The Plight of Eastern Christianity Under Islam

III - The Middle East After the Islamic Conquest

In our previous lecture, we noted that the Arabs allowed the Christians of Egypt, Syria, and Mesopotamia, to continue in their governmental work, and the use of the local languages.  While Islamization of the conquered areas slowed down, Arabization of the national cultures proceeded without delay. Before long, Arabic became the national language of the Middle Eastern peoples.

Having covered the historical background of Eastern Christianity, and the impact of the Islamic conquests, we shall now proceed to the study of the decline of Eastern Christianity in the Middle East. Our primary source is, The Decline of Eastern Christianity, From Jihad to Dhimmitude, by Bat Ye’or, published in 1996 by Associated University Presses, in Cranbury, NJ, 08512  The author was born in Egypt, and was member of a sizable Jewish community that had lived in that country for centuries before Christ. The Jewish population of Egypt dwindled rapidly after the birth of Israel in 1948. Bat Ye’or (a Hebrew name that means, Daughter of the Nile), migrated to France and contributed several works on the topic of “Dhimmis” (Jews and Christian) under Islam. In 1991, this book was first published in French, and five years later, the English translation appeared.

Most of what follows are quotations that illustrate the plight of Eastern Christianity since the Islamic conquests of the Eastern and Southern parts of the Mediterranean world. Professor Jacques Ellul, a well-known French Protestant scholar of the University of Bordeaux, wrote the  Foreword to the book. Ellul reminds us that an intrinsic part of the Islamic faith is jihad. While modern Islamic scholars have endeavored to re-define jihad, claiming that it is primarily a “struggle with self,” Jacques Ellul points out that history proves otherwise.

"But a major, twofold fact transforms the jihad into something quite different from traditional wars, waged for ambition and self-interest, with limited objectives, where the ‘normal’ situation is peace between peoples; war in itself, constitutes a dramatic event which must end in a return to peace. The twofold factor is first the religious nature, then the fact that war has become an institution (and no longer an ‘event’).  Jihad is generally translated as ‘holy war’ (this term is not satisfactory): this suggests both that this war is provoked by strong religious feeling, and then that its first object is not so much to conquer land as to Islamize the populations. This war is a religious duty." P. 18

"In Islam, however, jihad is a religious obligation. It forms part of the duties that the believer must fulfill. It is Islam’s normal path to expansion." P. 18,19

"Hence, the second important specific characteristic is that the jihad is an institution, and not an event, that is to say it is part of the normal functioning of the Muslim world. The conquered populations change status (they become dhimmis), and the shari’a tends to be put into effect integrally, overthrowing the former law of the country. The conquered territories do not simply change ‘owners.’ Rather they are brought into a binding collective (religious) ideology --- with the exception of the dhimmi condition --- and are controlled by a highly perfected administrative machinery." P. 19

Coming now to our author’s text, we are impressed by the thorough research and analysis of the sources that prove the thesis of Bat Ye’or, namely that the Islamic conquests had given birth for all time (within the Muslim world) of an institution that places the native populations into a permanently handicapped status.  Writing about The Origin of Jihad, Bat Ye’or put it in these words:

"The Jihad 'linked the mores of great warlike nomadism with the conditions of existence of Muhammad in' Medina where he emigrated in 622, fleeing the persecutions of the pagans of Mecca. Lacking means of subsistence, the small emigrant Muslim community lived at the expense of the new converts in Medina. As this situation could not last, the Prophet organized armed incursions to intercept the caravans which traded with Mecca. Interpreter of the will of Allah, Muhammad combined the political power of a military leader, the religious power and the functions of a judge: ‘Whosoever obeys the Messenger, thereby obeys God’ (Koran 4:82)" P. 37

"In 640 the second caliph, Umar Ibn.al-Khattab, drove the Jewish and Christian tributaries out of Hijaz … [he] invoked the desire expressed by the Prophet on his deathbed: ‘Two religions should not co-exist within the Arabian peninsula.’" P. 39

To go over the details that Bat Ye’or mentions in her book may sound totally out of tune with the spirit of our times when a globalized and shrinking world requires all of us to live in harmony and in peace and to forget the past. But what if in the past some civilizations were based on continual warfare, and if their histories have become normative for the present? And what if, as we notice today, Islamic radicalism is impacting our world from Indonesia, passing through Pakistan, and into the Middle East? Are we supposed to engage in self-censorship and suppress facts that are based on ancient dogmas and which still impact the present?

I have really been puzzled by the little reference made to this great work of historical research. It has been accomplished meticulously by an immigrant author who found in France a welcoming home and a proper atmosphere for the publication of her works on the plight of the Dhimmis across fourteen hundred years.

Here are a few more quotes.

