One of the supreme tragedies of the Chalcedonian split in the 4th and 5th century was the gradual weakening of the Christian communities in Asia and Northern Africa. The Miaphysite and Nestorian churches were viewed as being heretical by the Western Latin church and those churches were further persecuted by the Muslims who accompanied the emergence of Islam in the second half of the first millennium. To be sure, the churches in the Arabian peninsula and in the Middle East had endured tremendous persecution by the Sassanians and other non-Christian religious sects, but the arrival of Islam placed a death blow to some of the most vibrant Christian communities in the East.
Reading this chapter, it’s easy to get caught up on the historical aspects of the origins of Islam in the 7th century, but what is even more curious for the non-biased reader should be why so many Christian churches disappeared so rapidly following the emergence of Islam. For polemic reasons, one can accuse Muslims of inflicting conversion by the sword on unsuspecting Christians and Jews, a popular motif in many parts of the Western world that has many corroborating historical evidence. However, MacCulloch makes it clear in his book that differing Christian sects were also at each other’s throat for centuries before Islam became a dominant religious force in the Middle East. It’s very probable that the internal divisions between the different branches of Christianity coupled with the wars between the Byzantine and Sassanian empires provided a ripe environment for Islam to break through.
When Islam first emerged, most Christians living in the Middle East would have viewed it as another sect of Christianity with its own peculiar set of creeds, which shouldn’t be so surprising since Islam is viewed as one of the most successful Christian heresies to have survived the turbulence of history. It is important to understand that Muhammad did not formulate his religion out of thin year, but traced its roots to the Jewish Tanakh and the Christian New Testament. A new set of revelations was supposedly given to him by divine intervention, which he set out to record in a written text later to become known as the Qur’an. Muhammad saw himself as the final prophet in a long of list of prophets dating back to Abraham and one of the main features that separates Islam from Christianity is its theme of oneness in the nature of the supreme God. For its part, Islam never had to deal with quarrels and disputes related to the nature of Christ, who Muslims view as a great prophet, but not as the Son of God. Of course, Muslims in later generations would have their own quarrels and battles specifically in regards to who is seen as the rightful heir of Muhammad, but by avoiding the conflicts related to the Trinity, Islam has been able to remain more unified than Christianity with all its divisions and schisms.
To be sure, Christians did suffer from religious persecution by the Muslims in the Middle East, but by no means was it systematic and universal. Christians and Muslims have many skeletons in their closets, and violence was liberally exercised by both groups. What the historical aspects of the emergence of Islam simply illustrate is how politics and religion are so intertwined throughout the pages of human history.
One of the more fascinating parts of this chapter was the description of the spread of Dyophysite Christianity to the Mongols starting as early as 1007. It’s quite startling that a religion that started in the Middle East had spread so far wide out. (Another interesting question that I’m sure other historians have tackled is why Asian religions like Buddhism and Taoism didn’t have a substantial impact on the West, but that’s another topic altogether.) In any case, the conversion of the Mongol Khan of the Keraits in 1007 is eerily similar to Constantine’s conversion in some respects as it also involved a vision of deliverance. Christianity among the Mongols had become rather mainstream for them that they wore crosses and took on Christian names; for instance, Temujin, (aka ‘Genghis Khan’) in 1206, had been the vassal of a Christian Kerait khan and had married his niece who was also a Christian. Over the centuries, his descendents set alliances with Christian Mongol princesses where a series of Great Khans had Christian mothers, including Kublai Khan, and at around 1279 when he became the first Yuan emperor of China, Dyophysite Christianity became a powerful force in China once again. Like the West, Christianity had made its way into politics and those with power.
Another fascinating historic detail was that in the 1250s, the king of France, Louis IX, sent a Franciscan emissary to meet the Great Khan Mongke in Central Asia. Then in the late 1280s, there was more contact between the East and West when Kublai Khan sent a Chinese Christian official and a Mongol Christian monk to Constantinople, to Rome to meet with the pope, and then all the way to England and France. Then in the 1290’s a Gothic style cathedral was even erected in Inner Mongolia of all places! Learning about contacts like these in the past forced me to rethink my understanding of the East and West being totally isolated from one another and that contact b/w the two as being only a fairly modern phenomenon.
MacCulloch doesn’t go much into whether or not Mongol Christianity delved into deeper theological issues like Christ’s nature, the Bible, or the Trinity. Perhaps it wasn’t part of their culture or tradition to deeply explore such issues. More likely, it was because the Mongols were too preoccupied with war and expansion to concern themselves with such issues. It would have been interesting to see how Christianity in Asia under the Mongols would have fared if it had gotten more support from the churches in the West. Because of this lack of support, the church suffered, and Christianity declined, and many of the Mongols converted to Islam despite several bloody clashes with Muslims over the centuries. I wonder if many missionaries who go to the East today are aware of the history of Christianity in Asia. How would this knowledge be utilized in advance of the gospel today? I think today’s church only concerns itself with Western Christian church history of the past 500 years and absolutely neglects the rich history of the East, which is an utter shame. What the history of the church in the East shows, at least, is that Christianity is and always will be a global influence no matter what.