Two external forces served to shape the Middle Ages: the Byzantine Empire and Islam. More than merely defining the geographical borders of the medieval world, they interacted with it, producing, at times, friction and, at other times, great achievements. As much as any two individuals can affect movements and institutions containing their own inner dynamics, the emperor Justinian and the prophet Mohammed can be said to have shaped the Middle Ages by establishing contexts, limits and opposition to the European West. It was once said (by Henri Pirenne in Mohammed and Charlemagne) that ‘without Mohammed Charlemagne would have been inconceivable’. Taking a broader view, it may be said that without Justinian and Mohammed there would never have been a Frederick II and Innocent III, i.e., there never would have been a medieval empire and a medieval papacy. It is a proposition worth examining.

Justinian’s achievement

Few perhaps expected it at the time, but Justinian (527–65) was the last in a centuries-long line of native Latin-speaking emperors. Although his uncle Justin (518–27) rose to the purple as a military commander, Justinian, Illyrian-born, was educated at Constantinople and played a substantial policy-making role in his uncle’s reign. Among the most intellectual of Roman emperors and perhaps the hardest working, Justinian, judged in terms of his territorial aims, must be seen as a failure. It is tempting, although not all historians would agree, to see a grand design and an overarching aim in his efforts to preserve and perfect the Roman Empire, and, if necessary, to restore it to its former grandeur.

The territorial integrity of the traditional empire required Justinian to undertake the reconquest of the West from the German tribes that now ruled those once imperial lands. It was a reconquest that was to prove expensive, partial and short-lived. Britain was recognized as lost forever, but Justinian’s ambitions saw North Africa, Italy, Spain and perhaps even Gaul under his effective authority, with the Mediterranean once again an inland Roman sea. Twice his general, Belisarius, returned to Constantinople, bringing defeated German kings with him: the Vandal Gelimer (534) and the Ostrogoth Witgis (540). And when the dust raised by the imperial armies (always containing large numbers of mercenaries) finally settled, Belisarius and other generals had conquered North Africa, most of Italy and a swathe across south-eastern Spain. This arrangement was far from permanent and was, at the best of times, tenuous. Although Justinian’s armies consigned the Vandals to historical oblivion, the indigenous Berbers by guerilla warfare almost constantly kept the imperial rule in North Africa off-balance. The costly and devastating Italian campaigns – Rome was thrice besieged and Milan razed, its entire male population massacred – contained the seeds of its own ultimate failure, for the imperial general Narses recruited forces from the Lombards to fight the Ostrogoths. Within three years of Justinian’s death, these same Lombards invaded Italy and seized control over much of the north. And, in Spain, the empire was but one of the players in the century or so before Islam was to transform the history of that peninsula. The reconquest was far from complete and, in the event, short-lived.

Justinian’s attempted reconquest of the western provinces was more than a geopolitical move: it was also a religious statement. The term ‘crusade’, coming as it does from the Latin word for ‘cross’, belongs to a later period, but, at the risk of anachronism, it may be applied to Justinian’s efforts. The Vandals in North Africa, the Ostrogoths in Italy and the Visigoths in Spain were all heretics, whose removal from power the emperor, never having relinquished total claim over the West, saw as a religious act. Justinian viewed his empire as a Christian society and his role as the ruling of that Christian society. In 545 he decreed that the canons of the church councils of Nicaea (325), Constantinople (381) and Chalcedon (451) were imperial laws. The locus classicus of his view of the place of religion in the empire is found in Novella 6:

The greatest gifts God has bestowed upon man are the priesthood (sacerdotium) and the imperial dignity (imperium). The former looks after divine matters and the latter presides watchfully over human affairs. Both proceed from one and the same principle and govern human life.

The word ‘caesaro-papism’ – the ruler (caesar) as also head of the church (papa) – has frequently been applied to Justinian’s rule, but he would find its usually invidious connotation wholly inappropriate. Justinian did not dabble in theology: he was a trained and exceptionally able theologian. In the East, theology was seen as too important to be left solely to the clergy. The many religious divisions in the empire needed remedy, and the taking of the West from heretics was but one means to do this. Justinian, in his own view, was not interfering in ecclesiastical matters: he was merely doing his duty as he saw it.

In the East, religious divisions were pronounced and profound. Justinian considered most of Syria and Egypt heretical. Never having fully accepted the pronouncements of the Council of Chalcedon (451), many in those lands professed a belief in the nature of Christ which contemporaries called ‘monophysite’. Rather than believing that the one person, Christ, has two natures, one divine and one human, they believed that Christ has only one nature (monophusus). Justinian’s extraordinary wife, Theodora, was their partisan, and, whatever rumour and snobbery have done to defame her, she stands apart as one of the outstanding persons of the age. Even the fault-picking, salacious Procopius in his Secret History, yellow-dog journalism of the time, described dinner-time conversation at the palace, where the fine points of Christological theology were discussed by emperor and empress. Justinian certainly made conciliatory efforts to reconcile the Monophysites to orthodoxy, but, in the end, monophysite churches endured in Syria, Egypt and Armenia.

