There seems to be nothing in the character of Europeans adverse to the reception of Islam. Some in the past believed that Islam only found favour with a few Albanians and Bosnians, but this is notoriously not the case. Herzegovina became a province of Turkey in 1466, and a portion at least of the population became Muslims. Montenegro affords a still more striking example, for though it was never conquered, a good number came over to Islam until it was rooted out by the stern measures of Daniel Petrovich.
In 711 the victorious Arabs introduced Islam in Spain. The Muslim conquerors unfortunately, however, for themselves, left a corner of Spain among the rocks of Galicia unsubdued; this formed the nucleus of patriots which swelled into an army and forced its way southward recovering every foot of ground that their ancestors had lost. In 1502 an edict from Ferdinand and Isabella forbade Islam in their kingdom. The years in between were a bright period for Islam and through which Europe benefited with a revival of Greek philosophy and science, art and poetry that stimulated it until the Renaissance.
The conquered Spaniards were treated with remarkable clemency, and there is good reason for thinking that the advent of the Arabs was hailed with joy by all classes of the population except the Gothic aristocracy. Even of these many settled down among their conquerors. The downtrodden slaves came over in great numbers, and purchased freedom and equality by the easy repetition of the formula of the faith of Islam. Captives taken in war were given the choice of Islam or immediate death in this way converts were said to be numbered in their thousands. But Arab self-interest was also at work and tended to restrain the Arabs from attempting to proselytize too much, for fear of diminishing the tribute arising from the jaziya tax on unbelievers. Many Christians, however, went over to avoid paying this small tax, or even to evade verdicts in the Christian Courts. The number of those who went over to Islam must have been very great, and these Muwallads, as they were called, soon formed a strong party in the state.
Although Spaniards became Muslims they were far from being on good terms with the Arabs and Berbers, whom they regarded as interlopers into their country. No missionary agency, properly speaking, came into place on either side. Converts to Islam were gained by the imposing influence of Islam: presented to them as a brilliant civilisation, having poetry, philosophy, art and chivalry was once again valued amongst the Spanish knights.
Conversions were, as far as we have evidence of them, prompted solely by worldly motives; by fear; by domestic pressure; by love, gratitude or admiration. Disputations on the relative merits of Islam and Christianity there may have been between monks and faqirs and controversial works of the rival religions there certainly were, but direct preaching was neither permitted to the Christians nor considered necessary by the Arabs. Any attempt to convert Muslims to Christianity, or any abuse of Muhammad, was punishable by death, but in all other respects the Christians were allowed to keep their own religion.
When Islam arrived Catholic Christianity was firmly established over Arianism. The sixth Council of Toledo required all kings to only allow the Roman Catholic faith to be exercised and vigorous action was to be taken against dissidents. Perpetual imprisonment was imposed upon those who questioned the Catholic institutions and sacraments. The clergy had a significant influence in the realm and took advantage of their position persecuting the large Jewish community, severe edicts were passed over those who refused to be baptised. The Arabs were consequently viewed as deliverers from oppressors and their city gates were opened without being besieged.
There had been a Greek named Theodisculus who succeeded St. Isidore (AD 636) as Archbishop of Seville; he was accused of heresy for maintaining Jesus was not one God in unity with the Father and the Holy Spirit but was rather Son of God by adoption – he went over to Islam even before the days of the Arab conquest. Elipandus, bishop of Toledo (810) was also an exponent of the Adoptionism heresy and this new doctrine seems to have spread quickly over a great part of Spain. Such an influence through this doctrine would speedily swell the numbers to Islam.
Apart from one revolt the two communities experienced a measure of assimilation. Inter-marriages became frequent; many Christians adopted Arab names; many were circumcised. The term Muzarabes was applied to the Spanish Christians living under Arab rule. The study of Arabic began to replace Latin so that the language of Christian theology was gradually neglected and forgotten. There was little Christian literature available for those wanting to learn more about Christianity.
In the 9th century there was a period of madness associated with martyrdom that broke out in Cordova. This party set out to openly insult Islam and blaspheme their prophet and by so incurring the death penalty. It occurred mainly amongst monks, priests and nuns between 850-860. Although the movement was small the Islamic government were concerned that contempt for their law could become the seed for insurrection and in 853 they sent an army against the Christians of Toledo. The moderate party of the church anathematised these Christians as fanatics and an ecclesiastical council held in 852 to discuss the matter agreed upon a method of repression. Occasional isolated acts of martyrdom did occur the last recorded was in 983.
