Rapid Advance of Islam
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
coast of Arabia, benefitted enormously.
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
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
Christianity – Islam.
ibn Abdallah died
in 632 the Arabs had not yet erupted out of Arabia. Their
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.
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.
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.
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.
Devil Rides Out?
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
– of Christendom was that Armageddon had begun.
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
Now 'Islam' offered a dynamic alternative.
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.
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.
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
from the safety of the caliph's court, he vigorously
Emperor and the Patriarch
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
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
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.
may even have been the author of the nonsense story
and Ioasaph' which Christianized the
remained the language of administration of the caliphate,
and Greek coinage the currency, until
the reign of Abd al-Malik (685-705).
instituted a program
of Arabisation to reassure
traditionalists wary of secularisation
and loss of Arab identity.
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
had invented 'revelations from God' as it suited him.
in no doubt that the 'Saracens' and 'Ishmaelites' were
4th century Arianism and 5th century Nestorianism,
though he admired their single-minded monotheism.
Europe Arianism had enjoyed
under the 6th century Gothic kings, where it had been the
faith of the 'ruling class.' More straightforward than the 'divine
of the trinity, Arianism also had no truck with
papal imperialism and its meddling hierarchy.
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.
escaped persecution beyond the imperial frontier, in
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
The Syrian Connection
earliest conquests by the Arab armies were the Christian-Greek
provinces of Syria, Egypt and Mesopotamia.
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
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
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.
(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
Jerusalem the following year (with the Persians making off with
that most sacred of all relics – purportedly – 'the
control was eventually restored in 629, only to be lost again
victory at Yarmuk in 636. A populous but wrecked
province of great and ancient cities was theirs. The new rulers
had the good
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.
of Urban Style: The Caliphs Knew How to Party
Islam was tolerant of competing faiths ('People of the
Book') and accommodating of their iconography.
Indeed, the conquered lands
Egypt, 'Monophysite' Syria and 'Nestorian' Iraq were awash with
imagery. It was part of a heritage extending back
thousands of years. Despite later prohibitions
rulers themselves patronised depictions of both human and animal
it erotic, as rare but telling evidence shows.
'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
8th century pleasure palace of Qusayr
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
Larger images (off site)
8th century pleasure palace of Qasr al
Hayr al Gharbi,
Built for Umayyad Caliph Hisham
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.
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
Abd al Malik –
or the Prophet himself ?
portrait on Islamic gold dirham (Damascus – 690s)
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
the iconoclastic campaign of Leo III (717 - 741) the industry
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 Rock – Abd al-Malik's
'alternative' shrine to the Kabah in Mecca, which between
680 and 692 had been controlled by rival caliph Abd
Mecca and burned the Kabah to the ground,
al-Malik ordered construction of the Dome to
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.
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.
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.
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
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,
Edward Gibbon, Decline & Fall, Chapters 50-52 The Coming of Islam,
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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