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A Change in Religion

The second civilization, introduced by alphabetic writing, began with a change in the nature of religious worship which took place in the 1st millennium B.C. Primitive religions, one may recall, typically include rituals intended to increase the fertility of agriculture. They acknowledge and feed a community’s ancestral spirits. They may involve animal or even human sacrifice as a means of pleasing the gods. These religions are polytheistic, reflecting the diverse elements of nature. They are instituted in cults of particular gods or goddesses which function under the supervision of hereditary priests possessing the knowledge to perform the rituals correctly. These priests also exercise political power. Later, the nature gods become associated with the collective identity of tribes, city-states, and kingdoms. The gods and goddesses become patrons of particular peoples. Their totemic characters are adapted to express these people’s communal identity. The different deities are arranged in hierarchies mirroring tribal or national relationships within a political empire. The emperors are considered to be divine figures or be uniquely endowed with divine authority and power.

All this changed with the wave of philosophical thinking that swept through societies of the Old World during the lst millennium B.C. Hereditary priesthoods gave way to a more democratic and meritocratic method of selecting religious leaders. Sacrificial rituals mattered less than maintaining ethical conduct. An open-ended brotherhood of believers replaced stratified castes. Ideas began to play a dominant role in religion. Divine spirit, once confined to particular places or persons, became a universal presence. And so it was possible for anyone who consented or believed to adopt the religion, regardless of nation. Like law, the principles underlying the religion could be applied anywhere. These principles could be expressed in creeds. Learned doctors could ponder and dispute the finer points of God’s truth. Those who bucked the general consensus of belief could be branded heretics. The inner attitude or direction of heart would become the criterion of correct religion, not expertise in performing a ritual. In the West, correct religion also involved worship of the right God, who was right because he was the only real God. Religious worship changed with the concept of monotheism.


The Monotheism of Ikhnaton and Moses

It may be that the first “prophet” of this new religion was the Egyptian Pharaoh Ikhnaton, who reigned between 1367 and 1350 B.C. He was first major historical figure to advance a program of monotheistic religion. A century before Moses, Ikhnaton proclaimed that the religion of Amun-Re, his ancestral religion, was false and there was only one God, Aton, god of the sun, who ruled over all the earth. Aton gave life to all living creatures. Ikhnaton wrote poems of praise to Aton but forbade visual images to be made. He moved the capital north from Thebes to Akhetaton (“City of the Horizon of Aton”) and ordered monuments to be defaced in which the name of Amun was inscribed. While antagonizing Amun-Re’s powerful priests, Ikhnaton also neglected affairs of state. The Hittites invaded Egypt’s Asian dependencies and tribute stopped. The imperial treasury became empty. When Ikhnaton died, the priests of Amun-Re regained control and the old religion was restored by his successor Tutankhamen.

Moses, who lived in Egypt in the 13th century B.C., was Pharaoh’s adopted son. He would likely have been aware of Ikhnaton’s religious crusade. Whether or not Jewish monotheism derives from that source, Moses firmly embraced the concept of One God. The First Commandment states: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt ... You shall have no other god to set against me.” None of the Ten Commandments had to do with performing rituals. All were concerned with right conduct and belief. Moses transformed the Hebrew tribe from being one of a common nomadic type to being a nation which lived in accordance with God’s law. He forced this society to conform to a particular set of ideals. Though not explicitly philosophical, his instructions delivered in God’s name were ethical precepts like those of philosophers. Moses railed against the Hebrews for fashioning a golden calf as an object of worship. His God, Jehovah or Yahweh, was an invisible or spiritual being rather than a “graven image”. It required a certain intellectual discipline to worship a god whom one could not see and whose existence, from a common perspective, might therefore be in doubt.

The God of the Hebrews, known to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, was identified as the God who had delivered his people from captivity in Egypt. This God had demonstrated earthly power in overcoming the will of Pharaoh. Powerful rulers like Pharaoh were thus coming under the yoke of a new kind of God, believed to be universal and omnipotent. A threat to monotheistic religion was the marriage of Hebrew kings to foreign women who brought other gods into the royal household. After Solomon’s death, the Hebrews took to worshiping Canaanite fertility gods such as Baal and Anath to seek increased agricultural productivity. A religious faction arose, led by the prophets Elijah and Elisha, which claimed that Yahweh alone should be worshiped. For the Hebrews to worship other gods was like being unfaithful in a marriage. A rebellion broke out in the northern part of Israel in 840 B.C. against the infidelity of the royal household. It spread to the priesthood of the Temple at Jerusalem. However, the Yahweh-alone party was unable to impose its views upon the nation. A group of religious writers, including Amos and Hosea, began to interpret God’s will in light of current events. A picture of God emerged as being jealous yet merciful and desirous of justice for the poor.

After Assyria conquered the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 B.C., the Yahweh cult served to rally nationalistic sentiments in the yet unconquered southern kingdom of Judaea. Around 630, an unknown person in Jerusalem wrote a new set of laws and divine instructions, building upon older traditions, which was “found” by the high priest in the Temple at Jerusalem a decade later and judged to be authentic by King Josiah. These writings form chapters in the book of Deuteronomy. They take an uncompromising stand against worshiping Gods other than Yahweh. The Deuteronomy texts, embraced by the Yahweh faction, strengthened legalistic tendencies within Judaism. A later crisis occurred with Jerusalem’s capture by the Babylonians in 586 B.C. This event raised doubts that Yahweh was all-powerful and real if this God would let his own people become subjected to foreign empires. However, the Yahweh-alone party, through the prophets, argued that God had devised this painful experience to punish the Hebrews for their previous apostasy and teach them a moral lesson. After the lesson was learned, God would restore the nation of Israel to its previous glory. Then it would be seen that God had sent his people into captivity for the purpose of revealing himself to other nations. Yahweh would be revealed as God of Jews and Gentiles alike, a truly universal God.

In the meanwhile, because Deuteronomy restricted sacrificial rites to the Temple in Jerusalem, Jewish exiles living in Babylon were denied this means of practicing their religion in traditional ways. A type of nonsacrificial worship centered in such activities as praying, singing hymns of praise, and reading the Law was developed in its place. The core of Jewish religion lay in refusing to worship Gods other than Yahweh and in observing the purity laws. The Yahweh faction produced a body of historical writings to support its interpretation of divine will. These, along with works of the prophets, were compiled in books of the Old Testament. The final version was not completed until the end of the 5th century B.C.

Zoroastrian Influence

When the Persian emperor Cyrus II in 538 B.C. issued a decree allowing the Jewish exiles to return to Jerusalem and rebuild Solomon’s temple, it seemed to confirm the theory that Yahweh was a universal God. Cyrus, the most powerful monarch in the world, had been compelled to do this God’s bidding. In fact, the time spent in Babylon and Persia had been beneficial for Judaism as a religion. It had transformed the religion of a once provincial people into a religion with advanced cosmological features. This was largely the work of the Iranian prophet Zoroaster (628-551 B.C.). His teaching, Zoroastrianism, was the state religion of Persia. Because the Persian government treated Semitic peoples in a benign manner, the Hebrews were receptive to Persian cultural influences. So postexilic Judaism included many elements that can be traced to Zoroastrian teachings.

Zoroaster was an original thinker who lived in a society that was in transition between agricultural and nomadic ways of life. The industriousness, honesty, and trust implicit in the agricultural life were qualities which he identified with goodness. In contrast, the nomads who raided settled communities and stole their livestock were identified with evil. Conflict between good and evil was the central feature in Zoroaster’s religious philosophy. Ahura-Mazda, the supreme god, led the forces of good. Lower gods, daevas or whom one might call fallen angels, comprised the forces of evil led by Ahriman. The world was a battleground between these two camps. Animals such as dogs and oxen, which helped man, were good, while such creatures as snakes, scorpions, and toads were evil. Zoroaster taught that blood sacrifices should be abolished while such virtues as humility, cleanliness, and compassion should be cultivated in daily life. Yet, human beings were to show unrelenting hostility towards those persons, creatures, or beings aligned with the forces of evil. A battle was raging continually both within the cosmos and the human heart. In the end, good would triumph over evil to win an everlasting victory. Before then, evil would be seen gaining the upper hand. A redeemer figure would snatch the victory from Ahriman just when he appeared to be winning.

The Jewish prophetic writers who lived after the Babylonian exile wove Zoroastrian elements into their scenario of future events related to God’s restoration of the Hebrew nation. The idea of national restoration began to be replaced by that of a supernatural kingdom which God would establish on earth. As in the Zoroastrian scheme, the forces of good and evil first would do battle to control the world. There would be a period of tribulation in which the righteous would suffer greatly. Then, God would intervene at the last moment to ensure victory for the good. A captain of evil, Satan, would take part in these events. A Messiah, elevated from the ranks of humanity, would appear as God’s agent at the moment of victory. He would be delegated the task of judging human souls and either allowing or denying them entrance to God’s perfect kingdom. The idea that the souls of departed persons might be resurrected for the Last Judgment comes from the Zoroastrian cosmology. So do concepts relating to angels and the hierarchy of heavenly beings. The stark duality between evil and good, darkness and light, is, however, Zoroaster’s main contribution to religious thinking. God had created the material world to give it over to Satan, trap him in a finite structure, and then destroy him. Man’s duty was to assist in that process.


Jews under Foreign Rule

In the tolerant atmosphere of Persian society, Jewish intellectuals readily absorbed these religious ideas. Then, suddenly, Alexander the Great conquered the Persian empire. The ensuing Greek culture was alien to Semitic peoples. Adherents of the traditional Judaic religion were thrust back into a hostile environment. In 167 B.C., Emperor Antiochus Epiphanes IV, an ardent hellenizer, desecrated the Temple at Jerusalem. A priest named Mattathias, together with his five sons, launched a campaign of guerrilla warfare against the Seleucid empire. One of those sons, Judas Maccabaeus, led the rebel armies to a series of speedy victories against the Syrian Greek dynasty. He captured Jerusalem and restored Jewish worship in the Temple. The Maccabee family, as the Hasmonaean dynasty, ruled Judaea for about a century. At last the Jews had their own nation. Judaism became a missionary religion which forced male converts to become circumcised. However, the Hasmonaean rulers in ruling their worldly empire also became more hellenized. In 63 B.C. the Roman general Pompey intervened in a civil war and captured Jerusalem. Rome then ruled Judaea through proconsuls while the Herodic dynasty, hellenized Jews allied with Rome, ruled the northern part of Palestine, including Galilee.

