The ongoing discussion of the origins of Holy War have prompted to insightful replies from Col. Bunny. So I have decided to continue the series on this issue. Col. Bunny tells us this:
I still have some skepticism about how Christian countries might have been transformed in ways by their experience with the Muslims. I recall Bruce Catton making in the point that the Civil War started out with informal, relaxed, democratic discipline but as the horror of the war sunk in it came to tying offenders to wagon wheels and administering the lash. Harsh methods can be seized on according to logic entirely on one side. This practice wasn’t necessarily copied from the Confederates.
The key point is the innovation of Holy War. Please be patient with me, as we must go through High Paganism, the origins of Islam and the spread of Christianity through the old Roman world in order to delve into this properly.
Prior to Christianity, the West subscribed to High Paganism. Contrary to the belief of some Christians, High Paganism was actually a pretty decent affair. There’s a reason, after all, that the Divine Comedy doesn’t actually torment the historical High Pagans, as it does the other sinners. They are in the first level of Hell, to be sure, but it is an earthly paradise. It was Elysium, a reflection of Heaven.
In any event, High Pagans were syncretic and preferred either co-opting the gods of other peoples, something Rome did frequently, or equivocating one god with another. I.e. your god of rivers was probably the same as this other god of rivers, here. Even when religions were “stamped out” this was usually a voluntary affair. A conquered people might think that their god had been defeated, and there was no point in worshiping him anymore. Better to worship the “superior” gods of the conquerors.
Historical Low Pagans, of course, were not so peaceful (see: Aztecs). But the less said of them, the better.
Anyway, the point is that Rome, prior to Christianity, had no notion of Holy War, because High Paganism did not require it. If war had any religious overtone at all, it was simply that you asked the god’s favor before you marched off. Barbarian Low Pagans, when encountered, were wiped out or civilized. Fellow High Pagans tended to merge into the Roman religious framework without issue. Indeed, the Romans had a fetish for Eastern superstitions and frequently pilfered religious ideas from the conquered East.
Now, Christianity came along, and coopted the Roman Empire, but did so peacefully. The Roman State was initially hostile to Christianity (and, it should be noted, Judaism as well) because it was seen as a danger to the state. Christians refused to deify the Caesars and followed their own laws, even when they conflicted with those of the state.
But then Christians took over the state, and that stopped. The reverse didn’t happen. You didn’t see Christians rounding up High Pagans and throwing them to the lions. Indeed, by the time of Honorius, they had outlawed that sort of thing entirely.
Point is, High Pagans didn’t have Holy Wars. Christians didn’t introduce the practice. Even the Jewish precedent of Canaan was restricted to one small geographic region only. They were not instructed to conquer the world and convert it.
Now, the exigencies of war often force a harshness onto a people. Things that would not be considered in peacetime are resorted to in war, as Col. Bunny tells us. Yet, we do have just such a desperate war to compare to: the Byzantine-Persian war of the early 7th century. This war brought both the Roman/Byzantine Empire and the Sassanid Persian Empire to their knees, respectively.
In it, we see the Roman Empire initially losing ground. Egypt, Syria, Palestine and much of Anatolia is lost to the Persians. Jerusalem is sacked, the True Cross is taken as part of the war booty (whether or not it was actually the True Cross is a matter for historical debate, I suspect it was a 4th century forgery). Emperor Heraclius, however, manages to reverse the misfortunes of Rome in a campaign reaching into the heart of Mesopotamia, defeating each army sent against him, in as epic a story as Xenophon’s Anabasis. There, he compels the Persians to withdraw from their conquests and return the relics, or face destruction. This war lasted nearly 20 years, and was more devastating than anything the Germans ever achieved.
Yet even here, the war did not take on the characteristics of a Holy War. This was not Christian against Zoroastrian, it was Roman against Persian. This, even though the holiest of Christian artifacts had been taken by Persia. There was no sense of trying to convert the Persians by the sword, or of spreading Christian faith. Neither, it must be said, were the Persians interested in doing these things. In Persia, there were even Christians who fought against Rome. The Nestorian Christians tended to prefer Persian rule to that of Rome.
Of course, not long after, the Arabs show up. Sassanid Persia disappears, and Byzantium survives as a vestigial state. 300 years of archaeological and literary darkness happens. And when the historical record reappears, we see that Christianity is now practicing theocracy, Holy War, the church-sponsored persecution of heretics and infidels, etc…
Col. Bunny tells us the following:
If secular authority was broken in the frightful 300-year period it reinforces the debt that the West owes to the Church. If it was guilty of secular excess it should surprise no one who studies how political power is exercised and by whom. The Church was a pretty corrupt and un-spiritual entity at times with its own armies, even, at least, one female pope, and the split papacy of the Avignon popes.
