Confronting the Flood: Byzantine Reactions to the Rise of Islam

Christopher Sawyer '10

The tale of their early conquests was an inspiring one for the Arabs of the Umayyad Caliphate.  Their God was great, their soldiers mighty, and their quick acquisition of a vast empire the inevitable result of their new religion and way of life.  Still, their victory was anything but predictable.  The Middle East had long been divided between the Byzantine Empire and the Sassanians.  Despite frequent conflict, these two entities had managed to persist as the dominant powers in the region for centuries. However, this confidence in their control over the region would prove their undoing.  Weakened in the seventh century by yet another bout of conflict, both empires relaxed their defenses in Arabia in order to refill their coffers.  At that precise moment, the Caliphs, the successors to the Prophet Muhammad, emerged and in a matter of decades, they annihilated the Sassanians and reduced the once mighty Byzantine Empire to a rump state in Anatolia.  To the Arabs it was a triumph; to the conquered it was a cataclysm of unimaginable proportions. In this paper, I wish to examine the largely forgotten reactions of this latter group of the conquered.  Ultimately, I will argue that the scale of destruction wrought by the Arabs led the Byzantines to believe that the armies advancing upon them, rather than being human, were somehow divinely ordained.  As a result, relations between the two groups were only able to normalize after the Byzantines had debunked this myth of Arab divinity.

Even when evaluated purely in terms of territorial gains, the Arab invasions appear unbelievably successful.  Within a few generations the followers of Muhammad had conquered all of Byzantine Syria, Armenia, Egypt, and North Africa.  The Byzantine Empire, made great by Justinian a mere century earlier, and recently saved from the Sassanian threat by Emperor Heraclius, was suddenly on the verge of destruction, a fact made clear by the later Arab siege of Constantinople.  On a psychological level, the rapid loss of so much territory from such an unexpected threat was astonishing.  For many citizens of the Empire and members of the Orthodox Church, the threat could not be simply a military one (after all, had they not kept the mighty Persians at bay for hundreds of years?) but rather a spiritual one as well. As a result,

Many of the earliest responses to the Arab conquest found in the eastern Christian tradition took the form of apocalypses, that is, predictions of the last days and the end of the world.  In these the coming of the Arabs was seen as one of the signs of the end. (Kennedy 346)

In other words, it was believed that mere human armies and ordinary events were incapable of this kind of destruction. As a result, the Christian Empire turned towards the only explanation it had for such a cataclysm: the end of the world as predicted in the book of Revelations. The Byzantines perceived the Arab armies as representing an existential threat in the purest form.  As agents of God's wrath the Arabs were unable to be defeated or negotiated with, and therefore unlike any group the Byzantines had faced before.

One would assume that this threat was created—at least in part—by Islam, the Arabs' sophisticated monotheistic alternative to the Byzantine Church.  However, Byzantine clerics did not issue any mature theological responses to Islamic doctrine, the natural answer to any rival religion, during the initial period of Arab conquest.  It appears, therefore, that Greek observers largely ignored the new religion.  Indeed, the initial reaction of many Byzantines was simply one of Old Testament style awe and fear: forces beyond their comprehension had come for their destruction.  Such observers did not hesitate to speculate as to the inhuman nature of the conquerors, a fact indicated by the pseudo-Methodius, a Byzantine apocalyptic text written in the late seventh century, which explained:

For these barbarian tyrants [the Arabs] are not men, but children of desolation.  They set their face towards desolation and they are destroyers, they are destruction and they will issue forth for the destruction of everything. They are defiled and they love defilement.  At the time of issuing forth from the wilderness, they will snatch babies from their mother's arms dashing them against stones, as though they were unclean beasts. (Kennedy 347)

Clearly, there was to be no reasoning with the invaders. The Byzantines would simply have to fight for their own survival against these "children of desolation." There was no acknowledgement of an Arab culture, religion, or even a language, to be found in the pseudo-Methodius; the Arabs were simply beasts bent on the destruction of the remains of the Roman civilization.

Considering this panic, it is not surprising that the Byzantine hierophants, though lacking a clear understanding of the religion of the invading armies, were unanimously willing to defame it.  The way in which they went about dispersing their vitriol, however, varied.  Some commentators perceived Islam simply as a strain of Monophysite Christianity, a form of Christian belief commonly practiced in the Middle East but considered heretical by the Byzantine Church patriarchs, which needed to be stamped out dogmatically (Becker 242). Others saw it simply as idol worship, an allegation supported by respected religious leaders of the time. For example, Constantine Porphyrogenitus equated Islam to old Greek paganism: "They pray to the star of Aphrodite" (Myendorff 221), and John of Damascus compared the Muslim tradition of honoring the black stone in the Ka'ba to the worshiping of graven images, or in his words, "You express your adoration for the stone by kissing it" (Becker 246). Other commentators held the more extreme view that the Muslims were simply the forerunners to the Anti-Christ (Myendorff 217). 

What is especially interesting about most of these arguments is that they claimed that Christians would not be saved from the Arabs militarily. Instead, their salvation would occur only with a return to piety. The Arabs, and the cataclysmic defeats of the Byzantine Empire, were simply a way in which God could punish the Byzantines for their prior "flirtations with heresy," namely the supposed recent Byzantine tolerance for Monophysite Christianity (Kennedy 349).  As a result, if the Byzantines could defeat the Monophysite "heresies" domestically, then God would have no further need to punish the Christians with Arab victories. As one commentator put it:

Before calling them [the Arabs], God had prepared them beforehand to hold the Christians in honor; thus they also had a special commandment from God concerning our Monastic situation, that they should hold it in honor. Now when these people came at God's command, and took over both Kingdoms [the Byzantine and Sasanian empires], not with any war or battle, but in a menial fashion, such as when a brand is rescued out of the fire; not using weapons of war or human means, God put victory into their hands. (Kennedy 349)

The implication here is that the Christians could not be blamed for their defeat in battle. According to the Byzantines, the Arabs were militarily inferior but with God's Wrath on their side they could not be easily defeated. Salvation would only come through piety, a message consistent with a people convinced that the "end of days" was upon them.

