The Influence of Islam on Orthodox Christianity
In order for us to enter into the subject dealing with the impact or the influence of Islam upon Orthodox Christianity, we must first have a general overview of this religion which appeared in the seventh century of the Christian era.
As is generally known, Muhammed was an Arab from one of the numerous tribes in the Middle East, and specifically from Arabia. He was born in the city of Mecca in A.D. 570. As a young adult he came to believe that God had endowed him with prophetic powers, and that God, Allah, had revealed the true faith to him. Ultimately, he saw himself as anointed by Allah to spread this new faith.
The Islamic faith is a combination of beliefs from the pre-Islamic period, practiced by the nomadic tribes of that time, as well as distorted references from both the Old and the New Testaments. For example, Muslims accept John the Baptist as a great prophet. They also accept the Lord Jesus Christ as a very great prophet who was born of the Virgin Mary. However, in the Muslim faith there is no affinity with the Christian faith, since Muhammed believed that he was the greatest of all prophets and that he had been sanctified by Allah to establish the faith which was true to the will of Allah.
There is no doubt that Muhammed was very charismatic and that he drew many followers to himself. His mandate from Allah was to make war against all who opposed him and who had rejected his leadership. His purpose was to unite the Arab people. His strength and power came about by means of the sword. He and his followers slaughtered those who would not join his ranks, confiscating all of their possessions and selling the women and the children of those tribes as slaves.
The Kuran, which he produced over a period of several years, became replete with revelations from Allah in the ways to subjugate people. The concepts of human freedom or civil liberty do not exist in the Kuran. The faithful must live only as the Kuran teaches, and they who do not are relegated to the sword or to slavery.
By the year A.D. 630, Muhammed was acknowledged by all his adherents as the greatest of all prophets, and that Allah was the only true god. He had convinced his followers that the unifying principle for the Arab people was not their tribal affiliations, but, rather, the unity of the Islamic religion. He died in A. D. 632 at the age of sixty-three.
To say that the Islamic faith grew and advanced in a phenomenal way would be an understatement. It spread like a wildfire. Other autocratic leaders followed Muhammed, creating caliphates throughout the Middle East, extending into North Africa and encroaching upon the borders of the Byzantine Empire. Through the caliphates the teachings of the Kuran had become institutionalized.
Due to their aggressive organizational skills, always accompanied by force and with the sword, the Islamic leaders continued to make war their first priority in their zeal to spread their faith, the teachings of Allah. They continued to subjugate people, confiscating their lands and all their possessions and property.
As they entered into the regions of Byzantium, they massacred thousands of Christians, Christianity being their greatest foe. In A. D. 634 they slaughtered thousands of Christians in Syria. Monasteries were ransacked and the monastics and the people were put to the sword. Beheadings were considered the preferred way for executions of those who resisted them.
Four centuries later, by the year A. D. 1070, the Seljuk Turks, new converts to the Islamic faith, arrived on the scene. Wars were constantly going on between the Byzantines and the Turks. Even though Byzantine lands were recovered by the Emperors Nicephoros II and John I as early as A. D. 969, invariably those lands in the Near East were ultimately lost to the Muslims.
As a result of the Islamic conquests in the Near East and, especially, in the Holy Land and the City of Jerusalem, the western Crusades began in A. D. 1095. Tragically, the barbarism of the crusaders and the atrocities which they committed more than rivaled the barbaric acts of the Moslem invaders previous to them. As Orthodox Christians, having knowledge of the Fourth Crusade against Constantinople in 1204, we are aware of the extreme barbarism of the crusaders.
As for the Seljuk Turks, they had taken over Jerusalem, Syria, Antioch, and all of the metropolitan Christian centers in Asia in the years from 1070 to 1092.