A word must be said about the place of the pope – by now the word ‘pope’ applied only to the bishop of Rome – in the Christian world. From an early date the bishop of Rome claimed a primacy over the other churches not, as one might suspect, because Rome was the capital of the empire but because Rome was the church of Peter, chief among the apostles, to whom Christ entrusted the power of the keys (Matt. 16, 18–19). From sub-apostolic times, Alexandria in Egypt and Antioch in Syria were acknowledged with Rome among the great churches of the Catholic world. The establishment of a New Rome at Byzantium in 330 meant that the church of Constantinople was to take its place with these others. The Council of Constantinople (381) asserted that Constantinople should be accorded precedence of honour after Rome. Thus, the four great churches (later called ‘patriarchates’) in the Catholic world were Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria and Antioch. (Jerusalem’s rank as a ‘patriarchate’ had little practical impact and, in fact, was not granted until 451). Justinian in 545 provided his view of church polity:

The most holy pope of the Old Rome is first of all priests. The most blessed archbishop of Constantinople, the New Rome, has second place after the holy and apostolic see of Old Rome and is to be honoured above all others.

(Novella 131)

Such a statement did not mean that the emperor held himself above manipulating the pope or, indeed, selecting the pope. At a crucial moment in the monophysite controversy Justinian sought to replace Pope Silverius with the pope’s nuncio in Constantinople, a certain Vigilius. Belisarius, then in control of Rome, had Silverius deposed and reduced to the state of simple monk (537), exiled to an island off Gaeta, where he soon died, probably of starvation and mistreatment. Pope Vigilius could not afford to offend his new masters: on one dramatic occasion Justinian’s men hauled him from the altar, as he clung to the altar cloth. Thereafter, he echoed the theological views of the emperor. In all this, it should be remembered that the see of Rome was not subordinate to any other see – it was acknowledged as prior to all others – but that the bishop of Rome in the mid sixth century came close to being a puppet of the Roman emperor, as, similarly, he had been to the Gothic kings and was fairly soon to be to local Roman aristocratic families. The break between East and West – schism, to use the Greek-derived word for ‘break’ – was to happen in the future, but from the perspective of the sixth century the break is not entirely surprising. The two churches were set on two separate courses: the Greek-speaking East with its future clearly connected with the fortunes of the Byzantine Empire and the Latin-speaking West with its future connected with the Christian descendants of once barbarian invaders.

Justinian and the law

How better to solidify the Roman accomplishment than to reduce to manageable order the unwieldy bulk of laws and legal opinions? Justinian accomplished this task, and it is arguably the crowning achievement of the Roman Empire. The task of codifying existing laws into a systematic body produced in 529 a code, now lost, and, in 534, a revised code, which we have as the Code of Justinian in twelve books, containing 4,652 laws. Book one begins with the title De summa trinitate (On the high trinity), and the next dozen titles all deal with ecclesiastical matters. Further, Justinian ordered the jurisprudence – the opinions of the learned jurists of the second and third centuries – together with imperial edicts to be organized in the same manner. In fifty books, the best opinions were gathered and given the force of law in the book called the Digest (or Pandects), issued in 533. Thus, the great wealth of Roman law was contained in the Code of Justinian and the Digest: they were exclusive collections, which abrogated all other, earlier laws. The later laws of Justinian (and others) were collected in the Novels. A textbook for students, the Institutes, completed the work of Justinian. These four law books are known collectively as the Corpus Iuris Civilis (Body of Civil Law), one of the greatest achievements of human civilization.

What strikes the student of the medieval church is the afterlife of the Justinian Corpus. Its immediate impact in the West was short-lived, for it perished with the unravelling of the reconquest. Not until the eleventh century did the works of Justinian resurface in the West. The great schools of law that emerged, first at Bologna and later at Montpellier and elsewhere, were essentially based on the great Corpus. And, as the church at the same time was devising its own system of laws (canons), it used Roman law as its model. The great collections of canon laws issued by the medieval popes bore clear resemblance to the Justinian model, and canon law as studied at the medieval universities relied on the principles of Roman law. Canon law, with its enormous impact on the medieval church, took its shape and, indeed, much of its substance from the law reforms of Emperor Justinian.

