in a future life was never of great consequence among the Muslims from the beginning. No interdict in the Western sense had any power, no moral qualms could afflict the potentate, and it was easy for him to remain orthodox or adhere to whichever of the sects happened to predominate. (But is sometimes happened that a fanatic gathered zealots under some standard or other, e.g. the Wahabis, whose doctrine is a hotch-potch utterly unintelligible to us.) It is true that, from time to time, benevolent despots were regarded with great affection, but even their sphere of influence was restricted to their immediate entourage. Now the question may arise how far Islam (like the more ancient Parsee [Zoroastrian] religion and Byzantium) represented a State in any sense whatever. Its pride was simply that it was Islam, nor could this simplest of all religions be attacked through its own devotees. Sacraments could not be withheld from the evildoer, whose fatalism made him impervious to many things, while every one of its members was familiar with violence and corruption. Whoever was unable or unwilling to exterminate the Muslims found it best to leave them in peace. Their empty, arid and treeless lands might perhaps be taken from them, but obedience to a non-Koranic dispensation could never be enforced. Their equanimity gave them a high degree of individual independence; their slave system and their subjection of the Giaours [Infidels] inspired them with contempt of all labor, except agriculture, which is the basis of their communal feeling.

…Any importation from Western culture…seems to be detrimental to the Muslims, from loans and national debts onwards


Andrew G. Bostom is the author of The Legacy of Jihad (Prometheus, 2005) and The Legacy of Islamic Antisemitism " (Prometheus, November, 2008) You can contact Dr. Bostom at @andrewbostom.org

Comments are closed.