Christian reactions to Muslim conquests (1st-3rd centuries AH; 7th-9th centuries AD)

Christian reactions to Muslim conquests (1st-3rd centuries AH; 7th-9th centuries AD)

By John Tolan

Dynamics in the History of Religions between Asia and Europe: Encounters, Notions, and Comparative Perspectives, edited by Volkhard Krech and Marion Stienicke (Leiden: Brill, 2012)

Introduction: Michael Lecker has described varying Jewish reactions to the Muslim conquests; I will make a brief survey of how Christians reacted to the conquests and to finding themselves thrust into the role of dhimmi. This is a brief summary of a subject I have treated in greater length elsewhere, in particular in two books, Saracens and Sons of Ishmael.

At first glance, of course, the position of the Christians was very different than that of Jews, both before and after the conquests: they were a ruling majority before the conquests (except in Persia) and they remained a numerical majority for several centuries after the conquest. Whereas the Jews had already a long experience of minority status under the Roman/Byzantine rule, Christians had none since the adoption of Christianity as the state religion in the late 4th century. Many Jews may have welcomed the change from Christian to Muslim rule: Jews had long been banned from living in Jerusalem and had been objects of punitive persecution for their purported role in helping the Persian invaders in the early 7th century.

Christians, one might think, could only lament the passage from dominant state religion to tolerated subservient one. Yet that depends on which Christians one asks. Miaphysites (Jacobites in Syria and Copts in Egypt) had long faced intermittent persecution from Constantinople; the Nestorians had faced harsher persecution – most of them had emigrated to Sassanian Persia. Under Muslim rule, each of these Christian communities was allowed its religious freedom and legal semi-autonomy, just as were the Greek Orthodox (Melkites).

So we in fact find a great diversity of reactions to Muslim expansion from Christian authors, depending on their particular circumstances and point of view: the Christian community they belong to, the status of dhimmi in Muslim-ruled lands or on the contrary inhabitant of Byzantium or Latin Europe, and various other circumstances. But on the whole, we can roughly distinguish four overlapping phases in Christian reactions to Muslim conquest (phases we see both in Syria/Shams and, a century later, in Spain):

1. Saracen invaders portrayed as a divine scourge (seen as yet another military invader, but not as a threat spiritually or culturally)

2. Saracens painted as precursors to Antichrist (this reflected Church leaders’ real fears of growing conversions to Islam)

3. Muslim as heretics with Muhammad as a heresiarch

4. Christianity defended in the language of Muslim theology.

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