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It is significant that, in the wake of all these catastrophic events between Christians and Muslims which took place over the course of four centuries, the Great Schism between the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox Christian churches took place in 1054. Whether it was coincidental, or a sign from God regarding His Church on earth, for the first time in recorded history Chinese astronomers recorded the greatest supernova in the heavens on July 4, 1054. It was the explosion of the Crab Nebula, the light of which was seen for many days during the daylight hours, and for over 600 days at night by the naked eye. It is significant that the eleventh century was for the Orthodox Christians the beginning of untold suffering and tragic events of one kind or another.
It appears as a strange wonder that the astronomers from the East, who studied the heavens one thousand years earlier and followed the star to Bethlehem, were followed by astronomers one thousand years later, also from the East, who recorded the astounding heavenly explosion in the year 1054.
Allow me to make another point regarding the eleventh century: some writers of the Church, who attempt to interpret the heavy symbolism of the Book of Revelation, look upon the Millennium in the Book of Revelation as already having taken place. Their rationale is that, during the first millennium of Christianity, Satan was in reality restricted from destroying the Church and, after 1054, he was again released to spread havoc, not only against the Church of Christ, but throughout the world.
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Returning to our chronology, by September 17, 1187, the only remaining ports held by the Christians in the Near East were Tyre, Antioch, and Tripoli, along the eastern Mediterranean.
As the Islamic faith was advancing westward, it appears that the sword was used more sparingly by the conquerors. They recognized that the subjugated peoples were a basic source of income through taxation. The ruling came about that the conquered people were considered protected persons if they submitted to Islamic domination by a written contract and also paid a poll tax (jizya) and a land tax (haraj) to their conquerors. If they could not pay an imposed tax, one of their sons would be taken; and, if they could find the necessary money, they could buy him back.
As a conquered people, the Christians (meaning Greek Orthodox Christians) were not allowed to build monasteries or churches, nor could they repair or restore any which had fallen into disrepair. The Muslims, on the other hand, had the right to confiscate Christian places of worship, such as the beautiful Saint John Church in Damascus, as well as Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. The position of the Orthodox Church became, in time, more difficult than that of the Jews. It is apparent that the reason for this was that the Greek Orthodox people were suspected of primary loyalty to the Patriarch and, before the fall of Constantinople, to the Emperor.
Speaking of the Turks who were steadily encroaching upon Byzantium, the Arab historian Ibn Khaldoun hailed the rise of the Ottomans and the institution of slavery as a manifestation of Allah's mercy. He speaks of Allah and says:
He did this by sending to the Muslims, from
At this point we can presume that the institution of slavery by the Turks saved the lives of countless Orthodox Christians in the declining Byzantine Empire, who would also have been killed like so many others.
Although the Turks were originally called Seljuk Turks, probably from the name of a former leader, it was Osman I who established a small principality near Bursa on the borders of Byzantium. This was in the early 1200's. Within a century it had become the Osman Dynasty, from which the name Ottoman is derived. Its dominions, in fact, became an empire, stretching from the Balkans to Mesopotamia. By the mid 1400's Mehmet II was the emerging leader and sultan of the Ottoman Empire. As we know, on May 29, 1453 he conquered the weakened and ruined city of Constantinople. Byzantine historians have written that Mehmet II saw himself as the first of the new dynasty which was to continue the life of the empire, albeit the Ottoman Empire.
Sadly, the conquest of Constantinople is a major stain exemplifying the barbarism of the conquering hordes. Serge Trifkovic writes in his book The Sword of the Prophet:
Thousands of civilians were enslaved, soldiers fought over boys and young women. The blood ran in rivers down the steep streets from the heights of Petra toward the Golden Horn. All the treasures of the Imperial Palace were carried off. Books and icons were burnt once the jeweled covers and frames had been wrenched off. In the monastery of the Holy Savior, the invaders first destroyed the icon of the mother of God, the Hodigitria, the holiest icon of all Byzantium.
