What is Islam? Part 1

Islam has strode across the earth like a force of nature for the last fourteen centuries.  It stormed out of one of the most barren places on earth, the desert of the Arabian Peninsula, during the seventh century and took what had been one of the richest and most civilized areas of the planet (Syria, Mesopotamia, and North Africa) from what remained of the Roman Empire and cut the Mediterranean Sea, the great highway of the classical world since the days of Homer and the first Greek colonies some 1,300 years before, in two; cutting the northern and western shores from the eastern and southern shores in a stark division that would last to the age of Napoleon and culturally and religiously continues into our own day.  The armies of Islam also turned east and removed the Sassanian Persian Empire which had stood for four centuries and was the successor state of the more ancient realm established by Cyrus and Darius and Xerxes.  Over the succeeding centuries the advance of Islam caused the vast majority of Christians from the Tigris to the Straits of Gibraltar on the southern shore of the Mediterranean to apostasize  while it completely swamped the old Zoroastrian religion of Iran and drove its remaining adherents underground far from their ancient homeland.  In short Islam utterly changed the face of the world, and in a very short period of time from the middle of the seventh to the middle of the eighth century.  But what is Islam?

Islam has, at its root and core, several commonalities with the Catholic understanding of the universe and it is important to understand these things in order to understand where Islam came from, why it has been so successful, and what its destiny may be.  There are of course stark divisions as well that have led to the permanent divide between the Catholic and the Islamic worldview down through the centuries.  But I must say that the commonalities are intriguing though, in this age of political correctness, they are often either exaggerated or completely ignored.  So let us start with Second Vatican Council’s declaration Nostra Aetate on the Catholic Church’s relationship with non Christian religions and examine its short section on Islam:

The Church regards with esteem also the Moslems. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all- powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth,(5) who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God. Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet. They also honor Mary, His virgin Mother; at times they even call on her with devotion. In addition, they await the day of judgment when God will render their deserts to all those who have been raised up from the dead. Finally, they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting.

Since in the course of centuries not a few quarrels and hostilities have arisen between Christians and Moslems, this sacred synod urges all to forget the past and to work sincerely for mutual understanding and to preserve as well as to promote together for the benefit of all mankind social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom.

The first thing I would like to tackle is the short second paragraph.  The attitude of ‘forgetfulness’ toward the history of conflict between the Church and Islam seems vastly out of place in our own day and time, especially in the era that has followed the attacks on New York and Washington D.C. by Islamic terrorists on September 11, 2001.  But we must remember that this document was composed in the early 1960s: fifteen years before the Islamic Revolution in Iran that started the current incarnation of Islamic militancy which is at the moment ripping the Middle East to shreds and having follow on effects throughout the globe.  That age was an age of (misplaced) optimism regarding the human condition.  Islam was viewed as a spent political force not only in the West, but in large swathes of the Middle East as well since everything seemed to be subsumed into the then current global Cold War conflict between the United States and Soviet Union.  There was optimism among the hierarchy of the Church that the world seemed to be changing at such a rapid pace that this age old religio-political conflict between the Christian and Muslim worlds that had animated the life of Europe and the Middle East from the seventh to the nineteenth century might simply disappear.  Subsequent history shows this belief to have been mistaken.

Now to return to the first paragraph.  It’s declarations are obviously true.  I would only add to it that the belief in the immortality of the human soul is also common between the Faith of the Catholic Church and the Islam.  So what is the source of these commonalities?  Islam emerged in a Catholic milieu.  The Catholic Church was the dominant force in the Middle East, North Africa and southern and western Europe at the dawn of the seventh century.  It is hard for us who live in the twenty first century to conceive of a Catholic Middle East, but in those days it was taken for granted.  And it was also true that by the beginning of the seventh century the Church had spread out of the Roman Empire and far beyond the Mediterranean basin.  The only outside worldly opposition came from the Zoroastrianism of the Sassanian Persian Empire but even there were a sizable Christian presence existed, heretical and schismatic though it was, and these Christians were sending missionaries along the Silk Road as far east as China.  The world seemed to be opening itself up to the Catholic Church, but there were dark clouds as well.

The Church was plagued by division, schism, and heresy.  They had in fact dogged it since the Apostolic age but exploded into a theological ferment once Constantine I issued the Edict of Milan in 313 A.D.  They all revolved around the nature of the person of Jesus Christ.  These seem like obscure controversies today, and are often portrayed by militant atheistic historians who have dominated the field since the so called ‘Enlightenment’ as three centuries of arguing over nothing, a joke.  But they were not a joke.  They were deadly serious.  If one is in error concerning the nature of Jesus Christ then one is in error concerning the nature of God, the nature of his relationship with Himself and with the universe that He created, the nature and destiny of man and of his relationship with God.