Justinian and church buildings

If Justinian had done nothing more than build Santa Sophia (Hagia Sophia), he would have had an enduring place in human history. Every subsequent age has sung the glories of this building, whether as Christian church, Islamic mosque or, now, state museum. It stands today as Justinian’s greatest visible achievement. In the Nika revolt of 532 the previous church, built by Theodosius (376–95), was destroyed. Justinian commissioned Anthemius of Tralles and Isidorus of Miletus, who in the amazingly short time of five years – Notre-Dame of Paris took nearly 200 years – completed their task. Neither Justinian nor we can know if their building surpassed in beauty the great temple of Solomon – since the latter was destroyed about 600 BC – yet he may have spoken accurately when at Santa Sophia’s dedication (27 December 537) Justinian reportedly said, ‘Solomon, I have surpassed you.’ Problems with supports combined with a minor earthquake in 558 to cause the original dome to collapse. The structure was quickly rebuilt, and it is this rebuilt Santa Sophia of 562–63 that the visitor sees today in Istanbul. The description of the contemporary Procopius hardly exaggerates:

… a spectacle of marvellous beauty, overwhelming to those who see it, but to those who know it by hearsay altogether incredible. For it soars to a height to match the sky, and, as if surging up from amongst the other buildings, it stands on high and looks down upon the remainder of the city, adorning it, because it is a part of it, but glorying in its own beauty, because, though a part of the city and dominating it, at the same time it towers above it to such a height that the whole city is viewed from there as from a watch-tower.

(Buildings, bk.1, chap. 1)

The floor plan shows Santa Sophia rectangular in shape, yet, subtracting the two side aisles, what is revealed is virtually a square area with adjacent areas to the east and west creating an oval shape. The dome – by definition a segment of a sphere – had for some time been used by architects, perhaps the best-known example being the Pantheon in Rome – but these domes covered a round floor area and simply placed the dome atop a drum-like wall built along the perimeter of the circle. The vaulting of a square area with a dome was first accomplished by Justinian’s architects. They constructed four large piers at the four corners of the square and joined them with semicircular arches, thus forming four arches above the sides of the square. They then filled in the spaces between the arches, creating pendentives, which were shaped like inverse spherical triangles, rising from each pier to the height of the tops of the arches. The pendentives, of necessity, were somewhat concave. The tops of the four pendentives, when joined, formed a perfect circle, upon which the dome could rest. External buttressing towers on the north and south as well as interior half-domes to the east and west (vaulting high above the floor) served to carry the downward thrust of the dome. In diameter 107 feet, the dome at its centre point reaches a height of 184 feet above the floor. Near its lower part the dome has 40 small windows, spaced so closely together that, looking up from the floor, one almost thinks the dome suspended in air. Procopius commented,

It seems not to rest upon solid masonry, but this golden dome appears as if suspended from heaven.

God holding a golden chain that suspends the dome in air above Santa Sophia: it is an image often repeated through the ages.

Not comparable with Santa Sophia architecturally but significant in other ways were the churches built by Justinian in Ravenna in Italy. Situated near the Adriatic Sea south of the mouth of the Po River, Ravenna had become an imperial centre in the West in 402. Belisarius recaptured it from the Ostrogoths in 540, restoring it to its vice-regal status. The church of Sant’Apollinare in Classe, the port of Ravenna, although begun earlier, was completed and dedicated in 549. The church in Ravenna then called St Martin (but later, as now, called Sant’Apollinare nuovo) had its mosaic decorations completed under Justinian. Also, Ravenna’s church of San Vitale, begun before the reconquest, was largely built under Justinian and was consecrated in 547. Octagonal in shape, it contains an outstanding programme of mosaics, even in a city renowned for its mosaics. On facing north and south walls above the altar are the figures of Justinian and Theodora, each surrounded by courtiers, each carrying a gift for the Eucharist. The imperial presence in this reconquered city could scarcely be more prominent than in these realistic, non-idealized portraits.

Plate 2 Santa Sophia, Istanbul. Reproduced by permission of the Courtauld Institute of Art.

The Lombards

In a sense, the depiction of emperor and empress at Ravenna captured the imperial couple at their most famous moment in time. It was a fleeting moment. A few scant decades later much of Italy fell to the Lombards. In their expansion south these barbarian people bypassed Ravenna, which was virtually an island in a Lombard sea. In 568, less than three years after Justinian’s death, the Lombard king, Alboin, led this fierce people from the lower Austrian Danube region into an Italy still suffering the consequences of almost two decades of war. Most of Italy north of the Po River fell to them within a year. They soon crossed the Apennines into the north-western part of the Italian boot. Soon they were in northern Tuscany, and before long duchies were established in the south at Spoleto and Benevento. Shifting territorial boundaries were to occur, but from the time of the Lombard invasions of the late sixth century until 1870 Italy was divided and remained divided. The conquering Lombards, when they entered Italy, were largely pagan. The Bavarian princess Theodolinda, a Catholic, became queen to two successive Lombard kings. She and her husband King Agiluf (590–616) made important contacts with the Irish monk Columbanus, to whom they gave land for a monastery at Bobbio. How quickly the Lombards became Catholic, at this distance in time, it is not possible to say, but it seems clear that there was no instant conversion to Catholic orthodoxy, rather, a slow process, mostly hidden from our sight. Paul the Deacon’s account of the Lombard conversion is not a particularly reliable source, since he wrote his History of the Lombards at the end of the eighth century about events that had happened two centuries earlier and he wished to stress the Catholic victory. The conquest of these people by the Franks at papal invitation belongs to the time of Paul and his patron Charlemagne.