"The religious obligation to fight the Christians required a permanent state of war which justified the organization of seasonal raids (ghazwa)… They sometimes consisted of short pillaging incursions … to collect booty, steal livestock, and enslave the villagers. Other campaigns, led by the caliph in person, called for considerable military preparations. Provinces were ravaged and burned down, towns pillaged and destroyed, inhabitants massacred or deported." P. 48

"For centuries after its conquest in 712, Spain became the terrain par excellence for the jihad in the West of the dar el-Islam." P. 49

"Under the Umayyads, the Peoples of the Book, particularly the Christians, represented the large majority of the Islamic states’s subjects and ---with the Zoroastrians --- its principal taxpayers. This economic strength also constituted a political power that had to be controlled, since revolts would have paralyzed the Arab army, which was accumulating booty and slaves for the caliph in the dar al-harb." P. 69

"The two pillars of the nascent Islamic state in the conquered lands were the army --- formed by Arab tribes and the slaves taken as spoils of war --- and the conquered masses: tributaries, slaves, freed men, and converts, a workforce which fed the economic sector. The third pillar --- juridical power --- was being elaborated. It would undertake to balance and rectify the enormous demographic disparity between the conquered Peoples of the Book and the Muslims. - the legal institution would formulate a collection of laws which gradually whittled down the rights of the dhimmis and confined them to a cramped condition, by transferring to the umma all the key positions that the dhimmis had formerly held." Pp. 69,70

"From the beginning of the conquests --- in Syria and Spain, as well as in other conquered provinces --- the Christians had ceded to the Muslims half of their churches which became mosques as a result of the Muslim influx." Pp. 83,84

"In the Maghreb, where endemic anarchy prevailed, sources mention the massacre in 1033 of five to six thousand Jews in Fez. The Almohad persecutions in the Maghreb and Muslim Spain (1130-1212) eliminated Christianity there." P. 89

Chapter 10 is titled: Conclusion. Bat Ye’or endeavors to bring together for the contemporary reader, a meaningful result of her research. Her goal is not merely to supply us with facts relating to the past fourteen centuries, but to enable us to understand the challenges that we faced at the end of the twentieth century, and that continue to be with us throughout the twenty-first century.

"Does the expression ‘protected religious minorities’ or ‘tolerated religious minorities’ adequately describe the dhimmi peoples?

"In the lands conquered by jihad … the Peoples of the Book formed majorities, among whom the Arabs of the first wave of Islamization and the Turks of the second wave were in the minority. Presumably the complex and little-known processes that transformed those majorities into minorities covered some three or four centuries for each wave of Islamization. By contracting it, the expression ‘religious minorities’ reverses a chronological process that had spread over centuries, whose result --- the minority condition --- is taken as its starting point."

"This interpretation, which omits the essential phase when irreversible changes occurred, conceals the political aspect of dhimmitude and reduces it exclusively to a religious minority status. In addition, the formula becomes inadequate for certain regions, such as the Balkans, where non-Muslims were in the majority until the nineteenth century…" P. 243

"Today, it would seem absurd to describe the Rumanian, Serbian, Bulgarian, Greek and Israeli nations as former ‘tolerated religious minorities.’ Similarly, the common cliché ‘second-class citizens’ has no meaning, because the dhimmis were not citizens and the term ‘second-class’ is devoid of the dhimma’s historical and juridical substrata." Pp. 243,244

"…dhimmitude reveals another reality. Here are peoples who, … spread the Judeo-Christian civilization as far as Europe and Russia. Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians, conquered by nomadic bands, taught their oppressors, with the patience of centuries, the subtle skills of governing empires, the need for law and order, the management of finances, the administration of town and countryside, the rules of taxation rather those of pillage, the sciences, philosophy, literature, and the arts, the organization and transmission of knowledge --- in short, the rudiments and foundations of civilization." P. 264

"Decimated by razzias in the countryside, they sought refuge in the towns which they developed and embellished. Branded with opprobrium, the conquerors still chose to drag them from region to region in order to revive ravaged lands and restore ruined towns. Once again, they built, again they worked. Once again they were driven out, again pillaged and ransomed. And as they dwindled, drained of their blood and spirit, civilization itself disappeared, decadence stagnated, barbarism reigned over lands which, previously, when they were theirs, were lands of civilization, of crops and of plenty." P. 265

"The elites who fled to Europe took their cultural baggage with them, their scholarship, and their knowledge of the classics of antiquity. Therefore, in the Christian lands of refuge --- Spain, Provence, Sicily, Italy --- cultural centers developed where Christians and Jews from Islamized lands taught to the young Europe the knowledge of the old pre-Islamic Orient, formerly translated into Arabic by their ancestors." P. 265

"And so this study would prefer to end with the a tribute. Indeed, as the centuries shed their leaves, these rejects of history disclose the infinite variety of the human character. Servile, corrupt, cowardly, pusillanimous, and presumptuous, but also learned, industrious, and heroic; all aspects blended and intermingled; faces of blood and tears, faces of wisdom and enquiry, molded in a thousand-year-old human magma which the historian only approaches with respect and without judgment." P. 265

Bassam M. Madany - March, 2001


Back to the Plight of Eastern Christianity Under Islam
Forward to the next Plight of Eastern Christianity Under Islam paper

Contact us via e-mail: MER@levant.info

Return to Middle East Resources home page