As first the Greek Seleucid and then Roman power asserted itself in Judaea, themes of national redemption enunciated at the time of the Exile took on new urgency. Messianic fervor ran high in hope that the House of David might be restored. The prophetic writings, anticipating the end of the world order, continued in a more intense and fantastic form. A tension existed between this spiritualized religion and Jewish political militancy. Jewish society in the 1st century B.C. was split into several factions, based upon their attitude toward foreign occupation. The Pharisees were extreme anti-Hellenists. Known as the “Party of the Righteous”, they had endured much persecution in their attempt to keep Jewish religion free of foreign influence. The Sadducees were upper-class Jews belonging to the Temple establishment who did not accept religious innovations such as belief in the Messiah. A political faction known as Zealots favored armed resistance. The Zealots did mount a guerrilla offensive against Rome, but it was brutally crushed by Titus’ armies in 70 A.D. The last of this faction died in a mass suicide at the Masada fortress. Jerusalem was utterly destroyed. Sixty years later, another group challenged Roman rule following Simon Bar Kokba, believed to be the Messiah. It, too, was defeated.

In the debacle of 66-70 A.D., more than a million Jews may have died of starvation and other causes. Another one hundred thousand were taken to Rome as slaves. The leader of Jerusalem’s Pharisees, Johanan ben Zakkai was smuggled out of the city in a coffin. He later received permission from Emperor Vespasian to settle in Jamnia and establish an academy of Jewish studies there. Now that the temples in Jerusalem and Egypt had been destroyed or closed, this institution became the center of Jewish religious authority. There Judaism was reorganized around worship in synagogues. Its practice focused upon study of the Torah and observance of laws and rituals. The canon of sacred literature was determined. After Jewish uprisings in Cyprus, Egypt, and Palestine during the first half of the 2nd century A.D., the Roman government considered banning Judaism. Instead, a commission investigated Jewish law and suggested changes. Rabbi Judah the Prince published a code of laws, known as the Mishnah, which spread through the Graeco-Roman world. The Palestinian patriarch Hillel II published procedures for regulating the Jewish calendar in 359. After Christianity became the Roman religion, Jews experienced a period of increasing hostility. Theodosius II abolished the Jewish patriarchate in 425. The East Roman emperor Justinian proscribed rabbinic law and exegesis.

Conditions improved for the Jewish population in western Europe and Persia during the 8th century. The new Frankish and Arab rulers tolerated them as minority peoples within their large, heterogeneous empires. Christian kings often granted charters to their Jewish subjects guaranteeing their right to exist as a self-governing community in exchange for collection of special taxes. In the Ukraine, a Turkic dynasty established the Khazar empire with an army drawn from Iranian Moslems. Rejecting both Christianity and Islam, its rulers converted to Judaism in 750 and made this the state religion. The Khazar empire played an important role in commercial contacts between east and west until Prince Sviatoslav of Kiev conquered it in 970. Jews also thrived in the cosmopolitan culture that developed in Baghdad under the Abbasid dynasty. In the 10th century, the Moorish city of Cordoba became a similar cultural magnet for Jews. The Berber Almohade dynasty that swept across North Africa and Spain in the 12th century brought an end to this culture. Meanwhile, the Christian crusaders’ calls to rid Europe of “Christ-killers” gave vent to anti-Jewish campaigns, leading to the formation of ghettos. In once tolerant Spain, the Jewish population in 1492 was ordered to convert to Christianity or leave the country.

Early Christianity

Jesus, who was a rabbi, self-consciously assumed the role of Messiah that had been created in Jewish prophetic scripture. He began his religious career by submitting to baptism by John the Baptist, a ritual designed to remove sin and bring salvation in the Final Days. Jesus preached a simple message: “The Kingdom of God is at hand.” The apocalyptic scenario would unfold momentarily. In this scenario, the Messiah was a divinely appointed figure who would bring human history to an end and introduce God’s kingdom on earth. The three-year period of Jesus’ active ministry was devoted to preparing his followers for the Kingdom and fulfilling the scriptural conditions by which its arrival might take place. According to the Gospels, Jesus separated himself from the anti-Hellenic spirit of contemporary Jewish religion. He criticized the Pharisees, the most zealous anti-Hellenists, while he counseled cooperation with the Roman authorities in such matters as paying taxes. Railing against Jerusalem as a city notorious for killing prophets, Jesus himself broke specific religious laws. In some respects, his critique of Pharisaic legalism resembles Plato’s idealistic philosophy in its focus upon essential truths.

Yet, Jesus, a descendant of King David through Joseph, was a character positioned squarely within the Jewish religious tradition. His earthly role was defined by scriptural references to the Messiah, which were linked to expectations of the coming of God’s kingdom. Jesus was crucified before any such event took place. When, two days later, followers discovered that his dead body was missing from the tomb, this was taken as a sign that Jesus had been resurrected from death by God’s power and was therefore in a state like that of the supernatural Messiah. Heartened by the news of his resurrection, Jesus’ circle of disciples launched a spirited missionary movement to spread the good news. One not originally in this circle, the Apostle Paul, devised a new interpretation of Messianic events. Paul wrote that, in dying innocently upon the Cross, Jesus had atoned for the sins of others. His self-sacrifice would pay the price of admission to God’s kingdom for all believers, however sinful they might be. Yet, the early Christian community also awaited Jesus’ return to earth. The earlier Messianic expectations were transferred to Jesus’ Second Coming, when his glory and power would become visible. The book of Revelation, written by St. John the Divine near the end of the 1st century A.D., provided a mystical view, from a Christian perspective, of events in the Final Days.

Paul rationalized the failure of God’s kingdom to arrive promptly by suggesting that, starting with Jesus’ resurrection, the world was in the process of transformation from a temporal to spiritual state. As with the dawning of a new day, the change was not initially evident. Slowly the degree of spirituality would increase in the world and then, at some point, people would see plainly that God’s kingdom had come. Every once in awhile, as at Pentecost, one could see an outpouring of divine spirit, but mostly it was imprisoned within the material world. In language reminiscent of Plato, Paul urged Christians to fix their “eyes ... not on the things that are seen, but on the things that are unseen; for what is seen passes away; what is unseen is eternal.” He urged Christians to cultivate chastity so as to liberate themselves from bondage to the flesh. The inquiring spirit of the age also focused upon the person of Jesus. The Gospel of John begins with the idea of Logos, or God’s word. Jesus was believed to personify this word. In a philosophically intense society, Christians began then to question what kind of person, or God, Jesus was. Was Jesus a man with a physical body or was he a god, who was pure spirit? Or, perhaps, Jesus was both?

In places like Alexandria, with large Jewish and Greek populations, such questions were often on people’s minds. Diverse religions and systems of philosophy coexisted and freely mixed to form new theological hybrids. Philo, the Jewish Platonist, conceived of Logos as a mediating agent between the eternal and the temporal. Given the heavily philosophical disposition of this culture, it was likely that many arguments would take place concerning religion and many different conclusions would be reached, some of which would be considered heresies. The heretical position associated with Gnostic Christianity showed the influence of Neoplatonism. The Gnostics denied Jesus’ human nature and the historical record presented in the Bible. God only seemed to be involved in human affairs, and Jesus only seemed to be a man. Arian Christians, on the other hand, doubted Jesus’ divinity. Jesus the Son was subordinate to the Father, who was the one and only God. Marcon, an advocate of pure love, saw the Law of Moses as an evil influence. The Welsh heretic, Pelagius, believed sin was a result of misdirected free will. Montanus claimed to be the Paraclete or Spirit of Truth promised in John. Expecting the end of the world, the Montanists practiced speaking in tongues.

In 325 A.D., Constantine I convened the Council of Nicaea to resolve questions raised by the teachings of Arius. The Arian point of view, then dominant, was opposed by Athanasius, a church deacon from Alexandria. A key question was whether Jesus’ nature was “like” God’s, the Arian position, or “the same as” God’s. The Council decided to condemn Arius and his supporters and, instead, adopt the formulation of the Trinity. The Nicene Creed stated that Jesus was “the Son of God .. begotten not made, of one substance with the Father.” The Council of Ephesus, convened in 431 A.D., condemned the teachings of Nestorius, who opposed the designation of Mary as “Mother of God” and upheld Christ’s dual nature as man and god. In 451, the Council of Chalcedon condemned the Monophysite heresy which held that Christ had a single divine nature. Such questions were important for political as well as religious reasons. Several of the Germanic tribes whose kings had converted to Christianity embraced the Arian version of the faith. The Franks, on the other hand, won the Pope’s backing by supporting the orthodox version expressed in the Nicene creed. Elsewhere, Christians holding heretical views comprised important religious communities.

Nestorius, then Patriarch of Constantinople, called the wrath of the Christian community upon himself by attacking the idea that the Virgin Mary could give birth to a divine son. After the Council of Ephesus condemned his teaching, the Christian community at Antioch became deeply divided. Many of Nestorius’ followers emigrated to Iraq in the Sasanian empire where Nestorianism became the dominant faith of the Persian Christian church. Rebuffed in Europe, this doctrine became a missionary religion which spread to India, China, and Central Asia. According to Marco Polo, Nestorian chapels lined the trade routes between Baghdad and Peking.

Monophysite Christianity arose in reaction to Nestorianism. That faith was strong in Syria, Egypt, Armenia, and Abyssinia. Monophysitism is derived from the teachings of Eutyches. When Jacob Baradaeus became Bishop of Edessa in the mid 5th century, he organized the Jacobite church to serve Syrian Monophysites. The Coptic church was its counterpart in Egypt. The East Roman emperor declared the Council of Chalcedon invalid in 476, but later emperors vacillated. The excommunication and persecution of Monophysite Christians alienated members of this religious community from the Roman empire, paving the way for the Moslems’ quick and easy military victory in Syria and Egypt.

