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God neither begets, nor is He begotten.
There was a time, of course, when there really was no Islam—up until the early seventh century CE, when the Prophet Muhammad received his revelations from God and announced them to the world. But in one sense, it would be erroneous to view the establishment of Islam as a momentous turning point in the Middle East. In political terms, it may indeed have been a watershed, but in religious or cultural terms, it is also easy to view the emergence of Islam as yet one more strand, one more turn on the path of what is a continuum—the ongoing evolution of Middle Eastern monotheistic thought. We hear the term “Abrahamic faiths” used more frequently today to reflect an awareness of this triple monotheistic heritage that includes the prophet Abraham and embraces three religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. These religions are all closely linked, whatever political differences may have arisen among them over time. This is indeed the point: politics and power struggles have often magnified theological differences for political ends, rather than stressing common heritage. Politics rule; enduring points of geopolitical tension in the region that precede Islam tend to persist even after Islam. We’re looking for continuities. It would be quite off the mark to view Islam as something alien to the religious tradition of the Middle East. Islam absorbed, represents, and perpetuates many of the region’s deeper drives and cultures.
A map of religions of the Middle East before Islam reveals a world dominated by Christianity in its Eastern Orthodox forms; it shares some space with basically monotheistic Zoroastrianism in Persia (under the Sassanid Empire), with small pockets of Jews in a few urban areas, while Buddhism and Hinduism dominated the Indian subcontinent. Europe itself was of course part Christian, part pagan. In religious terms, then, Islam was a latecomer and in fact the last new religion in history ever able to hold sway over state structures. But Islam would make up for lost time in spreading quickly to assume dominant position over the huge areas formerly under Christian and Zoroastrian control in the Middle East. Without Islam, Eastern Orthodox Christianity would likely have remained the dominant faith of the Middle East down to today, with the possible exception of Zoroastrianism in Iran.
While the expansion of Islam and its ongoing conquest of large parts of the known world had huge political impact like any conquest does, in theological terms it exerted far less impact upon local populations in its early decades. Islam actually grew out of the existing religious environment of the Middle East in a relatively natural and organic way. In fact, what is surprising is how, in theological terms, Islam fitted in quite comfortably with the existing religious milieu.
Nor is the birth of Islam some remote event off in a distant and isolated desert, an exotic cultural plant alien to the roots of Western culture. The ideas of Islam flow directly out of a broader Eastern Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cultural milieu that had long witnessed intense religious interchange, cross-pollination, and debate. Probably no other region of the world has seen as many diverse religions and sects trek across its landscapes as has the Middle East. As Islam emerges, we witness a reprise of many of the same old themes and concerns that were part of the earlier evolution of Judaism and Christianity. After witnessing the religious and doctrinal strife of the first six centuries of Christianity (which we’ll look at shortly), our encounter with Islam does not surprise us; the arguments and beliefs propagated by Islam weighed in on quite familiar debates: What is the nature of the One God? Who was the message of Judaism for—the Jews as the Chosen People, or for all peoples? Was Jesus literally the Son of God, or simply a divinely inspired human being? We will shortly examine the fascinating nature of many of these debates and note how some religious doctrines triumphed with the backing of political power, while others with less political backing came to be denounced as heresies.
Above all, we will see how intimately linked all these doctrinal struggles were to the politics of the great empires. Power invariably attracts religion, and religion attracts power. Theology is secondary. Furthermore, the enduring forces of culture, time, tradition, history, and beliefs are powerful; they possess great ability to bend new events into well-trodden channels. Islam, for all its new and incredible civilizational brilliance, was very much a product of its larger environment.
Even Arabia itself was not an isolated place but rather linked to the grand regional swirl of religious thought and ferment. Yemen, in the southwest corner of the Arabian peninsula, was the center of one of the oldest civilizations in the Middle East and perhaps the original home of all Semitic peoples. Semitic tribes migrated from there in the earliest of times up into Mesopotamia, conquering Sumeria in BCE and transforming it into a Semitic culture. A rich spice and textile trade ran all along the Red Sea coast to Egypt, the Levant, and the Mediterranean, where Yemenis were in regular contact with the Phoenicians in the earliest days. The Queen of Sheba purportedly resided in Yemen and was in contact with the Christian kingdom of Axum in Ethiopia. Christians and Jews had large communities in Yemen. The Persians even moved in for a period.
Farther north, up along the Red Sea coast (Hijaz), lay the city of Mecca, one of the most important cities of Arabia, with a history going back some four thousand years. There is little historical mention of Mecca in ancient histories up to the time of the Prophet Muhammad, at least in external sources. Yet it had become a major commercial entrepôt along the Red Sea trade route to Syria. Major Jewish communities existed in several key cities of the Hijaz, especially Medina. The Christian lands of the Byzantine Empire lay just to the north, with major centers in what is today’s Syria and Jordan.
Arabia had long nourished its own traditional religions consisting of local or tribal gods similar to those known to other Semitic peoples, including earlier Jews. Much worship was centered in the Ka’ba in Mecca, which was a repository for some 360 gods, reportedly including statues of Jesus and Mary. The shrines lent Mecca considerable economic and political power: it had managed to establish control over a huge tribal confederation with the aim of overseeing the complex intertribal politics of the peninsula and limiting disruptive tribal warfare. As a result, the city maintained a treaty relationship with Byzantium to facilitate trade through the region. Mecca’s prosperity was the direct source of new political and social tensions as well, since the old tribal structures and kinship support systems were breaking down under the growth of a rising capitalist market economy; old social values were fading, creating a vacuum for new ones.
Such was the lay of the land in geopolitical and theological terms, when in 610 CE the revelations received by the young Meccan merchant Muhammad added a new chapter to the ongoing development of monotheistic ideas. Muhammad had been orphaned as a boy and had been working for his uncle. At the age of forty, at a time when he had been suffering from periods of psychological restlessness, Muhammad reported a remarkable experience during a sojourn in the mountains: he had been visited on several occasions by the angel Gabriel, who instructed him to recite words brought from God. He was told to preach the message that God is One and to carry it to the regional tribes and to the corrupt society of pagan and polytheistic Mecca. Muhammad proceeded to promote that message and to inveigh against the harsh and unjust social order and the idolatrous presence of these idols of polytheism in the Ka’ba—the very symbol of Meccan authority and trade. Jesus and the moneylenders come immediately to mind, but Muhammad had a political vision as well.
More important, Muhammad early on identified himself as standing in the same line of prophets as others of the Old Testament, going back to the first Prophets, Adam (in Islam) and Abraham. Indeed, the Qur’an, the book containing these accumulated revelations, identified these figures as the “first Muslims”—even though they had not, of course, designated themselves as Muslims at the time—simply because they were the first humans known to experience and acknowledge the Oneness and power of God. Muhammad insisted that he, too, was nothing more than the messenger (Rasul) or prophet (Nabi) of God, and had no divine nature. Indeed, to those in the region, his message was hardly dramatically new, but simply a sharpened reaffirmation of the eternal message of the Oneness of God, in new form. Muhammad also propounded a clear and direct theology, stripped of the abstruse and conflicting theories about the nature of Jesus that had fractured theological centers across the lands of Eastern Christianity for six centuries. He emphasized the need to return to God’s prescriptions for a moral community.
The prescriptions for embracing Islam are simple: the new recruit needs only to profess with pure heart the shahada, or statement of witness: Lā ilaha illa al-Lāh, wa Muhammadun rasūlu l-Lāh—“There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the Messenger of God.” All Muslims are expected to fulfill the five pillars, or duties, of a Muslim: to profess the shahada, pray five times a day, observe the fast during the month of Ramadan, make the pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca once in a lifetime, and pay alms, or tithe (zakat).
