The Umayyads had been the conquerors for Islam but now with the coming of the Abbasid Caliphs a more settled era arrived. Muslim law had been formulated, art and literature had begun to flourish, and the Arabs had developed there own culture. The boundaries of the caliphate stretched from the Indus in the east to the Atlantic in the west, from Central Asia in the north to the Sahara in the south. The Muslims were still fighting in the south of France and there was continual border strife in Asia Minor but by and large the world had accepted the Islamic power.
The Muslim government allowed non-Muslims to manage their own internal affairs and exercise judicial functions amongst their co-religionists. For the most part churches and monasteries were left alone except in the large cities where some of them were turned into mosques. Pragmatically it seemed to make sense as Christianity declined and Islam increased.
There are even examples of a few Christians who were employed in responsible positions. The caliph al-Mu’tasim (833-842) employed two Christians who were involved in his personal confidences. No legal documents were valid until signed by Sulmuyah and his brother Ibrahim who were also set over the public treasury. The caliph was overwhelmed with grief on the death of the latter. Al-Mu’tadid (892-802) had as the governor of Anbar the Christian Umar b Yusuf. Al-Muwaffaq, who was virtually the ruler during the reign of his brother Al-Mu’tamid ( 870-892) who entrusted the administration of the army to a Christian named Israel. His son al-Mu’tadid (892-902) had as one of his secretaries another Christian, Malik b al-Walid. Nasr b. Harun, the Prime Minister of ’Adud al-Dawlah (949-982) of the Buwyahid dynasty of Persia was a Christian. Some Christian physicians were greatly honoured and amassed great wealth like the Nestorian Gabriel, the personal physician of Harun al-Rashid (786-809), who became very wealthy.
Records inform us that some new churches were built for example in Nisibis (759 Nestorian); the church of Abu Sirjah in Old Cairo; a church was erected for Christian prisoners in Baghdad following various campaigns during the reign of Al-Mahdi (775-785) and in the same city a church was built for the people of Samula under Harun al-Rashid (786-809). Also during the same reign Sergius, the Nestorian Metropolitan received permission to build in Basrah.
Under Islam, the Nestorians exhibited a remarkable outburst of religious life. In Persia they had been exposed to hard treatment on the grounds of their purported sympathy with the Christian Roman Empire but under the caliphs their missionary enterprise expanded vigorously as missionaries were sent to China and India. They also gained a footing in Egypt and later into Asia. By the eleventh century they had gained many converts from among the Tartars.
Strained relationships with the orthodox churches in the West and the Eastern Churches
Regrettably, relationships between the Non-Chalcedon Churches and the Orthodox had been exceptionally strained. In the fifth century a Persian Nestorian bishop, Barsauma, persuaded the Persian king to persecute the orthodox by representing Nestorious as a friend of the Persians and his doctrines approximating to their own. As many as 7800 orthodox clergy and numerous laymen were butchered. Another persecution had been initiated against the orthodox under Khosrou 2 (590-628) after the invasion of Persia by Heraclius, this time at the instigation of the Jacobites who persuaded the Persian king that the orthodox would always favour Byzantium. When Egypt was conquered the Jacobites took advantage of the expulsion of the Byzantine authorities to rob the orthodox of their churches, later they were restored when the orthodox made their rightful claim to the Muslim authorities.
The Eastern Churches with their implacable controversies in respect of Christian dogma struggled against the simple doctrine of the unity of Allah. Along with abstruse metaphysical dogmas the answer to licentiousness was said to be monasticism and virginity. Practically martyrs, angels and saints were worshipped while the Byzantine emperors were looked upon almost as a copy of the divine court, supreme earthly ruler and also high priest of Christendom.
Eastern Christian influence on Islam
There is clear evidence that Islam was influenced by Byzantine theologians. The earliest trend in Arab Sufism had an ascetic life as distinguished from later pantheistic Sufism, this originated from a Christian context. The Mu’tizilites busied themselves with speculations on the attributes of the divine nature quite in the manner of Byzantine theologians. The Murji’ah, with their denial of the doctrine of eternal punishment, were in agreement with the teaching of the Eastern Church as against the orthodox.