Development of the Western Church

The monastic life had its origin in the rejection of worldliness which some believed was infecting the Christian church after it became Rome’s state religion. It reflects the spirit of Neoplatonism and Gnostic Christianity with their dark ruminations concerning body and mind. Considering that Asoka had sent Buddhist missionaries to Egypt in the 3rd century B.C., the idea of monastic communities might also have come from India. St. Anthony, an Egyptian hermit, pioneered this type of Christian life. In 285 A.D., he withdrew to the desert wilderness to live in solitude where he was tempted by womanly apparitions, demons, and desires of the flesh, and attacked by wild beasts. His brave example attracted imitators, and a number of other hermits settled around him. After ignoring them for twenty years, he emerged from his solitude long enough to organize these people into a monastic community. The “anchorite” monks who followed St. Anthony were given to extravagant feats of self-deprivation. St. Simeon Stylites, for instance, sat for thirty-five years atop a stone pillar. Asceticism eventually gave way to religious communities which, isolated from the world, allowed individuals to grow in a holy state. In the 6th century, St. Benedict founded a monastery at Monte Cassino in Italy, which stressed a life of service to God. Irish monasteries were centers of evangelical advance.

By developing attractive models of Christian personality, these monks helped the church to win human hearts long after the age of Roman martyrdom had passed. Christianity was also advanced by church doctors and theologians, who, combating heresies, posed answers to tough moral questions. It was advanced by brave and able administrators such as St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, who refused communion to emperors when their policies went against the interests of the church. Such efforts succeeded in enlisting the power of the state to suppress rival religions. Pope Leo I was instrumental in establishing the Roman church as a power separate from the Byzantine empire and ecclesiastical authority separate from secular authority. After Europe was invaded by barbarian tribes, the Christian church represented the cultural legacy of the fallen empire. It persuaded the barbarians that only through baptism could they join civilized society. In the beginning, the church evangelized areas that had fallen within the boundaries of the Roman empire. Later, its missionaries went beyond those limits to extend God’s spiritual empire to heathen lands. St. Patrick converted Ireland to the Christian faith, and Irish missions were then sent to northern England. An English missionary, St. Boniface, who was martyred in Holland, established the first German see in the 8th century.

As the Hebrew prophets had once turned Jerusalem’s fall to spiritual advantage, so, when Rome fell, Christianity profited from the writings of St. Augustine. The greatest Christian theologian since Paul, Augustine had once been a Manichee and a Neoplatonist. His Confessions told of riotous living as a young man in Carthage. He had converted to Christianity through the influence of St. Ambrose and his mother, St. Monica. From his later theological writings came the orthodox teaching of salvation by grace and the doctrine of original sin. Augustine wrote The City of God during the barbarian devastations of Italy and North Africa explaining why, after Rome had abandoned pagan gods and embraced Christianity, this great city fell. In answer, Augustine drew a distinction between worldly cities such as Rome and the “City of God”, which could never be destroyed. This City of God was a spiritual community, created through divine love, which was eternally unchanged. It stood in contrast to earthly cities, built from selfish desires and pride, which inevitably would pass away. So, as Rome’s secular empire crumbled, humanity clung to that which was safe from corruption and decay.

Perhaps the church’s ablest administrator was Pope Gregory the Great, who is credited with rebuilding the Roman church in a dark hour. Born to nobility, Gregory instead chose the hard life of a monk and later ascended the ladder of ecclesiastical offices. As Pope, he strengthened church discipline, reorganized the properties of the church, sent missionaries far and wide, negotiated with the Lombard kings for Rome’s political independence, and kept in check the rival claims of Byzantine bishops. A notable accomplishment was his role in converting England to the Catholic faith. In 597 A.D., Gregory recruited a Benedictine monk named Augustine for a mission to the British isles. Augustine and a retinue of forty monks were received cordially by King Etherbert and given land at Canterbury to build a church. His timely arrival in Britain helped stop the spread of Irish Christian civilization which might have challenged Catholicism for leadership of Western Christianity. An agreement reached at the Synod of Whitby in 664 A.D. regarding the method of calculating the date of Easter and the shaving of monks’ heads tipped the scales decisively in favor of Rome.

Power of the Roman Church

Technically, the Pope was Bishop of Rome, leader of Christians in that city. He later assumed leadership of the entire church due to the apostolic origins of that position. The church at Jerusalem had initially assumed the leadership role. Jesus’ brother James was its leader. Rome replaced Jerusalem as the center of Christianity because the apostles Peter and Paul had moved to that city and been martyred there. The Roman church became a kind of spiritual government whose authority rested upon a continuous line of succession back to Peter, who was the first bishop of Rome. A famous passage in the Gospel of Matthew quotes Jesus: “You are Peter, the Rock; and on this rock I will build my church ... I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven; what you forbid on earth shall be forbidden in heaven, and what you allow on earth shall be allowed in heaven.” In medieval art, St. Peter was frequently shown with a set of keys in his hands, which were the keys to Heaven. In the Biblical quotation, Jesus was entrusting to Peter and, by implication, to Peter’s ecclesiastical successors the power to decide who would be permitted to enter Heaven.

When Christianity became the state religion of Rome, the Church received an additional boost to its authority. During the Dark Ages, the prestige of the fallen state passed to it as Rome’s legitimate heir. The Roman church was the remnant of a glorious empire that was no more. Popes used their prestige and authority in alliance with worldly rulers to create a dual system of governance. A universal church, whose spiritual jurisdiction covered the western half of the fallen empire, was paired with a multitude of secular states that were formed by the barbarian peoples involved in Rome’s collapse. The idea of reconstructing that empire was to become an enduring theme of European political history. The Frankish dynasty, supporters of the Roman church, acquired secular power in much of western Europe during the 8th century. It seemed that imperial rule might be revived when, in 800 A.D., Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. However, the secular government became divided again when Charlemagne died and, later, his three grandsons inherited the kingdom. The power in medieval society was shared by two institutions, church and state. The church looked after people’s spiritual needs and secular governments provided physical security.

While church and state worked cooperatively, there was also a power struggle. The head of the Roman church, the Pope, struggled to gain an advantage over secular governments by exercising its powers of recognition and, more forcefully, by excommunicating disobedient rulers. History records the contrite appearance of Emperor Henry IV before the pope after Gregory VII excommunicated him in 1076. If the Church wished to punish a king, it could deny the sacraments to the king and his subjects, thus denying them entrance to Heaven. Kings and emperors, on the other hand, fought the Church through use of their earthly power. A particular point of contention was the struggle between Popes and European monarchs over the right to “invest” (appoint) local church officials. The Concordat of Worms resolved this question in the Pope’s favor but kings were allowed to supervise church elections. The administration of justice was divided between ecclesiastical and secular courts, each having certain powers and scope of authority. Pope Boniface VIII called ecclesiastical and secular governments the “two swords” of the church. Symbolizing the dual power structure, coins of the period often exhibited the Pope’s likeness on one side and the Holy Roman Emperor’s on the other.

On a personal level, the Roman church exercised its authority through the sacraments. These were rituals conducted by priests which were thought necessary for salvation. Seven sacraments were believed most important: baptism, confirmation, the Eucharist, penance, extreme unction, orders, and matrimony. Church doctrine asserted that sacraments were the means by which God transmitted his grace to humanity. Grace meant undeserved forgiveness of sins. The institution of the sacraments was based on the principle that all men were sinners in need of forgiveness who were unable to obtain this by their own powers. The Eucharist, which was patterned after Jesus’ last supper with the Disciples, was the greatest of the sacraments. The early Christian community especially cherished this ceremonial meal because it was believed that Jesus would return during its celebration. In the 9th century, A.D., a Benedictine monk named Radbertus wrote a treatise arguing that the bread eaten during celebration of the Mass was the flesh of Jesus and the wine which was drunk was his blood. Another monk suggested that these two substances were only symbols of Christ’s body and blood. The literal interpretation, more in tune with the spirit of the medieval church, was accepted at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215.

The Church claimed competent authority to decide theological questions through its firm connection to Jesus and the Apostles. The historical record of God’s word presented in the Bible became a criterion of truth. At the same time, the Roman church put much emphasis upon traditional church teachings. Such doctrines, being inspired by the Holy Spirit, were considered to have equal authority with the sacred scriptures. “The Church has never erred and will never err to all eternity,” a papal declaration of the 11th century maintained. An earlier declaration held that “the Popes, like Jesus, are conceived by their mothers through the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit ... All powers in Heaven, as well as on earth, are given to them.” With such attitudes, it is not surprising that leaders of the Roman church instituted the Inquisition and burned heretics at the stake. Disbelief, in the form of rational inquiry, began to creep into the culture despite the Church’s best efforts to enforce its monopoly of faith. Given the importance of papal links to St. Peter, the Great Schism of 1378-1417, in which two rival popes each claimed authority, produced a severe crisis of confidence in the Papacy.

Perhaps the best evidence that the Roman church was becoming a worldly empire lay in its advocacy and use of military force. The church itself controlled certain territories in northern and central Italy. In 756, Pippin III gave the Pope temporal control of certain lands conquered from the Lombards as a reward for his support in recognizing Carolingian claims to the Frankish throne. The Papal States were drawn into a long struggle with Holy Roman Emperors and local powers to control this and other territories. However, the Church was also responsible for launching and maintaining the Crusades which were directed against the Islamic rulers of Palestine between the 11th and 13th centuries. Responding to complaints from Peter the Hermit and others that the Turks were harassing Christian pilgrims to Jerusalem, Pope Urban II issued an appeal in 1095 for European Christians to recapture the Holy City from the Moslems. A huge army led by Godfrey of Bouillon was assembled in Constantinople to carry out this mission. “Deus volt” - God wills it - was their battle cry. The Christian crusaders did capture Jerusalem in 1099 after a battle in which 70,000 civilians were massacred, and set a French king upon the throne in that city. The First Crusade was followed by eight others, progressively less successful. In the end, Moslems retained control of that region.