Sir Steven Runciman, one of the most noted historians of Byzantium, writing about the Fall of Constantinople, writes in his book entitled The Fall of Constantinople, 1453, and specifically about Hagia Sophia:
The worshippers were trapped. A few of the ancient and the infirm were killed on the spot; but most of them were tied and chained together. Many of the lovelier maidens and youths and many of the richer-clad nobles were almost torn to death as their captors quarreled over them. The priests went on chanting at the altar till they too were taken. The inhabitants were carried off along with their possessions. Anyone who collapsed from frailty was slaughtered, together with a number of infants, who were held to be of no value. [Byzantium] was now half in ruins, emptied and deserted and blackened as though by fire, and strangely silent. Wherever the soldiers had been there was desolation. Churches had been desecrated and stripped; houses were no more habitable and shops and stores battered and bare. The Sultan himself as he rode through the streets had been moved to tears.
From the fall of Constantinople to the mid-nineteenth century, the Orthodox Christian population was in the state of enslavement. Even though the decadence of the Ottoman Empire began toward the end of the sixteenth century (one hundred years after the conquest of Constantinople) the ruling authority of the succeeding sultans became more and more sadistic. Taxes were increased in all areas of people's lives. Male children were taken, whether the families of those children had paid their taxes or not. The Christian boys were enlisted into the notorious military body known as the Janissaries. They ultimately became more treacherous and evil than their masters who had trained them, even against the Christian population from where they had been taken. Patriarchs were forced to pay higher taxes in order to retain their position. Those elected to the patriarchal throne had to give to the sultan a greater amount of money, today recognized as a bribe, so that the sultan would officially recognize their election. Many times rivalries came about from among the candidates for the patriarchal office, and they contrived against one another for the honor of assuming that office. Even today the election of a patriarch of Constantinople must be officially recognized by the Turkish government.
When the war for Greek independence broke out in 1821, there was a great slaughter of the Christians throughout the Near East and Asia Minor by the Turkish forces. Almost the entire population of the island of Chios was massacred in 1822, with the survivors being enslaved. Twelve thousand Christians were slaughtered in Lebanon, fourteen thousand Orthodox Christians were butchered in Bulgaria, as well as many others in other areas of the declining empire.
Aside from this barbarism and brutality exercised down through these four centuries, there had been, paradoxically, a kind of tolerance toward the Christians. Even though the Arab, and consequently the Turkish, mode of operation was to establish government by force, rather than by law, the Ottoman authorities did recognize the value of the intellectual element among the Christians and how it contributed to the stability of life. We see this fact illustrated in the Greek intellectuals who are traditionally known as the Phanariotes, who played a stabilizing role in the lower levels of government. Because of this, many of the Christians living in the empire were left alone, especially as regards Constantinople. Obviously, the fact that the Ottomans had recognized the Patriarch of Constantinople as the Ethnarch of the Christian people in Eastern Europe, the Balkans, Asia Minor, and the Near East was a de facto recognition of a nation within a nation.
This concept of a nation within a nation allowed the continuation of Greek education during the Ottoman years, which then spilled over into public life. The teachings of Aristotle consequently were carried by the Ottomans from the Middle East through North Africa and into Moorish Spain. The development of art and architecture with a Hellenic and Byzantine influence also came about. This reality allowed for an easier co-existence between the Turks and the Orthodox Christians.
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Allow me, at this point, to make a personal observation. The concept of ethnarch, which was an Ottoman invention, provided physical and material security, to a limited extent, in the lives of the Christians. However, from a theological and ecclesiological perspective, it went contrary to the Scriptural teaching that the Church is in the world, but She is not of the world. In other words, the office of the patriarch had become temporal, while trying to remain spiritual. Yet, it could be said that this same concept (that the spiritual leader is simultaneously the temporal leader) could have had its beginnings with the combined leadership of the emperor of the Byzantine Empire and the spiritual leadership of the Patriarch of Constantinople. Hence the symbol of the double-headed eagle, one body with two heads. In either case, the leader of the Church appeared to have allowed himself to be identified with the world, a theocracy on earth, if you will. This, of course, is untenable and, even, unthinkable from any pure, Christian point of view. For the Church believes that only Christ the Lord Himself will establish the eternal theocracy.
