The Muslim Conquests

The Arab Occupation of Jerusalem

In AD 636 the Arabs invaded Palestine, and by the summer of the following year their army was encamped outside the walls of Jerusalem. The defence of the city was organised by its Patriarch Sophronius with the help of the Byzantine garrison, but in February 638 after a seven-month siege the Christians were forced to surrender to caliph Umar, the Muslim commander, though not before the True Cross was safely removed to Constantinople. According to a traditional account, Sophronius rode out to escort Umar back through the gates of the city, but instead the caliph humbly dismounted from his camel and entered Jerusalem on foot. This was Umar’s homage to the city which the Muslims called al-Quds, ‘the Holy’, from al-bayt al-muqaddas, ‘the Holy House’–that is the Temple of Solomon.

Once inside Jerusalem, Umar asked Sophronius to take him to the Temple Mount, called the Haram al-Sharif by the Muslims, the Noble Sanctuary, where his purpose was to search for relics, among them what he called the mihrab, or prayer niche, of David, of which Umar had heard the Prophet Mohammed speak. As Jesus had foreseen, not a stone was left standing on the Temple Mount, and now it was covered with refuse. The caliph ordered it cleared and was the first to carry away a load of debris in the fold of his cloak. Umar also had a temporary mosque built at the southern end of the Mount, on the spot where the al-Aqsa mosque, begun sixty years later, stands today.

Al-Aqsa means ‘the farthest’ and was originally applied to the entire Temple Mount, as though it marked the horizon of Muslim ambition, for Mohammed had had a vision of ascending into Paradise from this spot (Koran 17:1). But by the time the al-Aqsa mosque was completed in 715 the Arab armies had established a vast Islamic empire extending five thousand miles from east to west, from the borders of China to the Atlantic coast of Spain, and Christendom had lost more than half its territory.

From Revelation to Jihad

This story of conquest, one of the most far-reaching and rapid in history, had its beginnings in Arabia in 622 when Mohammed began to unite the Arab tribes into a powerful fighting force through his preaching of a single god–though his activities went entirely unnoticed by the Byzantine and Persian empires, the great powers of the time.

Arabia, despite being largely barren and uninhabited, occupied an important position between Egypt, Abyssinia, Persia, Syria, Palestine and Mesopotamia, whose trade with one another relied to some considerable extent on the Arab caravans that carried their goods across the perilous wastes. Mecca stood at an important crossroads of this desert trade, and the authority of the Arab nomadic tribal sheikhs was in some measure supplanted at Mecca by a kind of oligarchy of ruling commercial families whose religious beliefs and practises transcended narrow tribal allegiances.

The Meccans ensured that their rock-shrine, the Kaaba, contained not one but several venerated tribal stones, each symbolising a local god, so that tribesmen visiting the market fairs could worship their favourite deity during their stay in the city. The Meccans also worshipped Manat, Uzza and Allat, goddesses of fertility and fate, who in turn were subordinate to a yet higher god called Allah.

Such material as we have about the early days of Islam comes mainly from the Koran and from the hadith, the oral traditions relating to the actions of Mohammed. Born in about 570, Mohammed was the son of a poor merchant of Mecca who was nevertheless a member of the powerful Quraysh tribe, the hereditary guardians of the Kaaba. While working as a trader he was exposed not only to the flow of foreign goods but to the currents of Jewish and Christian ideas. In particular, through conversing with Jews and Christians he met in Mecca and elsewhere in Arabia, Mohammed had become acquainted with the stories of the Old and New Testaments, with the main elements of Jewish and Christian popular custom and belief, and above all with the concept of monotheism. Drawn into a life of religious contemplation, in about 610 he began to receive revelations via the angel Gabriel of the word of Allah, who announced himself to Mohammed as the one and only God. Other gods were mere inventions, announced the revelation, and their idols at the Kaaba were to be destroyed.

