The Plight of Eastern Christianity Under Islam

II - The Middle East: At the Rise of Islam

In our previous lecture, we covered the history of the early Church highlighting the development of episcopacy, and the eventual division of the Church between East and West. We alluded to the further divisions that occurred in the East, as the Church grappled with the subject of the natures and wills of Jesus Christ. As a result, more schisms took place. The Orthodox Church used the arm of the Byzantine Empire to persecute those who refused to accept orthodoxy as defined by the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD.

The non-Chalcedonian Churches were regional, and were located in such geographical areas as Egypt, Syria, and Mesopotamia. Since Byzantium held political power over Egypt and Syria, it persecuted these independent Churches with the blessing of the Orthodox Church. This forms a sad chapter in the history of the Church, especially as these churches had already suffered  during the first three centuries of the Christian era, prior to the conversion of Constantine. Beginning with 451, the persecutors were fellow Christians!

South of the Byzantine Empire lay the vast Arabian Peninsula. Most of it consisted of barren desert regions. They were inhabited by warring tribes, with a few urban centers such as Mecca and Medina. In the southern part of Arabia, lay the rich land of Yemen, the home of the Queen of Sheba of OT times.

In order to keep the Arabian tribes from invading the southern areas of the Empire; the Byzantines encouraged some semi-nomadic tribes to be their clients, and to act as defenders of the southern borders of the Empire. Most of these tribes had accepted the Christian faith, and for a good deal of time, they kept their agreement with Byzantium.

The great threat to the Eastern Empire lay further in the East. For centuries, Persia had been a rival of Byzantium. In fact, during most of the 6th Century, the two empires fought each other over areas known nowadays as the Middle East.  Persia considered Mesopotamia (Iraq) as within its sphere of influence and had some native client tribes that kept peace on the borders of Arabia. All seemed quiet on these two fronts until the sudden rise of Islam early in the 7th century. Persia and Byzantium faced the challenge of a new faith that had a very active political component.

At this point, it must be noted that by the time Muhammad was born in Mecca (570 AD,) Persia and Byzantium had exhausted their resources, having fought each other for an entire century. The subsidies promised to their client 'states' were rapidly diminishing. So, when the Arabs, after the death of Muhammad in 632 AD, burst out of Arabia and began the conquest of the Middle East, those Christianized tribes were not eager to fight them on behalf of either Persia or Byzantium. Some, joined the invading Arab tribes, while others offered hardly any resistance to their military incursions. By the middle of the 7th century, the Persian Empire fell, and the Byzantines lost Syria (including Palestine) and Egypt. By 732 AD, the Arab/Islamic armies had conquered parts of Asia, Africa, and Spain, calling the latter, Andalusia.

As mentioned before, most of the population of Syria and Egypt were Monophysite Christians. Since they were considered heretical, they were persecuted by the Byzantines. At first, these Christians welcomed the advancing Arab armies imagining they were their liberators! Ironically, to the East, i.e., in Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq,) the Nestorians had enjoyed more freedom than their fellow-Christians to the West, since they lived within the Persian Empire. At that time, Persia professed Zoroastrianism, a dualistic faith that taught the existence of two equally powerful and antagonistic principles: good and evil. But Persia did not withstand the advancing Arab armies, and quickly collapsed, thus allowing the invaders to proceed further East to the borders of India.

At this point, I would like to advance the thesis that the Arabs, having adopted Islam, were no longer to continue in the age-long custom of raiding one another. Muhammad had convinced them that they had become one nation (Umma.) As their local resources were scarce, they looked northward and eastward for a new source of booty. In their first incursions beyond Arabia, they were surprised by their rapid success within the Byzantine and Persian Empires. Here we must remember the historical fact that their conquests preceded their reflecting on the meaning of their spectacular successes in building a world empire. In the early history of Islam, practice came first, theorizing followed conquest. Eventually, they developed a strong belief that it was the will of Allah for Muslims to conquer the world. Thus they divided the world into two areas: Dar al-Islam (the Household of Islam) those areas conquered by Muslims, and Dar al-Harb (the Household of war), those areas yet to be conquered through warfare!

During the lifetime of Muhammad, and especially after his migration to Medina in 622, he dealt with Jewish and Christian tribes of Arabia. He had hoped that these followers of 'heavenly' (theistic) faiths who had received God’s Revelations through Moses, David, and Jesus, would now welcome him as the final Messenger of God. That did not happen however. Soon after he conquered Mecca in 630, he persecuted the Jews, slew some of their men, and enslaved their women and children. After his death, his successors (the Caliphs) decreed that no Jew or Christian may continue to live within Arabia. This prohibition is still maintained today. Exception is made for non-Muslim technicians to live temporarily in Saudi Arabia, but none may hold any worship services even within the sanctity of their homes. This prohibition was illustrated by the fact that when President Bush visited Saudi Arabia in November 1990 during Operation Desert Shield, he had to leave the Saudi territory in order to attend a Thanksgiving Day service on board of a U.S. aircraft carrier stationed in the Persian Gulf!

What about the conquered lands? The invading Arab/Islamic armies expected all pagan subjects to Islamize; but they did allow Jews and Christians to remain within their faith according to specific restrictions. The Arabs granted them the status of 'Dhimmis,' an Arabic word that literally means 'under the protection' of the new masters. The terms of this 'protection' were defined by the 'protectors.'  Religious traffic flowed one way: from Judaism or Christianity, to Islam, and never vice-versa. Once a Muslim, always a Muslim. The Law of Apostasy was imbedded in the Quran, and an apostate could expect no mercy, death was the penalty for leaving Islam. Christians were restricted to worshipping within their churches, but were not allowed to evangelize. No new church buildings could be built. Christians were expected to pay a poll tax for the 'protection' they received from their new masters.

Since both the Persian and Greek administration of the conquered areas had collapsed, the Arabs allowed the Christians (natives) of Egypt, Syria, and Mesopotamia, to continue in their governmental work, and to use the local languages. But slowly, while Islamization slowed down, Arabization of the culture proceeded without delay. Within about 200 years after the arrival of the Muslims, Egypt, Syria, and Mesopotamia were Arabized. This can been seen by the fact that the first known translation of the Bible into Arabic by national Christians took place near Damascus, in the middle of the 9th century!

Having established the historical background for our study of the Plight of Eastern Christianity under Islam, we shall proceed in our next lecture, to the study of sources that document our thesis. We shall rely on a book, The Decline of Eastern Christianity, From Jihad to Dhimmitude, by Bat Ye’or, published in 1996 by Associated University Presses, Cranbury, NJ.

Bassam M. Madany - March, 2001


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