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Clash With Islam: A Historical Perspective

Sunday, January 13, 2008


There is no denying that the modern caliphates of Islam represent a danger to global peace and security, particularly nations like Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan, Syria, and Saudi Arabia. The tension felt between religions in the Middle East has led to ethnic violence, even among the disciples of Islam itself with warring factional and sectarian violence among Kurds [who are actually monotheistic adherents splintered from Jewish, Zoroastrian, Christian and Islamic beliefs], Sunnis, and Shiites. What is ironic about this, perhaps, is that the Prophet Muhammad originally united the Arab states from the tribal warfare which defined the divisive geopolitical situation on the Arabian Peninsula from the earliest known history. Tribal wars between pagan peoples had made the peoples of the Middle East unable to rise up as a unified force and create an empire as had the peoples of Rome, Constantinople, and Cairo. When the Muslims took Mecca in 630 A.D., Muhammad unified the Arab peoples with a single act of symbolism:

Then along with his companions Muhammad visited the Ka'aba. The idols were broken and the stone gods were destroyed. Thereupon Muhammad recited the following verse from the Qur'an:"Say the Truth is come and falsehood gone; Verily falsehood is ever vanishing."

The idolatry symbolism of Islam is a large part of understanding the religion. It has led to a greater focus by adherents in the plain words there is "no god but God", leading to radicals to believe that other religious symbols represent the same idolatry destroyed by Muhammad in 630 A.D. The Taliban, for instance, destroyed the ancient Buddhist statues in Afghanistan because they [ignorantly] believed that Buddhists worshiped them. But this goes against nearly 1,500 years of Islamic harmony with the symbols, religions, and cultures of other peoples.

After the death of the Prophet Muhammad, Islam spread easily across the Middle East and North Africa because it enabled people to believe in one God, removing the factional warfare which splits nations, and removed the kind of bureaucracy and hierarchy found within the older religions like Judaism and Christianity. But a fundamental difference existed within Islam which allowed it to prosper in the Middle Ages. The first was the separation of theology and reason, leading to innovation and technological advancement which dwarfed that of the Christian fiefdoms of Europe. The Dark Ages of Western Europe and the Papal rule had caused Christians to believe that science, philosophy, and even writing was considered heresy, punishable by death.

Islamic scholars and artisans brought to the fore a cultural revolution, and within it the jewel of human civilization, now under American occupation: Mesopotamia. Baghdad became the centre of Dar al-salam [the Muslim world], a city with the most influential thinkers, artists, and engineers in the world. From this epicenter of human innovation began what is arguably the genesis of the renaissance which enabled huge breakthroughs in health care, science, mathematics, and masonry. Throughout Baghdad, and indeed throughout Dar al-salam, Christian churches and Jewish synagogues were respected and their people left to their own worship. In practically everywhere throughout Dar al-salam, the peoples enjoyed a prosperity and harmony virtually unknown today. A part of this harmony can be understood in the historical triumphs of Islamic leaders:

An important turning point in the history of Palestine came in the year 637, when it was conquered by the armies of Islam. This meant the genesis of a period of peace and harmony in Palestine, which had for centuries been the scene of wars, exiles, looting and massacre, and which saw new brutality every time it changed hands, a frequent occurrence. The coming of Islam was the beginning of an age when people of different beliefs in Palestine could live in peace and harmony.

Palestine was captured by Omar, the second caliph after the Prophet himself. The entry of Omar into Jerusalem, the incredible tolerance, maturity and kindness he showed towards people of different beliefs, introduced the beautiful age that was beginning. The British historian and Middle East expert Karen Armstrong describes the capture of Jerusalem by Omar in these terms in her book Holy War:

"The Caliph Omar entered Jerusalem mounted on a white camel, escorted by the magistrate of the city, the Greek Patriarch Sophronius. The Caliph asked to be taken immediately to the Temple Mount and there he knelt in prayer on the spot where his friend Mohammed had made his Night Journey. The Patriarch watched in horror: this, he thought, must be the Abomination of Desolation that the Prophet Daniel had foretold would enter the Temple; this must be Antichrist who would herald the Last Days. Next Omar asked to see the Christian shrines and, while he was in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the time for Muslim prayer came round. Courteously the Patriarch invited him to pray where he was, but Omar as courteously refused. If he knelt to pray in the church, he explained, the Muslims would want to commemorate the event by erecting a mosque there, and that would mean that they would have to demolish the Holy Sepulchre. Instead Omar went to pray at a little distance from the church, and, sure enough, directly opposite the Holy Sepulchre there is still a small mosque dedicated to the Caliph Omar."

The harmonious interlude of Islam and Christianity would come to an abrupt end when a sudden aberrant act by an Egyptian ruler, would bring the hordes of Christian fanatics to the Holy Land. In 1009 A.D. Fatimite Khalif of Egypt al-Hakim inexplicably ordered the razing of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The invaders started by demolishing the tomb itself, the dome and the high parts of the buildings until the destruction and rubble made it impossible to continue. After the conquering of Palestine, Christians were forbade to visit the church, nor pray in the ruins. The act was widely viewed in the Islamic world as barbaric and condemned by Islamic leaders throughout the world as madness.

This created quite a stir in Europe, where Pope Urban II urged a sudden reclamation of the Holy Land for Christianity. The fervency in Western Europe became so strong that nearly one hundred thousand Christian soldiers marched into Palestine via the Byzantine allied territories, and massacred the Muslims en route. Anti-Islamic sentiment in Western Europe was palpable, as Christian leaders urged every man of able body to go forth to the Holy Land and reclaim Jerusalem for Jesus Christ. When, finally, the crusaders reached the city of Jerusalem they killed every man, woman, and child within, including those Christians taking refuge in Christian sanctuaries. None were spared.

This sudden attack on Dar al-salam was, as an understatement, completely unexpected. Most Islamic leaders believed that at first it was merely another attack from the Byzantines, but few even knew of the existence of the Northern Armies and their Kingdoms. The ensuing crusades which came to the Holy Land seemed very difficult to understand, given that Muslims had always lived peaceably with Christians and Jews prior to the Northern conquests. Despite the attacks, only the first crusade had been successful to a degree, and only to secure frontier cities in the Islamic empire. Attacks on Syria and Egypt were easily repelled, and later led to the removal of Christian rulers from all of the Middle East.

If one looks at the modern perspective of conflict with Islam, the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001 stand out as a similar historical event to the attack on the Christian Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The disproportionate response of violence to the Middle East from a modern perspective, echoes the past mistakes of the Middle Ages and the crusades. The reason for this is that much like the aberrant violence from al-Hakim, the actions of Osama bin Laden were widely condemned in the Islamic world as well. The horror of September 11 was unanimously censured by Muslims throughout the world, and it has since been pointed out that radical Islam represents but an insignificant fraction of the population of Muslims who have lived peacefully for centuries.

It is true that the fervency of radical Islam has reached the highest levels of government in many countries today, and nations like Iran represent an example of the worst parts of the religion. But within Persia remains a people who, like those throughout Dar al-salam, still believe in the unifying tenets of Muhammad and the tolerance and acceptance displayed by benevolent Islamic leaders for fourteen centuries since. While the Middle East may be home to the worst acts of violence in the world today, the roots of Islam can hardly be blamed for the intolerance and hateful religion which exists in isolated and factional groups today. And if history has taught us anything, there may be something which comes along that makes the Christian-Islamic war seem insignificant in comparison. After all, while the crusaders were a mild annoyance to the Muslim world, the barbarian invasions from Mongolia were utterly devastating. One wonders if a third force will come into play soon, rendering the spat between the Americans and Ira

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