The requirements of faith entail a belief in the One God, an acceptance of all the Prophets of God (including Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad), a belief in the Angels, a belief in the key holy books sent by God—which include the Old and New Testaments and the Qur’an—a belief in the Day of Judgment and Resurrection, and belief in Destiny, or Fate. The theological underpinnings of the new faith facilitated easy transmission, explanation, and acceptance.
Muhammad was the first self-professed “Muslim,” that is, one professing Islam, or submission to God’s design. He perceived the need to clarify and sharpen the message of the One God and to clear up the errors and misbeliefs that had crept into human interpretation of the earlier Jewish and Christian messages. But the line of revelation was one and the same.
Traditional Muslim scholars, of course, reject any causality in the emergence of Islam that is not divine; in other words, no acknowledgment of possible external, regional, or nondivine sources and influences upon the revelations received by the Prophet. That’s fair enough within the framework of their own theological commitments. But the environment in which Muhammad lived would, of course, also exert influence over his mind, thinking, and personality; it would affect his receptivity to the message and the manner in which his revelations were understood and applied by himself and his followers. So it is also fair enough for others to examine possible and plausible external influences upon the experience and interpretation of revelation, paralleling the experience and revelations of other prophets and religious figures in history.
At this time in the Arabian Peninsula, then, most of the basic new Qur’anic precepts were familiar concepts, starting with the Jewish belief that denied Jesus as the Messiah and saw him only as a faith healer. Also familiar were the range of Christian “heresies” that had spread across the Middle East, speculating about every aspect of Jesus’s nature. Indeed, the strict monotheism of the Qur’an was closer in many respects to the views of the very earliest Christians in the Middle East than they were to the theologically strained doctrinal compromises of the Eastern Orthodox Church in later years. Variations on the basic themes of monotheism permeated all cultures of the region.
Muhammad is the first prophet of a major religion to have lived in the full light of history. Information about his life and actions abound, both in the Qur’an and even more so in the accounts of his life from contemporaries of the Prophet who recorded these events and sayings (the Hadith or Sunna). But even then, Islam faced the same problems encountered by nearly all religions, including Christianity: how accurate were the accounts of contemporaries about the Prophet’s life and sayings? These sayings and actions had been transmitted orally; in Islam, it would be over one hundred years before they were collected in written form, analyzed, and systematically assessed. The task parallels the Christian problem of collecting all the accounts of Jesus’s life to determine which Gospels, for example, were “reliable” and which were not; this is a subject still rife with speculation and debate and has yet to be laid to rest.
And while the Hadith are not literally sacred in Islam in the sense that the Qur’an is—directly derived from God through revelation—they often provide a more important source for later Islamic legislation than the Qur’an itself; the Hadith simply provide much more material dealing with specific, concrete situations arising in the development of the early Islamic community that were never touched upon in the Qur’an. The Hadith also supply an important guide to indicate how the Prophet himself understood and situationally applied the revelations that he had received. An analogy would be to those Christians who ask today “What would Jesus do?”
Even then, there are small groups within Islam who argue that only the Qur’an—due to its divine source—should be the source of understanding of Islam, given the complex and varying natures of various Hadith, the differing degrees of their reliability, and sometimes even the self-serving nature of authorities adopting certain Hadith over others. It is interesting to note the clear parallels here with the sola Scriptura (scripture alone) basis of the Reformation movements that overthrew vast amounts of church history and its accretions, council rulings, and so on, in favor of establishing theological understanding on the basis of scripture alone.
The practical obstacles to applying the new revelations to a new Islamic political and religious community were daunting, particularly in the face of early militant opposition from the Meccan elite that felt its power, wealth, and position threatened by Muhammad’s message. His life endangered, the Prophet and his followers fled to the city of Medina, where he established the first Muslim community and, by invitation, presided over warring elements within the city in order to bring a peaceful new order. This is referred to as the Constitution of Medina, in which the rights, responsibilities, and relationships among the various tribes and religious groups within the city—Jews, Christians, and Muslims—were spelled out in a document of clarification and reconciliation. Meanwhile, this Muslim community in Medina continued to be militarily and politically threatened by Meccan forces hostile to Islam over many years, until Mecca finally gave up its opposition and the Prophet returned triumphantly in a bloodless victory in 630 CE. This long period of tensions, hostility, war, shifting alliances, and betrayals is reflected in some of the darker and more warlike passages of the Qur’an, with its concern for Muslim unity in the face of enemies seeking subversion of the fledgling community. The darkness and anger of many of these passages resemble similar periods of the struggle of the Israelites to counter hostile Semitic tribes, where the Old Testament calls for the ruthless extirpation of all the enemies of the Jews who stood in their way of achieving a state in Israel; reconciliation and peace are not in the spirit of those troubled periods in either religion.
The problem of the reliability of the Hadith had major political implications as Islam developed, spread, and became involved in empire-building. As with the Christian Church, how much might later Muslim secular or religious authorities seek to retroactively influence, control, or interpret the message of Islam? Unlike Christianity, Islam was fortunately spared debate over the possible divinity of the Prophet—neither he nor others ever claimed it. Islam has, in fact, seen far fewer heresies and divisions on the basis of scriptural interpretation than Christianity has, perhaps in part due to the lean lines of its theological vision. Nonetheless, even until today questions of interpretation of the Qur’an and the Hadith remain central to the ongoing evolution of Islam.
As Islam spread, it encountered new languages, geographies, cultures, and historical experiences. Like other religions, it adapted itself to local conditions to facilitate acceptance and conversion to the new faith. But in the eyes of later reformers, some of these accommodations and accretions were viewed as non-Islamic, as innovation (bida’), requiring theological purging and a return to orthodoxy. These issues will form the foundation of Islamic renewal and fundamentalism. Such accretions were also a key issue for early Protestant reformers such as Martin Luther.
FRICTIONS AMONG RELIGIONS and their followers are rarely based on specific theological differences but rather on their political and social implications. Let’s examine the gist of some of the actual theological differences that do exist in the three-way relationship among Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. How much do these theological differences really matter in the politics of the ancient and medieval Middle East? When we look more closely, we note a constant repetition of certain basic arguments about the nature of monotheism that pervade the region and the culture. We note that Islam, rather than transforming the area theologically, ended up adopting a posture of balance between the other two faiths, reinforcing a kind of theological continuity. Popular modern theories that Islam represents some kind of disruptive cultural and theological force alien to Judeo-Christian belief, or that it laid a groundwork for later anti-Western feeling, is to utterly remove it from its cultural and historical contexts. Islam, in fact, represents and extends some of the deepest cultural, philosophical, and religious trends of the Middle East, including quite guarded attitudes toward the West. Islam did not create these trends; take Islam away and the trends still remain. Let’s look at how these three religions regarded each other.
Judaism’s critique of Christianity clearly influenced a number of later Christian heresies—and the theology of Islam, as well. First, and perhaps the single most sensitive issue for the entire Middle East, was the all-important issue of the nature of the Messiah: while Christians believed that Jesus was the Messiah whose coming was foretold in the Old Testament, Jews rejected Jesus as being that Messiah. In the eyes of some Christians, Jews are the worst heretics of all, because they actually deny what was supposedly foretold in their own scriptures—the coming of the Messiah. Jewish scholars largely reject that argument, claiming that it is quite clear that Jesus was not that Messiah prophesied in the Old Testament. They claim that the true Messiah needed to fulfill a number of specific messianic prophesies in order to be recognized as the Messiah: he had to be born of the male line of King David (Jesus was purportedly begotten by God); he must fulfill the Law of the Torah (Jesus clearly did not do so and indeed sought to change the Law). The true Messiah would also usher in an era of world peace when hatred and oppression will cease to exist—which did not happen. The Old Testament expected the Messiah to fulfill these revelations immediately and not after a “Second Coming,” to which there is no reference in the Old Testament. Jews also did not accept the idea that mankind can be saved through the sacrifice of Jesus, or by anyone else, but only through righteous living, as prescribed by Jewish Law.
