Monday, April 04, 2005

The Agora: Christianity under Pax Islamica


(a) The emergence of Islam

Islam began and continues to thrive as Christianity’s most important, enduring and successful heresy. It began with cultural insensitivity; an anti-Arab reading of the biblical account in the Book of Genesis by both Jews and Christians. Interpreting the departure of Ishmael, Abraham’s first son by his Egyptian slave Hagar, from the camp of Abraham as a rejection of Ishmaelites as a people, the desert-dwelling Arabs responded to the claim that a new revelation has come to call the faithful among the Arabs to the one true God. The Jews and Christians must have adulterated the sacred texts of scripture and falsely disenfranchised them from their true inheritance. Even among the Christians, division between the Byzantine Chalcedonian, Persian Nestorian and Ethiopian Monophysites ran deep. Islam emerged as a counter-point to the Judeo-Christian tradition and is necessarily mutually exclusive to both Judaism and Christianity. In the 300 years of Christianity in pre-Islamic Arabia, no translation of the Bible was made so that when Muhammad sought to name the One, True God, he hesitantly chose ‘Allah’ the name of the pagan Supreme Being of the Arabs 10.

The birthplace of Islam was Mecca, an important market town in western Arabia. Jewish and Christian traders were well known to the pre-Islamic pagans who lived and thrived there. However, an important Christian encounter with pre-Islamic Mecca was one of perceived commercial competition which led to war. This is the story.

In 523, the Christian king of the Axumite kingdom of Ethiopia, Kaleb of Abyssinia invaded the Jewish kingdom of the Himyarites in Yemen to aid of persecuted Christians who appealed for help. King dhu-Nawas (Masruq) was driven from his capital, Zafar . The Himyarites later recaptured Zafar and attacked the Christian kingdom of Najran to the north, killing monks, nuns and even children by the thousands12 . Enraged, the negus of Ethiopia sent an army of 70,000 across the Straits of Bab al-Mandab. They routed the Himyarite army and killed dhu-Nawas and ‘the crucifiers’, as Arabs of the Jewish faith were known. An Arab prince who proclaimed himself a Christian was installed as a puppet king of the Ethiopians. However, the African commander of the the occupying forces in Yemen deposed the Christian Arab prince and declared himself an independent king, independent even of the negus of Ethiopia. His name was Abraha. After several unsuccessful attempts at reigning him in, Ethiopia settled for a reception of tribute from Abraha in exchange for recognition of this new Christian kingdom of Yemen, with its new capital at San’a’. Abraha built a cathedral so magnificent that it threatened the pilgrim trade for which Mecca with its 360 idols of the Ka’aba, one for each lunar day, was famous. Pagan Bedouins, fearing that their business may collapse, burgled the church on the eve of its consecration and defiled the altar and cross with animal dung. In revenge, Abraha marched 400 miles north along the west coast to Mecca to destroy the Ka’aba. This African (Ethiopian) king rode a white elephant across the sands, to the astonishment of the camel-riding Arabs. The year of the invasion, 570, has since been known as the “Year of the Elephant”.

The sheikh of the defenseless Mecca, Abd al-Muttalib, tried to negotiate a ransom to save the city. Abraha wanted no human life, but only the destruction of all the idols at the Ka’aba. This was spiritual and economic suicide for the market town. Sadly, al-Muttalib rode back to Mecca to gather a posse to fight to the death for their holy place. In the battle, it was the Yemeni Christians who lost to the Meccan pagans, further reinforcing their belief in the miracle of the Ka’aba.

Moffett described it well, “It was a minor battle fought in a lost desert world, only imperfectly remembered even by tradition”, but it set in motion the future of Christianity in the desert kingdoms of Arabia. For 55 days after the battle of the Elephant, the champion over the Christians, the old Quraish bedouin Sheikh Abd al-Muttalib’s grandson was born. His name was Muhammad.