Living under unsympathetic caliphs and the decreasing church
Unsuccessful attempts were made by various caliphs to exclude dhimmis from public office e.g. al Mansur (754-775), Al-Mutawakkil (847-861), Al-Muqtadar (908-932) and later in Egypt by the Fatamid Al-Amir (1101-1130) and by the Mamluk sultans in the 14th century. These situations show that the common practice generally continued but during times of fanaticism the government was forced into a different policy. The beginning of harsh treatment commenced with Harun al-Rashid (786-809) when Christians were ordered to wear distinctive dress and give up government posts to Muslims.
Historically Christians under Islam have had to experience trial because of the relationships with Christian powers. In this context, the Byzantine Emperor Nicephorus (802-811) had become despicable to the caliph and many persecutions of Christians in Muslim lands can be traced back to distrust in their loyalty to the caliph. This bad feeling towards foreign powers would lead to fanaticism and then persecution, as under Al-Mutawakkil (847-861) who took a number of measures in order to suppress Christians. This caliph also reacted strongly to the rationalistic and free-thinking tendencies of some Muslim theologians and came forward as the champion of orthodoxy. He persecuted the Mu’tizilites and forbade all discussions about the Quran declaring the doctrine that it was created as heretical; he had the followers of ’Ali imprisoned and beaten; he pulled down the tomb of Hussain at Karbala and banned the pilgrimages there; he re-introduced the need for dhimmis to wear different clothing to Muslims; ordered that Christians should no longer work in public institutions; doubled the capitation tax; forbade Christians to have Muslim slaves or use the same baths as Muslims and harassed them with other restrictions. The Nestorians seems to have suffered most. A similar situation occurred during the period of Al-Muqtadar (908-932) and other outbursts led to the destruction of churches and synagogues and the terror of such times led to defection from the churches.
The Ulema rose up from time to time against Christians who were in responsible positions which in their view were taking advantage of their position and despoiling Muslim land and property. They put their complaints before the following caliphs: al Mansur (754-775), al-Mahdi (775-785), Al-Ma’mun (813-833), al-Mutawakkil (847-861), Al-Muqtadar (908-932) and many of their successors.
Defection to Islam
As the state increasingly needed more money the subject races were more burdened with taxation. In these times conversion to Islam increased. Children of numerous captive women who were carried off to harems of the Muslims had to be brought up in the religion of their fathers’ and there was the frequent temptation offered to a Christian slave to purchase his freedom at the price of converting to Islam. But there does not appear to have been a systematic orchestrated attempt to stamp out the Christian religion. Had the caliphs wanted to they could have swept away Christianity as easily as Ferdinand and Isabella drove Islam out of Spain. The Eastern churches were entirely cut off from the communion with the rest of Christendom and no one would have lifted a finger to help these heretics so their survival is thought to be a strong proof of Islamic toleration.
These ancient sects continued despite their lands being over-run with Turks, Mongols and Crusaders. Many Nestorians were later received into the Russian Orthodox Church, the Jacobite Patriarch of Antioch continues, while Uniate Jacobites belong to the Syrian Catholic Patriarch. Some groups were absorbed into the Greek Orthodox Church; the Melchites or Greek-Catholics continue while the Maronites are in union with the Roman Catholic Church.
Of the details of conversion to Islam there is little information although it appears at the first Arab conquest the Christians went over in large numbers to Islam – this is assumed on the basis of a reduction in the income from the capitation tax. The reign of Umar 2 (717-720) was marked with extensive conversions. Financial measures of alleviation of the Jiziya were a strong incentive but it was disastrous for the treasury.
Theological defence of Christianity
The controversial works of John of Damascus (676-749) from the same century show that zealous Muslims were striving to undermine the Christian faith. His works seem to provide an answer for Christians from Muslim objections in the form of “If the Saracen asks you” … “If the Saracen says, then say….” His pupil Bishop Theodore Abu Qurrah wrote several dialogues which help us to understand what were the main points of dispute. The Nestorian Patriarch Timotheus used to hold discussions on religious matters in the presence of the caliphs al-Hadi (785-786) and Harun al-Rashid (763-809) and embodied them in a work which is now lost. These details are meagre in the extreme and suggest the evidence of proselytising efforts but do not furnish us with the facts.
