This week’s episode is titled – “Challenge.”
We’ve tracked the development & growth of the Church in the East over a few episodes. To be clear, we’re talking about the Church which made its headquarters in the city of Seleucia. Twin city to the Persian capital of Ctesiphon, in the region known as Mesopotamia. What today historians refer to as The Church in the East called itself the Assyrian Church. But it was known by the Catholic Church in the West with its twin centers at Rome & Constantinople, by the disparaging title of the Nestorian Church because it continued on in the theological tradition of Bishop Nestorius, declared heretical by the Councils of Ephesus in 431 & Chalcedon in 451. As we’ve seen, it’s doubtful what Nestorius taught about the nature of Christ was truly errant. But Cyril, bishop of Alexandria, more for political reasons than from a concern for theological purity, convinced his peers that Nestorius was a heretic & had him & his followers banished. They moved East and formed the core of the Church in the East.
While the Church in the East thrived during the European Middle Ages, the Western Catholic Church coalesced around 2 centers; Rome & Constantinople. Though they’d reached agreement over the doctrinal issues regarding the nature of Christ & expelled both the Nestorians to the East & the Monophysite Jacobites to their enclaves in Syria & Egypt, the Western & Eastern halves of the Roman Church drifted apart.
The Council of Constantinople in 692 marked one of several turning points in the eventual rift between Rome & New Rome. Called by the Emperor, the Council was attended only by Eastern Bishops. It dealt with no real doctrinal matters but set down rules for how the Church was to be organized & worship was to be conducted. The problem is that several of the decisions went contrary to long-held practice in Rome & the Churches in Western Europe that looked to it. The Pope rejected the Council. à And the gulf between Rome & Constantinople widened.
This gap between the Eastern & Western halves of the Church, mirrored what was happening in the Empire at large. As we’ve seen, Justinian I tried to revive the gory of the Roman Empire in the 6th C, but after his death, the Empire quickly reverted to its path toward disintegration. What helped this dissolution was the emergence of the Islam from the southeast corner of the Empire.
Historically, the Arabs were a people of multiple tribes who shared both a common culture & distrust of one another which fueled endless conflict. But the early 7th C saw them united by a new & militant religion. The endless struggles that had kept them at each other’s throats, were merged into a shared mission of setting them at everyone else’s. Why steal from each other in generations of just transferring the same loot back & forth when they could unite & grab new plunder from their neighbors?
And so much the better when those neighbors who used to be too strong to attack, were now in decline & under-defended?
It was a Perfect Storm. The emergence of the Muslim armies in the early 7th C, bursting forth from the furnace that forged them, came right at the time when the once unstoppable might of the Roman Empire was finally a relic of a bygone age. Constantinople was able to hold the invaders at bay for another 700 years, but Islam spread quickly over other lands of the once great Empire; the Middle East, North Africa, & was even able to get a foothold in Europe when they jumped the Straits of Gibraltar & landed in Spain. In the East, the Muslims swept up into Rome’s ancient nemesis, Persia, and quickly subdued it as well.
It all began with the birth of an Arab named Muhammad in 570.
Since this is a podcast on the history of Christianity rather than Islam, I’ll be brief in this review of the new religion that moved the Arabs out of their peninsula during the 7th C.
Islam marks its beginning to the Hegira, Muhammad’s move from his hometown of Mecca to the city of Medina in AD 622. This began the successful phase of his preaching. Muhammad built a theology that included elements of Judaism, Christianity, & Arabian polytheism. While there’s much talk today about Islam’s place with Judaism & Christianity as a monotheistic religion, a little research reveals Muhammad really only elevated 1 of the Arab’s gods over the others – that is Il-Allah, or as it is known today – Allah. Allah was the moon god & patron deity of Muhammad’s Quraysh tribe. The enduring proof of this is the symbol of the crescent moon that adorns the top of every Muslim mosque & minaret & is the universal symbol of Islam.
Muhammad’s new religion included elements of both Judaism & Christianity because he hoped to include both groups in his new movement. The Jews refused his efforts while several Christians joined the new movement. It’s understandable why. The church Muhammad was familiar with was one that had been co-opted by Arab superstition. It hardly resembled Biblical Christianity. It was ripe pickings for the emergent faith. When Islam later ran into more orthodox Christian communities, they refused the new faith. Muhammad was incensed at the Jews & Christians refusal to join, so they became the object of his wrath.
Part of Muhammad’s genius was that he sanctified the Arabic penchant for war by uniting the tribes & sending them on the mission of taking Islam to the rest of the world thru the power of the sword. Loot was made over as a religious bonus, evidence of divine favor.
Islam’s rapid spread across Western Asia & North Africa was facilitated by the vacuum left from the chronic wars between Rome & Persia. Just prior to the Arab conquests, the old combatants had concluded another round in their long contest & were exhausted!
In the 2nd decade of the 7th C, the Persians conquered Syria & Palestine from the Romans, took Antioch, pillaged Jerusalem, then conquered Alexandria in Egypt. That means the Persians ruled what had been the 2nd & 3rd most populous cities of the Roman Empire. They conquered most of Asia Minor & set up camp just across the Bosporus from Constantinople.
Then, in one of the great reversals of history, the Emperor Heraclius rallied the Eastern Empire & launched a Holy War to reclaim the lands lost to the Persians. They retook Syria, Palestine, Egypt & invaded deep into Persia. You can well imagine what all this war did politically, environmentally & economically to the region. It left it exhausted. Like a body whose defenses are down, the Eastern Empire was ripe for a new invasion. And look; Oh goodie à Here come the Arabs swinging their scimitars. The Arab advance was nothing less than spectacular. Muhammad died in 632 and was followed by a series of associates known as caliphs. In 635 the Arabs took Damascus, in 638 they captured Jerusalem. Alexandria fell in 642. Then the Muslim armies turned north & swept up into the demoralized region of Persia. By 650 it was theirs, as were parts of Asia Minor & a large part of North Africa.