This message provoked a great deal of antagonism among the Meccans, but slowly Mohammed began making some converts among pilgrims from Yathrib, an agricultural community about 250 miles to the north which had a mixed population of Arabs, Jews and Judaised Arabs and was therefore already familiar with monotheism and other features of his teaching. In 622 the hostility of the pagan Meccans towards Mohammed reached such a pitch that he and his small band of followers accepted an invitation to settle in Yathrib. This migration, or Hegira, marked the beginning of the Muslim era, and in time Yathrib was renamed Medinat al-Nabi–‘City of the Prophet’–or Medina for short.

Mohammed’s understanding of Jewish and Christian concepts led him to believe that they were basically identical to the revelations, known as the Koran, that he had received, and therefore he expected that Jews and Christians would agree with his teaching and recognise him as a prophet standing in the line of Abraham, Moses, David, Solomon, Jesus and others. But whereas remnants of the heresy known as Arianism may have allowed Mohammed to believe that Christianity could dispense with the divinity of Jesus, the Jews were uncompromising: they told him that his revelations were a distortion and a misunderstanding of their tradition, and they drew attention to the numerous contradictions in his revelations on Old Testament themes.

Mohammed’s answer was to turn against the Jews, saying they had deliberately falsified their traditions, while he presented himself as the restorer of the religion of Abraham, whom he said was the founder of the Kaaba and its cult. He abandoned the Muslim fast corresponding to the Jewish Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, the one day of the year when the High Priest at the Temple in Jerusalem entered the Holy of Holies where he made atonement for all the Jews in the world. In place of a day of fasting, Mohammed instituted the month-long fast of Ramadan. And at the same time, according to tradition, he instructed Muslims to pray towards the Kaaba in Mecca; until then Muslims had prayed towards Jerusalem.

But Mohammed’s most important act during his early years in Medina was to set down the revelation giving permission to his followers to go to war against those identified as their enemies. ‘Permission to take up arms is hereby given to those who are attacked, because they have been wronged. God has power to grant them victory: those who have been unjustly driven from their homes, only because they said: “Our Lord is God”’ (Koran 22:39–40).

According to Muslim scholars this concept of jihad, or holy war, can legitimately be applied against injustice and oppression, or against the rejectors of the truth, that is the truth of Islam, after it has been made evident to them. In the immediate circumstances it was used against the Meccans. After provoking several clashes with the Meccans, including raids on their caravans which provided the Muslims with considerable booty, Mohammed conquered Mecca in 629. Extending his wars against the Bedouin tribes, Mohammed gained control over the whole of Arabia the following year.

By the time of Mohammed’s death in 632 he had unified the Arabs under the banner of Islam, at once a religion, a social, legal and political institution, and a justification in the name of Allah for war and conquest–or as one historian has put it, arguing that Arab expansion was due to excessive population and lack of resources in Arabia, to free themselves ‘from the hot prison of the desert’. The first forays were in Mesopotamia (Iraq), to which the raiding Arabs were attracted by booty, ransom and abundant pasturage, and over the next ten years Mohammed’s successors, known as caliphs (from Khalifat rasul-Allah, Successor to the Apostle of God), destroyed Persia’s Sassanian empire, and in their jihad against the Byzantine Empire overran Syria, Palestine and Egypt.

Problems with Islamic History

From the point of view of Western scholarship there are serious problems with Muslim history. For example, there are no contemporary Muslim sources for Umar’s conquest of Jerusalem. The account of Umar being shocked at the rubbish on the Temple Mount and making a start at clearing it away comes from Mujir al-Din al-Hanbali towards the end of the fifteenth century, more than 800 years after the events he describes. In fact the earliest Muslim histories appeared only 150 years or so after the death of Mohammed, and according to the oldest history relating the conquest of Jerusalem, the caliph Umar was not there at the surrender at all. Though the Temple Mount had little significance for Christians, it is unlikely that in so well-organised and prosperous a city it was left in a ruinous state. The acts of Constantine and the visit of his mother had the effect of magnifying the importance of Jerusalem and promoting its reconstruction, while sometime no later than the mid-fifth century Jews were again permitted to live within the city. An ancient map, and the testimony of a pilgrim, suggest that at the very least there was a church or chapel on the Temple Mount, probably at the southeast corner adjacent to where the al-Aqsa mosque stands today.