Crete, Sicily and Italy
The two large islands of Crete (823) and Sicily (878) fell and remained under the possession of Muslims until 960 when it was recovered by the Byzantines. With Sicily as a base of operations the Muslims even managed to get a foothold in the south of Italy occupying several ports for a number of years. Rome herself came near to being conquered and was actually pillaged by the Saracens. Fortunately for Christendom Rome never became a Muslim city, and the conquests of Ferdinand and Isabella in Spain, removed the Muslim domination.
The Ottoman Turks – An Overview
The dying injunction of the founder of the Ottoman Empire, to his son Orhan was “Give equal protection to all thy subjects and extend the law of the Prophet.” Adherence to this simple yet comprehensive precept may be taken as the secret of the success of the Turks in winning over so large a number of European converts.
The Christian conquest of Spain was approaching its completion when Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453. The youthful vigour of the Ottoman Turks and the martial and administrative genius of a long succession of rulers secured for Islam a new lease of life, and by the capture of Constantinople dealt Christendom a terrible and well-nigh fatal blow. For 800 years the imperial city had stemmed the tide of Islamic aggression, a respite of inestimable value to Christendom in Europe. It is little short of a miracle that Bajazet 2, the Ottoman Sultan, did not live to fulfil his boast and feed his horse off the high altar of St. Peter’s. If Rome had been captured by Bajazet, or the siege of Vienna (1529) under the arms of Suleiman the Magnificent had been successful it would have sealed the fate of all Continental Europe.
Although they had always had Christian subjects it was the taking of Constantinople in 1453 that established their relationships on a fixed basis. Muhammad 2 declared himself the protector of the Greek Church after taking the capital and persecution of Christians was strictly forbidden. A decree allowed the Patriarch and bishops to enjoy their former privileges, but further the Patriarch’s influence entered into the civil area where he was allowed to legally decide cases between Greek and Greek; it could impose fines, imprison and in some cases condemn to death. The complete control of spiritual and ecclesiastical matters remained in their hands; the Synod, to be used in all matters of faith and dogma was conducted without any interference from the state.
Although the Greeks were numerically higher than the Turks in all the European provinces this type of action reconciled them to their change of rulers. Formerly they had been under the rule of the Franks and the Venetians and as they were oppressive, and aliens in speech, race and creed, they were hated – the infidel Turk was preferred to the heretical Catholics. For a century after the fall of Constantinople a series of able rulers secured by a firm and vigorous administration of peace and order throughout their dominions. The Turkish dominions were better governed and more prosperous than most parts of Christian Europe and the mass of the Christian population engaged in the cultivation of the soil, enjoyed a large measure of personal liberty. Trade was enhanced because the Ottomans, like the Romans, were great road and bridge builders.
The Janissaries – the tribute of Christian children
The exception to all this was the tribute of Christian children who were forcibly taken from their parents at an early age and engaged in the famous corps of the Janissaries. Every four years, when the officers of the Sultan visited the districts on which jizya tax was imposed a selection was made from the children of about seven years old. The Islamic jurists argued that this represented the fifth of the spoil which the Quran assigned to the sovereign. Although they were not forced to become Muslims they were placed under Muslim teachers which had the same effect. When the corps was first introduced it is said that Christians volunteered in giving children, for war had devastated their land and in many cases the children were orphans who would have otherwise have been left to perish. Some suggest that Christians were eager for their children to enter the corps for in many cases it secured a career with an education and a well cared existence. Despite this, there is plenty of evidence that Christians tried to devise schemes which prevented the removal of their children.
Christians also had to pay a capitation tax in return for protection and in lieu of military service, the land taxes were the same for Christians and Muslims. Most conversions to Islam occurred in the first two centuries of the Ottoman Empire later there were few conversions as the Turks themselves became indifferent to the progress of Islam. The persecutions that occurred were due to mismanagement rather than religious persecution. The Calvinists of Hungary and Transylvania and the Unitarians, preferred to submit to the Turks rather than fall into the hands of the Hapsburgs while the Protestants of Silesia would it seems, have preferred to be under Turkey. Spanish Jews fled to Turkey for refuge.
