Muslim Scholars or Irish Monks –

Who Saved Civilization?

Jesus Never Existed The Challenge of Islam

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Kenneth Humphreys



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Horse Power

"There can be little doubt that of all the horse breeds the Arab has exerted the greatest influence on the world's equine population ... the pedigrees  were associated with one or other of the numerous Bedouin tribes ... purity was jealously guarded."

– E. H. Edwards (Horses, Their Role in the History of Man, p31,35)

In the harsh desert environment close living and hand-feeding of horses encouraged loyalty and docility as well as toughness. Selective breeding refined the stock.

It was the superiority of Arabian horses which made the vast and rapid conquests of Islam possible.

Not surprisingly, the sale of horses to the infidel was forbidden.




A faceless Muhammad gallops to heaven on horseback.

"A horse scrupulously bred for the Holy War will save his master from the fire on the Day of Resurrection."

– Koran






'The results of a number of recent digs appear to have convinced archaeologists that the entire Levantine coast underwent some form of major economic and demographic crisis towards the end of the sixth century, a full half-century before the Arab conquest.'

– Dalrymple (From the Holy Mountain, p182)





The Cutting Edge

Damascus, capital of the Umayyad caliphate, was the centre of a flourishing artisan industry, producing the world's finest swords and laces, often richly decorated with valuable metals and gems.

The weapons were much prized by Christian knights.

Damascene Steel

The strongly curved scimitar (from Persian 'shamshir') made a superior slashing weapon and influenced the development of the European cutlass at the end of the 16th century..


Magazine a store of weapons and, later, used for a 'store of knowledge' derives from Arabic 'makhazin'.






Birds of Prey

Ivory from 10th century Fatimid Egypt

Falconry was used by desert dwellers to bring more meat into their meagre diet and is of great antiquity.

The larger birds – peregrines, 'Barbary' and 'Tunisian' falcons – could bring down ducks and catch hares and other small animals.

In the 9th century, as trade with Arabia increased, falconry spread to Europe, and later went 'upscale' to became a sport of the wealthy.

After his crusade of 1228, Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II returned home with experienced falconers from Arabia and Syria, and actually wrote a book 'De Arte Venandi cum Avibus' ('The Art of Falconry').




Pope Leo X (1513-21), besides being an outstanding party animal, was also an avid falconer.

A priest called Luther caused him some upset but he had no issue with religious orders in which falcons were regularly taken into church services.




Simple Pleasures


"Shah mata!"

In 800, Caliph Harun al-Rashid presented the illiterate Frankish warlord Charlemagne with a chessboard. The game was unknown in Christian Europe.

Chess, backgammon and other gambling games of the Saracens proved to be so popular among the crusaders that Richard I issued an edict in 1190 limiting the wagers.

The Church continued to oppose 'idle pastimes' until the end of the 15th century.






Qusayr Amra interior.


Bath houses

Though less grand than the baths of Rome, Arab towns had numerous public bathhouses, with elaborate cisterns for hot and cold water, mosaic floors and a system of underground flues for heating the floors with hot air.

In order to make the best of precious water the 'hammans' rarely had plunge pools but often featured steam rooms – in later centuries called a 'Turkish bath.'

This was at a time when most of Europe never bathed at all.






Most Fragrant Rose

The Damask Rose introduction by crusaders returning to France from Damascus, Syria.

Of the 100 or so books written by Ibn Sina (979-1037) one was a volume devoted entirely to roses.

From the 9th century extensive study of botany was undertaken at Baghdad and Cordova.




















The Rapid Advance of Islam

A century of almost continuous warfare between the Byzantine and Persian empires depleted the resources of both and diverted trade from the overland routes to the Red Sea. With Petra and the Yemeni kingdoms largely ruined the small but long-established trading city of Mecca, half way up the western coast of Arabia, benefitted enormously.

Energised by a new found wealth, and excited by the simultaneous weakness of the two old empires – both of which had confined the Arabs to a role of frontier mercenaries – the desert dwellers were able to raid further than ever before. The first foray into Syria occurred before Muhammad started his proselytising – the defeat of a Persian force in 611. Initial success galvanised the traditionally fratricidal tribes into a formidable army.

Welcomed rather than resisted in former colonies weary of imperial exploitation and religious persecution, the Arab warlords adapted themselves to a settled existence. They retained and worked through the established bureaucracy and synthesised a universal religion from elements of both Judaism and Christianity – Islam.