However, this deep-seated fear of the Arabs could only persist as long as the Muslim armies were able to maintain their streak of military successes. As tides eventually turned and the Byzantines were able to stabilize their borders around the Anatolian peninsula, the invading armies ceased to be seen as an instrument of the Wrath of God and the apocalypse receded back into the future. For the Byzantines who believed that mere mortals could not counter the will of the divine, the Christian victories proved that the Arabs, far from being sent by God, were simply a rival people. As a result, the Umayyad Caliphate was gradually understood as not just a traditional military and cultural rival, but as the "new Eastern threat":

Though weakened and driven back ...[the Byzantine Empire] held together in a narrower and more unified area than before. In this way, the centuries old conflict between the great powers of West and East continued. The Arabs now took the place of the Persians in their dealings with the Byzantines. (Wellhausen 19)

At last the Byzantines had a way to understand the invaders: rather than being a threatening divinely ordained "other," they were the inheritors of the Sassanian Empire and the ancient Persian lands, replacements for the Kings of Persia. This gave the Arabs a defined role in the minds of the Byzantines. Although this conceptualization was not accurate, it meant that, despite possessing a strange new religion, the Arabs could be perceived as a foreign power that could be rationed with—not an apocalyptic plague.

As a result of this change in mindset, affairs between the two groups, while still dangerous, began to take on a degree of familiarity. The Byzantines had been able to hold back the Persians for centuries through a combination of war and diplomacy, and now that their perceptions of the Arabs had normalized, they believed themselves to be more than capable of doing the same with the Arabs. Nonetheless, the conflict did maintain a spiritual dimension for the Byzantines who were unwilling to accept a monotheistic alternative to Christianity. Relations between the two groups therefore had two dimensions. On one hand, the two empires were free to negotiate as peers in military and economic relations. However, in religious and cultural affairs, the Byzantines would maintain a distinct sense of superiority.

Given that negotiations were possible, the question became how to engage with the Arabs on both of these levels. The Byzantines approached this, not surprisingly, in two ways: first, by shoring up their defenses along Anatolia militarily, and second, by engaging the Caliph and his religious scholars in a spirited theological debate. However, despite the normalization of relations between the two groups, the newly confident Byzantines were still viewed poorly by the Arabs, who felt that,

...it was a vexation that the Cross maintained its dominion, in competition with Allah; in their conception, the war against the Byzantine emperor was preferable to all others, and they incessantly devoted themselves to this war [against the Byzantines]. (Wellhausen 31)

Because of this, the two empires appeared to threaten one another, a threat embodied by their rival monotheistic religious identities. Reconciliation would continue to be difficult, a point illustrated by further centuries of conflict between the two groups. Nonetheless, unlike previously, both groups at least acknowledged each other as rivals.

Ultimately, Byzantine views of the Arab invaders can be characterized into two clear stages. The first was a period of deep psychological despair in the face of a seemingly unbeatable threat. As a powerful and deeply Christian empire, it should come as no surprise that the Byzantines categorized this new and inexplicable threat in religious terms. The Wrath of God and the End of Days had come for them and they had little choice in the matter. However, once the supposed invincibility of the Muslim forces was disproved, a second phase emerged in the relations of the two empires. The Arabs could be placed in a familiar role, that of the threat from the east. In so categorizing them, the Byzantines began to view them not simply as tools of an angry God, but as another state to be negotiated with. Although the divide between the two groups retained a profoundly religious dimension, the businesses of trade and statecraft could at last go forward between them, a development that would lead to one of the richest cultural exchanges of the Middle Ages.

References

Becker, C.H. "Christian Polemics and the Formation of Islamic Dogma." Muslims and Others in Early Islamic Society. Ed. Robert Hoyland. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Variorum, 2004.

Bonner, Michael.  "The Arab-Byzantine Relations in Early Islamic Times." The Formation of the Classical Islamic World. Vol. 8. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Variorum, 2004.

Hoyland, Robert ed. "Muslims and Others in Early Islamic Society." The Formation of the Classical Islamic World. Vol. 18. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Variorum, 2004.

Kennedy, Hugh. The Great Arab Conquests: How the Spread of Islam Changed the World We Live In. Philadelphia, PA: Da Capo Press, 2007.

Myendorff, John.  "Byzantine Views of Islam". Arab-Byzantine Relations in Early Islamic Times. Ed. Michael Bonner. 221. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Variorum, 2004.

Wellhausen, Julius. "Arab Wars with the Byzantines in the Umayyad period". Arab-Byzantine Relations in Early Islamic Times. Ed. Michael Bonner. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Variorum, 2004.

 

Chris Sawyer is a senior Honors Political Science major with minors in History and German Studies.  He wrote this paper for Religion 11B, "The Religion of Islam: The Islamic Humanities" taught by Amira Quraishi.  In writing this paper Chris sought to deepen his understanding of Islamic history by looking at the way in which Muslims have been viewed by others.  Although this is only the second religion course that Chris has taken, he remains fascinated with the field.  Since writing this paper he traveled to Istanbul (the site of the former capital of the Byzantine Empire) for the 2010 World Debate Championships 2010, a trip that only increased his interest in the region.