Orthodox Christianity

The East Roman empire, which had survived the barbarian onslaught of the 5th and 6th centuries A.D., was continuously associated with the See of Constantinople. A church council held in 381 A.D. had declared that it ranked second after the See of Rome. The church council convened in Chalcedon in 451 A.D. gave Constantinople spiritual authority over western Turkey and the eastern part of the Balkan peninsula. In this realm, political rulers tended to dominate the religious institutions, following the principle which Justinian laid down in the 6th century: “Nothing should happen in the Church against the command or will of the Emperor.” The church became like a department of government in charge of religious ceremonies. The Metropolitan of Constantinople could make no claim similar to the Roman Pontiff’s of having authority that ran back to the Apostles. He merely exercised geographical jurisdiction. His scope of authority followed the lines of imperial power. Consequently, the center of power in the eastern church drifted toward Moscow after Constantinople fell to the Turks in the 15th century.

Orthodox Christianity put less emphasis upon the authority and structure of the church, the sacraments, priestly celibacy, and other worldly aspects of religion than the western Church, and more on theological questions. The Eastern church did not accept the solution of Chalcedon regarding Christ’s being: one “in two natures .. without change, without division...” It did not accept the filioque clause in the Nicene creed: that the Holy Spirit had proceeded “from the Father and the Son.” Orthodox theology tended to stress a single nature, accepting the divinity of Christ at the price of neglecting his humanity. An issue peculiar to the Orthodox church was the controversy concerning iconoclasm. Visual representations of divine subjects, long tolerated in the Christian church, went against the grain of Judaic religion. Hoping to increase support among his Jewish and Moslem subjects, Emperor Leo III in 726 launched a personal crusade against the use of icons in the church. He demanded that the icons be destroyed and removed church officials who resisted. Leo’s iconoclastic program met with stiff resistance, especially in the monasteries.

John of Damascus argued that icons helped religious understanding. “When we set up an image of Christ in any place,” he wrote, “we appeal to the senses. An image is, after all, a reminder; it is to the illiterate what a book is to the literate; and what the word is to the hearing, the image is to the sight.” Leo remained unconvinced by such arguments. He continued with the idol-smashing campaign despite strong opposition and a growing rift with the western church. His son, Constantine V, was an even more ardent iconoclast. The Synod of Hiera in 753 A.D. formally supported the emperor’s position. Three decades later, Constantine’s grandson, Constantine VI, became emperor but was too young to rule so his mother, Irene, assumed power. When it became apparent that the young emperor too favored the iconoclastic program, Empress Irene took steps to block this. She convened a general council of the church to repeal previous decisions. To thwart opposition within her own family, she had the young emperor, her son, blinded and deposed. The use of religious images was again permitted. A revival of the iconoclastic campaign took place during the reign of Leo V. It was again stifled through the intervention of another icon-loving empress and regent, Theodora. Ultimately, a compromise was reached, banning three-dimensional images but tacitly permitting two-dimensional ones.

The furor concerning icons was one of several issues which drove a wedge between the eastern and western branches of Christianity. While the worldly power of the eastern patriarchs was limited by the Byzantine state, the head of the western church was becoming steadily more powerful. As the Roman pontiff claimed primacy within the church on the basis of his succession from Peter, so the Metropolitan of Constantinople claimed authority based on his relationship to the surviving Roman state. In that regard, the Pope’s coronation of Charlemagne as emperor of the Holy Roman Empire posed a direct challenge to the claims of the Byzantine Empire and its captive church. The issue of Photianism, an eastern declaration of independence from Rome, became the immediate cause of a rupture between the two branches of the church. Theologically, they were divided by the fact that the eastern church did not accept the “filioque clause”. The Great Schism officially took place in July 1054 A.D. when Pope Leo IX excommunicated Michael Cerularius, an eastern patriarch. After Frankish crusaders sacked Constantinople in 1204 A.D., reconciliation between the two domains of Christendom became all but impossible. The Byzantine emperor did accept Rome’s spiritual authority in the 15th century, but it was too late the save the empire from conquest by the Ottoman Turks.

The salvation of the Byzantine church was its outreach to Slavic peoples. In the 9th century, the Patriarch of Constantinople sent a pair of scholarly brothers from Thessalonica, Constantine and Methodius, on a mission to neighboring peoples. They went first to Khazaria, but its rulers decided instead to convert to Judaism. Next the brothers received an invitation to the Slavic principality of Great Moravia (Czechoslovakia and Hungary). Constantine, also known as Cyril, brought with him the Glagolitic alphabet which he had invented for Slavs living in Greece. The brothers adapted this script to the local idiom and established a mission. Although they were driven out of Moravia through pressure from Frankish German priests, some of the remaining Orthodox clergy made their way to Bulgaria, carrying the Glagolitic script. Bulgaria had converted to the Eastern Orthodox faith in 863. Its ruler, Khan Boris-Michael, received the Moravian refugee clergy with the idea that their Slavonic-language script would enable Bulgaria to develop its own national church and remain politically independent of Constantinople or Rome. In 885, Bulgarians simplified the Glagolitic script, naming it “Cyrillic” after Cyril. It was this script primarily which brought Slavic peoples such as the Russians into the Orthodox fold.

Bulgarian peasants reacted to their nation’s adoption of Orthodox Christianity by embracing a religious creed known as Bogomilism, which an Orthodox priest, Bogomil, had devised between 927 and 954. This was an anticlerical doctrine adapted from Paulician Christianity, a Thracian heresy. Bogomilism held that the world had been created by Satan, who was God’s older son, and that Jesus, God’s younger son, was sent to earth to overthrow Satan and rescue mankind. Another version put good and evil on a parity. While rejecting Christianity, the Bogomils practiced celibacy and asceticism perhaps to distinguish themselves from the loose habits of the Orthodox clergy. Bogomil missionaries spread this religion to other parts of the Balkan peninsula, especially Bosnia, where the ruling family embraced it as an alternative to the Hungarian Catholic and Serbian Orthodox faiths. The French Albigenses belonged to the same movement. The Bogomil heresy was fiercely suppressed and died out with the expansion of Islam in the Balkan region.

Eastern Europe was a battleground between the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox faiths at the close of the 1st millennium A.D. Poland and Bohemia broke with Slavic peoples elsewhere in affiliating with the Roman church. To forestall Teutonic encroachment upon Polish territory, Duke Mieszko I (960-992) placed his realm under the Pope’s direct protection and control. The Polish Piast dynasty subsequently conquered territories as far east as Kiev and blocked the Teutonic German advance along the Baltic sea. Russia’s conversion to Eastern Orthodox Christianity coincides with the baptism of Prince Vladimir of Kiev in 987. The prince made his selection of religions from among several competing types after receiving the hand of Emperor Basil II’s sister, Anna, in marriage. Vladimir ordered his subjects to be baptized en masse. Missionaries from Bulgaria brought the Old Church Slavonic liturgy and the Cyrillic alphabet to Kiev. The Mongols conquered the Ukraine in the 13th century and held it for over two centuries. When Mongol power subsided, the Dukes of Moscow began annexing territories in what later became the Russian state. After Ivan III married the last Byzantine emperor’s niece and took the title of “Czar”, Moscow became the new center of the Orthodox faith. The Patriarch of Constantinople was given civil authority over Christians living in the Ottoman empire.

The Later Persian Religions

The religion of Zoroaster supported the first (Achaemenian) Persian dynasty. Like most other philosophical religions, Zoroastrianism had to be softened by personal features to make it suitable for devotional worship. Although Zoroaster was a monotheist, a later version of his religion turned the separate aspects of Ahura-Mazda into goddesses. The Magi were hereditary priests of this religion. Christians know them as the three wise men who, following the Star of Bethlehem, brought gifts to the infant Jesus. The Arsacid dynasty which ruled the Parthian empire for more than four centuries personally embraced Magian Zoroastrianism but was tolerant of other religions. The Sasanid family, which supplanted the Arsacids in 221 A.D., were priests of the pre-Zoroastrian water goddess, Anahita, whose cult had been incorporated into the Zoroastrian religion. Its rulers were therefore more zealous in promoting that religion.

In 240 A.D., a Persian prophet named Mani began preaching that he was a reincarnation of the Holy Spirit. A self-styled successor to Zoroaster, Buddha, and Jesus, he had received the final and most complete revelation of God. Emperor Shahpuhr I gave Mani permission to preach his new religion throughout the empire. Missionaries spread Manichaeism, as well, to Egypt, Central Asia, and the Roman empire. Like Zoroastrianism, its theology centered upon the opposition of evil and good, darkness and light. Man needed to be redeemed from his material nature through Christ’s divine light. After Shahpuhr died, priests of the Zoroastrian state religion persuaded Emperor Vahram I to arrest Mani and put him to death. Like Jesus, however, this prophet’s death and subsequent persecution of his followers had a stimulating effect upon the religion. In north Africa, the future St. Augustine was briefly a Manichee. The Manichaean faith became the national religion of the Uighur Turks living west of China. It also influenced the Paulician, Bogomil, and other Christian heresies.

Since Christianity was the Roman state religion after Theodosius I’s ban on pagan religions in 391 A.D., Sasanian emperors tended to view Christians living in Persia as a potential fifth column. Likewise, Roman emperors mistrusted Zoroastrians. In 297, Diocletian denounced Egyptian converts to Manichaeism as Persian sympathizers even though Persian emperors had put Mani to death and persecuted his followers. After the Council of Ephesus condemned Nestorian Christianity in 431, Roman Nestorians moved across the border to Nisibis in Persia where they were welcomed as refugees. Their persecution in Rome cleared them of suspicion. However, in 440, Emperor Yazdigerd II ordered all his subjects to convert to Zoroastrianism. This provoked a rebellion in Christian Armenia, which was crushed. The Persian military defeat by the Ephthalite Huns in 484 forced the Sasanian government to back down and tolerate non-Iranian Christians.

