13. The Emergence of Islam

We’ve briefly examined the Nordic warrior roots of the European military aristocracy. We’ve also had a glimpse into the conflicts between the Catholic Pope in Rome and Eastern Orthodox Christians centered in Constantinople, the capitol of Byzantium, direct descendant of the Roman Empire. Before proceeding on to the 4th Crusade, which provides a crucial transition into modern times, let us examine the culture that is stirring up this Christian hornet’s nest - the Turkish Moslems.

The first Moslems were primarily Arabic. Mohammed, the founder of Islam had his visions and visitations by the Divine Power, who he called Allah, in what is now called Saudi Arabia. His preaching catalyzed the previously fragmented Arab tribes into a unified whole. The warring tribes joined forces to eventually overrun most of their part of the world, establishing Islamic culture wherever they went. Their part of the world extended to Persia in the North, India in the East, Northern Africa to the South, and Spain in the West. It was the largest empire the world had ever seen.

Arabs sandwiched between Persia & Byzantium

At the time of Islam’s emergence in the early 600s of the Common Era, the most powerful cultures in the Middle East were the Persian Empire and the Byzantium Empire – respectively Zoroastrian and Christian – centered in present day Iran and Turkey. The two were constantly waging destructive wars of attrition against each other – primarily power grabs for territory, which normally consisted of lucrative trading centers – little to do with religion

The Arab territories were a buffer zone between these two hostile empires. Byzantium and Persia manipulated tribal animosities between the Arabs to gain allies. The Western Arabs allied with Byzantium while the Eastern Arabs allied with Persia. While they were both Christian, the western Arabs believed that Jesus was divine, as did the church of Byzantium, while the Eastern Arabs believed that Christ had a dual nature, both human and divine. They were called Nestorians. This divergence with the Byzantine Christians was to prove permanent with the advent of Islam.

Further the small Arab tribes constantly warred amongst themselves. Fragmented they had no political clout. What were the factors that unified them as a military force and allowed for the meteoric rise of Islam as a major religion of the world?

Anti-tribal Mohammed establishes Mandate of Heaven

Mohammed started hearing voices and then became God’s messenger in about 610 CE. His message included a major attack on tribalism. The Arab tribes, while protecting and providing for each of their members, were extremely hostile to other tribes. This is natural in the arid desert environment, where resources, such as the oasis, are in short supply. This was the cause of their constant battling. In contrast Mohammed taught that we all belong to the same tribe and should take care of each other.

The idea sounded great. But getting support for this noble concept from the tribal community he was attacking took several miracles. He had to establish that he had the Mandate of Heaven – a Chinese concept. This occurs when Heaven or God is behind a political ruler, or religious leader in this case, and helps him succeed in his Divine Mission. When a ruler is perceived as having the Mandate of Heaven the populace immediately falls in line, accelerating his success. In recent time the rise of Communism of Mao in China had to do with some miraculous victories and escapes that established that Mao had the Heavenly Mandate. (This same universal human tendency to worship military success is behind the Western idea manifest destiny.) Mohammed quickly illustrated that he had the Mandate of Heaven by miraculous behavior, including winning some impossible battles.

However before any military victory Mohammed established that Allah was on his side with a major social miracle. Unarmed and without a tribe (unheard of in the hostile environment of the desert) he traveled to Medina and was able to become their leader by force of personality alone. He eventually won some miraculous battles against powerful forces from Mecca. This inspired the surrounding tribes to join in. After victories in some more divine battles the entire Arabian peninsula coalesced behind Mohammed’s Islam. From here they were almost immediately successful in the North and the South.

Catching the Islamic Wave the two Arabian buffer states, modern day Syria and Iraq, which the Byzantine and Persian Empires had manipulated, converted and joined forces. Driven by the religious fervor of Islam the combination of the previously hostile Arab tribes quickly conquered the Persian Empire to the east of Arabia. This was a miraculous success. Even the Romans hadn’t been able to overthrow the Persians although they had trying for centuries.

The army of Islam eventually moved into India. The borders of Christian Byzantium, inheritor of the Roman Empire, were severely reduced in the westward expansion of the Muslims, which included the modern day territories of Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Israel’s thin strip of ground with the crucial Jerusalem as its capitol. Also northern Africa, including Egypt, previously part of the Byzantium Empire, went quickly under the sway of Islam.

Tribal gods – Just different Manifestations of One God

Part of Mohammed’s attack on tribalism had to do with the multiplicity of gods that were worshipped. Each tribe had their own unique deities, which each considered to be the most powerful, as is human nature. To overcome this religious source of dissension Mohammed proclaimed that all these gods were the same god – Allah. Further serving the Will of Allah became more important than protecting individual tribal prerogatives. As such the proud tribesman, who bowed before no man, king or otherwise, were required to bow before Allah as a symbol of humility before the Divine Power. This tradition has continued.

Prior to Mohammed each of the Arabian tribes established a shrine to their local deities around the Kaba, the big black meteor in Mecca, a major trading center. With a continual flow of pilgrims combined with the ongoing trade the Arab rulers of Mecca became fabulously wealthy. With his attack upon the tribal gods and hence their revenue, Mohammed became very unpopular with the local merchants. This is why he left for Medina with his followers. Understanding the spiritual significance of Mecca as a major religious center for the Arab community Mohammed eventually returned to destroy the graven images and establish himself as spiritual leader of all the tribes – with Allah as the only God – no more tribal deities. In line with the Arab reverence for this sacred spot the Islamic community was required to face Mecca when they prayed and travel there on a pilgrimage.

Unfortunately Mohammed’s vision of one universal god eventually turned inot a multiplicity of related religions each with their own tribal god, which they alternately defended aggressively or else violently proseltyzed. In fact the insistance on the primacy of these reemergent tribal gods was a major factor in the bloody Crusades. Ironically the return of these tribal gods, as in the European Christian God and the Middle Eastern Islamic Allah, has been the cause of almost continual conflict, the many wars, and the horrible atrocities of the last millenum. This was the very thing that Mohammed was attempting to avoid with his teachings.

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