The Italy of the end of the sixth century had a Lombard north and also Lombard lands north-east of Rome at Spoleto and south of Rome at Benevento. The remainder – roughly lands around Rome and Ravenna as well as the Greek-speaking deep south (Nova Graecia) – were the only places where Justinian’s successors could exercise effective control. Viewed from Constantinople, Italy was seen as a remote province at the periphery of their world. Effective imperial power in Italy, now weak where it existed, was soon to disappear and with it the last vestiges of the ancient political structures in Italy. The West and the Western Church were to continue on their way now with little reference to the empire to its east, whose people still called themselves Romans (‘Pωµαι^οι). Schism and crusades shall bring the East into our focus in later periods, but these were to be but episodes in medieval history. A wall severely limiting contacts was up between East and West, and it is an irony of some relevance that the great thinkers of classical Greece only came to the West in the twelfth century, and then not directly but through an intermediary, Islam. It is to Islam that we must now turn.


In the seventh century a religion of a simple but compelling doctrine took root beyond the edges of the Roman world in Arabia. It was to have a profound influence not only on European history but, indeed, on world history. Mohammed died in 632, and within 100 years his followers had conquered a wide swathe from the Atlantic to the Indian Oceans and far into the Asian interior. The rise of Islam was as unexpected as it was successful. From the desert seas of the Arabian peninsula came a religion, a movement, a political and spiritual force that transformed the context in which the Christian religion lived and developed.

The land of Mohammed

The Arabian peninsula is part of the desert lands which form the Sahara desert and which become the Asian steppeland. The rift valley that created the Red Sea gave Arabia its western border. The Persian Gulf forms its eastern border. Where the Arabian peninsula ends in the north and the Asian mainland begins is not susceptible to precise definition, but the Fertile Crescent and its hinterland (ancient Palestine, Syria and Mesopotamia, the modern states of Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq) can be used conveniently for this purpose. The largest peninsula in the world – one-third the size of the continental United States and almost nine times the size of the British Isles – the Arabian peninsula was and remains not very congenial for human habitation. Only the southern regions (Yemen) between the coastal mountains and the sea receive enough rain for agriculture. The remainder is chiefly arid steppe-land and desert. Two vast areas of shifting sand-dunes, the Great Nefud in the north and Rub al-Khali’ in the south, the two joined by a ribbon of sandy desert, comprise about one-third of the peninsula’s land area. Deep wells helped to create the occasional oasis in this dry land, and desiccated riverbeds called wadis were and are used for overland travel.

The Bedouin people, to survive in the interior of Arabia, had to be nomadic, living in tribes or kinship clans, relying on the pasturing of camels and, to a lesser extent, other animals. A life lived vulnerable to the harsh forces of nature led these peoples to stress loyalty within their group and enmity to other groups. Raids were almost a way of life. Bedouin gods were many, usually heavenly bodies thought to inhabit places like trees and rocks. Yet demons, threatening the Bedouins at any moment, perhaps played a larger role in their lives. The town of Mecca, midway along the peninsula’s western side, had a special place in the life of the Arabs. The caravan route from Yemen north to the Fertile Crescent was organized at Mecca, and Meccans ran it. The holy place at Mecca, the Kaaba, a shrine for many of their gods, was the centre of a peace zone (haram), where tribal hostilities were put aside. Such a peaceful place provided an ideal climate for commerce. It was into the mercantile class at Mecca in the late sixth century that the future Prophet was born.

The Prophet

For the historian no subject in the history of Islam is more challenging than the life of Mohammed, chiefly because of the nature of the surviving sources. The Koran itself was not gathered together in its present form until many years after the Prophet’s death. Thesira and hadith, later traditions accepted by Muslims about the life of Mohammed and the early years of Islam, present more formidable problems for the modern Western historian, who tends towards caution in accepting traditional literature as history. While respecting the religious sensibilities of Muslims who, for reasons that transcend scientific historical methodology, may have deep convictions about these matters, the historian as historian can merely adopt a cautious but not irreverent attitude towards this evidence. What, then, can be said of the historic person who is the Prophet to about 750,000,000 of our contemporaries?

Mohammed was born about 570 at Mecca. He may have been involved in the caravan trade, though we know that less certainly than the fact that he married the widow of a wealthy merchant. At some point, at age forty according to tradition, he felt a call to preach the message of a single, transcendent God. Gaining some converts, he felt that opposition in Mecca required him to leave. This he did in 622, when he went to Medina (then Yathrib), 220 miles to the north, and this date of the hejira (‘flight’) marks the point at which the Islamic calendar begins. The warring clans at Medina had called Mohammed to mediate. The resulting so-called ‘Constitution of Medina’ brought peace to Medina and converts to Mohammed, although Jewish groups were to suffer. The refusal of Jews to follow the religion of Mohammed, it is said, led the Prophet to cease facing Jerusalem during prayer and to begin facing Mecca. In 630 Mohammed and his followers marched on Mecca, and the Meccans capitulated with little resistance. Mecca became what it is today: the spiritual centre of Islam, its holiest place and the centre of pilgrimage, and the Kaaba became the greatest shrine of Islam. In 632 Mohammed died at Medina.