Islamic missionary activity
In the reign of Al-Ma’mun (813-833) a letter written by the cousin of the caliph to a Christian Arab of noble birth begs his friend warmly to embrace Islam. Al-Ma’mun himself was very desirous to spread Islam sending invitations to unbelievers to distant parts of his dominion such as Transoxania and Farghanah but he never he reverted to force. A celebrated doctor of theology of the same group Abu’l-Faraj b. Al-Jawzi (1115-1201 AD), the most learned man of his time, popular preacher, prolific writer claimed to have won a large number to Islam.
Isolated conversions of church dignitaries
Some scanty evidence exists of isolated church dignitaries from the Orthodox Eastern Churches and other non-Chalcedon communions becoming Muslims. In the middle of the 10th century George, bishop of Bahrayn was deposed from his office as he had changed to Islam. A brother of Gabriel, Metropolitan of Fars was disqualified for election to the Nestorian church on the grounds that he had accepted Islam. Theodore, the Nestorian bishop of Beth Garmai between 962-979 and Philoxenos, a Jacobite bishop of Adharbayjan became Muslims along with others.
Converts to Islam during the Crusader days
The Abbasid caliphate lost its power and splintered under independent kings, governors and dynasties The Fatamid Shi’ite Caliphate dynasty lasted from 909-117. In these two and one half centuries Islamic power and culture further developed particularly in areas of architecture, wood-carving, metal work, textiles and decorative book binding. In 969 the Fatamid general Jawhar conquered all of Egypt and began to build the present city of Cairo. He built mosques, bridges, palaces, canals and was tolerant to Jews and Christians. His prime minister was a Christian. He was succeeded by his son al-Hakim (996-1021) who humiliated Christians and Jews and destroyed a number of churches including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and this became one of the leading causes of the Crusades. Later, the Fatamid House itself was conquered by the ardent Sunni Salah-al-Din (Saladin) in 1171 and this marked the beginning of the Ayyubid house.
The Christian population of Syria and Palestine was changed by the presence of the Crusaders for nearly two centuries. During this period occasional converts to Islam were made from these foreign immigrants. Records are few as to what degree theological debate occurred in the many long truces but evidence seems to suggest that some Crusaders were in time meeting Muslims on a more friendly basis.
Saladin (1169-1173) is described as setting before a Christian guest the beauties of Islam and urging him to embrace it. Christians appeared to be fascinated with him some even left the Crusade and joined him: Robert of St. Albans gave up Christianity in 1185 and later married a grand-daughter of Saladin. When Guy of Jerusalem was defeated at the battle of Hittin six of his knights defected and escaped to the court of Saladin and of their own free-will became Muslims. The fall of Jerusalem and the success of Saladin caused Europe to take up the Third Crusade with the chief incident being the siege of Acre 1189-1191. The famine and disease experienced by the Crusaders forced some to make their way to the Muslim camps; some made their way back to the Crusader camp while others elected to join the Muslims; some became Muslims others retained their Christian faith – the conversion of these deserters is recorded by the chronicler who accompanied Richard 1.
During the reign of Saladin over Egypt the Christians found him a tolerant leader as taxes were lightened and several swept away altogether. Christians worked in public offices as secretaries, accountants and registrars. The church continued the practice of simony amongst their own clergy, with the resulting spiritual care of their people falling into decay. When you have Christianity like this, Islam does not need to be evangelistic! Christians had full and complete control of public worship, they were allowed to restore churches and build new ones. They were freed from restrictions which forbade them to ride on horses or mules; they were tried in law-courts of their own; monks were exempt from paying taxes and had other privileges.
In the end it seems that the native Christian population of Palestine at the fall of Jerusalem in 1244 seemed happier to submit to the Muslims rather than have a Christian government. About the same time the Christians welcomed the Seljurk Turks as deliverers from the hated Byzantine government, not only because of the oppressive taxation but also because of the persecuting spirit of the Greek church.