The coming of the Arabs and Islam

The disintegration of the Roman Empire which had been seemingly halted by Justinian was hastened, as we have more than once suggested, by the spectacular irruption of peoples from the south-east, the Arabs, the bearers of a new religion, Islam. Moslems reckon their era as beginning with the Hegira, A.D. 622, the traditional (but erroneous) date of Mohammed's flight from Mecca to Medina. Within a century of that year the Arabs had overrun about half of what had once been the Roman Empire and were the political masters of approximately half of what might be called Christendom, or the Christian world. The story is a familiar one, but to put it in its proper perspective in the history of Christianity we must summarize it afresh.

Islam owes its birth to Mohammed, whose years were 570-632. Deeply and sincerely religious, Mohammed believed himself to be the mouth-piece of God. By his followers, the Moslems (properly Muslims), he is revered as the Prophet, and the revelations which they believe to have been given to him by God, whom he called Allah, have been assembled preeminently in the Koran, a book which Moslems hold in fully as high esteem as Christians do the Bible. Mohammed knew much of Judaism and something of Christianity and was influenced by them both. He honoured Jesus as a prophet but emphatically denied that God could have a son, for this seemed to him to be derogatory to the greatness and uniqueness of God. Here Islam differed and still differs basically from Christianity. It declares that the gulf between God and man is too great to be bridged, while the fundamental conviction of Christianity is that the gulf, although undoubtedly great, has been bridged by God's initiative in Christ, Christ who is both God and man. Some, including especially many Christians in the early Moslem centuries, regarded Islam as a Christian heresy, but Islam is held by its adherents to be a fresh revelation from God, the final religion, and not a reinterpretation of Christianity.

The sweep of Islam across much of Western Asia and North Africa and into Europe was facilitated by the power vacuum which had been created by the chronic wars between the Roman and the Persian Empire. On the eve of the Arab invasion these two realms had recently come through a stage of their hereditary struggle which had exhausted them both. In the second decade of the seventh century, beginning in 611, when they took Antioch, the Persians had torn Syria and Palestine from the Roman Empire and had pillaged Jerusalem, looting and burning churches, killing thousands of Christians, and carrying off what the latter revered as the Holy Cross on which Christ was believed to have suffered. They also captured Alexandria, probably in 618 or 619, and thus put themselves in control of Egypt. They marched through Asia Minor, seized Chalcedon on the Sea of Marmora near the Bosporus, and encamped just opposite Constantinople. In the meantime, Avars and Slavs came in from the north and one of their raids even broke through the walls of Constantinople. The Persian successes were probably facilitated by the apathy or even hostility of the Mesopotamian Nestorians and the Monophysite Syrians and Egyptians towards the Byzantine rule, identified as that was with the Greeks and Catholic orthodoxy. Then, in the 620's, by one of the striking reverses of history, the Byzantine Empire, led by the Emperor Heraclius, reasserted its power, bought off the Avars, and, in what it deemed a holy war, retook Syria, Palestine (including Jerusalem and its sacred sites), and Egypt, invaded Persia, and extracted a peace, including the Holy Cross, from the demoralized Persians. But the struggle had impoverished and weakened both realms and had rendered them vulnerable to the new invaders.

The Arab advance was spectacular. Mohammed died in 632. He was followed in the leadership of the Moslems by a succession of men who bore the title Caliph, meaning "successor," "viceregent," or "vicar" (of Mohammed). Under the Caliphs the Arabs, although by no means all of these at first accepted Islam, moved into Byzantine and then into Persian territory. In 635 they took Damascus, in 636 all of Syria fell to them, and in 638, after a siege of two years, they captured Jerusalem, although the Holy Cross escaped them and was carried to Constantinople. In 641 or 642 Alexandria capitulated and the Arabs were thus assured of the possession of all Egypt. Their rapid conquests were facilitated not only by the near-exhaustion of the Byzantine realm through the recent Persian wars, but also, as had been the Persian advance, by resentment against the imperial efforts to establish Catholic orthodoxy against the prevailing Monophysitism. In Egypt, moreover, the Byzantine forces were poorly organized and ineptly led. By 650 Mesopotamia had been conquered and the heart of Persia had been overrun. Thus the traditional eastern rival of Roman and Byzantine power was eliminated, only to be replaced by a more dangerous foe. By 650, too, parts of Asia Minor and North Africa were under Arab sway.

The Arabs became a naval as well as a land power, occupied part of Cyprus, captured the island of Rhodes, and raided Sicily and Southern Italy. In the 670's they repeatedly attacked Constantinople itself from a nearby base and were beaten off partly through the use of "Greek fire," a new invention the formula of which was a carefully guarded Byzantine secret.

In 697 Carthage, the centre of Byzantine power in North Africa, fell to the Arabs. For a time the Berbers in that area proved a knotty problem, but by 715, with the assistance of Berber forces, the Straits of Gibraltar had been passed (indeed, they have that name from Tarik, the general who commanded the crossing) and the Visigothic rule in Spain had been overthrown. Arab arms were carried across the Pyrenees and the Moslem call to prayer was heard in southern Gaul. There the Arab Moslem tide was not halted until 732 when, in the battle of Tours (or Poitiers) the Franks, in a decisive victory, stemmed it and began the slow process of rolling it back. Early in the eighth century the Arabs penetrated the Punjab in India and far into Central Asia.