After this humiliating defeat, Yemen did not remain in Christian hands for long. The Persian Shah Chosroes II made a truce with Constantinople to secure its northern borders, freeing its troops to expand its southern boundary, the Ethiopian tributary state of African-led Christian Yemen. In 575, the Persians landed at Aden and defeated the garrisons of Yemen. The Jewish prince Sayf ibn-dhi-Yazen, son of dhu-Nawas was installed but was soon murdered and replaced by a Persian satrap .

All the major areas of Christian strength in Arabia were dominated by non-Arab foreigners. In the northwest, the Ghannasid kingdom was a tributary state of Rome for some 400 years. In the northeast, the Lakhmid kingdom was absorbed by Persia. In the southwest, the Himyarite kingdom came under Ethiopia and later Persia. No authentic local Arabic Christian base was establish and the Christian scriptures had not even been translated into Arabic17 . This contributed to its inherent weakness against the rise of Islam.

(b) Muhammad and his successors

Muhammad had a total of 16 wives/concubines, of which his two favorites were Aisha, who was 9 when she married him and Mariya (Mary), a Coptic Christian slave given to him as a gift. The only son of Muhammad, Ibrahim (Abraham), was borne by the Christian Mariyah, but he did not live to see his second birthday. Had he survived to heirship, it would have complicated matters of succession. Two of his other wives were Jews.

After the death of Muhammad in 632, the leadership of Islam fell to four caliphs (successors). As it turned out, all four successors (caliphs) of Muhammad were related to him. Abu Bakr and Umar were both his fathers-in-law and Uthman and Ali were both his sons-in-law. Only the first caliph died a peaceful death, the other three being murdered by fellow Muslims and a Persian slave. The spilt in Islam over the issue of succession was never healed. Uthman, the third caliph, was married to Muhammad’s daughter Ruqayya, but favored his own family, the Ummayads of Mecca. He rejected the notion of blood succession and preferred instead to consider the will of the Prophet’s community. It was he who ordered the editing of a single authorized version of the Qur’an, destroying all other copies, thereby establishing the rule of the community which authenticated the Qur’an itself. This important move at once diminished the personal authority of the caliph and introduced primacy to the Qur’an.

Ali, the other son-in-law, married to Fatima, sensed that his own bloodline was in danger. Uthman was murdered and Ali was made the fourth caliph, despite his implication in the murder. This eventually led to his own murder and began the split in Islam.

In 661, following the murder of Ali, the fourth caliph to Muhammad, the Arab governor of Syria, Mu’Awiyah, set himself up as caliph. It was the foundation of the Ummayad caliphate.

Mu’Awiyah set up his new capital in Damascus and named his son the crown prince, introducing the dynastic principle to Islam. A dissident group, the Shi’a (Shi’ites, or ‘party of Ali’) claimed that the right of interpreting the Qur’an should be confined to Muhammad’s direct descendants (either by blood or marriage). They believed that the murdered caliph Ali was divinely designated the imam whose office can only be transmitted to his descendants and who was immune from sin and error. The Ummayad caliphs or Sunni (Sunnites) believed that doctrinal authority changed hands with the caliphate. Syria had a long Hellenistic past and Arabs were shaped by the heritage of Greece rather than of Rome. Indeed, both the caliph’s wife and physician were Christians.

The Sunnites are led by a caliph while the Shi’ites or party of Ali are led by an imam, who must be a descendent of Fatima. Both groups take as the ultimate authority, the Qur’an and the Traditions or Hadiths. The Hadiths are oral traditions about the life of Muhammad. The standard and most authoritative edition , “The Six Books”, is the work of al-Bukhari (810-970).

At its peak, Islam ruled from southern France to northern India and from the Balkans in the north to the Sudan in the south. Yet from its earliest beginnings, it was not a monolith. There was not a single Islam but an increasing number of sects which broke off from Muhammad’s chosen successors.