Until about 800 there is an almost total lack of contemporary Islamic sources. Islamic history appears to have been transmitted primarily orally until that date, when Muslim scholars began collecting, editing and recording the traditions, their aim to create a coherent scriptural basis for Islam and to provide an historical underpinning for their now sophisticated world empire.

In fact the earliest date for a written Islamic source is 692: it is the founder’s inscription which appears in gold mosaic along the arcade inside the Dome of the Rock. It corresponds to Sura 4:171 in the Koran and is an emphatic warning to the Christians: ‘People of the Book, do not transgress the bounds of your religion. Speak nothing but the truth about God. The Messiah, Jesus the son of Mary, was no more than God’s apostle and His Word which he cast to Mary: a spirit from Him. So believe in God and his apostles and do not say: “Three”. Forebear, and it shall be better for you. God is but one God. God forbid that he should have a son! His is all that the heavens and the earth contain. God is the all-sufficient protector.’

The traditional view is that the Koran consists of passages associated with (or revealed to) Mohammed in Mecca and Medina in the early decades of the seventh century, that it had been committed to writing by about 650, and that it was the most important element in Islam from the time of Mohammed onwards. But a discovery made in 1972 of a cache of ancient Korans in the Great Mosque at Sanaa in Yemen seems to show that even as the Dome of the Rock was being built, Islam was still in flux. The Sanaa cache of Korans have been dated to the early part of the eighth century, and examination of the manuscripts reveals that there are two versions of the text, one written over the other, suggesting that the Koran, and therefore Islam itself, was evolving for at least a century following the death of Mohammed.

By applying the same approaches to the Koran as have long been applied to the Old and New Testaments, various Western scholars based at such institutions as Oxford, Princeton and London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) have arrived at the view that the Koran, in the form that it survives, was compiled, if not written, decades after the lifetime of Mohammed, probably by converts to Islam in the Middle East, who introduced elements from Christianity and Judaism, and that it was elevated to the position of Islam’s definitive scripture only towards the end of the eighth century.

Some support for this view has come from archaeology. According to Muslim tradition, Mohammed changed the direction of prayer from Jerusalem to Mecca in the earliest years of Islam, after he fell out with the Jews when he was building his community of the faithful in Arabia. But new archaeological evidence shows that in mosques built as late as the eighth century the prayer niches point towards Jerusalem and not towards Mecca.

These scholars conclude that Islam’s own accounts of its origins are religiously inspired interpretations of history rather than objective records of events. They say that Islam’s history of that period, including accounts of Mohammed and the formation of the Koran, is in fact a back-projection of views that were formed as the culture and religion of Islam emerged in an atmosphere of intense debate between different groups of monotheists influenced by rabbinical Judaism and heretical Christianity.


The Night Journey

Jerusalem is the third holiest place in Islam after Mecca and Medina. In fact the Temple Mount was the original direction for Muslim prayer. The holiness of Jerusalem derives from its association with the Old Testament prophets whom Mohammed also made the prophets of Islam, and from Jesus whom Mohammed also regarded as a prophet but not the son of God. But above all the sacred nature of Jerusalem is confirmed for Muslims by the story in the Koran (17:1) of the Night Journey in which the angel Gabriel brings Mohammed to the Temple Mount from where they ascend heavenwards for a brief glimpse of Paradise.

Nothing in the Koran directly identifies the Farthest Mosque with the Temple Mount; nor is there any mention of Jerusalem: ‘Glory be to him who made his servant go by night from the Sacred Temple to the farther Temple whose surroundings we have blessed.’ In the view of non-Muslim scholars, and some Muslims too, the identification with the site of Solomon’s Temple was a later interpretation, probably made generations after the death of Mohammed, some arguing that ‘the farther Temple’ really refers to Medina and that the Night Journey was Mohammed’s Hegira to that city. Islam had already appropriated the prophets of Judaism and Christianity, but by means of reinterpreting the Koran it could be made to appropriate their sacred places as well.

