The rise of Islam and the status of Christians in Islamic society

As in the case of the Sasanian conquest a quarter of a century before, the persecutions of dissenters on the part of imperial authorities facilitated the swift Islamic takeover of the Byzantine East. In 634 the miaphysites were not inclined to resist the monotheist Arabs any more than the "pagan," "fire-worshiping" Persians. In the earliest stage of Islam the affiliation of the new religious teaching to the texts of the Bible and Apocrypha was manifest to Christians, and some even placed their hope ofeschatological liberation in the army of the Prophet of Islam.

The conquerors shaped a radically new system of social relations, which, in its fundamental characteristics, was to last until the end of the Ottoman sultanate in 1922, and, in the case of certain Christian communities, until the present day It conferred specific features on the Christians' relationships with the rulers and influenced the formation of distinctive identities among them, with respect to individual ethos and spirituality. Its origins lay in the self-understanding of the nascent religion in the social and religious environment of the Near East and particularly in the way it envisaged its relations with the Christianity present in the Arabian peninsula from ancient times. Muhammad viewed his teaching as the "rediscovered" primordial monotheistic religion proper to humankind. The Qur'an (7.157; 61.6; 6.92) states in fact that before sending the Arabs the definitive message of submission (Islam), God had sent analogous, although less complete, "Books" to the Jews and to Christians, in which Muhammad's coming had also been predicted.20 On this ground the Qur'an, and the Muslim law developed from it, distinguished two categories among the conquered populations. The "polytheists" were subject to obligatory conversion or enslavement, whereas the "Detainers of the Book," Ahl al-kitab, were formally tolerated. The term "Book" was used to designate the Pentateuch, the Psalter, and the Gospels, perceived above all as legal texts, and their "Detainers" were Jews and Christians. The Qur'an (62.27; 5.82-84) presents the Christians in a more favorable light than the Jews and even affirms that the people most friendly toward Muslims are to be found among Christians, whose devotional attitudes and moral virtues are also praised.

Muhammad's failure to engage Christians in his "Community of Believers," followed by the military resistance which the Muslim troops encountered from the Arab Christian tribes, conditioned, however, the Qur'an's ultimately negative attitude toward Christianity. In many places (3.78; 5.13; 2.59,75) the Qur'an condemns the doctrines of Jews and Christians as falsifications of the authentic instructions in the true universal monotheistic religion, which had been given to them in the past. According to the Qur'an (18.4-5; 5.17; 4.171), the Jewish and Christian Scriptures are not identical with the portions of the heavenly "Book" transmitted to Moses and Jesus, but reflect the erroneous imagination of Jews and Christians, which ultimately makes them disobedient to God and blasphemous. Yet the Qur'an shows no direct acquaintance with the canonical books of the Bible. In the following centuries, the doctrinal contrasts between "Nestorians," various miaphysite factions, Maronites, and Melkites, as well as the Christians' general tendency to doctrinal controversies and sectarianism, which were familiar to the Muslims, sometimes provided grounds to suspect them of worshiping different gods.

In several instances (4.169; 5.76-77; 9.31; 17.111; 19.36; 23.93; 25.2) the Qur'an applies to Christians the term mushrikun, "associators," which elsewhere in the Qur'an is the normal term for polytheists - those committing the worst of sins by worshiping "associates" along with God. It is against this background that we should consider the Qur'an's direct injunction "to fight against those to whom the Scriptures have been given . . . until they pay tribute [jizya] out of hand and are utterly humiliated" (9.29-35). This precept is dated to the end of Muhammad's prophetic activity, that is, following the conquest of Mecca in 630, after Muslim troops had already confronted the Christian populations of

20 Thomas, "Early Muslim Responses."

Yemen, northwestern Arabia, and Nabatea, and shortly before his death in 632. It probably reflects the conditions of the truce offered by the Muslims to the inhabitants of the conquered cities. The later pacts of submission, which the defeated cities were forced to sign with their Islamic conquerors, followed the pattern set by Muh. ammad.

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