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Returning to our chronology, the Ottomans recognized the Patriarch of Constantinople as the ethnarch of all the Greek Orthodox and other Orthodox people within the empire. This is why they saw the Greek revolution in March 1821 as having its root cause at the Phanar in Constantinople. It is, therefore, no wonder that the Turkish mobs on Easter Sunday, April 10, 1821, entered the patriarchal compound, and seized Patriarch Gregory V, hanging him at the main entrance of the Patriarchate. As if that were not enough, they dragged his dead body through the streets, finally throwing him into the Golden Horn.
As history records, the Ottoman Empire experienced its death throes during the First World War. Shortly thereafter, the Young Turks took over the country, under the leadership of Kemal Mustafa Ataturk, renaming it the Turkish Republic, a reputedly secular state. During the Greco-Turkish War in 1920-1922 the great powers, namely England and France, convinced the Greek forces in Asia Minor to establish two fronts, one going toward Ankara and the other going toward Constantinople. The net result was the defeat of both Greek forces and the consequent destruction of the ancient city of Smyrna with its 300,000 inhabitants. All were either slaughtered or scattered, wherever they attempted to survive.
The destruction of Smyrna has been recorded as one of the great crimes of all times, having taken place less than one hundred years ago. This was the end of Orthodox Christianity in Asia Minor, with the seventh and final Church of Smyrna recorded in the Book of Revelation as being displaced but not destroyed. Tragically, as with Patriarch Gregory V, Metropolitan Chrysostomos of Smyrna was assaulted by a Moslem mob which uprooted his eyes and dragged him by the beard through the streets of the Turkish quarter, all the while beating and kicking him. He was finally hacked to pieces by the fanatical crowd.
After four centuries of such inhuman suffering, there was no fight left in the Christians. They had been greatly reduced in number and in power. It appears, therefore, correct to say that it was the Hellenes who lived in Russia and in Europe, as well as the philhellenes, who sparked the Greek war of independence. The Greek people of the Pelopponesus were reawakened to a thirst for freedom. One of the calls to fight the Turkish conquerors was the saying: "Better to live one hour in freedom than forty years in slavery and prison."
Reflecting back these past sixty years regarding the Greek Orthodox people of Turkey, we can say that, although Turkey has attempted to be a secular government with the separation of state and religion, the religious teachings found in the Kuran still affect the Christian people. For example, when one of the patriarchal buildings burned to the ground in the early 1940's, the Turkish government would not give permission for the rebuilding of the structure until almost forty years later. When Athenagoras of blessed memory was elected Patriarch of Constantinople in 1949, he had to relinquish his American citizenship and adopt Turkish citizenship before Turkey would officially recognize him. In September 1955 a pogrom instigated by then-Premier Menderes resulted in the total destruction of over four thousand Greek Orthodox businesses in Istanbul, as well as dozens of churches. The result of that catastrophe was the reduction of the Greek Orthodox population of Istanbul from over 100,000 in 1955 to less than 3,000 today.
Yet, even in the face of all these disasters, the lives of the common people have co-mingled. We witness the commonality of the Greek and the Turkish cuisine; we see the similarity of enriching music. Even inter-marriage takes place, albeit as a secular event. It is, therefore, true to say that an acceptable co-existence took place, especially in areas of family life.
As I reflect on my numerous visits to Istanbul/Constantinople and to our Ecumenical Patriarchate, I see its totally humble location and simple presence. Some would say that it is not simply humble, but in the state of abject humiliation. They would feel this way, when thinking of the Patriarchate in its original setting, at the location of the most majestic and awesome building, the great church of Saint Sophia, the Church of the Holy Wisdom, the largest building the world has ever seen, until Saint Peter's in Rome was built four hundred years ago.
But again the gnawing thought emerges in my mind, as I contemplate the fall of the longest-existing empire in the history of the world, an Orthodox Christian empire, lasting for over one thousand years. I want to believe that God has a better and a clearer vision of us in our present-day humility than He would have, had we exulted with pride in an enviable position and in a state of grandeur here on earth.