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Seeing Eye to Eye: Islamic Universalism in the Roman and Byzantine Worlds, 7th to 10th Centuries

Seeing Eye to Eye: Islamic Universalism in the Roman and Byzantine Worlds, 7th to 10th Centuries

By Olof Heilo

PhD Dissertation, Univerity of Vienna, 2010

Abstract: In the history of religion and cultures, the relationship between Byzantium and the Islamic World has quite often turned into a literary topos of dualistic proportions, not merely influenced by the Crusades or the Turkish conquest of Constantinople in 1453, but because the early Islamic historiographical tradition identified Byzantium as the Roman empire, one of the world empires to which the Prophet Muhammad had addressed his religious message.

Interestingly, the Byzantine sources seem to ignore the religious cause of controversy: they continuously refer to Muslims as “Arabs”, “Saracens”, “Ismaelites” or “Hagarenes”, names which had already been used to denote the pre-Islamic Arabs. The question whether the Byzantines considered Early Islam to be an universal religion on ist own, or merely the faith of Pagan Barbarians, becomes yet more problematic due to a contemporary crisis in Byzantine culture and identity, to which the Arab conquests might have contributed. The epistemological point of observation on the universalist claims of Early Islam is, thus, not quite clear.

There are, however, several clues to the assumption that the first Caliphate – struggling to form a new world empire with Damascus as its capital – aimed at the integration of the former Roman subjects in the Near East, thus not merely caring about its own Arab coreligionists. At any rate, whether the ‘Umayyad caliphs tried to replace the Roman empire in its entirety or not, their efforts suffered a final blow at the gates of Constantinople in 717/718, when the new emperor Leo III took power, accompanied by Messianic expectations. Thirty years later, the ‘Umayyads fell victims to the ‘Abbasid Revolution, and the Islamic world oriented itself, literally speaking, towards the East, enhanced by a rising number of non-Arab converts in Iran and beyond.

A structuralist analysis of beliefs and religious practices in the borderlands between Byzantium and the Caliphate point at common problems in their relationship to each central power (problems which existed before this era as well) and point at the limits of a strictly constructivist approach to the subject. On the other hand, it becomes clear that a religion with universalist claims will find it difficult, not to say impossible, to make a lasting historical impact if it lacks a stable geographical context and fell-functioning communications within it.

To understand the identification of theological distinctions with political borders – a phaenomenon which would put its imprints upon Medieval concepts of history in general – it is necessary to consider the emergence of historiographical traditions which kept within the frameworks of religious epistemology but had more worldly aims. Distancing themselves from earlier Christian and Islamic concepts of history which were marked by eschatological expectations of Judaeo-Iranian origin, they struggled to integrate the ancient historical, literary and scientific heritage of other cultures with their own religious epistemology of universal history, the result being synthetic rather than antithetic, and presenting them with a useful explanation to their growing geographical and historical cosmos. The conflict between different faiths here takes the character of a sociocultural language game (cf. Wittgenstein) which, because of common cultural values, enables encounters over the theological borders.

In short, Islam as a universal religion is here discussed as an epistemological and not an ideological phaenomenon: the actual encounter between Muslims and Byzantines only takes place where they share a common epistemological field.

Click here to read this article from the University of Vienna

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