The Dome of the Rock illustrates that appropriation. Built on the site of Solomon’s Temple, decorated inside and out with inscriptions composed of all the Koranic references to Jesus, and marking the spot where Mohammed was given a glimpse of Paradise awaiting all true believers, the triple associations of the Dome of the Rock confirm the ascendancy of Islam.


Islamic Imperialism and Flourishing Christian Heresies

Though the rapidly expanding Muslim empire was first ruled from Medina in Arabia, from 661 it was governed from Damascus in Syria by caliphs of the Umayyad dynasty. But after a violent transfer of power to the Abbasid dynasty in 750, the caliphate was moved to Baghdad in Iraq.

Throughout these changes, however, Arab policy remained the same, namely to extract the maximum revenue from its conquered territories and its subject peoples. Proud and independent in attitude and nomadic by background, the occupying Arabs were disinclined to become farmers; instead the Muslim Arab warrior caste lived off the poll tax (jizyah) and the land tax (kharaj), which was paid by the conquered peoples in return for the protection of their lives and property and for the right to practise their own religion.

Because the jizyah could be imposed only on non-Muslims, there was little interest in making converts to Islam, and for centuries longer Syria, Palestine and Egypt would remain overwhelmingly Christian. Indeed during its first century under Muslim rule Syria gave the world five Popes. Nor did Arabisation come quickly. Only towards the end of the seventh century was Greek replaced by Arabic as the official language of administration in Aramaic-speaking Syria and Coptic-speaking Egypt.

Nevertheless, the Muslim conquerors imposed restrictions on their subjects to keep them firmly in place. The building of new churches and synagogues was prohibited, the ringing of church bells was forbidden, and festivals and public expressions of faith were curtailed. Further, Christians and Jews stood outside the community; they were not allowed to carry weapons, nor bear witness against Muslims in courts of law, nor marry Muslim women. Also Jews and Christians had to distinguish themselves by their clothing from Muslims, they could not ride horses, only asses, and any who attempted to convert Muslims to their own religion paid with the death penalty, as did any Muslim who apostasised.

If the triumph of Islam had been enabled by the Byzantine Empire’s long and exhausting conflict with Persia, it had also been helped by the fierce theological disputes that for hundreds of years had torn apart the unity of the Christian world. And so it is fitting if ironic that an effect of the Muslim conquests was to protect and preserve a considerable variety of Christian heresies. To the Muslims these controversies were of little account; Islam was the revealed and perfected faith, and as for the Christians, and also the Jews, as long as they submitted to Muslim rule and paid their taxes they were permitted to conduct their own affairs according to their own laws, customs and beliefs.

Christian heresy flourished in the Middle East under Muslim rule, or rather what was regarded as heresy by the authorities in Constantinople and by the Popes in Rome. But here in the Middle East all Christian sects were treated alike, so that heterodox and heretic Christians were now freed from persecution by rival Christians or the state. For example, at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 a majority decided that Jesus had two natures, the human and the divine, adding that these were unmixed and unchangeable but at the same time indistinguishable and inseparable.

This is the view of almost all Christian churches to this day, but members of the Syrian Church, known as the Jacobites, and of the Egyptian Church, known as the Copts, while not denying the two natures, put emphasis on their unity at the Incarnation. For this the Syrians and Egyptians were called monophysites (monophysis, Greek for single nature), and were charged with the heretical belief that Jesus’ human nature had been entirely absorbed in the divine.

What exactly the parties to these disputes meant when they talked of the nature of Jesus Christ was affected by shades of language and culture, but certainly they had a divisive effect within the Byzantine Empire and helped prepare the way for the coming of Islam. As one figure of the Jacobite Church said of the Muslim conquest: ‘The God of vengeance delivered us out of the hands of the Romans by means of the Arabs. It profited us not a little to be saved from the cruelty of the Romans and their bitter hatred towards us.’