The same disaster produced a social crisis that was accompanied by a religious movement led by Mazdak, head of the Drist-Den Manichaean sect. It was a communist movement formed in response to the economic inequality of Persian society. Emperor Kavadh I became a convert and put through its program of reform. The Persian nobility and Zoroastrian clergy together opposed the Mazdakites. Ultimately, the emperor himself disavowed them at the urging of his son and heir, Khrusro I, who later crushed this movement. In 572, Khrusro I began a war with the East Roman empire, which lasted until 590. Another war between the Christian Roman and Zoroastrian Persian empires broke out in 604. It was not settled until 628. The Arabs attacked both empires simultaneously five years later. Exhausted from its Roman wars, the Persian empire was extinguished. The Sasanid capital of Ctesiphon fell in 637.

Most Zoroastrians in Persia readily accepted Moslem rule. A few fled to northwestern India where they were granted asylum on condition that they refrain from proselytizing. They became known as the Parsee sect, numbering today less than a million persons. Another group fled westward to China through a part of Turkestan which Khrusro I had annexed to the Persian empire. A Sasanid prince reached Ch’ang-an, the Chinese capital, as a refugee in 674. All three of Persia’s principal religions - Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism, and Nestorian Christianity - penetrated China from the west during the early T’ang period. Manichaeism, being the Uighur Turk’s national religion, made perhaps the greatest inroads. However, Kirghiz nomads defeated the Uighurs in 840. In 841-845, the Chinese government conducted a crackdown against foreign religions at the instigation of Taoist clergy. While the Buddhists suffered mainly economic losses, this campaign of xenophobic persecution was fatal to the Persian religions established in China.


The Religion of Islam

Religious and political conflict beset Arabian peoples in the beginning part of the 7th century, A.D. The last war between the East Roman and Sasanian Persian empires took place between 604 and 628, A.D. Arabs served as mercenary soldiers for both sides. In the process, they acquired valuable experience in making war and the latest military equipment. These Arabs were immersed in religious controversies as Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, and Manichees struggled for dominance. A large number of Jews lived on the Arabian peninsula in cities such as Yathrib (Medina) and Khaybar. Yemen in the south was first a Christian kingdom and then a state controlled by the Persian empire. In the 3rd century, A.D., Mani had claimed to be a prophet in the lineage of Zoroaster, Buddha, and Jesus who put a “seal” on prophecy. Later the same idea was taken up with greater effect by Mohammed, founder of the Islamic religion.

Islam means self-surrender or submission to God. God, whose name is Allah, is the same as the Jewish or Christian God according to Moslem teachings. However, these earlier religions had become corrupted so that a new prophet had been commissioned to deliver a revelation that would set humanity straight. The prophet Mohammed lived in the city of Mecca which was situated on the trade route between Yemen and Syria in western Arabia. He conducted caravans between Mecca and Damascus for his wife, Khadijah, who was a wealthy widow. While in Syria and Palestine, Mohammed had been exposed to the Jewish and Christian religions. He became ashamed of the polytheistic religion of the Arabs which seemed primitive in comparison with them. In 611 A.D., at the age of forty, Mohammed had a vision in a cave near Mecca in which the Archangel Gabriel commanded him to transmit a new revelation of God to the people of Mecca. This was a message of monotheism confirming earlier Judaic teachings. Gabriel’s lengthy dictations to Mohammed were compiled in a collection of Arabic-language writings known as the Koran. Mohammed’s religion imposed strict personal disciplines such as a prohibition against drinking alcohol or eating pork and religious duties that included daily prayers, annual fasting, and pilgrimages to Mecca. It also forbade usury and abuse of the poor.

For twelve years, Mohammed tried to persuade fellow residents of Mecca to adopt this new religion, but his efforts met with limited success. Although a Quraysh tribesman, he was not part of the inner circle that controlled the city. Also, Islam’s monotheistic principles conflicted with the polytheistic cult of the Ka’bah, a large black stone whose annual festival was economically important to Mecca. Mohammed’s fortunes suddenly changed when, in 622 A.D., he received an invitation to head the government of Medina, a neighboring city torn by political rifts. Mohammed proved to be an able administrator. His theocratic government in Medina united the quarreling factions and grew militarily strong. Its armies waged aggressive war first against Mecca and then other Arabian cities. A factor aiding in their success may have been that Mohammed allowed his followers to attack caravans and plunder defeated enemies. The rich Jews of Medina, who refused to convert to Islam despite its acceptance of a single God, were a particular target. By the time of Mohammed’s death in 632 A.D., his Islamic empire controlled most of the Arabian peninsula.

After the prophet’s death, local Arabs revolted. The cities of Mecca and Medina, controlled by the newly converted Quraysh clan, opposed them as Islamic loyalists. Mohammed’s temporal successor or “caliph”, Abu Bakr, persuaded the other Arabs to end their revolt and join forces in conducting military raids against the East Roman and Sasanian Persian empires whose armies were exhausted from more than two decades of war. Their roads intact, the Moslem armies rapidly overran the domain of the Persian empire. They pushed the East Roman empire back into an area north of the Taurus mountains in Turkey. Syria, Palestine, Mesopotamia, and Egypt fell to the Moslems by 641 A.D. The Sasanian empire was extinguished by 651 A.D. During the next half century, Islamic forces took Armenia and Georgia. They conquered all the East Roman territories in northwest Africa and the Visigothic kingdoms in Spain and southwest France. In the East, they captured the Ephthalite Huns’ possessions in Uzbekistan and Transoxania (south and east of the Aral Sea), as well as lands adjoining the Indus River. However, the Moslems failed on two occasions to take Constantinople. Their push northward through France was checked at the battle of Tours in 732 A.D.

Contrary to an opinion expressed in Europe, this was not a campaign to force conversions to the Islamic faith. Membership in other religions was tolerated so long as their people submitted to the Islamic government and paid a surtax. These people had their own self-governing communities, civil codes, and religious leaders. Arab military commanders served as governors of the conquered territories. Lacking a literate corps of administrators, they wisely left civil administration in the hands of their hellenized Christian and Persian subjects. Nestorian, Monophysite, and other persecuted Christian sects generally welcomed the change in governments. Many voluntarily converted to Islam because it was financially advantageous to do so. The Arab conquerors wore their religion as a badge of national pride. The Umayyad dynasty, which Mu’awiyah founded at Damascus in 661, established Arab Moslems as a privileged class. Exempted from paying poll taxes, they also received regular payments from the state treasury. When Caliph Umar II (717-20) abolished the poll tax for non-Arab Moslems, it precipitated a financial crisis. Caliph Hisham’s subsequent substitution of a land tax upon non-Arabs to replenish the treasury caused much dissatisfaction. The Umayyad rulers were replaced by the Abbasid dynasty in the Arab Civil War of 747-750 A.D.

Theoretically, the Abbasid insurrection was about legitimacy of succession. Their claimant to the caliphate was descended from Ali, Mohammed’s son-in-law, whereas the Umayyad rulers traced their lineage back to a Qurayshite tribesman unrelated to the Prophet. After Abu Bakr’s death in 634, Umar was elected caliph. A wise and effective ruler, he was assassinated by a Persian slave in 644. The next caliph, Uthman, was less capable. He was assassinated in 656. Ali became the next caliph. Opposed by Aisha, Mohammed’s widow, and some of the Prophet’s companions, he was assassinated in 661. Ali’s eldest son, Hasan, was elected to succeed him. However, Mu’awiyah, governor of Syria, was recognized as caliph in Damascus. Mu’awiyah persuaded Hasan to give up the caliphate in exchange for a royal pension and a harem in Medina. This arrangement held until Mu’awiyah’s death in 680. Then Ali’s younger son, Husayn, set forth from Medina with a group of supporters to claim the caliph’s position. Mu’awiyah’s son and successor, Yazid, sent a small army which intercepted Husayn at Karbala. When Husayn refused to return to Medina, Yazid’s forces slaughtered him and his supporters. They brought the head of Husayn, Mohammed’s grandson, back to Yazid in Damascus.

This shocking event led to a schism within the Islamic community. The Shi’ite Moslems, predominant in Persia, regarded the Umayyad dynasty as usurpers of the caliphate. They supported the rival claims of Ali’s descendants on the basis of their blood line running back to Mohammed. For them, Husayn’s murder in 680 came to symbolize the abuse suffered by non-Arab minorities under Umayyad rule. Sunni Moslems, on the other hand, represented the Umayyad loyalists. They were the mainstream group during the period of Arab ascendancy. Abbas, a Shi’ite descendant of Mohammed’s uncle, became caliph after the upheaval of 747-50, founding the Abbasid dynasty. Abbas’ successor, Mansur, moved the capital of the empire from Damascus to Baghdad. There Persians gained political and cultural ascendancy. Meanwhile, an Umayyad refugee, Abd ar-Rahman, escaped to the Iberian peninsula where he founded a Sunni state. Now there were two caliphates - one Shi’ite and one Sunni - and the political unity of Islam was lost. The succession to the caliphate has thus become a greater source of controversy within Islam than questions of philosophical belief. Heresy plays a smaller part in the Islamic than Christian religion. Perhaps that is because, in contrast with Jesus, who preached about another world, Mohammed left specific instructions about many earthly things.

Islamic religion, like others in the Judaic tradition, includes belief in the Last Judgment and in Heaven and Hell. Persons who remain faithful to the religion, especially those who died fighting for it, will be accepted into paradise while infidels will spend an eternity in Hell. Islam attaches much importance to interpretations of law. The Koran, which includes many of Mohammed’s spiritual teachings and administrative rulings, is a principal source of this law. In addition, scholars have assembled collections of stories about Mohammed and sayings attributed to him. Mohammed once said: “My community will never agree in an error.” That statement has given sanction to legal interpretations not found in the Prophet’s teachings which have become accepted within Islamic society. This culture is tolerant of doctrinal differences. Within the Sunni tradition, there are four different schools of Islamic law which are considered equally valid. A community is free to pick whichever it prefers. Theological questions are decided by a consensus of learned opinion. The caliph is strictly a political authority. Ibn Taymiyya taught that any state governed in accordance with Islamic law belongs to Islam, whether or not it has a caliph.