These controversies and errors were rife in the Eastern Roman Empire and had spread out beyond its borders.  They had defined cultural and religious life in Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and Mesopotamia for three centuries by the time that Islam came into being and would have been well known along the caravan trails of Arabia down as far as the oasis towns of Yathrib (Medina) and Mecca.  This was the milieu that Islam came out of.  And it explains partly where these commonalities that Nostra Aetate speaks of have their origin.  In the next part I will take a closer look at this Catholic milieu from which Islam emerged and at its founder Muhammad.

Pray the Rosary, pray the Joyful Mysteries on Monday for the See of Constantinople, the Sorrowful Mysteries on Tuesday for the See of Antioch, the Glorious Mysteries on Wednesday for the See of Jerusalem, the Luminous Mysteries on Thursday for the See of Alexandria, and the Sorrowful Mysteries on Friday for the See of Carthage; for their liberty and their salvation and the restoration of their ancient position as pillars of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church in communion with the See of Peter in Rome; for the conversion of the Jewish people and the conversion of the Muslim peoples.

The See of Antioch (The other See of St. Peter)

The city of Antioch was in many ways the mother of the Church in the Roman world.  It lay just inland from the northeast corner of the Mediterranean Sea in modern-day Turkey in the region of Hatay near the current border between Turkey and Syria.  The city became a great metropolis following the conquests of Alexander that opened up the highway of trade from India and the east to the Mediterranean.  Antioch, during Roman times, was in a highly favorable location at the western terminus of the Silk Road and took full advantage of this to profit in the exchange of goods between distant Asia and the rest of the Roman Empire.  During the apostolic age Antioch was the third city of the Empire after Rome itself and Alexandria.  It was here that the Prince of the Apostles seems first to have moved to after leaving Jerusalem and he became the city’s first bishop before moving on to Rome.  Paul and Barnabas also spent much time preaching and winning converts in the city.  St. Luke, companion of St. Paul and author both of the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles was a native of Antioch.  And it was in Antioch that the name of Christian was first applied to believers in Jesus Christ and members of the Church.

After the age of the Apostles had ended the church in Antioch continued to supply the Church with great teachers and martyrs.  St. Ignatius of Antioch’s, who himself was a hearer of the apostles, letters written on the way to his martyrdom in Rome provide us with a fascinating glimpse of the Church during the decades following the death of the apostles, and give ample evidence of the primacy of the church of Rome even at that early date.  St. Ignatius’ Feast Day is October 17.

Following  Ignatius the city continued to supply the Church with bishops and martyrs, among them Babylas who suffered martyrdom under the reign of Decius during the middle of the third century.  The church of Antioch expanded its reach to become the leading church of the East, and second only in primacy to Rome, by the ascension of Constantine to power during the early fourth century.  The church there unfortunately was also a place of discord and a birthplace for heresy.  Paul of Samosata in the third century was bishop of Antioch and denied the divinity of Jesus Christ.  And the ideas of Arius, while first publicly proclaimed in Alexandria, have their roots in Antioch.  The Arian heresy which also denied the divinity of Jesus Christ but were far more successful than Paul’s troubled the Church for three centuries following the Edict of Milan.

Antioch continued to form a part of the Pentarchy, the five great Sees (Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria) of Roman times but fell into decline after the rise of Constantinople in the fourth century.  Constantinople became master of the East religiously, politically, and economically and Antioch suffered both from the Christological disputes and the resulting schisms in the Church, and from the depredations of the Persian Empire during the epoch of wars between Rome and Persia that stretched from the third to the seventh centuries during which Antioch and/or its hinterland were often battlegrounds.  The Muslims conquered Antioch in 638 AD and the city was now on the front lines of the almost constant warring between the Constantinople and the Caliphate and its importance in the Christian world rapidly diminished.  The Orthodox Church was unable regularly to supply a patriarch for the city as its Muslim political masters showed a preference for their Monophysite rivals, hostile as they were to Constantinople.  The Byzantines briefly reconquered the city in 969 before losing it again to the Turks during the following century.  Antioch was taken by the Crusaders in 1098 and they established the Latin Patriarchate of Antioch which endured for more than a century and a half before the Turkish reconquest of the city and the martyrdom of its last resident Latin Patriarch in 1268.  The city of Antioch has more or less disappeared from the map since that time and the site is now occupied by the Turkish city of Antakya.  The Pope continued to appoint Latin Patriarchs of Antioch, none of whom were able to take residence in the city after 1268, until the Patriarchate was abolished in 1964.  There are now a whole host of Patriarchs of Antioch, five at last count; none of whom actually reside in the city.

Pray the Sorrowful Mysteries on Tuesday for this ancient and once great apostolic See of the Church: for its liberty and its salvation, and the restoration of its ancient position as a pillar of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church in communion with the See of Peter in Rome and for the conversion of the Muslim peoples.  We should also remember the currently suffering land of Syria which forms the patrimony of this ancient See in our prayers, if we can find the heart.