(c) Islam and non-Muslims

On the whole, Islam has proven to be the only serious threat to western Christendom and civilization. Its impact was so jarring that it influenced most of arts of learning and shaped they way we understand Greek philosophy. Its fabled wealth was captured by military conquests and its legal system developed a apartheid system by which non-Muslims live as second-class citizens, as dhimmi. Underlying its core values is a sixth pillar, Islamic jihad, developed to its fullest during the Third Crusade by the Kurdish sultan, Saladin of the Ayyubid dynasty in Egypt and Damascus.

(d) The Church under the Patriarchal Caliphs (632-660)

Early Islam dealt with non-Muslims by categorizing their level of departure from the teachings of the prophet. There are two kinds of “People of the Book”, Muslims on the one hand and Jews and Christians on the other. Next come the pagans such as the Zoroastrians. Finally, the idolaters. Muhammad wanted to convert the other People of the Book, but finally gave up any hope of doing so, resorting to militancy as an expression of fulfilling the will of Allah.

Islam is about submission, whether by conversion borne of persuasion or not. Thus the Muslim armies were more interested that their objects of war submitted to Allah above all else. If they do so by dint of spiritual turning to God, all the better. If not, their death is not a failure of jihad. By contrast, Christianity is about proclamation. Even if conversion does not take place, the responsibility of the Christian has been faithfully exercised.

The myth that Muslims permitted Christians to live in peace with them is misleading. At best, Christians had to pay a special discriminatory tax to the Islamic government. Sometimes, they were expelled and had all their possessions confiscated. In many cases, forced conversions saved the Christians. At worst, they were killed outright without recourse to conversion to Islam. The dominance of Islam in Arabia made Arabism almost synonymous with being Muslim. This was no accident. Arabs had to decide between conversion or death.

In Arabia, the Taghlib tribe in the northeast were largely Nestorian Christians who aided Muhammad in his final campaigns against Syria and Mesopotamia. After the success of Muslim conquests, the Taghlibs were forced to choose between Christianity and being considered non-Arab. Resisting the renunciation of their Arabism as well as their faith, a compromise was found. They remained Arabs in Muslim eyes but as Christians, had to pay double the amount of tax an Arab Muslim pays and had to promise not to baptize their children. This dispensation was an exception to the basic rule for Arabs under Islamic rule: Convert or die!

In Jerusalem, Christians were initially treated as dhimmi, non-Muslims living as second-class citizens, paying a special tax. However, with change of leadership, later Muslim leaders began to persecute Christians and this eventually led to the Christian Crusades. The first caliph, Abu Bakr ruled for only 2 years (632-634). The second caliph, Umar ruled for 10 years (634-644). He built the first Muslim mosque in Jerusalem . In 638, he led the conquest of Jerusalem. Later, an edict attributed to him, called the “Covenant of Umar”, set out the treatment of Christians in conquered territory. In fact, the practice of subjugating dhimmis to a lesser citizenship slowly took shape and was at its height only much later, around 820. In any case, this administrative act turned Islam from an army into an empire .

The three major branches of Christianity under Islamic Asia were the Nestorians of Mesopotamia and Persia, the Monophysite Jacobites in Syria and the Chalcedonian Melkites of conquered Byzantine provinces. Among these, the Nestorians were the most favored and their patriarch was permitted to maintain his residence at the old Persian capital of Seleucia-Ctesiphon. Patriarch Yeshuyab II (628-643) claimed to have negotiated directly with Muhammad after their defeat to the Muslim army and obtained favorable status. It was Yeshuyab II who sent the missionary known as Alopen on the first known Christian mission to China.

Under Greek Byzantine (Chalcedonian Melkites) rule, both the Nestorians and Jacobites were outlawed and treated badly. However, under the Muslim Arabs, all three Christian branches were equally heretical and were treated pretty much the same except for ‘favoritism’ with the Nestorians . This gave rise to the impression that the Muslims were kinder to Christians under their rule than vice-versa. In fact, what was meant was that the ‘heretical’ Christians felt that the ‘orthodox’ Christians who persecuted them were now in the same boat as them. The Muslims, being rather a pragmatic sort of people, learned to prefer milking their non-threatening enemies of funds rather than kill them outright.