Judaism furthermore castigates Jesus as having taken Jewish monotheism and corrupted it, dividing Jews against themselves and weakening Judaism. The great medieval Jewish philosopher and theologian Maimonides, who lived in Muslim Spain, minced no words:
The first one to have adopted this plan [to wipe out any trace of the Jewish nation] was Jesus the Nazarene, may his bones be ground to dust… He impelled people to believe that he was a prophet sent by God to clarify perplexities in the Torah, and that he was the Messiah that was predicted by each and every seer. He interpreted the Torah and its precepts in such a fashion as to lead to their total annulment, to the abolition of all its commandments and to the violation of its prohibitions. The sages, of blessed memory, having become aware of his plans before his reputation spread among our people, meted out fitting punishment to him.
Thus, from a Jewish perspective, these arguments refute the Christian argument that Jews willfully rejected the Messiah prophesied for them in the Old Testament; these critiques suggest that it was abundantly clear to Jewish scholars that Jesus did not meet the qualifications of the Messiah prophesied for them.
Islam actually strikes middle ground on this issue by acknowledging Jesus as a great Prophet of God, who did commit miracles and was indeed born of the Virgin Mary. The nineteenth chapter of the Qur’an is entitled “Mary” [Miriam in Arabic]; she is mentioned more often than any other woman in the Qur’an—more often than in the New Testament itself; she is the most revered female figure in Islam.
However, according to Islam, Jesus was not God himself, nor the literal Son of God, but rather a divinely inspired human prophet. God is strictly One. And for Muslims, any denial of Jesus as a great prophet violates the beliefs of Islam itself; Muslims, for example, regularly declare works of art that are insulting to Jesus to be blasphemous. The Qur’an refers variously to Jesus as “the Word of God,” as “the Spirit of God,” and as a “Sign of God.” There are no disparaging remarks about Jesus in the Qur’an. Thus, in a world without Islam, the much harsher Jewish critique of Jesus, as expressed in Judaism, still stands.
Judaism likewise does not accept Muhammad as a prophet. Nonetheless, the relationship between Islam and Judaism is striking, far closer in spirit than that between either of those faiths and Christianity. Both Judaism and Islam are fiercely monotheistic, and both proclaim the unity of God several times in daily prayers. Both Jews and Arabs are Semitic peoples who have long shared much common space, common history, and speak languages that are closely related. Both Islam and Judaism are strongly law-based; personal salvation is attained through personal fulfillment of the law in life. Both have community law courts for the adjudication of many issues in accordance with religious law. Judaism insisted that God could not be portrayed or personified, and that he did not possess human form. Islam firmly follows that same precept that God is not anthropomorphic. Thus to both Jews and Muslims, Christian art is shocking, if not blasphemous, with its unconstrained, direct, and detailed portrayal of God in various styles—usually as an old white man with a white beard in white robes—and with the proliferation of paintings of Jesus in a huge variety of diverse physiognomies and cultural affiliations.
Both Judaism and Islam share many regulations about the ritual of foods, slaughter of animals, prohibition of pork, and ritual cleanliness—indeed, Islam derived them mostly from Judaism but vastly simplified the complex Jewish Kosher laws. Oriental Jews (Sephardim) have been influenced in their practice of their religion through long centuries of living together with Muslims. And while in the bloody history of humanity Jews, too, have suffered at various points while living in Muslim societies, Jewish scholars would be near unanimous in agreeing that Jewish communities and culture have fared far better over the centuries under Islam than under Christianity. The creation of the state of Israel in 1948, establishing a homeland for the Jews after the horrific experience of the Holocaust in Europe—but coming at terrible expense to the Palestinians—represents a dramatic and sad turning point in what is now a tense and angry relationship between Jews and Muslims. Indeed, that strained relationship is now entirely geopolitical, fought over questions of territory and relationships with the new Israeli state.
As the last of the three Abrahamic faiths, Islam is able to look back on the evolution of the earlier two. According to the Qur’an, Jews made several critical errors in receiving the message: Jews saw themselves as God’s uniquely Chosen People, they perceived the One God to be the God of the Jews, they perceived the message of Judaism to be for the Jews. No, said the Qur’an, God has no chosen people: “On those who believe and work deeds of righteousness, will [God] Most Gracious bestow love” (Qur’an 19:96). This, of course, was the message of St. Paul as well in definitively breaking with Judaism—that Jesus’s message about God is not for Jews but for all mankind. Thus Islam propounds a revisionist view of its Jewish predecessor and probably was influenced by Paul’s vision of Jesus’s message that he proclaimed to be universal.
Yet Islam and Judaism share a common critique of Christianity; both see the idea of any “son” of God as blasphemous to the concept of the One God, who does not beget and cannot be subdivided. The concept of a Trinity smacks of polytheism, which is equally anathema to both Jews and Muslims. According to Islam, Jesus did not die on the cross but was taken up to heaven by God. And it will be Jesus, not Muhammad, who will return at the day of judgment to quell the anti-Christ, punish the enemies of Islam, and bring justice.
Yet, historical evolution has a way of changing the way humans perceive religion over time; this reality helps explain differences among the faiths. Muslims often acknowledge this reality, even if in a slightly self-serving way. More than once, Muslims have told me, “All three religions are from God, but they were received at different times in the evolution of human history. Human understanding of God has advanced each time. In modern technical terms, we can look at Judaism as something like Word 2.0, a software that worked perfectly well in its time, works even now if you wish. But Christianity came along as, say, a Word 5.0, considerably upgrading the sophistication of the ‘software’—the understanding of God’s message. And then six hundred years later, Islam brought out the equivalent of a Word 8.0, the most sophisticated understanding of God and his message of all. Each ‘version’ works, is acceptable, but advances are made over time.”
We are hardly bound to accept this definition of religious evolution offered in some popular Muslim thinking, but the same concept of evolution of religious understanding occupies a major place among theologians, even if the Microsoft analogies are grating. Karen Armstrong, in her book History of God, identifies clear landmarks in the ongoing evolution of human understanding of the divine over time.
Nonetheless, with their own popular hi-tech analogy, Muslims open the door to a logical follow-up question that is truly heretical in Islam: is there no possibility, then, of a still later revelation, a Word 9.0? For Muslims, the Prophet Muhammad brought the final and perfect revelation that cannot be improved upon; there will be no more legitimate prophets. Muhammad is thus the “seal of the Prophets.” This belief has put Islam in the curious position of being quite tolerant in looking back into religious history, but intolerant in looking forward to any possible post-Muhammad religious teachings that involve new revelation; this is the source of the intense strain Islam has with the later Ahmadi, Sikh, or Baha’i religions, which have some foundation in Islam but which in effect “update” Islam in the preaching of still later prophets. These three movements are thus vigorously condemned by Muslim clerics, and their followers have been subject to persecution in several Muslim states.
Finally, we have the retrospective views of Judaism and Christianity looking back upon Islam, the newcomer religion among them—and the view is much less charitable. In contrast to Islam’s acceptance of huge parts of the Old and New Testaments, both Judaism and Christianity reject Muhammad even as a prophet of God. Not surprisingly, they also repudiate the idea that the Old Testament and New Testament messages can in any way be “updated” by Muhammad. Muhammad is treated in much Christian literature over the ages as a heretic, even a devil, including being cast into one of the lowest circles of Hell in Dante’s Inferno. (For that matter, Catholicism historically also viewed Protestantism as heretical and the work of the devil, and the feelings were mutual.)
