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Let him who is without religious baggage cast the first stone

 
How long has Jihad been around? Christian Jihad, that is?
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
In light of the political unrest in many Middle Eastern states there is much polemic in the West about the social failings of Islam and, almost in the same breath, much derision of the warlike character of the Muslim message. Let us look briefly at the historical context of this through the lens of Byzantium.
 
It is tempting to look at the many periods in the past when Christianity and Islam "came into conflict" and what the call of Jihad meant, in fact, for both religious groups.
 
I will focus on just one of those periods, late ninth century,  mentioned in my novel King of Lies elsewhere on this site. This is the period running up to a decisive battle in which Muslim forces were turned around by the Byzantine armies as the former campaigned closer and closer to Constantinople.
 
It was a bit earlier than this, in the late eighth and early ninth centuries, that the concept of jihad began to transform from an act of necessity for Muslims faced with trouble and onslaught to an ascetic act of religious piety involving warfare against a "religious" enemy. For an excellent article detailing the complex evolution of this paradigm I refer the reader to http://www.doaks.org/publications/doaks_online_publications/Crusades/CR02.pdf
 
There are many fascinating aspects to the late ninth century conflicts which are relevant to this site.
 
Firstly, Byzantium had been routinely encroached on for decades by Arab fleets in the south (by this point the Arab forces had taken Siciliy and Crete) and in Anatolia (what is today the Turkish mainland). 
 
Thus, at least in the 9th century, the Byzantine battles against the Abbasid were largely defensive, and derived from the need to defend their border (and those retired warriors settled there to defend the borders). The word "Jihad" was known to educated Byzantines even if they spoke no Arabic - largely, I think, because they had no word for the concept in Greek, but mostly because they could identify with it in some way.
 
But the Byzantines were reluctant warriors, and fought wars not so much out of desire but out of necessity to protect the stability and boundaries of the Eastern Roman Empire, which they saw as the Kingdom of God on Earth.
 
All of this is largely true except for one very significant counter example. A very large group of religious rebels, the Paulicians (in many ways the original Protestants) had established themselves right next to the Muslim Emirates of south east Anatolia.
 
These Paulicians, after being almost obliterated through brutal onslaughts initiated by the Byzantine Empress Regent Theodora, collaborated in the late 9th century with the Emirates to confront the religiously orthodox establishment. This was a holy war on both sides - the Byzantines fought against the Paulicians for the continuity of the orthodox religious tradition against the perceived heresy of the Paulicians and the Paulicians fought the Byzantines for the survival of their "restored" true faith. But what is truly abominable is that the Byzantines persecuted their religious "siblings" with such terrifying zeal, one that gives lie to the whole concept of Byzantine pacifism. In many ways it was a kind of crusade.
 
The battle of Lalakaon (sometimes known as the battle of Poson or Porson) is arguably the most successful battle fought during the brief reign of Emperor Michael III against the Emirs of Melitene and Tarsus. It is little known that this was one of those key battles in which the Arab invasion of mainland Europe was stemmed for several centuries. It was a phenomenal feat of organizational planning. Michael and his Uncle Petronas succeeded in timing the onslaught so that the Emirs would be far afield from their regular bases and separated from their Paulian allies. At the same time Petronas succeeded in bringing five armies from all corners of Byzantium to meet at a single point on a single day, and the only way he did this was to predict, with uncanny accuracy, the route which the Emirs' armies would take as they were pushed further away from home - right up to the Black Sea.
 
Byzantine internal policies reflected pacifism to some extent  - for example, capital punishment was almost unheard of. Instead mutilation and humiliation were the normal punishments for even the most serious crimes. The Byzantines themselves would say that they abhorred both kinds of holy war - jihad and crusade. It was anathema to them to practise war unless forced to do so to protect what was theirs. But again, one could argue that the Paulicians give the lie to any sweeping generalization about Byzantine pacifism.
 
One of my reasons for writing about all this is to work towards the thesis that any instrument of power that uses religious beliefs to justify war is almost guaranteed to be fundamentally flawed. This applies to proponents of war in any faith, whether it be Orthodoxy, Catholicism, or Islam. 
 
Even a cursory investigation of 20th and 21st century history reveals that this probably applies.
 

7 Comments to Let him who is without religious baggage cast the first stone:

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Achilleas Mavrellis PhD on 03 February 2011 08:21
Matt, thanks for taking the time to comment. But a scholarly response, especially from someone who I believe is a student of history, rather than invective, would be more appropriate, not to mention more useful to me and all the other kind readers of my humble blog. I can support all statements of fact referred to on this site by citations to original research, conducted by accredited historians and published in the refereed literature. The interpretations are mine, but that's the point of my site - to garner discussion around those issues of relevance to today's world. I haven't cluttered the blog with academic references because I don't think that my good readers want it - but your comment has certainly made me think about adding general references in future for those interested in further reading. I know it's hard to have one's world view threatened. But I wonder if you are able to form objective opinions based on the evidence? I would have expected, by now, that you're beyond the reading of books and talking to people stage in your own research. I wouldn't want to cast aspersions on my alma mater, but I would hope that by now the Kansas University History department would have taught you about the proper methods of research: the weighing of original and secondary sources, and the testing of ideas through debate and peer review.
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P.M. Clever on 09 February 2011 19:49
I'm not clear about your thesis, Achilleas. I think (but I'm not sure) you're asserting some combination of these propositions: (a) "jihad" was originally an Islamic concept, (b) the concept of "jihad" in Islamic culture changed from a more defensive to a more offensive concept, (c) some segment of Byzantine culture borrowed or understood this concept, (d) but only the earlier, more defensive version, (e) Byzantines did not like war, (f) but they liked killing/persecuting Paulicians, (g) religious warfare reflects badly on religion. This combination of propositions could provide an argument in support of a number of theses, I suppose, but I'm not sure which squirrel you're chasing up which tree, or whether you're just trying to get all them critters by burning down the forest. You see, I'm lost in the woods, so to speak, but I smell smoke. Help me out.
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Achilleas on 13 February 2011 19:36
Dear PM Clever As you have correctly spotted, I have left the thesis quite wide open. As you and many of my readers will have noticed in the past, I have pointed out that the Papacy has been (and arguably still is) a major source of institutional evil. My real thesis in this blog was that Christians should not be self-righteous when it comes to questioning the motives of Muslims, both today and in the past. An additional thesis was that even the ostensibly pacifist Eastern Roman church was far from being perfect in its own right. Its persecution of the Paulicians amounted to one of the bloodiest jihads in history, just a very poorly documented one which most modern Orthodox, let alone Christians, probably know nothing about.
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P.M. Clever on 16 February 2011 16:30
Anyone claiming justification for inhumane behavior by reference to a magic book should garner universal suspicion.
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Melchior on 21 February 2011 21:33
This is amazing stuff, and now that you have all started me thinking about it and reading more, right on the nail. Is there possibly a bigger story here? Like how often have Christians been responsible for making life really difficult for Muslims? Is there a history of Christians persecuting Muslims?
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Suraj Singhal on 08 March 2013 12:19
I found this post of yours to be really helpful and guiding. Thanks for sharing your ideas with us.
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ray ban glasses on 22 September 2014 13:53
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