(e) The Church under the Umayyad Caliphate (661-750)

The first Islamic civil war ended with the murder of Ali (4th caliph) at Karbala (modern day Iraq) and the defeat of his followers, the Shi’ites, and marked the start of the royal Muslim dynasty, the Ummayads. The first Ummayad caliph, Mu’awiya (661-680), moved his capital to Damascus, a Christian territory.

Mu’awiya appointed the Christian Syrian, Mansur ibn-Sarjun (Sergius) to a high non-military position. Mansur was the grandfather of John of Damascus (675-749), among the earliest apologetic missionary monk to the Muslims. He mastered the Qur’an and knew the Hadiths of the time. John was unusual in that while he was in the employ of the Muslim state, he continued to write against theological Islam. Whether the Muslims felt he was not a serious threat or whether they wanted the Byzantines to see John as a Christian traitor, helping to administer Islamic rule in Christian territory, is unknown. By the year 700, non-Arab Muslims, notably Persians and Berbers, outnumber Arab Muslims . This may have contributed to Arab Muslim insecurity so that after John left public service in 726, Muslim treatment of Christians took a nasty turn. It remains a mystery why John wrote strongly against Islam but did not protest the erosion of Christian freedom to worship, which culminated with the execution of bishop Peter of Maimuma near Gaza .

The taxation and humiliation of non-Muslims were mandated by the Qur’an. In sura 9, we read “make war upon such of those ... who profess not the profession of truth, until they pay tribute out of hand, and they be humbled”. Apart from this, another point of discrimination was the land tax. The Covenant of Umar under which Christians were to be treated has been summarized in this way:

“You shall be under Muslim laws and no other, and shall not refuse to do anything we demand of you.... You shall not display the cross in any Muslim town, nor parade your idolatry, nor build a church, nor beat the wooden clappers (used instead of bells by the Nestorians), nor use your idolatrous language about Jesus the Son of Mary to any Muslim”

There were other social humiliations. Marrying or committing adultery with a Muslim woman constituted a major crime. Others are evangelizing a Muslim, turing a Muslim from his religion, and helping the enemies of Islam. Christians were ordered to wear a distinctive girdle around their waists to show they are not Arabs. Later, a large yellow patch on their outer garments marked the wearers as Christian .

(f) The Church under the early Abbasid Caliphate (750-1258)

The Abbasid dynasty was the longest-lived Islamic dynasty which lasted over 500 years, until they were defeated by the Mongols in 1258 . In 762, they moved their capital from Damascus to Baghdad. While the Ummayad empire privileged the Arab race, the Abbasid empire privileged doctrinal orthodoxy. The third Abbasid caliph, Mahdi (775-785) staged a famous debate with the Nestorian patriarch Timothy I (779-823) in 781.

The civil rights of Christians were further eroded so that their testimony against Muslims were inadmissible in courts of law. This was because of the charge in the Qur’an that Christians have corrupted their scriptures, staining their witness and making them inherently untrustworthy .

The years from 850-1000 marked the decline of the church in Asia under Muslim control. The Nestorian patriarch was acknowledged to be the principal leader of all Christians by Baghdad. By the end of the eleventh century, the appointment of Christian bishops under the primacy of the Nestorian patriarch Ebedyeshu II (1074-1090) was in the hands of the Muslim caliph, al-Kaim35 . The Abbasid empire itself began a slow decline from 1000 onwards. Much of the fault lay with the warring factions within Islam. They quarreled over issues of succession, political power, centers of spiritual authority, as well as over Islamic law and theology. Muhammad himself warned that while the Israelites have been divided into 72 sects, “my community shall be divided into 73” . In the tenth century, the Abbasid caliphate split into three warring factions in three continents, the Abbasid of Persia in Asia (Sunnite/Shi’ite), Fatimid of Egypt in Africa (Shi’ite) and Ummayad of Spain (Cordova) in Europe (Sunnite) . At around 999, the rise of the Turks had reached the Muslim borders in the east. The Karluk Turks were followed by the Seljuq Turks, or Turkomans. This Central Asian tribe led by Toghril Beg, grandson of Seljuq himself, carved out an empire for themselves. By 1055, the Seljuqs, whom many historians believe might have been Nestorian Christians, were so impressed by the practice of Islam that they entered baghdad as newly converted Sunnite Muslims. Toghril’s nephew, Alp Arslan (1063-1072) conquered Christian Armenia and later emerged victorious against Byzantine Christians in the Battle of Manzikert in 1071, which led to their cry for help to Rome, resulting in the First Crusade38 .