THUS, THE RELATIONSHIPS among all three of the Abrahamic faiths are complex and striking: they parallel each other in many respects, contradict each other in yet others. Nonetheless, Islam represents a powerful new phase in the continuity of the monotheistic tradition in the Middle East. Islam was born of, and coexisted with, Christianity and Judaism in the same region. While Islam indeed established a new political order, we are not talking about a brand-new religion, new gods, or new perceptions of morality. If there had been no Islam, the world would have been less rich culturally and intellectually, but the cultural and theological groundwork of thinking in the Middle East might not have been vastly different.
NEARLY ALL RELIGIONS DEVELOP out of earlier religions and doctrines. Buddhism developed out of Hindu religion, culture, and philosophy even though it is not viewed by Hindus as a heresy. Sikhism developed out of both Hinduism and Islam. Baha’ism developed out of Christianity and Islam. In one sense, heresy can become a creative act of evolutionary religious thinking as future generations struggle to sharpen, clarify, and reinterpret those earlier religious impulses and understandings, often in keeping with their contemporary cultural surroundings.
Ironically, it is striking that it is the fine-grained details and culturally specific characteristics within each of these religions that are viewed by their followers as most essential to their faith; these details can even prompt violent action against others. So when seemingly small theological differences can stir up hatred, violence, and war, it is a sure sign that a great deal more is going on than mere theological dispute. It is like a furious marital blowup in the kitchen over whether the pasta is overcooked: the anger is very real, but outside observers instantly grasp that something more is going on here beyond whether the pasta is al dente.
So in the case of the Middle East and its religions, it is not the theology that really represents the source of conflict. Other things are obviously at stake: identities, communities, states, politics, power, regional nationalisms. Religion serves as a handy tag, constitutes an important element of identity in which the specific theology is really only incidental. In fact, we are rarely Christians, Muslims, or Jews by choice; we are born into one of these traditions whose richness of community we accept; it is not about balancing or choosing among alternative theological arguments offered to us. Jewish communities have been a powerful cultural force over history, but not because of the specific ritual details of Judaism. Those could vary, and do. It is really the cultural identity and glue of theology—any theology—that sustains a community on an ethnic or a religious basis. The same goes for the diversity of Christian sects. The religion helps establish communities; communities can drift into conflict or even war over community security, resources, leadership, and turf.
In our modern era, the world has made some modest but serious steps toward religious reconciliation and ecumenism, even acknowledgments of shared commonalities. For example, our regular use of the term “Judeo-Christian” is quite recent, coming to prominence only at the start of the twentieth century. It was designed to acknowledge certain religious commonalities ignored in periods of anti-Jewish discrimination during most of the history of Christianity—even though, in theological terms, the differences between Christianity and Judaism are the greatest among the three faiths. And in the past twenty or thirty years, we now see the term “Abrahamic faiths” beginning to achieve some currency, bringing Islam into the fold of commonality. Theologies have not changed much; human desire to overcome the differences has.
Religion is an exceptionally powerful human force. It deals with gut issues such as the meaning of life, death, war, moral behavior, community, and sexuality. It acts on the individual human psyche, psychology, and behavior. Its impact is rarely limited to the individual alone, but acts upon an entire community of believers who take part in community acts of worship. At the same time, religion helps define and strengthen the community of like-minded believers.
Given the extraordinary power of this force, can we be surprised that seats of worldly power should seek to harness the force of religion to their own ends? Such is a key focus of this book: the relationships among religion, power, and the state. The state ultimately seeks to adopt and take over the religion, making it the “state religion.” Once tied to the state, the religion’s doctrines and theology then become linked to state prestige, power, and control. The religion can be Judaism, Christianity, or Islam; it doesn’t really matter. Because at that point, disagreement on doctrine ceases to be merely a theological exercise and, rather, takes on serious political implications. Those who part company with the state-dominated ideology are branded as heretics—indeed, such differences can become tantamount to treason.
But what is heresy actually? The word evokes images of robed Inquisitors, instruments of torture, tearful recantations, martyrs, and burnings at the stake. And so it has often been in history. But in fact, heresy often gets a bad rap. In reality, it seems closely linked to a creative process in the history and evolution of ideas.
The origin of the word “heresy” is innocent enough; in Greek, it originally simply meant “choice,” a conscious decision to follow a particular path of ideas. In Christianity, it began to denote divergence from orthodox teaching. And orthodoxy, of course, originally meant no more than “correct opinion.” But who is to say what opinion is “correct” or “right”? This is the nub of the problem: the quality of heresy actually lies in the eye of the beholder. And the determination of what is “right opinion” eventually emerges almost strictly as a prerogative of power.
Heresies have existed from the dawn of the most basic religious cults, when individuals who stood up and critiqued community teachings about the gods and spirits were blamed for catastrophes that subsequently befell the community. Victims get sacrificed on altars, virgins are tossed into flaming volcanoes to placate the gods. The fulminations of Old Testament prophets focus on how Jewish iniquity has brought suffering to the Jewish people and how God will visit further punishments upon the community for flouting His commandments. Jonah gets tossed into the sea. Jesus preaches the imminence of the end of a sinful world.
Preservation of orthodoxy seems to emerge as a supreme and contentious problem for all three monotheistic faiths, far more so than for other major world religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoism, or Confucianism. This may be partly due to the fact that the monotheistic religions are “revealed,” that is, they are believed to have existed eternally and preexist the exact moment of revelation to their prophets. There is less room for flexibility on doctrine.
I remember discussions in India over a decade ago when I was researching material for a book on the issue of Islam versus the West. Several Hindu scholars told me, “Your proposition is flawed from the start. The real fault line is not between Islam and the West at all, but between Hinduism as polytheism, and all the monotheistic religions of the West—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.” In the Hindu view, the monotheistic faiths, with their commitment to the One God and his revealed nature, are thus inherently more narrow-minded and intolerant.
We are all familiar with the use and abuse of religion by states or power groups in warfare, politics, or struggle for other ends in history. It would, of course, be simpleminded to reduce the entire phenomenon of religion to no more than a pretext for power and conflict; nonetheless the exploitation of religion for secular ends is a constant in political and social history. Religious institutions therefore end up spending a great deal of time striving to preserve orthodoxy. In this sense, then, orthodoxy comes to represent the right to define and control ideas that affect power.
Let’s not just blame religion; “orthodoxies” reign in all fields of human endeavor, including history, philosophy, and even science. You find orthodoxy wherever dogmatic certitude replaces skepticism, inquiry, and debate, and where that certitude is then buttressed by power. Recall how in the Marxist, atheist Soviet Union, communist orthodoxy was vigorously enforced by Stalin across a broad range of intellectual fields including history, the arts, and the sciences; ideological heretics in many different fields often met their fate with a bullet in the back of the skull in the dungeons of the KGB. Orthodoxy and ideology were all there to serve and preserve the welfare of Communist Party rule. Political parties, too, especially ideological ones, rise and fall on their ability to articulate beliefs that attract and organize followers, and the parties seek to impose ideological consensus on its members. In the absence of consensus, the party falls apart. The struggle of political parties to maintain ideological purity differs little from the state’s handling of religious doctrine—except that religious organizations hold the trump of appealing to a Higher Power.