When Muhammad ibn Abdallah died in 632 the Arabs had not yet erupted out of Arabia. Their unity was fragile, despite the 'umma' proclaimed by the prophet. Successors of the great man, the 'caliphs', were assassinated with alarming regularity – Umar in 644, Uthman in 656, Ali in 661. Despite strenuous efforts, the tribal elite of Mecca, from which Muhammad had originated, lost control of the empire. But in the hands of the Umayyad dynasty a policy of compromise, tolerance and syncretism triumphed.



Polyglot Empire

In the 7th century Arab armies rapidly overran Byzantine provinces ruined by Justinian and his successors. The warriors of Arabia inherited a major part of the former empire of Rome. To this they added the ravaged empire of Persia. By the 9th century the armies of Islam had triumphed all the way from the borders of China to the Pyrenees.

The conquering elite from Arabia now ruled many nationalities – Persians, Indians, Turks, Egyptians, Syrians, Berbers, Andalusians, Greeks and Jews. They had little choice but to rule their provinces through an indigenous intelligentsia drawn, in particular, from minorities – like the Nestorians, Jacobites, Sabaeans and Jews – persecuted by Byzantium. These refugees and outcasts from an intolerant Christendom enthusiastically served their new masters.

Crucially, the Arab overlords were themselves civilized and educated by their local administrators. Though much of Roman, Greek and Persian civilization had been lost and theocracy now cast its stultifying shadow in the east as well as in Europe, a new Islamic civilization arose upon the ruins of antiquity.


The Devil Rides Out?

One contemporary Christian view of triumphant Islam was that it signalled the 'end time' – the time of 'false prophets' and the reign of the Antichrist. When news of Muhammad had first reached Constantinople he was thought to be yet another Christian heretic, a latter-day Arius from the the desert wasteland. By the time Arab armies were raiding the coasts of France and Italy (they ransacked St Peters in 846) the fear – and hope – of Christendom was that Armageddon had begun.

The disaffected native peoples of the conquered provinces saw things rather differently. They had for generations demonstrated a resistance to imperial exploitation by adopting non-orthodox Christianities (Donatism, Monophysitism, Nestorianism, et al). Now 'Islam' offered a dynamic alternative.


Eye Witness

The Christian theologian John 'Damascene' (c. 676-754) grew up in the very hub of early Islam – the Umayyad court of Damascus – where his father was imperial chancellor, no less. His grandfather, an Arab Christian called Mansour ibn Sargun, had been the last Byzantine governor of Damascus and had surrendered the city to Khalid ibn Walid in 635. The family remained rich and powerful under the new management and John himself became chief councillor of the city.

John's main work 'Fountain of Wisdom' ('Pege gnoseos') catalogued twenty new 'heresies' which had arisen since Epiphanius had drawn up his black list (the 'Panarion') more than 300 years earlier. Islam was one of them.


'Father of the Church' who worked for Islam

John 'Chrysorrhoas' ('golden-stream') Damascene prospered under the Muslim caliph, Abd al-Malik.

What concerned John far more than nascent Islam was iconoclastic Orthodoxy. In his book  'De Haeresbuis' John wrote several pages critical of the early Islamists, whom he labelled 'Saracens' and 'Ishmaelites' (after the biblical story of Sarah, Hagar and Ishmael) but he considered them nothing other than Christian heretics.

In contrast, from the safety of the caliph's court, he vigorously attacked the Byzantine Emperor and the Patriarch of Constantinople for their campaign against icons. John loved his pictures – 'instruction for the unlearned.' Yet John remained firmly in the orthodox camp, clashing with the local 'Christian nationalists': 'monophysites', 'monothelites' and Manichaeans.

John wrote lots. His 'Exposition of the Orthodox Faith' did for the Eastern Church what the 'The Summa Theologica' of Thomas Aquinas did for the West.

It was John Damascene (together with Gregory of Tours) who developed the idea that Mary’s corporal body (and not just her spirit) had been ‘assumed’ into Heaven from Jerusalem, a bit like Muhammad's 'night journey ascent to Heaven' (Qur'an 17.1) from the same city in 620.

John may even have been the author of the nonsense story of 'Barlaam and Ioasaph' which Christianized the Buddha!