The central teaching of Mohammed, repeated millions of times daily by pious Muslims, is ‘There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet’. Belief in but one God – Allah being the Arabic word for God used by Muslims and Christians alike – is the core belief. The so-called Satanic verses of the Koran – which may have once followed Sura 53. 19–20 – derive their controversial nature from the interpretation that Mohammed, in a moment of weakness, allowed rich Meccan merchants to practise polytheism. The opening sura of the Koran provides an exact theological statement of Muslim belief:

In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful,
Praise be to God, the Lord of all beings,
the All-compassionate, the All-merciful,
the Master of the Day of Judgement.
Thee alone do we serve; to Thee alone do we pray for help.
Guide us in the straight way,
the way of those whom Thou hast blessed,
not of those who have incurred Thy anger,
nor of those who are now astray.

The only God is the God of all peoples, not merely the national god of their own people (as the early Hebrews believed their god Yahweh to be only their god). The two qualities, mentioned in this sura and repeated before the recitation of each sura, were compassion and mercy. On the Day of Judgement God’s justice will separate the good and the evil. It is to this God, merciful yet just, to whom humans should turn for help and guidance so that they may live holy lives.

Throughout the Koran the word ‘unbelievers’ means those who refuse to believe in the one God. The people of the book – Jews and Christians – are not unbelievers, but the Jews have been unheeding of their prophets and the Christians seem to believe in three gods. Unlike the Christian belief in Jesus – that he is the Son of God – Muslims steadfastly refused to make any claims of divinity for Mohammed: he is human like other men. He traced himself in a line of prophets that included Jesus and Moses and, ultimately, Abraham. Later Muslims were to call him Prophet and Seal, meaning that he was the last of the prophets.

On the Last Day there will be a redressing of the balance of justice, so obviously unbalanced in this life, according to Islamic theology. The evil will be punished by eternal fire in Gehenna and the good will live in a verdant paradise where there flow cooling streams that will never dry up. What a most inviting prospect paradise must have held out for desert nomads. The bearing of life’s transitory troubles in submission to God would lead believers to a most rewarding heaven where life’s deficiencies will be fully compensated for – and then some – by a merciful and just God. It was a potent message, which in human terms – the historian has no other – proved compelling, first to the tribesmen of Arabia and then to millions elsewhere.

The Koran

To the Muslim, the Koran (Qur-ān) was not written by Mohammed: he was merely the voice that recited – Koran means recitation – the word of God as revealed to him through the Angel Gabriel. In trance-like states, it was said, Mohammed spoke, and his words were written down by others on whatever was at hand, even a mere scrap. The process whereby these recitations were collected to form this holy book and how this book reached its codified, canonical form are largely hidden from our eyes. In a pre-literate culture memorizers played a prominent role, and memorizers committed to memory with an exactness that amazes us in the twenty-first century. In Arabia we may assume that memorizers knew and repeated Mohammed’s recitations and taught others. A network of reciters might soon have appeared. By the time of Mohammed’s death in 632 it is just possible that there was a written collection of this oral tradition. Accounts vary about what happened next. It was once widely held that an official version was produced within two years of the Prophet’s death, during the time of the Caliph Abu-Bakr (632–34). More likely, the second one to follow him, Uthman (644–56), was responsible for the collection of the recitations in the number and order of the received text. Even allowing for the possibility of later insertions, the text of the Koran as we have it is substantially a very early witness of Islamic belief. It is more reliably closer to the time of Mohammed than the earliest Christian gospel is to the time of Christ.

The first-time and, indeed, the many-time Western reader of the Koran is struck by the frequency of biblical references. We meet Adam, Noah and Abraham as well as Moses, Saul, David, Solomon and several of the Old Testament prophets. John the Baptist, Jesus and Mary (conflated with Miriam, sister of Moses, in Sura 19. 28) appear frequently. Questions arise about the Koran’s dependence on the Bible or, at least, on biblical stories. Since Islam was not a rejection of Judaism or Christianity but saw itself in the line of Abraham and acknowledged the prophets, including Jesus, the inclusion of familiar biblical incidents and characters should not be such a great surprise. Traditions about the young Mohammed meeting Jews and Christians along caravan routes do not command historical assent. Indirect rather than direct access to biblical accounts should probably be assumed, and attempts to identify the sources tend to point to Jews and dissident Christian people living in Arabia.