Heresy lies at the junction of belief and power. When religions become institutionalized, they face the problem of “ownership” and control of doctrine. Belief counts for nothing if anybody is free to believe whatever he or she wants, or to craft a do-it-yourself kind of personal faith. Finding God for oneself in the texts was indeed the ultimate rationale of the Protestant Reformation—an event that split Christianity wide open into fissiparating shards of small religious communities. Fundamentalist salafi or Wahhabi doctrine is also revolutionary in calling for the individual to interpret scripture directly, not through some intermediary to God.
Power, then, is the final trap, the ultimate corrupter: the closer religion becomes linked with state power, the further it drifts away from the realm of intellect and spirit and into the realm of the political—with direct implications for state power and authority. The state cannot then be indifferent to theology. When the state’s official beliefs and doctrines are challenged, the state’s authority itself is challenged—and the state does not look kindly upon it.
It’s a self-serving cycle. Theological doctrine comes to serve the state’s interests. The state then recruits clerics who bestow their theological imprimatur upon the state’s self-serving interpretations. Both Islam and Christianity, with their long linkage to various state powers over history, continue to face this challenge to this day. In fact, church and state in Christianity have been far more closely tied over most of Christian history than was ever the case in Islam, where clerical power almost never exercised political rule—until the Islamic Republic of Iran today. Meanwhile, Judaism, lacking the instruments of state power for most of its history, was a bit more able to avoid this path, although now that Judaism has become linked with the power and politics of the modern Israeli state, it, too, is no longer exempt.
Conversely, when religion becomes independent of the state, something important happens: the state actually loses much stake in the preservation of religious orthodoxy. But even then, we are still not home free. Even personal religious beliefs can still affect the state very much if certain doctrines and views affect the public’s perception of the state. Thus, some evangelical movements in the United States directly impact the public’s view of the government; how fundamentalist movements in Islam view the state can directly threaten the legitimacy of the most secular authoritarian regimes.
None of this is at all meant to suggest that religion is nothing more than a cynical façade for power struggle. It can be that. But human ability to bend religion to political or commercial ends should not diminish the profound spiritual power that personal belief can have in shaping one’s personal life, philosophy, and conduct, and hence the behavior of society at large.
Even tolerance can be elusive. Hinduism seems to have remarkably avoided most of the compromising problems of power and orthodoxy. Indeed the concept of orthodoxy and heresy is almost entirely absent in Hinduism, since it embraces all religious ideas within its bosom, each one representing partial insights and glimpses of elements of truth as parts of a vast, fundamental, ineffable, ultimately never fully knowable Truth of the Divine. But none of this tolerant polytheistic character of Hinduism suggests that a Hindu-dominated state, or followers of Hinduism, is not equally capable of discrimination, persecution, and brutal violence toward people of other religions; the world has sadly witnessed in recent times the use of violence under militant Hindu leaders of Hindutva (Hindu nationalism) against Muslim, Sikh, and Christian communities.
All of this has everything to do with politics and nationalism and little to do with religious doctrine per se. Note here that against outsiders Hinduism, too, can readily be translated into an intolerant and narrow religious nationalism; this parallels what happens with Islamic fundamentalism when it operates as an “Islamic nationalist” movement against Western incursion. While philosophically highly pacifist, even Buddhism, when combined with ethnicity in ethnic struggles such as with the Sinhalese in Sri Lanka against the Hindu Tamils, quickly loses its ethical considerations of pacifism, even on the part of Buddhist monks, when it comes to fighting in the name of the Buddhist Sinhalese community. Theology seems to count for little.
And can we forget that God in Islam has ninety-nine revered names: the Merciful, the Compassionate, the Loyal, the Avenger, the Comforter, the Victor, the Savior, and so forth—all different facets, faces, of the same God? Nobody would claim that Islam is polytheistic, but it clearly recognizes multiple faces of the Divine.
It appears the world can be divided into two distinct psychological mind-sets. There are those who seek exclusivity, who seek to draw boundaries between themselves and others, who wish to see their own beliefs as unique, quite distinct from what others believe, views in which they themselves are right and the others wrong. On the other side, there are those whose goal it is to search out common ground among beliefs, shared points of overlapping inclusivity and commonality. This happens even among believers in the same faith. As one wise man put it: “They drew a square and left me out; I drew a circle and included them.”
But what personal psychological element is it that impels some adherents of a religion to a search for narrowness and exclusivity, others to seek embrace and inclusivity? This dichotomy comes up endlessly in discussions in the West about the relationship with Islam. When I lecture on commonalities within the Abrahamic faiths, I sometimes encounter objections. I note, for instance, that for Muslims Allah does not refer to a different God any more than Dios is a “different” God for Spaniards, Dieu for the French, Bog for Russians, or Tanrı for the Turks. Indeed, Arab Christians refer in Arabic to their God as Allah. These are all just different words in different languages for the same concept—the One God. But a few Western Christians will object: “Allah is not my God. My God brought forth Jesus as his only begotten Son, the salvation of mankind and my intercessor. That is not the God of Islam.” In one sense, this is absolutely true. Some Jews, too, will object that “the Christian God is not my God because he begat a Son, a concept alien to Judaism. Furthermore, according to the Old Testament, Jesus clearly is not the Messiah that Christians consider him to be.” And this is true as well. And some narrow-minded Muslims will describe Christians and Jews in exclusionary terms as “nonbelievers” in Islam, rather than as “People of the Book” as stated in the Qur’an.
Perhaps those who feel their own culture and community are threatened will drift toward drawing sharp borders, toward exclusionary belief in an effort to protect their cultural heritage under threat. In which case, we are really talking about elements of personal and social psychology, not theology at all.
We see, then, how Islam is very much of a piece with the evolution of religious and theological thinking in general and can be located at a midway point between the theological polarities of Judaism and Christianity. Islam did not come as a theological shock to the region. But it did serve the interests of geopolitical powers of the region just as Christianity did. Thus, most of our story will involve the interplay of states with religions; at that point the power and goals of the state dominate any independent role of religion. This reality sets an important stage for a key argument of this book: that most of the history of the West’s relations with the Middle East is really about the geopolitics of empires and states and not much about religion itself—regardless of the slogans, banners, and ideological fervor invoked at the popular level to support the state. Take Islam out of the equation, and there’s a very good chance you’d still find the Middle East at loggerheads with the West.
Religion may in most of its forms be defined as the belief that the gods are on the side of the Government.
The fourth century was fateful for Christianity: it marks the period in which Christianity came to be embraced by the Roman/Byzantine Empire; doctrine was now to fall directly under state control. We will note how politics affects theology directly. Religion and heresy become the chief instruments, the banner, and rallying point of diverse cities, regions, groups, and ambitious patriarchs in the internal political struggles of the Roman/Byzantine Empire. The groundwork is being laid for the further development of regional conflict in the Middle East, even within Christianity. The Middle East will be moving eventually into a three-way struggle among Rome, Constantinople, and Islam, but for the moment we will observe how power and heresy affected the geopolitics of the area even before Islam existed, including rising antipathy between East and West, that is, between Constantinople and Rome. Islam will soon adopt and share this geopolitical distrust and wariness toward the West. It may come with the territory.
The issue of heresy came up almost immediately after the life, mission, and death of Jesus, when divisions sprang up among his followers over how to interpret those dramatic events, thereby laying the groundwork for the development of later heresies. Over time, the state and competing political powers were inexorably drawn into the definition and management of theology and heresy, impacting directly upon the state’s own policies as well. Who was promoting one or another theological principle mattered as much as the principle being promoted.