The centuries which followed the founding of the Abbasid dynasty in 750 A.D. brought a flowering of Islamic culture. Baghdad in the 9th century A.D. was a cosmopolitan city, exciting both commercial and intellectual activity. While the Arabs had lost official privileges, their language acquired a rich literature as many poems were written in Arabic and works from other cultures were translated into it. New translations of Greek philosophical writings became available during this period. The Islamic religion developed a theology competitive with that of other religions. Mutazilite scholars debated such questions as predestination, free will, and justification by faith. The doctrine of a “created” Koran as embodiment of God’s word was analogous to Christ’s role in Arian Christianity. One type of religious thinking tended to be legalistic. A second represented the rationalism of theologians like the Mutazilites. A third, which stood in stark contrast with the other two, sought direct experience of God. Persian Shi’ites in the late 10th century formed a fraternity of Sufi mystics who practiced their religion through poetry, ecstatic chanting, and dance.


Islamic Empires

The Abbasid revolution of 750 A.D. ushered in a period of confusing political events. In 756, a refugee from the House of Umayyad established a new dynasty on the Iberian peninsula where Sunnis comprised a majority of the population. However, this regime was under intense pressure from Frankish Christians to give up territory. Three new Moslem states ruled by Shi’ite separatists were formed in Algeria between 757 and 786 A.D. Morocco became an independent state in 788 under the Alid (House of Ali) king Idris I. In 800, a Sunni state which recognized the suzerainty of the Abbasid dynasty was established in Tunisia by Aghlabid Arabs. Isma’ili (Seven-Imam) Shi’ites denying the Abbasid’s legitimacy overthrew this regime a century later. In Iran, where the Abbasid revolution had originated, several insurrections took place after the second caliph, Mansur, put to death in 754 the man who had instigated the rebellion against the Umayyad dynasty. Though fractured, Islam’s political empire was continuing to expand. In 751 A.D., Abbasid armies defeated Chinese forces in a battle at Samarkand. Umayyad Moslems evicted from Iberia captured Crete from the East Roman empire in 826 A.D. The Aghlabids from Tunisia conquered most of Sicily. Qarluq Turks, who later occupied the Tarim basin, were converted to the Sunni sect in 960.

The 10th and 11th centuries A.D. were times of tribulation for the Islamic world. Its rulers fought with the East Roman empire and later with western crusaders for possession of Sicily, Syria, and Palestine. Nomadic tribes including Turks, Arabs, and Berbers overran large areas of the empire. In 945 A.D., Buwayhid rulers of a Moslem state in western Iran overthrew the Abbasid dynasty. That put Iranians and Berbers of the Tunisian Fatimid dynasty in control of much of the Islamic world, excluding Spain. Qarluq and Ghuzz Turks, including a band loyal to the House of Saljuq, entered Asia Minor. In 1055 A.D., Saljuq Turks, embracing the Sunni faith, replaced the Buwayhid Shi’ites on the throne in Baghdad. These Turkish Moslems chose to retain the Persian administrators. Saljuq Turks in Anatolia established the Sultanate of Rum in 1057. The Saljuq allowed other Turkish tribes to enter Armenia. En route, they devastated Iran. Arab nomads trekking west through north Africa ruined the olive fields which had dated from Carthaginian times. During this turbulent period, the Islamic religion acquired a softer, personal side thanks to an Iranian scholar, Ghazzali, who introduced mysticism into the Sunni tradition. His Restoration of the Science of Religion is Islam’s best-known theological work.

Under fierce attack from western Christians, Islamic rulers held most of their territory during the 12th and 13th centuries A.D. A Turkish officer of the Saljuq empire drove the Frankish crusaders out of their Syrian strongholds and established a new kingdom in Egypt. Salah-ad-Din (Saladin), a Kurdish officer in its employ, later set up his own kingdom. Saladin recaptured Jerusalem from the Franks in 1187. He later repelled avenging Christian armies of the Third Crusade. Saladin’s dynasty was inherited by a consortium of Turkish military slaves, the Mamluks. A more serious threat than the Christian crusaders was the attack on Islamic territories by the Mongol hordes beginning with Genghis Khan’s devastation of Khwarizm in 1220-21. The Abbasid caliph Nasir created a new chivalric order, the futuwwah, to meet this military threat. Moslem kingdoms in Turkey and Iraq fell to the Mongols. The Abassid caliphate was liquidated in 1258 A.D. However, the Golden Horde was unable to conquer Syria or Egypt because of Mamluk opposition. Defying earlier expectations that the Mongols and western Christians might form a grand alliance, the rulers of three Mongol successor states in the western part of the empire later became Moslems.

Nestorian and Monophysite Christians living in Asia Minor, once in the majority, converted to Islam in large numbers during the 14th century. Afterwards, only a small part of the population continued to profess the Christian faith. On the other hand, Moslems were steadily being expelled from the Iberian peninsula as Christian kings advanced. Political adversity did not prevent a great flowering of Moorish culture before its empire disappeared. The last Islamic stronghold at Granada fell to the Christian monarchy of Aragon and Castile in 1492 A.D. The religion of Islam began to make inroads into the African population south of the Sahara desert. In Mamluk Egypt, Coptic Christians were a dwindling part of the population. Arabs infiltrating into Nubia from Egypt gradually converted its people from Monophysite Christianity. The Abyssinian kingdom, south of Nubia, remained Monophysite Christian until the 16th century A.D. Islam also achieved peaceful conversions in Malaya and Indonesia, coexisting with the Buddhist and Hindu religions. Some conversions took place in western China.

Turkish nomads from central Asia had been drawn into the sedentary population of Asia Minor during the 11th century when Saljuq Turks captured the Abbasid empire. Between 1261 and 1300 A.D., other, more warlike Turkish people who had been subjects of the Mongols occupied most of present-day Turkey while the East Roman empire was retaking Constantinople from the western Christians and neglecting its Asian provinces. When Mongol rule was extinguished in 1335 A.D., there was a competition among the Turkish tribes to establish a successor state in the area. Waging war in the spirit of jihad, the Ottomans won that contest by capturing several key cities during the first half of the 14th century. They increased their power by recruiting other Turks for their armies and using Christians to perform economic functions. In the late 14th century, a new barbarian scourge appeared in the person of Tamerlane, self-styled successor to Genghis Khan. He led Moslem armies from Transoxania on a rampage through India, Russia, and the Middle East. Tamerlane’s horde temporarily seized the Ottoman possessions in Asia. Once this threat had subsided and the Asian lands were reconquered, a new revolt against Ottoman rule broke out in Bulgaria, organized by a Sunni mystic. Another took place in Asia Minor a century later. The Ottoman Turks suppressed both rebellions.

The second rebellion, which occurred between 1511 and 1513 A.D., involved Shi’ite sympathizers of Shah Isma’il, founder of the Persian Safavi empire. This empire grew rapidly between 1500 and 1513, reaching its northeastern limit in territories inhabited by Uzbek nomads and its western limit in the Ottoman empire. In a land once predominantly Sunni, Shah Isma’il required his Iranian subjects to adopt the Shi’ite religion. The Safavi army was comprised of Qizilbash soldiers in red headgear who had once lived under Ottoman rule. A spirited group, they belonged to a Sufi religious order of which the Shah was the spiritual head. The Ottoman Turks defeated the Safavi forces at the Battle of Chaldiran in 1514 and later seized Iraq. After Shah Abbas I recovered Baghdad from the Turks in 1623, he built a beautiful new capital at Isfahan. Another Safavi emperor, Shah Jahan, built the Taj Mahal at Agra in India. This empire was overthrown by Afghan nomads occupying Isfahan in 1722. However, it was resurrected after a short time by Nadir Quli, a Turkish soldier who invaded India. Ruling as Shah of the Afshar dynasty, he was assassinated by officers of his own guard in 1747. An Afghan successor state then took possession of Persia and India.

A third Islamic empire, the Mogul, was created in India when a descendant of Tamerlane, Babur, invaded northern India from Afghanistan. Babur defeated the sultan of Delhi at the battle of Paripat in 1526. He seized the cities of Agra and Delhi and soon controlled much of northern India. However, Babur’s son, Humayun, lost this territory to the Bengali Afghan emperor Sher Shah Sur. The Mogul dynasty was established on a more solid footing when Humayun reconquered the kingdom of Delhi in 1555. Humayun’s son, Akbar, expanded the empire to include Afghanistan, Baluchistan, and lands in India as far south as the Godavari river. His royal court became a center of learning and the arts. Since Akbar’s domain included a largely Hindu population, his regime depended on them heavily for military and administrative support. Concerned about the Hindus’ loyalty to a Moslem state, Akbar hosted a series of religious dialogues between representatives of the Moslem, Hindu, Zoroastrian, and Roman Catholic Christian faiths, seeking common ground. In 1582, he announced the creation of a new monotheistic religion called the Din-i-Ilahi, of which he, Akbar, was the prophet. This venture provoked a rebellion in Moslem circles and never caught on.

At the start of the 17th century, the Islamic world was divided into three great empires: the Ottoman empire in Turkey, the Safavi empire in Iran, and the Timurid Mogul empire in India. The Ottoman dynasty, which began in the 14th century, was extinguished in the Versailles peace treaty ending World War I. This Sunni Moslem empire, which had conquered both Mamluk Egypt and the East Roman empire, included most of the territory bordering the eastern Mediterranean and Black seas as well as in north Africa, Egypt, Arabia, Hungary, and the Balkan peninsula. Its capital was Istanbul, formerly Constantinople. The Ottoman rulers followed a policy of excluding their free-born Moslem subjects from top military and administrative positions. Their army was staffed by specially selected slaves called “janizaries”, who typically were Christians abducted as boys from peasant families. As a result, Greek Christians held the reins of government in this Islamic state. Ottoman power was threatened at sea when Portuguese vessels seized their trading ports along the Indian ocean during the 16th century A.D. Czar Ivan IV cut off the empire’s contact with Uzbek Moslems by annexing Kazan and Astrakhan in the 1550s. Currency decline brought on by the Spaniards’ silver-mining operations in the Americas produced an economic crisis.