The Turks considered that the greatest kindness they could show a man was to bring them to Islam and to this end they left no stone of persuasion unturned. The convert was greeted with high honour and some provision was made for his support. The degraded state of the Greek Christian Church helped the Muslim cause. The religion of the people had denigrated into a scrupulous observance of outward forms and the intense fervour of their devotion found an outlet in the worship of the Virgin and the saints. Subjects like the double procession of the Spirit, whether or not to use leaven or unleavened bread wearied the people so from all ranks converts came to the simple Islamic creed.
Positions for the bishops and archbishops were put up for auction to the highest bidders. Exorbitant rates were exacted for baptisms, confession, holy communion, indulgences and the right of a Christian funeral. The mass of the clergy were still very ignorant and illiterate. It was considered a great merit if any clergy could read many were ignorant of the words in their service books. The moral superiority of the Ottoman society had its significance in the reward of converts which were numerous in the 15th century.
As time went by the toleration of the Turks was exchanged for bigotry, by way of reprisals for the intolerance of Christian powers in Spain and elsewhere, conversions among the middle classes became more and more common. The historians attribute this readiness to apostatise to the feeling of despair which their despised position called up in their minds, and to their desire to bear arms and mix in active life. However it be accounted for, the fact remains indisputable that many Christians apostatised.
Footnote – Islam and the Reformation
The greatest of the Ottoman Turks was Suleiman the Magnificent who ruled from 1520 to 1566. During the forty-six years of his reign he not only led the Ottoman arms to great victories, he also added to the glory of Islam. He buily mosques, schools, palaces, public baths, hospitals and other buildings. In these buildings the famous Turkish architect, Sinan, originally a Christian, brought Turkish architecture to its highest expression. Europe both feared and admired the Turks.
The Reformation (1517-1550) ran its course during the reign of Suleiman who occupied the Catholic Emperor Charles 5, ruler of Christian Europe, as Islam was the greatest threat to his dominions. In 1529 when Luther’s reforming activity was at its height Suleiman besieged Vienna. Had Charles been able to devout all his energies to suppressing the Reformation, there would have been a different story to tell than is now recorded in the pages of history.
Conclusion to the advance of Islam
Side by side with the professional propagandist and the religious teachers who devote all their time to missionary work in the annals of the propagation of Islam are the record of men and women of all ranks of society, from the sovereign to the peasant, and of all trades and professions who have laboured to spread their faith; the Muslim trader is significant in this list. The propagation of Islam is not only the work of men but Muslim women have taken on this task. There are many examples of the influence of pious women for example several of the Moghul princes owed their conversion to the influence of a Muslim wife
Islamic missionary work expanded considerably because of the trader. People are naturally suspicious of foreigners but the trader is generally accepted as his commercial activity gives him a ready acceptance. Alternatively, the professional missionary is liable of being suspected of some sinister motives and his objective is seen clearly as proselytising.
Wherever Islam has been the ruling faith the theory that it enjoins toleration and freedom of religious life to followers of other faiths who pay a tribute in return for protection are at times questionable. Certainly, Islamic history is stained with the blood of many cruel persecutions but on the whole unbelievers have enjoyed a moderation of tolerance. The very existence of many Christian sects and communities in countries that have been for centuries under Islamic rule testify to this. The Christian community have had to face persecutions from time to time at the hands of fundamentalists or have been inflamed by some special and local circumstances rather than by a settled principle of intolerance. The pressure of these circumstances has driven unbelievers to become, outwardly at least, Muslims, and many instances may be given of individuals who, on particular occasions, have been harassed into submission to the religion of the Quran.
At the time of persecutions it would have been easy for the powerful rulers of Islam to have utterly rooted out their Christian subjects or banished them from their dominions particularly as historically the west had neglected the churches of the east who were for the most part left unarmed and utterly defenceless.
As a state religion Islam could not help but have an influencing effect on the nation. Worldly advantages, ambition and self-advancement would take the place of more laudable motives for conversion.
Islam must have appeared as an imposing and powerful fascination in the hey-day of its power similar to when the Christian faith was presented to the Barbarians of Northern Europe.
Despite living in a generation where Islam is looked upon as a cloak for all kinds of vice and terrorism it is true that Christians who have come into contact with a living Muslim society have been impressed by some of its virtues.
Message4muslims based on ‘The Preaching of Islam’ by T W Arnold