In 717-718, taking advantage of a rapid change of rulers, mutinies, and a near approach to anarchy in the Byzantine Empire, the Arabs again attacked Constantinople, but were repulsed by the able Leo III, the first Emperor of the Isaurian line. Near the middle of the eighth century the Byzantine Empire recovered Cyprus and pushed the Arabs out of Asia Minor. Not for many centuries was the Moslem threat to Constantinople renewed. Yet in the ninth century Crete was taken, Sicily fell to the Moslems, Moslems established posts on the Italian coast, and Rome was attacked more than once and on at least one occasion saved itself only by paying a ransom.

The Arabs did not remain united politically and bitter wars among them were frequent. The strongest and most brilliant of the states established by them was that of the Abbasid Caliphs, descended from Abbas, uncle of Mohammed, with its capital at Baghdad.

The conquests of the Arabs by no means meant the early extinction of the Christian communities in the realms of the Caliphs. Arab Christians, of whom there were many, were in theory required to become Moslems, for Mohammed is said to have declared that there could not be any other religion in Arabia than Islam. Yet many Arab Christians were allowed to retain their faith, and in return were heavily taxed. In principle, the Moslems regarded Christians, like the Jews, as "people of the book" and tolerated them. Indeed, for a time the Arabs looked askance at the adoption by them of Islam, for conversion would give the privileges of Moslems and deprive the Arab rulers of the proceeds of the discriminatory taxes levied against Christians, At the outset in Egypt and Syria non-Catholic Christians were better off than they had been under Byzantine rulers, for the latter had attempted to force their faith upon them. So, too, in the former Persian realms Christians, notably those who were most numerous there, the Nestorians, were freer than they had been under the Zoroastrian princes. Encouraged by their new masters, they taught the latter, as we have suggested, much of Greek civilization, translating in Arabic some of the writings of the Greek philosophers.

However, in Moslem realms Christianity was under handicaps which made for a decline of the numbers of its adherents, sometimes rapid. At the time of the Arab conquest many, particularly in North Africa where the prevailing faith of Christians was not Monophysite or Nestorian, but Catholic, took refuge with their fellow Catholics in Sicily and the south of Italy. They thereby reinforced the Greek element, already strong in those traditionally Greek regions, in the churches in these areas. Others went to Spain. Greece, Gaul, and even Germany. This exodus dealt what proved to be a fatal blow to the Christianity of North Africa. As was to be expected, nearly everywhere the Arab conquests were followed by extensive defections to Islam. Occasionally, but infrequently, these were accomplished by force. Some were from the conviction that the Moslems were right in proclaiming Mohammed to be the true prophet of God and to have a later and higher revelation than Christianity. The conviction was reinforced by the military victories, for they appeared to prove that Islam was under the peculiar favour of God. Many moved over to Islam from quite mundane reasons: from the worldly standpoint it was better to be identified with the ruling class.

Then, too, Christians were under legal disabilities which made accessions to the churches, except by birth, all but impossible, placed their worship under restrictions, and laid other galling disabilities upon them. In lands where Moslem law prevailed, unrepent ant apostasy from Islam was punishable by death. Conversions to Christianity, therefore, were very rare and converts usually disappeared. Christians might retain their churches, although some of these were turned into mosques, but in theory they could not build new ones. They were prohibited from displaying their faith through public religious processions or by loud church bells. Possibly following the precedent of the Zoroastrian Persians with religious minorities, the Moslem Arabs required Christians to wear a distinctive badge or garb. Christians were not allowed to serve in the armies, but instead a special head tax was levied on men who normally would have been able to bear arms.

For purposes of administration, another device was taken over from the Zoroastrian Persians. Each of the Christian communions was treated as a distinct community and was placed under its ecclesiastical head. The latter was given authority over the members of his flock and was held responsible for them. In later centuries these communities were called melets or millets. Catholic Christians in communion with Constantinople were, quite understandably, regarded by the Arabs with especial suspicion and for many years were not allowed to have a community organization under their own head. They were known generally as Melchites or Malkites, from a Syriac word meaning "king," for they were the ones who were obedient to the imperial commands and therefore belonged to the "king's" church.

The effect of these regulations and of this administrative system was to place the churches on the defensive and to render them static, encysted minorities. They resisted change and held to the patterns which had come down to them from their fathers. They reared that any departure from the traditions of the past would be followed by the disintegration of their entire life and their faith. This meant that churches in the Arab realms were extremely conservative.

Under these circumstances, the churches in the Moslem domains, those of the Arabs and their Moslem successors of later centuries, many of them Turks, were tenaciously persistent, but slowly lost ground. The rate of decline varied from country to country. In Arabia most of the Christian communities seem to have died out before the tenth century. In North Africa the decay was marked but somewhat less rapid. In the eleventh century there were still five bishops, but late in that century the three bishops necessary for the consecration of an archbishop were not to be found and the man elected to the post by the Christians in 1074 was sent by the Moslem ruler to Rome for that rite. In Nubia, south of Egypt, Christianity persisted well beyond the thirteenth century, but eventually disappeared, not to be renewed until in the nineteenth century and then by missionaries from Western Europe. Elsewhere the churches continued but, even in the twentieth century, were still dwindling.

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