Greek remained the language of administration of the caliphate, and Greek coinage the currency, until the reign of Abd al-Malik (685-705).

Malik instituted a program of Arabisation to reassure traditionalists wary of secularisation and loss of Arab identity.



John, indulging himself of the tolerance of the caliph, Abd al-Malik, denounced Muhammad as 'immoral,' a scandalous polygamist promising an afterlife in carnal paradise, and an imposter who had invented 'revelations from God' as it suited him. John was in no doubt that the 'Saracens' and 'Ishmaelites' were a derivative of 4th century Arianism and 5th century Nestorianism, though he admired their single-minded monotheism.

In western Europe Arianism had enjoyed a renaissance under the 6th century Gothic kings, where it had been the faith of the 'ruling class.' More straightforward than the 'divine mystery' of the trinity, Arianism also had no truck with papal imperialism and its meddling hierarchy.

Put simply, both the Arians and the Nestorians shared a conviction that Jesus was a lesser being than the God that 'begot' him, and rejected the Trinitarianism adopted as official dogma in Constantinople and Rome at the end of the 5th century.

Adherents escaped persecution beyond the imperial frontier, in safe havens in the cities of Arabia and Persia. Here, the 'heretics', in offering competition to Muhammad, helped fashion the new faith from a mix of revised Judaism and unitarian Christianities and made migration to the new religion of 'Islam' a painless affair, particularly as the new Arab overlords were in no particular hurry to make converts. Non-muslims, at liberty to hold important jobs, also paid taxes. Members of the Muslim 'umma' were exempt from tax.


The Syrian Connection

The earliest conquests by the Arab armies were the Christian-Greek provinces of Syria, Egypt and Mesopotamia.

In a marked contrast to Charlemagne's policy in northern Europe ('conversion or death') the Christian populations were also offered a simple choice: accept Islam or pay tax. The lightening success of Arab conquest owes much to its practical moderation. Rome had taken more than a century to subdue Syria, Egypt and the Levant; the Arab armies took less than twenty years to achieve the same purpose.


Great Mosque, Damascus, erected in 706-715 by the sixth Umayyad caliph Al-Walid

The nave, transepts and aisle scheme are clearly recognizable.

Recycled Sanctity

On the site of an Assyrian temple, Roman temenos (sacred space) and Christian church, one of the first monumental mosques to be constructed was the Great Mosque of Damascus. Its design was strongly influenced by Syrian church architecture.

Further evidence of Christian influence: the minaret in the southeastern corner is called the Minaret of Jesus (local tradition says JC will appear here on Judgment Day) and within the mosque a shrine of John the Baptist ('Yahia' to the Muslims), supposedly where his head was buried.

For centuries after the Arab conquest the various Christian communities of Syria lived on the closest terms with their Muslim neighbours, even sharing buildings for prayer and reverence for each others saints.

In contrast, the barbarians of Christian Europe believed it a religious duty to forcibly convert or exterminate all people of a faith other than their own.



Syria (which included the area of modern Palestine and Jordan) had been battered by the conflicts between Byzantium and Persia. Antioch, the second city of the empire, had been sacked in 540 by the Sassanian Persians and they did so again, with the support of local Arabs, in 611. Damascus was taken in 614 and Jerusalem the following year (with the Persians making off with that most sacred of all relics – purportedly – 'the True Cross').

Byzantine control was eventually restored in 629, only to be lost again with the Arab victory at Yarmuk in 636. A populous but wrecked province of great and ancient cities was theirs. The new rulers had the good sense to levy lower taxes than the ejected imperialists and set about shifting from a former semi-nomadic existence to a more settled and sophisticated urban style. Within a century new cities were built and old ones restored.


Veneration of Urban Style: The Caliphs Knew How to Party

Early Islam was tolerant of competing faiths ('People of the Book') and accommodating of their iconography. Indeed, the conquered lands of 'Coptic' Egypt, 'Monophysite' Syria and 'Nestorian' Iraq were awash with religious imagery. It was part of a heritage extending back thousands of years. Despite later prohibitions early Islamic rulers themselves patronised depictions of both human and animal form, much of it erotic, as rare but telling evidence shows.

In 'desert castles' remote from the main urban centres the new masters created for themselves palaces in which to enjoy all the delights enjoyed by earlier elites – whatever the injunctions of their new religion.