The Moslem empires in Persia and India expired during the 18th century. After Nadir Quli’s death in 1747, the Afghan Zand dynasty founded by Ahmad Shah Durrani took control of Persia while battling the Hindu Marathas in India. A eunuch, Aga Mohammed Khan, overthrew this regime in 1794 and established the Kajar dynasty, which lasted until 1925. Czarist Russia began to encroach upon Persian territories in the 19th century. Afghanistan was detached from Iran in 1857. The last Shah, Reza Pahlevi, was deposed in 1979 by forces supporting the Ayatollah Khomeini. Akbar’s Mogul successors in India abandoned his policy of tolerance towards Hindus. When Emperor Aurangzeb sought to impose his rule on the southern tip of India, it provoked a furious Hindu counterattack. However, Afghan Persian forces under the Zand dynasty invaded northern India and defeated the Hindu armies in 1758-61. About the same time, British forces under Robert Clive defeated the French. Weakened by wars with the Hindus and Sikhs, the Mogul empire was ruined. The British East India Company ran the Indian government under a succession of puppet regimes. The British crown took possession of India in 1877 and granted this colony its independence seventy years later. Hindu India and Moslem Pakistan became two separate nations.

The Hindu and Buddhist Religions

A most ancient religion developed in northern India during the middle and latter part of the 2nd millennium B.C. The Aryan conquerors of India brought with them a pre-philosophical religion of rituals and prayers intended to achieve practical results. This religion had a pantheon of nature gods and goddesses, not unlike that of the Greeks. The hymns, myths, prayers, and poetic utterances, long carried within the memory of priests, were eventually written down in a collection of Vedic-language literature called the Rig-Veda. This religion had a powerful Brahman priesthood and a caste system which perpetuated social roles. Public ceremonies such as the horse ritual, which dramatized military victories, reinforced Aryan values. Priestly commentaries in the Brahmanas and Aranyakas explained liturgical practice and discussed the mysteries of the universe.

In the last section of the Veda, called the Upanishads, philosophical discussions appear concerning man’s relationship to God. The individual person, or soul, was seen to be experiencing a cosmic journey which includes life in this world. This life is a kind of bondage to delusional existence. The soul of each person is actually identical with the universe as a whole. The Hindu cosmology involved a belief that human souls were born and reborn in cycles of reincarnation. One’s status in the next life depended upon the moral quality of actions undertaken in this and previous existences. The law of karma stated that each action had a consequence in the soul’s future experience. Wrong or hurtful acts might bring lower status or seemingly unjust treatment in a future life, while benevolent actions would be rewarded. Conversely, one’s situation in the present life could partly be explained by one’s activities in previous incarnations. Such an explanation helped to reconcile individuals to their place in the caste system. It created an incentive to behave. The goal, however, was to escape the treadmill of reincarnations and be released into the cosmic whole. Certain yoga exercises or other methods known to the priests helped to hasten that process.

Buddhism is one of two Hindu “heresies” of the 6th century B.C., Jainism being the other. The Hindu salvation, “nirvana” or release from the cycle of earthly rebirths, was not available to ordinary people. If one followed the “way of works”, it was still necessary to be reborn as a Brahman to achieve nirvana at death. If one followed the path of knowledge through the Upanishads, one needed time for contemplation and study. Buddha and Mahavira, founder of Jainism, offered salvation to everyone. “No Brahman is such by birth ... A Brahman is such by his deeds,” Buddha declared. Jainism required strict asceticism and total renunciation of the world. Buddhism offered a “middle way” between asceticism and living in the world. Buddha saw a moral dichotomy between selfishness and love of truth. “Learn to distinguish between Self and Truth,” he said. “If we liberate our souls from our petty selves, wish no ill to others, and become clear as a crystal diamond reflecting the light of truth, what a radiant picture will appear in us, mirroring things as they are, without the admixture of burning desires, without the distortion of erroneous illusion, without the agitation of clinging and unrest.”

Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, was born in Nepal in 567 B.C., son of a petty king. A seer informed his father that Buddha was destined to become the greatest king in history. If, however, he saw four things - disease, old age, death, and a monk who had renounced the world - then he would forgo that destiny to become the discoverer of a universal path of salvation. Buddha’s father, wishing to have a royal successor, tried to shield the boy from those experiences, but to no avail. Buddha saw each of the four fateful situations during a ride in the park. He renounced his throne, abandoned his wife and infant son, and spent six years practicing spiritual disciplines including physical self-torture and philosophical study as a wanderer and hermit. Finally, after meditating for seven weeks under a Bo tree, Buddha experienced personal enlightenment in the form of an insight concerning human suffering. He returned to the world to teach this doctrine as an itinerant preacher until his death in 483 B.C. The group of disciples who accompanied him became the nucleus of the Buddhist sangha, a monastic community. Buddha’s followers produced a scripture from the memory of his teachings.

The insights which Buddha had under the Bo tree can be summarized in a set of philosophical principles called the “four noble truths”. They include the ideas that:

(1) Life is filled with sorrow.

(2) Sorrow originates in personal desire.

(3) Sorrow ends when desires end.

(4) The way to end desire is by following the “eight-fold path.”

This path consists of the following elements:

(1) right belief,

(2) right resolve,

(3) right speech,

(4) right conduct,

(5) right occupation,

(6) right effort,

(7) right contemplation, and

(8) right meditation.

If one attains complete extinction of desire, one achieves the blissful state of nirvana. This was an attitude of detachment from the world, which brought freedom from pain. Having reached its spiritual goal, the human soul would then be spared of further rebirths.

Though born in Nepal, Buddha spent most of his life in northeast India in the present-day state of Bihar, near the Ganges river. It was the site of the powerful Magadha kingdom. Buddha often preached in a deer park at Sarnath, which adjoined the holy city of Benares. Like Confucius, he and his followers wandered among warring kingdoms without interference. Neither Buddha nor Mahavira belonged to the Brahman class. Both opposed the caste system and filled the ranks of their followers with men and women of all backgrounds. Hinayana Buddhism, which represented Buddha’s original teaching, grew out of a council to certify the accuracy of these doctrines and set rules for the sangha. The third council was held during the reign of the Indian emperor, Asoka, more than two hundred years after Buddha’s death. He was Buddhism’s great patron.

Asoka (reigned 269-232 B.C.) was the grandson of Chandragupta, founder of the Mauryan dynasty. He conquered neighboring kingdoms until his empire included much of the Indian subcontinent. Remorseful after the bloody conquest of Kalinga, Asoka converted to Buddhism in 261 B.C. He announced that he would cease to pursue military conquest and instead seek conquests of religion. Asoka joined a Buddhist lay order and promoted Buddhism within his realm. He sent Buddhist missionaries to Syria, Egypt, Greece, and Ceylon. While Buddhism was the state religion of the Mauryan empire, Asoka tolerated other religious practices. He promoted a strict ethical code, including the humane treatment of animals. In his zealous attempt to remake Indian society, emperor Asoka resembles China’s first emperor, Shih Hwang-ti, who lived during the same century. Unlike him, however, Asoka did not leave an enduring model of political empire by which the state might become resurrected after a dynastic decline. Instead, his pacifist policies invited political disintegration. The empire fell apart fifty years after Asoka’s death. Yet, his adoption of Buddhism as a state religion set an important precedent for the coming age.

The early Buddhist religion consisted of doctrines, scripture, and traditions associated with the Hinayana branch, sometimes called Theravadin Buddhism. It accepts the Pali canon adopted at the time of Asoka. This philosophically inclined religious path allows only a few persons who strictly follow Buddha’s example of worldly renunciation to achieve nirvana. Someone who marries, has children, and earns a livelihood might become a lay follower of Buddhism (as Asoka was), but that person could not attain the ultimate goal of spiritual release and bliss. To become a mass religion, Buddhism had to provide a means of salvation within everyone’s reach. The Mahayana or “greater vehicle”, which was developed in Bactria at the time of Jesus, offered salvation through a personal savior. It asserted that Buddha had taught an inner circle of followers a higher teaching which allowed anyone to gain release. The idea was that Buddha, showing compassion for other suffering souls, had delayed the time of his own departure from earth in order to save others. Because this saving help from Buddha is universally available, the devotee can remain engaged in worldly pursuits while continuing on the path to nirvana.

Buddhism spread to the Bactrian empire of northwest India after Asoka’s death. The Bactrian king Menander (160-130 B.C.) converted to its religion. Later, the Kushan emperor Kanishka (ca. 100 A.D.) became an ardent patron. There was a strong Greek influence in the Bactrian culture expressing itself through written language, philosophy, and the visual arts. That was the environment in which Mahayana Buddhism developed. Greek philosophy and the Zoroastrian cosmology of Heaven and Hell transformed Buddhism from a philosophical religion into a cult of personal saviors or “bodhisattvas” - Buddha-like personalities embodying the essence of enlightenment. They were ones who had attained Buddhahood but had declined to enter nirvana until other sentient beings preceded them. The Mahayana Buddhist religion readily enlisted the local gods of different regions in that role. Under influence of the Greek visual arts, Buddhism projected itself through statues of the Buddha seated in contemplation; one finds such images in numerous temples and caves. The Mahayana sect taught life after death, which increased its popular appeal. The “compassionate Buddha” aided by other bodhisattvas would arrange passage to that blissful domain for all those who called upon them for help.

The Brahman tradition began to make a comeback in the years after the Mauryan dynasty fell in 183 B.C. The subsequent Sunga and Kanva dynasties brought a Sanskrit revival in Hindustan. Sanskrit, a literary version of the ancient Vedic language, became the sacred language of Hindu texts, while Prakrits, a vernacular-language script associated with Buddhist and Jainist texts, became less widely used. The Gupta dynasty of north India (320-544 A.D.) did much to develop and spread the Hindu culture. Its religion was split into two main branches, Shivaism and Vaishnavism. The former comprised worship of Shiva, a phallic god also associated with death. The latter comprised worship of Vishnu, the Preserver, who has appeared in several human incarnations. Such innovations were made in response to the Buddhist challenge. These gods were like Hindu bodhisattvas. Buddha himself was regarded as an avatar of Vishnu. There was an emotional relationship between the god and his devotees. Sankara, a Hindu philosopher of the 9th century, argued that personal identities were an illusion and so special relationships between persons and gods were unnecessary. Each person was instead identified directly with ultimate reality. Ramanuja, in the 11th century, accused Sankara of being a crypto-Buddhist. In his view, one could still have a devotional relationship with the gods.