Politics was involved from the start, beginning with the execution of Jesus. Most of the Jewish religious leadership in Jerusalem had viewed Jesus as a false prophet, the movement heretical, and had called for Jesus’s death. The state—the local authorities of the Roman Empire—finally bowed to the leaders of the Jewish community in putting him to death. On the part of Rome, this was a political decision, not a theological one. One can readily argue that for the leaders of the Jewish Sanhedrin itself, it was also a political act to eliminate Jesus because of the threat he posed to their authority in the community.
Right away, the potentiality of heresy was present. What would the linkage be, if any, between Judaism and the new faith? Naturally, virtually all of the early followers of Jesus were Jewish and thought of themselves as Jewish Christians. Yet if Christianity was really a sect of Judaism, did new pagan converts to Christianity have to accept Judaism before they entered Christianity? For most Christian theologians today, it was Paul, not Jesus, who really established Christianity as a distinct new religion quite separate from Judaism; after Paul, one no longer had to be a Jew in order to be a Christian. And it was Paul who broke new theological ground in establishing faith as the essential component of salvation, rather than personal fulfillment in one’s life of Jewish Law. The new direction of the church under Paul created the most shattering schism in the history of Judaism. The new Christian faith would lay claim to being a universal religion, open to all, in which ethnic or religious origin had no role to play. There was no longer a Chosen People; all could become “chosen” by choosing Christianity. Faith, not Law, was the road to salvation.
So, from early on, diverse views on Jesus emerged as the early Christian community sought to make sense of his life, mission, and teachings. At the heart of these early controversies in Christianity lay the issue of Christology: what is the true nature of Jesus Christ? These arguments would inevitably affect Islam.
Was Jesus man, or was he God, or both?
Was he truly biologically conceived and born of a virgin, or had he always existed prior to birth? If he had always existed, had he existed as long as God had existed?
Is Jesus coequal to God, or is he God?
Did God come first, and then create Jesus? If so, does that not make Jesus “number two” to God?
Is God one, or truly a dual personality combining Jesus and God? Or a triple personality combining the Holy Spirit?
If Christ is both man and God, which is the more important element: the element of man, or God? Can God actually come down to earth and live as a human being, be killed, die on the cross?
What happened to Jesus after he died and rose again from the dead? Does he still exist independently or did he fuse with God? Or has he always had a separate existence?
These questions and many others roiled the church and later the Roman Empire, incited rebellions, created new sects, sparked civil and military conflict, and divided earthly power. They remain without consensus and still roil the ranks of Christianity.
For the first three centuries, of course, Christianity had no official legal status. It was still only a movement, rejected and periodically persecuted by the Roman state; Christians sometimes refused to pay even basic lip service to the state religion of Rome—a loose and flexible affair involving brief obeisance to the few symbols of imperial power, even as one went about one’s own personal religious practice. But refusal to acknowledge even this minimalist state religion alongside one’s own personal religion was taken as an act of rejection of the state, an act of rebellion.
Meanwhile, competing views of Jesus coexisted for long periods of time, until the church began systematically to reject numerous alternate visions of Jesus, seeking to extirpate them and forge unity around a single “orthodox” view. The ultimate formal adoption of Christianity by Roman imperial power in Constantinople only hastened the process of enforcing, with new muscle, the unanimity of Christian creed.
For the state, theology is too important to be left to the theologians. Theological decisions could not be limited to the obscure proceedings of theologians sitting solemnly in council, but rather included a constellation of competing authorities—believers, diverse theologians, politicians, and ultimately the Emperor—all vying to determine the true message of Christianity in line with their own interests. They had one all-important goal: to ensure that church and state maintained sole monopoly over doctrine. To challenge monopoly over interpretation was to challenge church and state power itself. In the zeal of the new faith, the nature of Jesus was publicly debated among Jewish and Gentile communities around the ancient world—particularly in the Levant, Anatolia, Greece, and Egypt. There are tales of popular debates within barbershops and taverns in Constantinople about the nature of Jesus. Hellenized Jews, who made up a large proportion of the Jewish community, were at the center of such debate. The issues of Christ’s nature would not go away, but would resurface again and again in later heresies, even in the emergence of Islam itself.
With the official adoption of Christianity by the Roman/Byzantine state, the state moved to bring under control all interpretations and schools of thought that existed in the empire, to establish a degree of orthodoxy and define “right opinions.” Partisans of differing views were brought to reconciliation, overruled, or suppressed. Not surprisingly, the power and influence of particular dissenting officials inevitably affected the calculus of state decisions. How would the state identify, organize, rationalize, codify, collate, integrate, reconcile, and ultimately impose the manifold religious ideas swirling in the public space since Jesus’s time? The first step was to convoke a series of ecumenical councils to hash out and codify the formal nature of the faith. When the Emperor Constantine I convened the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE to hammer out the basic principles of Christian theology in the Nicene Creed, the Council thought it had crafted the decisive statement on Christian faith for all time.
Yet it was not so: more Councils had to be held, more changes had to be made. One of the first tasks of the official church was decision on scripture. Among the many writings about Jesus, his apostles, and the early Christian movement, which ones would be consecrated as the heart of Christian doctrine? And which versions of which books, when there were often several? Acceptance of one book and rejection of another had direct consequences, generating clear winners and losers; certain books were considered “inside” books and canonized; others were rejected as noncanonical, or “outside” books. Criteria for acceptance into the canon varied widely: some books were considered to have been written too late to speak authoritatively of Jesus’s life. Or Rome weighed in to support and promote certain of its popular texts that were not especially popular or well-known in the Greek-speaking world of Constantinople. Some books were popular within certain specific communities, others were not; some accounts were considered unreliable, yet others considered so far outside of standard church teachings as to be downright heretical. Some books were seen as possessing historical value in documenting the early movement but could not be considered as scripture.
And what is “scripture” in the end? It is the body of texts adopted by recognized authority as authentic, thus canonized and later regarded as “sacred.” The quality of the sacred in the end is determined by a judgment call on the part of quite interested parties. As a result, numerous important Christian texts were rejected by the authorities on one or another of these grounds. Yet the authenticity of these texts, even though rejected from the canon, included documents of vital importance to understanding Christianity, impressive works such as the Gospel of Thomas, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles, and others. (Islam would undergo much the same process in sorting out the authenticity of thousands of Hadith relating to the reported sayings and doings of the Prophet in his lifetime—and they, too, are still under debate and examination today.)
It was not just texts that ended up losers. So were certain bodies of ideas and beliefs; whole communities that embraced them were excluded as the church authorities, acting with state sanction, passed judgment. Old and cherished ideas die hard. And to the various ecumenical councils that were convened, who would be invited? Who would be heard? How would decisions be made? Church leaders and communities whose views were not accepted were required to renounce their views or be pronounced heretical.
The power of the state became evermore intrusive in the process of the authentication, spread, and imposition of religion. Although much of the process of conversion to Christianity took place peacefully through evangelization, it was often buttressed by state takeovers of earlier “pagan” shrines, temples, and institutions from the pre-Christian era, and the banning of their rites and practices. In later years, some conversions were not peaceful at all; take the conquest and conversion of the Saxons by Charlemagne in the extremely violent thirty-year Saxon Wars beginning in 732. Here “conversion” was basically an ideological justification for the expansion of Charlemagne’s Frankish Carolingian Empire. Capital punishment was imposed on those Saxons who continued to practice rites of their traditional gods; the campaigns were so violent that some Frankish bishops feared the long-term consequences of such bloody conversions by the sword.