The Muslims realized conquering the Mediterranean would require they become a naval power. They did and began taking strategic islands in the Eastern & Central sea. In the 670’s with their new navy they began taking shots at Constantinople, but were chased off by a new invention – Greek Fire.
They conquered Carthage in 697, the center of Byzantine might in North Africa. Then in 715, they hopped the Straits of Gibraltar & landed in Spain, bringing the Visigothic rule there to an end. They then crossed the Pyrenees & laid claim to Southwestern Gaul. It wasn’t ill the Battle of Tours in 732 that the Franks under Charles Martel were able to put a halt to the Muslim advance. That also marks the beginning of the ever so slow roll-back of Muslim domination in the Iberian Peninsula.
But what territory Islam lost in the far western reach of their holdings was made up for by their advances in the East. During the 8th C, they reached into the Punjab in India and deep into Central Asia.
The major islands of the Mediterranean became coins that flipped from Byzantine to Muslim, then back again. The Muslims even managed to settle a couple colonies on the coast of Italy. They raided Rome.
These conquests tapered off as the old tendency toward animosity between the Arabic tribes returned. The thing that had united them – Islam, became one more thing to fight over. The main point of contention was over who was supposed to lead the Umma – the Muslim community. Islam fractured into different camps who turned their scimitars on each other – and the rest of the world breathed a collective sigh of relief.
The Church in those lands that now lay under the Crescent moon suffered. Islam was supposed to hold a certain respect for what they called “The People of the Book” – meaning Christians & Jews. Moses & Jesus were considered great prophets in Islam. While pagans had to convert to Islam, Christians & Jews were allowed to continue in their faith, as long as they paid a penalty tax. The treatment of Christians varied widely across Muslims lands. Their fate was determined by the intensity of the rulers’ faith and adherence to Islam. This was largely due to the conflicting instructions found in the Koran about how to treat people of other faiths.
In Islam, later revelation supersedes earlier pronouncements. Early in Muhammad’s career, he hoped to win Christians to his cause so he called for kindly treatment of them. Later, when he had some power and the Christians had proven intractable, he spoke more stridently and urged their forced compliance. Conversion FROM Islam to any other religion was to be punished by execution. But the Koran isn’t set down in a chronological sequence and readers don’t always know which was an earlier & which a later revelation. Some Muslims rulers were stern & read the harsh passages as being the rule. They persecuted Christian & tried to eradicate the Church. Others believed the call to a more merciful relationship with Christians was a higher morality & followed that. Churches were allowed to meet under such rulers, but public demonstrations of faith were banned & no new church building was permitted.
Interestingly, there was a flowering of Arabic culture that took place due to rule by benevolent Muslims. Because Christian scholarship was allowed, the Classics of Greek & Roman civilization were translated into Arabic BY CHRISTIAN CLEGY & SCHOLARS. It was this that led to the emergence of the Arabic Golden Age that modern historians love to mention. That such a Golden Age was sparked & enabled by Christian scholars giving Muslims access to the works of classical antiquity is rarely mentioned.
The severe limits placed on the Faith by even lenient Muslim rulers, combined with the harsh treatment of the Church in other places led to widespread losses by the Church in terms of population & influence. Catholic Christians living in North Africa fled north to Europe where they were welcomed by those of similar faith. But the Jacobite Monophysite community was left behind to languish, & the vibrant church culture that had once dominated the region was nearly lost. There are those who say the resurgent radical Islam of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is now putting the final nails in the coffin of the Coptic Church, the spiritual heirs to that once vibrant history.
Nearly everywhere Islam spread, it was accompanied by mass defections of marginal Christians to the new faith. Pragmatism isn’t such a modern philosophy after all. Many nominal Christians assumed the single God of Islam was the same as the one God of Christianity and He must favor the Muslims – I mean > look at how successful they are in spreading their religion. Might makes right – Right? // Well, maybe it doesn’t . . . Shhh! Not so loud, the mullahs are just outside & their scimitars are sharp.
As many had converted to the newly emergent Christianity under the auspices of Constantine in the early 4th Century, now many converted to Islam under the caliphates in the 7th.
Along with the restrictions placed on those Christians who refused to convert to Islam was added a practice the Muslims picked up from the Zoroastrian rulers of Persia. They required Christians to wear a distinctive badge & prohibited them from serving in the army. That was probably for the best since the army was used specifically to spread the Faith by the sword – the Muslim practice of jihad. But being banned from the military, meant they were prohibited the use of arms, and forced to wear distinctive clothing meant easy identification for those hostile elements among the Muslims who saw the presence of Christians as contrary to the will of Allah. Christians became targets of public shame & often, violence. Since conversions FROM Islam were punishable by death, while conversion TO Islam was rewarded, even in the most lenient realms under the banner of Crescent Moon, the church experienced a steady decline.
As Islam settled in and became the dominant cultural force throughout its domains, most of the Christian communities that remained became tradition-bound. They reacted strongly against any innovations, fearing they were dangerous deviations from the Faith they’d held to so tenaciously in spite of persecution. Another reason they rejected change was for fear it might lead to success and the church would grow. Growth meant the Muslim authorities paying closer attention, and that was something they wanted to avoid at all costs. For that reason, to this day the Church in Muslim lands tends to be archaic & bound to traditions practiced for hundreds of years.