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The Wisdom of History – Islam

The average military juror may have negative views on Islam.   Would a practicing Islamic-American receive the same fair play as anyone else in a court-martial?   Elsewhere, we’re preparing a set of voir dire questions on that touchy subject.

Two Great Faiths

Christianity and Islam are monotheistic religions. Both are “revealed faiths”  resting on books – the Bible and the Koran.

Each arose in the Middle East within the vast Roman Empire.  Followers of each insist that their religion comprises an ethical belief based on justice, mercy, and peace in the name of one all-powerful God.

From its beginning in the seventh century, Islam has been assertive.  Wide-ranging conflict with the Byzantine Empire –successor to Rome – soon followed.  Later, there were epoch-making battles with Christian Crusaders.

For Professor Fears,  two pervasive truths of  history can be discerned:  [1] Religion is a hugely motivating force; and [2]  many cultures do not distinguish between the secular government and a religious belief system.  This may be difficult to appreciate within a secular society such as the United States.  Most Americans strongly advocate separation of church and state.  Much of the world does not.   Even today in the Middle East, separation of church and state is an alien concept.

Byzantium on the Defensive

Constantine transformed Christianity from a persecuted sect into the Empire’s official faith.  Rome declined,  but the eastern Byzantine Empire continued  for another thousand years.

At Constantinople, the legacy of ancient Greece and Rome was preserved.  The law codes of Augustus formed much of the foundation of the Byzantine legal system.  A heritage of Greek literature and history was preserved. 

To a far greater extent than in the West,  there was nothing like the modern separation of church and state.  The Byzantine Emperor enjoyed authority in matters of church doctrine; this was a radical departure from Latin Christianity, where the Pope’s spiritual leadership often placed him above secular rulers.  In the Orthodox world, the regent continued to claim considerable say-so in ecclesiastical matters; that legacy continued in Czarist Russia centuries later.

New Rome struggled to balance Western values and those of the Middle East.   Typically, the most serious threat to the Byzantines was Iran, which occupied such a strategic location.  When Iran and Rome dueled to dominate the Middle East, Iraq was the buffer zone.

In revitalized Persia, many followed the religion of the prophet Zarathustra.  He taught that there was one God, with a world divided into good and evil.  The Persian emperors saw themselves as divinely-chosen to exterminate nonbelievers; they persecuted Christians and fought Byzantium well into the seventh century.

Islam Arrives

By 645, the Persian Empire was swept away by a new force – Islam.  It was brought by the prophet Mohammed.  He taught that there was one all-powerful and all merciful God who had preordained everything.  By the time he died in 632, Mohammed had united the warring tribes of the Arabian Peninsula into a community of believers.  

Islam united the Arab tribes, leading them to an expansion with few precedents in history.  They spread the religion of Allah despite everything Iran and Byzantium could throw at them.

Epic Struggles

Soon, Christians and Muslims were locked in titanic struggles.  By the eighth century, Muslims had attacked Constantinople, swept through Egypt, and entered North Africa.  In 711, Islamic armies entered Spain and asserted control there; they would rule for 700 years.

Byzantium, based in Constantinople and extending into Greece and modern Turkey, was the Christian bulwark against Islam.  Jerusalem eventually fell to Islamic armies. At first, Christian pilgrims were tolerated.  Then, a more conservative strain of Islam rose to power, blocking access to the Holy City.  This in turn led to the Crusades, beginning in 1096.  The Crusades continued until the 15th century, inspired by territorial gain, religious conviction, and love of warfare.

The Crusaders finally captured Jerusalem; Muslims were massacred en masse.  In 1189, the Muslim leader Saladin met with three Western leaders – Richard the Lionheart, the holy Roman Emperor, and Philip of France.  Some accommodation was reached, allowing Christians and Muslims to freely visit the holy shrines of Jerusalem.  After Saladin’s death, that agreement fell apart.  The Crusades began  anew, dragging on for centuries and exhausting the Byzantine Empire, the Middle East, and even Europe.

A Modern Age Begins

Ultimately, Constantinople fell in 1453 and became Islamic.  he Turks soon conquered what was left of the Byzantine Empire.  The Ottoman Empire became a superpower, a dominant force in European history until the 18th century.

Islam and Christianity – competing religions claiming shared values of peace and justice…  They engaged in monumental struggles.    Christian believers insisted that jihad was fundamental to the Islamic worldview – that it was the duty of every Muslim to spread the faith, by the sword if necessary.   However, Christianity was also spread by the sword.  Medieval Christian rulers such as Charlemagne conquered, killed, and even burned Muslim believers– all in the name of Christ.

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