The backing of the state, with all its coercive and persuasive power, greatly facilitated the evangelical process; the advisability of appearing loyal to state doctrine made such conversions easy and politic. The church employed different techniques to discredit and eliminate paganism. It would often demonize the pagan gods, declaring them devils or witches worshipped at one’s peril. In other cases, the church compromised with local pagan practices, accepting some of the native pagan gods, to be rendered into instant “saints” so that they could remain as a comforting presence in the new Christian environment, albeit diminished in importance. Sacred pagan sites were often retooled into sites for local “saints.” These practices were widely conducted among the barbarian tribes of Europe and into modern times in the Roman Church’s conversion of native populations of Latin America and Africa. Islam faced almost precisely this same problem as it spread east and west, north and south, encountering earlier faiths, cults, and saints, many of whom were at least informally maintained, now in Islamic guise, by new converts to Islam.
The cult of the Virgin Mary represented another expansion of the realm of the divine as it moved to include evermore figures in the church’s pantheon. Mary’s official adoration took place some four hundred years after Jesus, and against considerable opposition. It was not until the sixth century that the veneration of Mary took on broad public dimensions in the Eastern Church, and only later still in the Western. (The religious scholar Karen Armstrong even suggests that the adoption of the Virgin Mary into the Catholic pantheon was an unconscious compensation for the abolition of the vital presence of female deities in so many early eastern religions, under the sternly patriarchal monotheism of Judaism and, much later, Protestant Christianity.) The book When God Was a Woman, by Merlin Stone, reflects this transition from societies that were often matriarchal, with worship of female deities, to patriarchal, which tended to associate women as a source of temptation and sin. All three Abrahamic faiths picked up on the idea.
Responsibility for most of these early political decisions on theology and doctrine fell to Constantinople rather than to Rome. Rome may have been the capital of the Roman Empire, but by the time of the legalization of Christianity, the Eternal City had fallen onto hard times, an uncomfortable place reeling from regular barbarian invasions and occupations. Meanwhile, the new city of Constantinople had been chosen as the alternative, and increasingly dominant, capital of the Roman Empire, where the Roman emperor would now reside almost exclusively. It was the Eastern Roman Empire that took the decision to formally adopt Christianity. The huge Eastern Empire, or Byzantium, would maintain the full trappings of an imperial state for another thousand years, even as Rome dwindled to geopolitical insignificance as an imperial power. It was Constantinople that took on most of the early task of determining orthodoxy, identifying the corpus of canonized texts and deciding which were heretical. It was also the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire that ultimately spread Christianity throughout most of the Middle East, the Mediterranean world, up into the Balkans, and through much of the Slavic world. The empire at its high point had conquered the lands encompassing most of North Africa, Egypt, the Levant, Syria, and most of what is today’s Iraq and Asia Minor (Anatolia). Christianity’s only rival at all in the region was Zoroastrianism in Persia—until the emergence of Islam.
A fascinating panoply of Christian ideas emerged over time in the Eastern Mediterranean, most of which later came to be marked as heresies. These heresies matter. They tell us a lot about the dynamics at work in the power politics of the Byzantine Empire. They reveal much about the religious culture and mind-set of the time—even setting the stage for many of the theological views of Islam. An understanding of dynamics of heresy shows us again and again how religion acts as the vehicle, and not the cause, of conflicts, splits, and confrontations based on other quite worldly interests and rivalries. What better way to promote one’s ambitions than to cloak them in religious and godly garb?
One of the earliest and most persistent heresies was Marcionism. According to the Christian scholar G. R. S. Mead, Marcion (110–160 CE) was a rich shipowner in Sinope, on the Black Sea coast of today’s Turkey. Marcion followed in his father’s footsteps to become bishop of Sinope. He reportedly made major contributions of his own money to the church and visited Rome as a known figure to promulgate his vision around 140 CE—approximately 160 years before the empire legalized Christianity. Even then, the church was hostile to Marcion’s message, excommunicated him in 144 CE, and returned all the funds he had contributed.
Marcion’s error in the eyes of the church was to become more Pauline than St. Paul himself. Paul had, of course, posited that Jesus had preached an entirely new religious vision, quite distinct from Judaism. Marcion, as a consecrated bishop of the church in the second century and a recognized leader in Asia Minor, declared the entire Old Testament to be irrelevant to Christian doctrine. He drew up elaborate tables of the characteristics of the Hebrew God as described in the Old Testament, alongside the qualities of God preached by Jesus. Marcion concluded that the characteristics of jealousy, wrath, violence, and vengeance of the Hebrew God were incompatible with the God of love and forgiveness as preached by Jesus, and that therefore the Hebrew God was not the true God, not the God of Christianity at all, but a lesser deity whose power was transcended by the power of the God of Jesus. Marcion even rejected most of the Apostles as unreliable witnesses, declaring only Paul to have clearly understood the nature of Christ’s message; he concluded that it was fruitless and unnecessary to try to reconcile Judaism with Christianity.
Despite his being declared a heretic, Marcion’s community was strong, and he established large numbers of churches that rivaled Rome for centuries in Italy, Egypt, Palestine, Arabia, Syria, Asia Minor, and Persia. The Marcionite Church was the second most influential and important movement among early Christian communities after the official church itself.
Elements of Marcion’s message have persisted to today, in the form of groups and organizations that propagate his views. The remarkable longevity of Marcion’s thinking lies in the fundamental theological dilemma that he posed: how can the parochial Semitic tribalism and violence of much of the Old Testament, with its often wrathful, arbitrary, and fickle God, be reconciled with the God of the New Testament, along with Jesus’s message of love? And so the question remains: is there continuity, or a sharp break, between Judaism and Christianity? If there is continuity, then Christianity is clearly heretical from the perspective of Judaism; if there was a complete break from Judaism, then Christianity cannot be perceived as a Jewish heresy but rather as an independent body of faith in which the relevance of the Old Testament to Jesus’s teachings is questionable. These questions do not go away. They also represent an early version of an argument, still regularly encountered today, that rejects the idea of any “common God” of the three Abrahamic faiths, and declares the Gods to be different. But Marcionism, in any case, represented a major challenge to Christian state authority in Byzantium.
After the legalization of Christianity in the empire in 313 CE, the next major and long-lasting heresy to arise was that of Arianism. Once again, the nature of Christ lies at its center. Arius (c. 250–336 CE) was a prominent theologian who was born in Libya, educated in Antioch (today’s Turkey), where he absorbed a great many of his ideas, then lived and taught in Alexandria, Egypt, one of the major (rival) centers and patriarchates of early Christianity. He preached that Jesus had been created by the Father, just as the Holy Spirit had been, and that both were therefore subordinate to God the Father, who was the “true” God, the Creator. Jesus thus had a beginning, but God never did. God is self-existent, whereas the Son is not, who therefore cannot himself be God. Jesus thus becomes a lesser being.
Such a belief sharply undermined the orthodox position of the church that God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit have always existed and all continue to exist simultaneously as coequals. The Arian doctrine was denounced and declared as heretical in the Nicene Creed negotiated at the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE. But the movement maintained great power and attracted even the sympathy of the Emperor Constantine’s successor. Arianism became deeply established among the Germanic tribes of Europe and across the Middle East, especially Alexandria, where there was strong predisposition to accept this kind of thinking about Jesus as a “secondary” being and not on a par with God the Father. The doctrine became the vehicle for an Alexandrian bid for influence. The persistence of this Arian view reflects discomfort with the complex concept of the Trinity and of the position of Jesus himself as on a par with God; in short, there is an abiding sympathy for elements of a purer monotheism that does not dilute the One God—the essence of Jewish belief and of Muslim doctrine to come. It is also the theology of the modern Unitarian Church.
Despite being officially declared heretical and anathema, some heresies actually succeeded in breaking away and permanently establishing themselves. Indeed, debate over Christ’s true nature could never, and has never, been fully laid to rest in any kind of Christian consensus.