The Tamil-speaking part of southern India may have led the way toward this more emotional type of religion. During the 7th century, there was a resurgence of devotional Hinduism in the southern kingdoms of Pandya and Pallava, where Buddhism and Jainism had once been strong. Rock carvings and temples at Mamallapuram and Kanchipuram are among the treasures of Hindu architecture. Sankara, the great theologian, was a native of Kerala in the southwest. Buddhism became extinct in India as a result of devastation inflicted upon its monasteries by foreign invaders beginning with the White Huns in the 6th century. The Pala kingdom in Bengal, which Moslem armies conquered in 1202, was its last stronghold. The Bengalis preferred Tantric Buddhism which emphasized magical rites and worship of divine beings. They passed along this form of religion to the Tibetan people. The Palas dominated northern India during the opening decades of the 9th century but then lost out to the Pratihara dynasty of Rajasthan and central India, who were worshipers of Shiva and Vishnu. Jainism, also patronized by this regime, survived the purging of Buddhism; there are today about two million Jainists in India. However, the revived Brahman religion, Hinduism, gained a firm hold on the vast majority of India’s population.

After Muhammad Ghori defeated an alliance of Rajput kings in 1192, the religion of Islam was added to the Indian religious mix. Possessing a highly developed religion, these Moslems were unable to be absorbed into the Indian culture; but neither was the Hindu population willing to convert to Islam. Consequently, India presented the paradoxical case of a state whose rulers professed one religion and whose people observed another. Out of respect for a superior civilization as well as political expediency, Moslem rulers of India felt obliged to designate their polytheistic Hindu subjects as “peoples of the Book”. Emperor Akbar formed an alliance with the Hindu Rajput kings to keep the power of his Turkish commanders in check. He abolished the special taxes on Hindus and gave them permission to build Hindu temples. Moslem clerics regarded this as apostasy. A Mogul successor, Aurangzeb, undid these concessions and, in the process, provoked a furious counterattack by the Hindu Marathas. Religious teachers or poets such as Nanak and Kabir synthesized elements of both religions. Their doctrines appealed to lower-caste Hindus as did Islam. Higher-caste Hindus were recruited into the armed forces and civil service of the Persian-style Moslem governments, following a practice of Islamic administrations everywhere.

The Spread of Indian Religion to Lands outside India

The Kushan empire, which united Bactria and northwest India in the 1st and 2nd centuries A.D., was the epicenter of emerging Mahayana Buddhism. It included lands in western Afghanistan and Uzbekistan abutting the eastern part of China. Mahayana Buddhism was adaptable to local creeds and traditions. There was a ripe combination of circumstances for this religion to penetrate Chinese culture starting in the 2nd century A.D. Trade routes from western China to the Middle East and Europe ran through the Tarim basin and Soghd, southeast of the Aral sea, which were located just north of the Kushan empire. Buddhism may have seeped into China from that region in the form of neo-Sanskrit documents and works of visual art in the Gandharan Greek style. The Chinese and Indian modes of thinking were quite different. Chinese thought was expressed concretely and in a monosyllabic language. Indian thoughts were more abstract. Of the Chinese philosophies, the Buddhist mentality came closest to Taoism, so the early Buddhist writings frequently used Taoist concepts and terminology. Numerous scholars were at work translating Buddhist scriptures into Chinese.

When the eastern Han dynasty fell in the 3rd century A.D., there was a spiritual vacuum in China which Mahayana Buddhism filled. The Confucian ideology was discredited by its close association with the former corrupt imperial administration. The Taoists were discredited by their passivity in the face of public need. Zealous Buddhist missionaries were met by Chinese willing to listen to new ideas. Between 399 and 414 A.D., a Chinese pilgrim named Fa-hsien traveled to India to study Buddhism at its source. An Indian scholar named Kumarajiva, taken captive in 382 by a Chinese raiding party, spent his remaining life in China translating Buddhist classics. The Chinese Buddhists created their own sects. One was the “pure land” school which offered escape to a western paradise through faith in the bodhisattva Amitabha. Another was the Ch’an (Zen) school which stressed contemplation and personal discipline. The Buddhist monasteries acquired wealth. Emperors of the Sui and T’ang dynasties were personally attracted to Buddhism though they tolerated other religious philosophies. However, in a time of troubles the Confucians and Taoists conspired to curtail Buddhist activities. Between 842 and 845 A.D., the Chinese imperial government cracked down on Buddhist institutions. Monks and nuns were defrocked in large numbers. Property was seized from the monasteries.

Buddhism became the dominant religion in lands outside India which were influenced primarily by Indian or Chinese culture. The civilization of India began to spread towards southeast Asia and Indonesia during the 1st century A.D. That trend accelerated in the 3rd century as the Gupta society radiated cultural influence. Tibet came into India’s cultural orbit when a Tibetan king who invaded northern India after the death of emperor Harsha in 647 developed a script in the Indian style for the Tibetan language. That script was used to translate Mahayana Buddhist scripts from Sanskrit. Tibetan or Tantric Buddhism later became the religion of nomadic peoples living in Manchuria and Mongolia. It tamed the warlike spirit of those peoples, eliminating them as a threat to civilized societies. Buddhism first came to Ceylon in the 3rd century B.C. Missionaries from the Pala kingdom brought the Mahayana religion to Java in the 8th century A.D. In 1190, monks who had visited Ceylon introduced Hinayana Buddhism to Burma and Cambodia. Vietnam’s adoption of Mahayana Buddhism, in contrast with other southeastern nations, reflects Chinese influence.

China also exerted cultural influence upon the neighboring lands of Korea and Japan. Emperor Han Wu-ti established a colonial output in Korea during the 2nd century B.C. Although the Koreans later expelled the Chinese from that outpost, their culture remained. In the 5th and 6th centuries A.D., a large number of Koreans migrated to Japan, bringing with them the Korean version of Chinese Mahayana Buddhism. The Buddhist religion was introduced to Japanese society in the 7th century A.D. Block printing had been invented in T’ang China to mass-produce Buddhist and Confucian texts. Some of this literature made its way to Japan where scholars adapted the Chinese characters to spoken Japanese. The resulting script is based on associations between Chinese visual characters and syllabic sounds in the Japanese speech of that day. Japanese Buddhists developed simplified versions of Chinese religious teachings to appeal to a wider audience. Zen Buddhism, taken from the Ch’an school, was introduced to the samurai court at Kamakura in 1191. Its strict mental and physical discipline was attractive to soldiers. Honen and Shinran Buddhism were mass cults which promised entrance to a heavenly paradise to persons who repeated the name of the bodhisattva Amida. The Nichiren sect taught salvation by chanting praise of the Lotus Sutra.

The rival Buddhist sects established kingdoms of their own. They fought one another employing techniques of the martial arts. Buddhist monks trained squads of Ninja warriors to infiltrate enemy headquarters and kidnap or assassinate individuals. Ieyasu, last of the three great shoguns of the 16th century, once hired these warriors to kidnap the children of a rival warlord so that he would have a bargaining chip to offer in exchange for his own captive children. However, he and his successors promoted the neo-Confucian philosophy because they believed its ethical doctrines would strengthen their regime. Portuguese missionaries brought Christianity to Japan in the 16th century. Nobunaga, first of the three shoguns, tolerated Christianity because it offset Buddhist power. His successor, Hideyoshi, was of another mind. He mistrusted the western missionaries believing that religious conversions might precede a political takeover as had happened in the Philippines. Persecution of Christians began under Hideyoshi in 1597. When a rebellion broke out in the Catholic community of Shimabara in 1638, the government suppressed both Christianity and foreign trade. Buddhism was not suppressed. Indeed, all Japanese were required to register as a lay associate of a Buddhist temple to prove they were not Christians.

Hinayana Buddhism spread from Burma into the neighboring countries of Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia during the 13th century, ousting the Hindu and Mahayana Buddhist religions. The Thai people had come from western China, but they converted to the Burmese type of religion. A dynasty of god-kings influenced by Indian civilization had ruled the Khmer empire in Cambodia for over five hundred years. The Vietnamese carried their Chinese-style Mahayana Buddhism with them as they conquered the Champa kingdom to the south. The Chams then became Moslem. The Srivijaya empire on Sumatra, founded in the 7th century, and the Sailendra empire, founded in Java in the following century, were both Mahayana Buddhist; however a Shaivist Hindu regime, the Sanjayas, arose in east Java in the late 8th century to replace the Sailendra kings. The Empire of Majapahit was founded in Java in 1293 in the aftermath of the Mongols’ naval defeat. This far-flung empire was founded by a Mahayana Buddhist prince, but Hindu and animistic religious influences were also strong. In the 15th century, Islamic religion from India poured over Malaya and the Indonesian archipelago to form the last religious layer. Rulers of port cities and coastal principalities found it advantageous to adopt the same religion as the Moslem merchants on whose trade their livelihoods depended.

An alluring religious possibility in the 13th century was that the world’s largest political empire might convert as a block to whatever religion managed to win over its Mongol rulers. Although the Mongols were originally shamanists, Kublai Khan’s mother was a Nestorian Christian. The great Khan asked Marco Polo’s father and uncle to invite the Pope to send a delegation of learned Christians to his court to persuade him of the merits of their religion. Nothing came of that invitation. Kublai himself preferred Buddhism, especially Tibetan Lamaism. The Mongols converted to “Yellow Church” Buddhism, associated with the Dalai Lama, in the late 16th century, although several of their successors in the west converted to Islam. However, a former Buddhist monk, Chu Yüan-chang, led a rebellion against the Mongol dynasty in southeast China and, in 1368, proclaimed himself emperor of the Ming dynasty. Nestorian Christianity was expelled from China. Neo-Confucianism became again the state religion. In the mid 19th century, a religious visionary named Hung Hsiu-ch’üan, who believed that he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ, aroused a horde of peasants and unemployed workers to rebel against the Manchu government and non-Christian religions. These soldiers of the “Taiping Rebellion” controlled the Yangtze Valley for more than a decade but, with western help, were suppressed.

Note: This page reproduces Chapter 5 of Five Epochs of Civilization by William McGaughey (Thistlerose, 2000).

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