Heretics, the Antichrist and the Last Days

For a long time the Byzantines viewed Islam as a kind of Arianism, the fourth–century Christian heresy which opened the way to regarding the nature of Jesus as being not of the same substance as God’s and even being inferior to God’s. Taken to its extreme extent, Arianism could amount to denying entirely the divinity of Jesus and reducing him to merely a good man. Even someone who saw things from up close, such as John of Damascus (c676–749), a Syrian Christian theologian who lived entirely under Muslim rule and served as counsellor in the court of the Umayyad caliphs, did not regard Islam as a new religion but considered it a deviation from orthodox Christianity similar to other early heresies.

Likewise medieval Western Europe conceived of Islam in the same way, as a version of Arianism, and mistook it for just one more aberrant Christian sect. If Islam was still evolving at this time, as some modern scholars believe, then this may have been a reasonable enough estimation of the situation. Or it may be that observers in both the Byzantine Empire and the West could see Islam only through the lens of Christian history and were unable to recognise it as something completely new. Certainly it is remarkable that even in the late Middle Ages Dante (1265–1321) in his Inferno (XXVIII, 31–36) should have considered Mohammed as a heretic and placed him in the ninth circle of hell for being ‘a sower of schism and discord’.

But the coming of Islam also found its way into Christian prophetic literature, which after the Bible and the works of the Church Fathers was the most influential body of writing circulating in Europe during the Middle Ages. Uncanonical, unorthodox and infinitely adaptable to the preoccupations of the moment, these concoctions followed a common theme derived from the New Testament’s Book of Revelation–that of the divine warrior who will come and save the world. An early candidate for this role was the Emperor Constantine, who had legalised Christianity and was then expected to bring about the Second Coming. In prophecy after prophecy that role passed from one emperor or king or prince to another while the story took on fantastical dimensions in relating the final triumph of Christianity.

One famous example that would reverberate throughout the Middle Ages was the Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius. It was written in the seventh century but made to look as though it had been written in the fourth century as a prediction of the Muslim invasion of the Middle East by Bishop Methodius of Patara, who was martyred in 311 at Tyre in Lebanon during the Roman persecutions. It relates how the Ishmaelites, that is the Arabs, emerge from the desert and ravage the land from the Nile to the Euphrates. The Christians are punished for their sins by being subjected for a time to the Ishmaelites, who kill Christian priests, desecrate the holy places, take the Christians’ land and force or seduce many Christians from the true faith.

But just when all seems lost a mighty emperor, whom many had thought long dead, rises up and defeats the Ishmaelites, lays waste their lands with fire and sword, and rages against those Christians who had denied Jesus as their lord. Now under this great emperor a golden age begins, a time of peace and joy, when the world flourishes as never before.

This is shattered, however, when fearsome peoples known collectively as Gog and Magog, whom Alexander the Great had imprisoned in the far north, break out and bring universal terror and destruction until God sends a captain of the heavenly host who destroys them in a flash. The emperor journeys to Jerusalem where he hands over Christendom to the care of God by going to Golgotha and placing his crown upon the Cross, which soars up to heaven. But the emperor dies and the Antichrist appears, installing himself in the Temple in Jerusalem where he inaugurates a reign of trials and tribulations, deceiving people with his miracles and persecuting those he cannot deceive. However, before long the Cross reappears in the heavens and Jesus Christ himself comes on clouds in power and glory to kill the Antichrist with the breath of his mouth and to carry out the Last Judgement.

For medieval people, especially the poor, the oppressed, the disoriented and the unbalanced, the tremendous drama of the Last Days was not a fantasy about some remote and indefinite future but a prophecy which was infallible and which at almost any given moment was felt to be on the point of fulfilment. The coming of the Last Emperor followed by the reign of the Antichrist were tensely awaited, as the lawless chaos of the age was seen as the expected prelude to the universal salvation of the Second Coming.

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