While Arianism rejected granting Jesus “equal status” with God, another major heresy, Monophysitism, tilted the pendulum in the opposite direction, maintaining that Jesus did have some human qualities but that he was essentially divine in nature. This contravened the church’s teaching that Christ was both fully human and fully divine. Monophysite teaching was branded heresy at the Fourth Council of Chalcedon in 451 CE, a major watershed that led to the first serious and permanent rupture in the body of the church—and the permanent breakaway of what are today called the Oriental Orthodox or Monophysite churches. Significantly Monophysite views were particularly strongly embraced in Syria, the Levant, and Egypt, all centers that resisted the power and authority of Constantinople, and also in other more distant places such as Armenia and Ethiopia.
Still other variations on the theme of Jesus’s nature created other heresies. Ebionism was a first-century Jewish-Christian sect that revealed the pervasive influence of Judaism: it regarded Jesus as a prophet rather than divine, in rejection of Paul’s vision (and directly parallel to Islam’s vision of Jesus today).
Eutychianism argued that while Jesus possessed some human elements, the divine elements were dominant. Much of the controversy over this issue therefore related to Mary: Was she the Mother of Jesus as God? Or Mother only of Jesus in his human aspect? Her title in Greek differed accordingly.
Typically, theological dispute over these issues was bolstered, or even sparked, by geopolitical interests: Eutychianism was closely linked to a quest by the city of Alexandria in 433 CE to confirm its status as the second most important Christian city after Constantinople, a position that was equally sought by its rival Antioch, which promoted a more orthodox view of Jesus.
Docetism argued that Jesus’s body was a physical illusion and that he only seemed to die; he was, in reality, a pure spirit who could not die. This belief was also linked to the notion that material in the world was inherently evil, and thus God or His Son could not be material. Islam, believing that Jesus was only a physical being and not a divinity, shares the view that Jesus only seemed to die on the cross, but was saved by God and taken to heaven.
Pelagianism derived from an obscure monk who may have been from the British Isles. He denied the central church teaching of “original sin”—the belief that mankind was inherently sinful from the original sin of Adam and Eve. The problem with the denial of original sin is that it undercuts the need for salvation solely through faith, as taught by the church. The view was thus declared heretical in 416 CE. Islam, too, denies the validity of original sin and of mankind’s inherent sinfulness.
Monotheletism unsuccessfully sought to forge a tortured compromise between competing churches in Alexandria and Constantinople over whether Jesus’s acts represented one single divine spirit or the cooperation of both human and divine wills. While seemingly abstruse, this doctrine had almost a purely political basis in seeking to heal the splits in the Eastern Church brought about by the Monophysite heresy. In the end, however, this compromise formulation was rejected. Politics trumped theology.
The details of these heresies are astonishing for what they reveal about the broad range of complex, detailed, and legalistic interpretations of the nature of Jesus. And all of this occurred primarily before the emergence of Islam. Islam must obviously be viewed as part of this context of debate over Christology.
Nor could any discussion of heresy be complete without mention of a few modern insights into these controversies. Power may possess the prerogative to determine what is and is not heresy, but heresy doesn’t always mean something new on the scene. The fascinating work of the German theologian Walter Bauer in the late nineteenth century examined the evolution of early Christian doctrine and reached the conclusion that what we consider today as “heresy” actually often reflects the very earliest Christian understandings of the nature of Jesus. He argued that, in fact, it was the church itself that introduced newer interpretations of theology in later centuries, established new orthodoxies, sometimes altering the original Christian beliefs and even the texts themselves. These interpretations were driven by the later institutional and political imperatives of the church to declare earlier understandings to be “heretical.” These views have recently been further propounded by the influential scholar Bart Ehrman, chairman of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Indeed, we still find considerable flexibility in the theological interpretations of a few smaller branches of the Abrahamic faiths. For example, doctrines of continuous revelation of God’s word characterize the approach of Quakers, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), Pentecostal, and Charismatic Christians, as well as the Baha’i. According to these precepts, revelations from God never cease and are available to succeeding generations to receive the word on an individual or communal level. These ideas are gaining broader currency over time. The Baha’i, among others, espouse a doctrine of “progressive revelation,” including the ongoing emergence of prophets of God through time to reveal his word; these progressive revelations are designed for a humanity whose own understanding of God deepens and changes. Different historical conditions thus require different revelations in the human quest for greater precision in their understanding of the Divine.
Islam falls into many of these same patterns. The collapse of the first Islamic dynastic caliphate, the Umayyad, in 750 CE was driven by two key issues, among others: it had a power base in the very Arab city of Damascus and was being challenged by the rising power of the Abbasids, who represented the interests of Baghdad and its Iraqi-Persian culture. Furthermore, the Abbasids represented the demand for voice of newer non-Arab Muslim converts, who were excluded from equal power and rights under the Arab Umayyads. These caliphates thus rose and fell on regional and political grounds, not theological ones.
The role of power in religion continues to be recognized to our day. Take the comments of the Shi’ite mufti of Tyre in South Lebanon as recently as June 2009 over the issue of the disputed elections in Iran, in which he came into conflict with the leader of Hizballah. Sayyid Ali Amin said that the Lebanese Shi’ite Hizballah movement was attempting to stop discussion of the thesis of clerical rule in Iran, because challenging this ideology would undermine Hizballah’s own power in Lebanon. “This is the biggest proof that [clerical rule] is not part of religious beliefs, but it is a power and political ideology,” he said.
Furious debate over theological issues in the end is essentially a debate about underlying political interests of the state. By the time Islam came along, it was no longer the theology that mattered to the region but the shift in power and territorial control to a new rival state institution. It was politics as usual in the Middle East. Frictions among state, power, ideology, and heresy would continue to interact for centuries to come.
But the really critical factor for our present argument is the fast-rising tension between the Christian Byzantine Empire and the Western Church. As we will see in the next chapter, Islam, as a new geopolitical force, inherited not only much of the anti-Westernism of cities within the Eastern Empire in rebellion against Constantinople but also some of the latent anti-Rome views that grew over time within the Byzantine Empire itself. While Byzantium drew its deepest identity from the belief that it was perpetuating the true tradition of the Roman Empire, it increasingly came to view the Western Church as a geopolitical rival whose power was ultimately as threatening to Byzantine power and identity as Islam itself. The Middle East was thus quite capable, without Islam, of developing aversion to the West.
Excerpted from A World Without Islam by Fuller, Graham E. Copyright © 2010 by Fuller, Graham E.. Excerpted by permission.
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PART ONE HERESY AND POWER
One Islam and the Abrahamic Faiths 21
Two Power, Heresy, and the Evolution of Christianity 45
Three Byzantium versus Rome: Warring Christian Polarities 61
Four Islam Meets Eastern Christianity 77
Five The Great Crusades (1095-1272) 95
Six Shared Echoes: The Protestant Reformation and Islam 117
PART TWO MEETING AT THE CIVILIZATIONAL BORDERS OF ISLAM
Seven The "Third Rome" and Russia: Russia Inherits the Orthodox Legacy 147
Eight Russia and Islam: Byzantium Lives! 163
Nine Muslims in the West: Loyal Citizens or Fifth Column? 187
Ten Islam and India 211
Eleven Islam and China 229
PART THREE THE PLACE OF ISLAM IN THE MODERN WORLD
Twelve Colonialism, Nationalism, Islam, and the Independence Struggle 243
Thirteen War, Resistance, Jihad, and Terrorism 267
Fourteen What to Do? Toward a New Policy with the Muslim World 287
Posted January 6, 2012
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Posted November 29, 2010
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Posted February 25, 2011
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Posted April 27, 2011
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Posted October 25, 2010
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