He is, of course, entirely correct here. For whatever evils the Church may have absorbed (and whatever their origin), it is clear that without the church taking the helm, Christianity may have been entirely subsumed by Islam, and the remains of Classical civilization would have gone with it. The West owes a debt to the Church for saving it from destruction.
Nonetheless, the Church definitely absorbed these notions from somewhere. I postulate that they were passed on to it from Islam. But that begs the question, where did Islam get it? For this, let us travel to the origins of Islam.
There is a theory that much of the Quran parallels an ancient Syriac Christian lectionary. Furthermore, it is clear that Islam shares something with Judaism and Christianity (it is commonly thought of as an Abrahamic religion). Islam even considers Isa (Jesus Christ) as a great prophet, yet still a man, a sentiment shared with early Arian Christians. Yet Islam also shares a number of peculiar affinities with Judaism, specifically regarding dietary laws and the like, which Christians more or less abandoned.
Pre-Islamic Arabia was a religious stew. There were many Jews, many Christians, pagans and even some who were hybrids of these. The Ebionites, for instance, were Jews who recognized Christ, but did not fall into the usual Christian framework. One of Mohammed’s companions was said to be of Ebionite extraction.
So Mohammed, raised as a pagan, would have had knowledge of Jews and Christians, for they were often neighboring tribes. Now, Mohammed was first and foremost a politician. It is not surprising, then, that he would try to form some kind of syncretic religion (remember, the Ancient world did this a lot!) out of the pieces of Judaism, Christianity and Arabic paganism.
The only problem was, the Jewish Arabs thought Mohammed was a fraud. At first, Mohammed seems to have tried to pass as more or less Jewish himself, but he was not raised in the tradition. There were holes in his knowledge, holes that a proper prophet, as he claimed to be, should NOT have. Arab Christians, mostly of Arian extraction, seem to have cared somewhat less. Anyway, the Jews rejected him completely.
Either way, however, Mohammed was furious. He slaughtered Jewish tribes with reckless abandon. Up until this point, he seemed pretty tolerant. He wished to unite the Arabs under a common banner (his own). From this point on, it seems to be a case of “become a Muslim or die.” With Pagan Arabs and Christian Arabs more or less becoming Muslim under his banner, he had the manpower to eliminate his Jewish rivals.
For Arabs, prophethood was one of the few ways in which a warlord like Mohammed might gain lordship over ALL tribes, instead of just one or a few, as was the norm. Arab society today is still very tribal, and it is rare to see individuals who can lord over them all effectively. Such men are inevitably either warlord dictators or religious theocrats.
Mohammed was both. But he could not have the Jewish Arabs undermining his authority. So, the concept of Holy War comes to the forefront. Convert or die (or prostrate yourself and pay tribute — the origin of the Jizya). He reserves several passages for his hatred of Jews.
Oddly enough, however, Mohammed seemed somewhat more tolerant of the Christians. In the Suras, he mentioned the Romans favorably, and essentially supported them in their war against Persia, whom he regarded as polytheist. His successors, however, were not. Mohammed’s body wasn’t even cold before the first waves of Arab raiders entered the Roman Empire.
Holy War was now preached against every non-Muslim. The Quran was not fully written down and codified until this invasion was in full-swing. Even today, the Quran and the Hadith are like split personalities, preaching both peace and war, tolerance and hate, and this has become a convenient cover for Islam when it is gathering strength and wishes to appear peaceful, but also a justification for war when it is strong enough to wage it. This is the split nature of Mohammed’s quest: to unite the Arabs under his banner, through whatever means possible, peace or war. Say what you will of him, but he was a driven man.
So Islam was as much a political ideology as it was a religious one. Christianity was not, it concerned itself with matters of faith, and let one render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. Secularism got its start in the High Pagan world, and was inherited by the Christian world.
Then, 300 years of contact and conflict with Islam pass, and when we see history pick back up, Christians are practicing things that look an awful lot like a dim reflection of Islamic practices. Theocracy, warlordism, Holy War, etc…
Col. Bunny may still be correct. We don’t have a time machine, and what I propose is a mere hypothesis. But either Islam inspired similar behavior on the part of Christianity, or the survival of Christianity rested on it inventing the practices independently. It may even be possible that both theories are not mutually exclusive, and that some practices came from Islam and some were invented independently. We are not likely to ever know for certain.
What is known, however, is that these things only entered the Christian world AFTER Islam, and so whether by inspiration or by forcing the hands of Christians, we do have strong evidence that Islam is responsible for the cultural and economic damage suffered by Western Europe, and by extension, the cultural damage that continues today, now in the hands of Atheist Socialists.