The arrangement of the 114 suras of the Koran, ordered by Uthman, follow no chronological order. Official translations of the Arabic Koran have not been permitted until the twentieth century and then only in favour of Turkish. The language of the Koran – its cadences and sonorities – are integral to its understanding. Westerners can gain some small sense of this by listening to recordings. That the language of the Muslim holy book was so integral to Islamic religion meant that converts would learn Arabic. In time, they would become Arabic speakers. The Arabization of the conquered peoples owed much to the language of the Book.

The Koran became a code of living, reflecting the total integration of life. Religion was not compartmentalized, even if that compartment had the loftiest place: nothing could be more antithetical to the Muslim view of life. ‘Islam’ means submission, a total submission, to God. Hence, social behaviour and customs are spelled out. Rules of inheritance are given in some detail (e.g. Sura 4. 8–16). Dietary regulations introduce a sense of restraint and discrimination:

Forbidden you are to eat
putrifying flesh, blood, the flesh of pigs,
what has been offered to other than God,
the flesh of animals strangled, beaten down,
animals dead from a fall or from being gored,
animals disturbed by beasts of prey and
also food sacrificed to idols.

(Sura 5. 4)

Slavery was not forbidden (nor was it forbidden in the West for well over a millennium later), but to free slaves pleases God:

Emancipate those you own
who wish to be free,
if you see good in them,
and give them of the riches God
has given you. And force not
your slave girls into prostitution for your profit, if they
desire to live chastely.

(Sura 24. 33)

The status of women was greatly elevated by the Koran, their protection from the injustices of society a frequent theme in its pages. Polygamy (four wives) was allowed, among other reasons, to give a place in society to spinsters and widows, who were among the most vulnerable persons in society. Divorce was allowed, but a woman could not be merely ejected from her husband’s household. She was entitled to the wedding gifts without deduction. The mandatory three-month waiting period would determine if she was pregnant, in which case divorce could not occur until after birth of the child; the waiting period also gave scope for a possible reconciliation. A divorced woman was free to marry and even to remarry her former husband. Women could also hold property. The improvement in the status of women is one of the greatest achievements of the teachings of the Koran. Modern critics who ahistorically impose modern ideals on early history and, thus, harshly criticize these provisions of the Koran rip history from context and would do well to reflect on the fact that in the seventh century the most enlightened attitudes towards women and slavery were among the followers of Mohammed. Christian Europe lagged behind.

Few aspects of traditional Islamic belief can be more controversial than the concept of jihad, which, although meaning a general struggle to stay on the right path of God, has become almost synonymous with jihad of the sword or ‘holy war’. Verses can be found in the Koran that might support this meaning. For example, ‘Fight those who do not believe in God and the last Day and who do not forbid what God and his messenger have forbidden’ (Sura 9. 29), and ‘Obey not the unbelievers, but struggle with them mightily’ (Sura 25. 54). Some of these sayings and other similar ones seem to have had immediate reference to events of the time. In the course of centuries the complex notion of jihad underwent development. At first, it was undoubtedly involved in the motivation for the initial expansions and was subsequently influenced by such events as the crusades. That jihad can be undertaken not by individuals but only by the umma (the Muslim community) seems to have emerged as the consensus understanding. And, although life for non-Muslims in Muslim lands was not universally benign, it should be remembered that forced conversion was not the Islamic practice.

The high ethic of the Koran may be best seen in a passage reminiscent of the Christian gospels (Matt. 25, 34–46):

Be kind to your parents and your kinsmen,
to orphans and to the needy,
to neighbours who are of family and those who are not,
to those who travel with you
and to the traveller you meet on the way and to your slaves.
God has no love for
the arrogant and boastful,
who are miserly and encourage others
also to be miserly, while themselves concealing
the wealth with which God has favoured them.

(Sura 4. 40–41)

It was this book the men from the Arabian peninsula took with them as warriors.


The prophet died in 632, and 100 years later the religion of Islam stretched from the Atlantic coasts of North Africa and Spain in the west to the area beyond the Oxus River in central Asia. History knows no equal to the extraordinary spread of Islam, not even Christianity, which for several hundred years after its founder’s death was still a minority religion in the Roman world. The stages in the remarkable expansion of Islam can be easily sketched, although tantalizing gaps exist in our knowledge.