8th century pleasure palace of Qusayr Amra (Jordan)

Built during the reign of the Caliph Walid I (705-715)

Despite the injunctions of Islam, the 8th century bathhouse was lavishly decorated with multicolored frescoes depicting an erotic world of nudity and music.

The decor includes Byzantine-style human figures – including the caliph himself – naked dancing girls, athletes, and animals of the hunt.

Larger images (off site)


8th century pleasure palace of Qasr al Hayr al Gharbi, Palmyra, Syria

Built for Umayyad Caliph Hisham (724-743)
Reconstruction, Damascus

Music, dance and hunting – what more could you ask for?


Another pleasure palace, built for Caliph Hisham Khirbat al Mafjar, Jericho.

A sophisticated, highly geometric mosaic floor adorns the bathhouse at the palace of Khirbat-al-Mafjar.

It would credit a caesar and is one of the largest known mosaics from antiquity.



The exclusion of human form from Islamic art dates no earlier than the year 700. Early coinage even carried a monarchical profile even though Islam, like Christianity, inherited hostility to images from the Jews whose 'second commandment' was a prohibition against 'graven images.'


Caliph Abd al Malik –
or the Prophet himself ?

Profile portrait on Islamic gold dirham (Damascus – 690s)

The first Arab coinage was modelled on Greek originals and in 692 Byzantine Emperor Justinian II issued rival propaganda– coins bearing the image of Christ.

On later Islamic coinage portraiture was dropped in favour of verses from the Koran.

According to the Koran no artistic representation could possibly be good enough to reflect the magnificence of God's creation.

Reverse shows mihrab and lance of the Prophet

Gold solidus of Justinian II


Yet until the iconoclastic campaign of Leo III (717 - 741) the industry of icons was big business in the Byzantine empire and the caliphs employed Byzantine craftsmen and artisans to construct their pleasure palaces. They even built (687-91) the first great monument of a triumphant Islam – the Dome of the RockAbd al-Malik's 'alternative' shrine to the Kabah in Mecca, which between 680 and 692 had been controlled by rival caliph Abd ibn Zubayr.

Having besieged Mecca and burned the Kabah to the ground, al-Malik ordered construction of the Dome to discourage further pilgrimages to Mecca. Though later embellishments and rebuilding Islamized the structure (the dazzling tiles were added by Suleiman the Magnificent in the 16th century) the building is thoroughly Byzantine in design – and reuses spoil from earlier churches.

Subsequently, Islam, perhaps fearful of assimilation – or even a re-emergent polytheism – endorsed its pure, monotheistic credentials. In 723 Caliph Yazid ordered the removal of icons from all Christian churches. The movement paralleled the iconoclasm of the Byzantines.


 Dome of the Rock

The dome is 20 meters high. The Pantheon in Rome, five hundred years older, holds a dome 43 meters high.

Inspired by the imposing Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the Cathedral of Bosra, and sited on the ruins of the Roman Temple of Jupiter, Byzantine architects hired by the Caliph encircled Islam's alternative 'sacred stone' with 16 arches taken from Jerusalem churches wrecked by the Persians in 614.

The outer enclosure is octagonal, just like the Church of the Ascension, built in the 4th century – or even the mausoleum of Diocletian.

'Last blossoming of the Hellenistic tradition'

– D. Kuban (Muslim Religious Architecture)


W. Cook & R. Herzman, The Medieval World View (OUP, 1983)
John Gribbin, Science a History (Penguin, 2003)
William Dalrymple, From the Holy Mountain (Flamingo, 1998)
N. H. H. Sitwell, Outside the Empire-The World the Romans Knew (Paladin, 1984)
Edward Gibbon, Decline & Fall, Chapters 50-52 The Coming of Islam, Arab Conquests
M. Brett, W. Forman, The Moors, Islam in the West (Orbis, 1980)
Justin Wintle, History of Islam (Rough Guides, 2003)
J. Bloom, S. Blair, Islam - Empire of Faith (BBC Books, 2001)
J. J. Norwich, Byzantium, The Early Centuries (Viking, 1988)
C. McEvedy, The Penguin Atlas of Medieval History (Penguin, 1987)
Robert Marshall, Storm from the East (BBC Books, 1993)
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Copyright © 2004 by Kenneth Humphreys.
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