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The Rise of Islam

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By the early 600s, thanks in no small part to the church and the likes of Gregory the Great, the political and social situation was finally starting to look a little more stable in the lands of the old Roman Empire. Then, Justo González tells us, “something unexpected happened. Out of Arabia, a forgotten corner of the world that had been generally ignored . . . a tidal wave of conquest arose that threatened to engulf the world.”

Something Stirs in the Desert

It began in AD 570 — when Gregory the Great was thirty years old and not yet pope — with the birth of a man named Muhammad in the city of Mecca. At some point in his life Muhammad probably came into contact with Jewish and Christian sects, likely unconventional ones. When he was forty he claimed to have received a vision of the angel Gabriel telling him to “recite.” He wrote down what he heard into what is now known as the Koran (which means “to recite”).

In some ways the Koran is to Muslims what the Bible is to Christians: it is their main religious text. But in other ways Muslims view their Koran in the way Christians view Christ: God’s word in material form. The Koran’s main message is obedience to one God. In a climate of polytheism (worship of many gods), Muhammad preached a radical message of monotheism (worship of one God). Islam differs from Christianity in that it emphasizes the role of human obedience or submission — which is what the word Islam means — in order to earn salvation. Islam also emphasizes God’s oneness to the point that it finds the Christian doctrines of the Trinity and the incarnation scandalous. While Muslims highly revere Jesus as a prophet, it is especially hard for Muslims to imagine God having a Son.

Despite some initial resistance, Muhammad gained a sizable following. When he died in 632, the area of Arabia was already one third Muslim. Just ten years after Muhammad’s death Muslim armies had reached Egypt, the home of old Christian theological giants like Athanasius. While some Christians remained, they largely decreased; in Carthage they were completely eliminated. In 674 Islam was knocking on the gates of Constantinople. By the 700s, half of the world’s Christians lived under Muslim rule. Its spread was largely due to military conquest, but it also helped that Christianity was weak in the area due to internal disputes over doctrine and politics.

The Church Pivots

It’s probably obvious that today, over a millennium later, we still live in the wake of Islam’s spread in the seventh century. It also set the stage for some topics we’ll be studying later on, especially the crusades, when tensions between Christians and Muslims over control of the Holy Land came to a head. But it’s important to see now how Islam reconfigured the geography of the Christian faith. Most of the ancient centers of Christianity: Jerusalem (where Jesus died and was resurrected), Antioch (where disciples got the name Christians), Damascus (the city Paul was on his way to when he saw Jesus), Alexandria (the home of Athanasius), Carthage (Augustine’s old stomping grounds), and Constantinople (the seat of the Eastern church) became majority Muslim—and many still are. That left only one main city that wasn’t swept up by Islam: Rome.

Until this time, the church was largely running on an east-west axis. But after the rise of Islam the Western church began to face a different direction: north, toward Europe. That shift would be symbolized in the event we’ll study tomorrow: the crowning of Charlemagne.

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