The death of Mohammed left a leadership vacuum. No provisions had been made for his succession. He had no surviving sons, but, even if he had, tribal chiefdoms were not necessarily hereditary. Whatever the exact nature of the consultation, Abu-Bakr, father-in-law of Mohammed and an early convert, was chosen. He was only later called ‘Caliph’, i.e., deputy or successor, but not successor to Mohammed’s prophetic office; the caliph served as a political leader, one might say, as sheik of the ‘Islamic tribe’. First of the four Orthodox Caliphs, Abu-Bakr, who ruled for less than two years, did so from Medina as did his successors: Umar (634–44), Uthman (644–56) and Ali (656–61), husband of Mohammed’s daughter Fatima. The immediate need after Mohammed’s death was to recover so-called apostate peoples, those who had withdrawn their loyalty and their tax payments. Abu-Bakr recovered the secessionist tribes and also succeeded in bringing other Arabic peoples under the sway of Medina. By the time of his death Abu-Bakr controlled the entire peninsula. The second phase, the breaking out of the Arabian peninsula, took place under his successor Umar. A powerful military force was in place and, having succeeded in internal conquest, was restless. The largely Bedouin army craved the rich lands of the Fertile Crescent. Mass movements have their own inner dynamics, that mixture of greed and idealism and shifting ambitions born of events as they occur. The great Muslim expansion was no exception. What motivated those warriors who were responsible for this great expansion? Historians, looking for causes which they can analyse, cannot affirm the providential workings of God but can only see human

Map 4 Note: Shaded areas are ‘Islamic’ lands. Byzantium and the expansion of Islam in the Mediterranean region (seventh to ninth centuries)

beings moved by complex forces largely hidden from us, but religious and material motivations were both undoubtedly present.

The second step, then, in the expansion of Islam saw the Fertile Crescent and Egypt submit to the Arabs. Raiding attacks in the time of Abu-Bakr revealed lands militarily weak and peoples with little loyalty to their Byzantine masters. These lands were ruled by the emperor at Constantinople, but poor administration, over-burdening taxation, strong local loyalties and theological differences had drained the populations of any sense of allegiance to their foreign oppressors. To say the Arabs were viewed as liberators would overstate the case, yet a later Christian writer in Syria was to say, ‘The God of vengeance has delivered us from the hands of the Romans by means of the Arabs.’ In 635 Damascus (Islam’s future capital) and in 637 Jerusalem (from which Muslims believe the Prophet ascended to heaven) were in their hands. The Persian Empire lay to their east, a once mighty empire, now weak and vulnerable to the attacks of Arab warriors. Soon Ctesiphon fell (637), and in a great battle in 642 the Persians were defeated, and with them fell their ancient empire. In 639 under other generals Arab armies entered Egypt. Their success was quick and with it the rich valley of the Nile and the great harbour of Alexandria as their prizes. They controlled Egypt by 642 and built a navy, which soon challenged the great Byzantine fleet and, in 649, captured Cyprus.

After these immediate conquests, the third stage could occur. To the east from the Taurus Mountains at the northern edge of Syria they could raid and conquer Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan. Then on to the Oxus River in central Asia, the border between Persians and Turks. These events and their consequences go well beyond the confines of this book, yet they signal to us the breadth and depth of the neighbour of medieval Europe to its south and south-east. More relevantly, the Arab armies in Egypt found no opposition to their immediate west in the vast Western Desert and along the Libyan coast beyond Tripoli. They halted at the border of Tunisia, short of Carthage. By now the Orthodox Caliphs had passed from the scene after serious civil wars at home, and the Umayyad Caliphs (616–750) soon moved the capital from Arabia to Damascus, where it was to remain until it was moved to Baghdad in 762. When the campaigns continued, the Muslims took Carthage and, with the support of the North African Berbers, made their way across modern Morocco to the Atlantic.

Standing at Africa’s northernmost point, they could see Spain a scant eight miles across the straits. In the spring of 711 Tariq Ibn Ziyad landed at the massive rock jutting into the Mediterranean Sea, a pillar of Hercules, and gave it his name ‘Jabal Tariq’ (i.e., Tariq’s mountain), which by corruption became ‘Gibraltar’. At a crucial battle on 19 July 711, Tariq and his Berber warriors defeated the Visigothic forces of King Roderick. The country lay before them. Bypassing Seville, the Muslims headed north for Toledo, the Visigoths’ capital, which they quickly took. By the end of summer Tariq controlled half of Spain, including the towns of Archidona, Elvira, Malaga and Cordova, their future capital. Musa, the Arab general who had led the recent African campaigns, arrived with 10,000 mostly Arab troops to join the Berbers. He besieged Seville, which, in June 713, succumbed. With the fall of Saragossa in that same year, the conquest was virtually complete, and Musa, accompanied by Tariq, led a triumphal procession with 80 Visigothic princes and thousands of other prisoners across North Africa and entered Damascus in February 715. The mopping-up continued and in 719 the conquest was complete, save for a Visigothic Christian enclave in the north-west (Asturias) and in the mountainous area to the east. A small splinter group of the Muslim army crossed the Pyrenees and was defeated by Charles Martel near Tours in 732, a minor incident in this whole story and, in no way, the turning point in European history as it has sometimes been portrayed. The lines were too long, and a major Muslim assault north of the Pyrenees was impossible. In a brief eight years the great Visigothic kingdom had fallen and Spain was now ruled by Muslims in what was called al-Andalus. It was not till 1492 that the last vestige of Muslim rule disappeared, when Catholic monarchs entered Granada.