The Abbasid Empire*

(g) The Crusades

The land claimed by the Jews was achieved by an invasion sanctioned by Yahweh, the God of the Bible sometime in the fourteenth century B.C. Christians in the first century A.D. laid claim to be successors to the ‘chosen’ people, the emphasis being on the God who chose rather than on the ‘choice’ people. By the seventh century, Muslims claim to be reformers of the Judeo-Christian tradition and the true inheritors of the biblical lands.

Thus the notion of ‘recovering’ land or ‘recapturing’ cities are loaded terms. The Israelite ‘settlement’ was a religious claim. However, the displaced Canaanites would have seen it as an illegitimate invasion of sovereign lands. The Jewish dispersal and Christian missionary expansion effectively abandoned Palestine. The Muslims ‘took’ Jerusalem on a religio-political claim to protect the land from which the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven. Modern Israel is a political claim based on a religious settlement.

This was how the Crusades began. In 1009, the caliph of Cairo, al-Hakim, tore down the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the holiest site in Christendom, and repudiated a 200 year old treaty between Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne and the Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid, which permitted Christian access for pilgrimage to Muslim Jerusalem. In 1070, the Turks took Jerusalem and destroyed the armies of Constantinople at Manzikert a year later. Although the split between Rome and Constantinople took place in 1054, the frightened Eastern Roman Emperor Michael VII appealed to the Roman pope for help. In 1095, Pope Urban II issued a call to arms in Clermont, France. The First (French) Crusade landed and recaptured Jerusalem in 1099, after taking Muslim-controlled Nicaea in 1097 and Antioch in 1098. The great disunity of the Muslims made it look easy for the disorganized Christians39 . The Crusader kingdoms were established but Edessa was captured by the Turks. The Second Crusade launched in response failed to retake the Edessa from the Turks. In 1187, the Kurdish Saladin led an army of Muslims to take Jerusalem and ripped the great gold cross off the crown of the Dome of the Rock. This prompted the Third Crusade led by the French-speaking English king Richard the Lion-Heart. He captured Acre and Jaffa but was too exhausted to retake Jerusalem and ended up signing a truce with Saladin. By 1200, the horrors of the Fourth Crusade began and ended with the decimation of Greek Christian Constantinople in Roman Christian hands from which it never fully recovered. In 1258, Arab Baghdad fell to the fearsome Mongols from the East.

This brief essay seeks to clarify the popular misconception that Christians has a good deal under Islamic Rule while Christendom illtreated non-Christians. While it is certainly true that it was no fun being outside the Church in medieval Europe, various Islamic Empires tolerated non-Muslims only because it was economically convenient to let them live and tax them to death. Islam is a highly pragmatic religion and makes no bones about being commercially viable. Christianity, on the other hand, undergo countless pangs of guilt and hand-wringing as they deal with being in this world while trying to not be of this world. The example fo the start of the Latin Crusades above shows that it is only too easy to think that th Christian Army went on a rampage for nothing. While their campaigns were inexcusable, they were also provoked by the unmitigated acts of the caliph of Cairo. I wish historians would paint a more comprehensive picture of what happened than worry about the sales figures of books written for mass publication.

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