In Spain and elsewhere the Muslim conquerors did not convert the defeated peoples by the sword. Unlike Charlemagne, the Christian king of the Franks (768–814), who gave Saxons the choice between baptism and death, the Arabs allowed their subjects the tolerance necessary to practise their religions. The non-Muslims paid a tribute, but often considerably less than what they had paid to the Byzantine emperor. The process of conversion to Islam was a slow process, taking several hundred years and even then leaving pockets of Christians.

For the student of the medieval church what Islam accomplished was to demarcate the southern boundary of medieval Christian Europe. The world of Islam began at the Pyrenees and extended far to the east. Even Sicily and parts of southern Italy came under Muslim rule. Two walls now existed. The Mediterranean was a wall which separated northern Christian Europe from an alien culture to its south. Another wall, this one a north–south wall, separated Latin Christians from Greek Christians. To the north and west of these walls Europe of the Middle Ages was to live its life. It is this European world of Latin Christianity, often called western Europe, whose story we now follow.

Further reading

On Justinian good places to begin are John Moorhead, Justinian (London, 1994) and J.A.S. Evans, The Age of Justinian: The Circumstances of Imperial Power (New York, 1996). Robert Browning, Justinian and Theodora (rev. edn; London, 1987) is quite useful. Also, Andrew Louth has written a chapter on Justinian in The Cambridge History of the Byzantine Empire (Jonathan Shepard, ed.; Cambridge, 2008). About questions of imperium and sacerdotium see Francis Dvornik, Early Christian and Byzantine Political Philosophy: Origins and Background, (2 vols; Dumbarton Oaks Studies 9, Washington, DC, 1966); and John Meyendorff, ‘Justinian, the Empire and the Church’, Dumbarton Oaks Papers 22 (1968), 45–60. On Santa Sophia see Rowland J. Mainstone,Hagia Sophia: Architecture, Structure and Liturgy of Justinian’s Great Church (London, 1988) and Robert Mark and Ahmet S. Cakmak (eds), Hagia Sophia from the Age of Justinian to the Present (Cambridge, 1992). The Buildings by Procopius, which provides a contemporary description, is available in Loeb Classics series as vol. 7 of the works of Procopius (Cambridge, MA, 1961). His Secret History may be conveniently used in the translation by Richard Atwater (Ann Arbor, MI, 1961). Sensible and immensely informative is Averil Cameron, Procopius and the Sixth Century (London, 1985). The texts of the law books in their original language comprise the Corpus Iuris Civilis (3 vols; Berlin, 1872–95). An English translation of all the law texts can be found in The Civil Law (tr. S.P. Scott; 17 vols; Cincinnati, 1932). More accessible is the translation of The Digest of Justinian, edited by Alan Watson (Philadelphia, 1985; paperback, 1998). Stephen C. Manning discusses the religion of the Lombards in ‘Lombard Arianism Reconsidered’, Speculum 56 (1981) 241–58.

A number of general works are available on Islamic history. The most comprehensive book in English is Ira M. Lapidus, A History of Islamic Societies (2nd edn; Cambridge, 2002), which goes beyond the chronological and geographical bounds of the medieval West. Also, there are Matthew S. Gordon, The Rise of Islam (Westport, CT, 2008); Fred M. Donner, Muhammad and the Believers: At the Origins of Islam (Cambridge, MA, 2010); Jonathan P. Berkey, The Formation of Islam: Religion and Society in the Near East, 600–1800 (Cambridge, 2003); and Bernard Lewis, The Arabs in History (6th edn; Oxford, 1993). Of particular interest are Hugh N. Kennedy, The Prophet and Age of the Caliphates: The Islamic Near East from the Sixth to the Eleventh Century (London, 1986) and his The Great Arab Conquests: How the Spread of Islam Changed the World We Live In (London, 2007), which, although principally concerned about the conquests in the Middle East, provides an excellent summary of the campaigns in Iberia. For a study of how the jihad started see Reuven Firestone, Jihād: The Origin of Holy War in Islam (New York and Oxford, 1999). The standard reference work is The Encyclopedia of Islam (new edn; London, 1960–). Volume One of The New Cambridge History of Islam is aptly entitled The Formation of the Islamic World, Sixth to Eleventh Centuries (Chase F. Robinson, ed.; Cambridge, 2010) and contains learned essays on aspects of the subject.

Many translations of the Koran are available: Arthur J. Arberry’s The Koran Interpreted (London, 1964) attempts to provide something of the rhetorical and rhythmic patterns of the original Arabic. A number of useful studies on the Koran can be found in The Qur’ān in Its Historical Context (Gabriel Said Reynolds, ed.; London, 2008). For a balanced, judicious view of a controversial subject see Yohanan Friedmann, Tolerance and Coercion in Islam: Interfaith Relations in the Muslim Tradition (Cambridge, 2003), a study of the classical law and tradition on religious tolerance.

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