Christian Leadership Center







on the Crises in the Middle East

and the Plan of God Revealed in the Scriptures


Part I  Part II  Part III  Part IV  Part V  Part VI )


III.   The Development of Islam



The Historical Background


The study of the crises in the Middle East necessarily includes the study of the development of Islam and its tensions with Christianity and Judaism.  In the subsequent sections of this study we will consider the related subjects of Zionism and Christianity, especially in conjunction with biblical prophecy.  But for the study of Islam we have to include the historical material first, beginning with the few centuries that led up to the spread of Islam as well as its rapid growth. Then we will look at the essential features of the faith, limiting ourselves to the basic things, acknowledging that the different movements have some very different interpretations.  A survey of the major events between the close of the New Testament era and the Crusades themselves reveals a millennium of religious animosity and warfare in the land.


Rome’s Wars against the Jews

The first war against the Jewish state ended  with  the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., even though the zealots dragged it out at Masada for three more years.  The war was brutal, as the Romans gave no quarter but slaughtered all the Jews that they could find.  Some 97,000 fugitives were caught and sold as slaves, many of them dying as unwilling gladiators in places like Caesarea Philippi and Rome.  The Jewish historian Josephus says about 1,197,000 were killed in the siege and its aftermath; Tacitus estimates only about 600,000.   Whatever the exact number, the destruction of the Temple and the slaughter of Jews ended any hopes of a Jewish State at that time.  Only a remnant of Jews remained in Judea, and those who did almost starved to death; others settled north near Galilee, or left the country for safer places.  But all the survivors had to pay a tax for the pagan temples. 

The Sanhedrin and the High Priesthood were abolished.  The Sadducees disappeared; the Pharisees and the Rabbis became the religious leaders of the newest homeless people.  Their synagogues and the Torah became their main hope of survival.  Moreover, the flight and enslavement of a million Jews changed the population of the other major cities throughout the Mediterranean and beyond.  This catastrophe formally  marked the beginning of the Diaspora.      

But in 115-116 in Cyrene, Cyprus, Egypt and Mesopotamia there were uprisings of Jews against Rome.  These were suppressed, but the trouble did not go away.  Then, in 130 the emperor Hadrian decided to build a shrine to Jupiter on the Temple Mount; and in 131 he issued a decree forbidding circumcision and any instruction in the Torah.  Such stupid measures brought on the rebellion led by Bar Kochba[1] in 132.  The war lasted three years, until the rebels were beaten by lack of food and water and other resources.  In utter rage the Romans destroyed 985 towns in the land, and slew about 580,000 men, while an even larger number perished in starvation.  Many Jews were sold as slaves. But the whole country had been ruined.

Hadrian wished to stop Jewish trouble once and for all.  He forbade circumcision, the observance of the Sabbath or any other holy day, and any Jewish public ritual.  Jews were allowed in Jerusalem only one day in the year when they came to weep at the ruins.  The Roman city built on the ruins was called Aelia Capitolina; it had temples to Jupiter and Venus, and theaters and baths.  The Council of Jamnia was dissolved and outlawed.  And instruction in Jewish Law was prohibited on penalty of death.   The land itself was renamed “Palestine.”   Until the holocaust of World War II, Hadrian’s war against the Jews was the most painful in Jewish memory.  Note the historical point: the land was never called Palestine in biblical times; that was the name Rome gave to it in 135 A.D.  It has been retained by the non-Israelite dwellers in the land.

It took centuries for the Jews to recover from this revolt.  They traveled to other lands, abandoning most secular learning except medicine, renouncing every form of Hellenism, and receiving encouragement from their rabbis, mystic poets, and the Law.  They were scattered into every country, condemned to poverty and humiliation, and unbefriended even by saints.  No wonder they retired to private worship and study.  They had seen their holy city first turned into a pagan center; soon they would see it turned into a Christian center.  Judaism hid in fear and obscurity; but Christianity flourished and would soon conquer the world.  This raised more questions in their mind about Christianity.


The Christianization of the Middle East

In the early fourth century under the emperor Constantine, Christianity came to dominate the Holy Land.  Constantine himself may not have been much of a believer at the start; he saw Christianity as a means to an end, and cared little for the theological debates that seemed to divide the Church.  But as his power grew stronger, he favored Christianity more openly, and used less of the pagan rites in ceremony.  His Christianity eventually developed into a sincere faith.   And when his interest in the unity of the empire was hindered by schism, first Donatism, and then Arianism,[2]  the emperor summoned the bishops to Nicea (in Turkey not far from Constantinople/Istanbul) to settle the matters.  Out of this, of course, came the famous Nicene Creed still used today.  When Constantine died, he left an empire that lasted over a thousand years--the Byzantine Empire.

In his day Roman temples that had been built on sacred spots were torn down and replaced by churches, especially in Jerusalem, Bethlehem and the Galilee.  Christians increased their pilgrimages to the Holy Land, because to them the locations of the significant events were important for their recognition of the saints, and of the Savior Himself.   Byzantine churches sprang up throughout the Middle East.  Anyone touring the lands of the Bible today will come across archaeological remains of Byzantine churches at almost every important spot.  And these churches, often located on places identified by the bands of Christians remaining in the land, frequently provide us with helpful clues as to the original location.  

In the city of Jerusalem, for example, the Christians knew exactly where Golgotha was, even though in their days it was well inside the walls of the city and according to the Bible should not have been.  But the location seemed to be confirmed by the Roman Temple that had been built on the spot.  Under the guidance of Helena, Constantine’s mother, the pagan temple was destroyed and the fill cleared away, so that the tomb and the hill could be clearly preserved within a church and a rotunda--the famous Church of the Resurrection, which later was renamed by Islamic leaders as the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.  Subsequent investigation[3] made it clear that the city wall that now enclosed this area had been erected after the time of Jesus, and that this spot was in fact outside the city wall at the time of the crucifixion, as the Bible said.


The Persian Invasion

It was not long, however, that the peace of the Byzantine times was disrupted by invasions from tribes in the north, and from the Persians in east.   The emperor Justinian (527-565) had accomplished much in his reign, but had done little to diminish the threat of enemies close to home.  He had built many churches in the Holy Land (including a huge church to the Virgin Mary in Jerusalem), monasteries, and hospices for pilgrims; he made the place flourish, established even six large cities in the Negev (south) of the land, put in a thriving system of farming and irrigation, and built up a level of population in the region unknown before or since.  As great as Justinian was, in the final analysis he was not able to re-unite the old Roman empire.  His empire primarily brought together Greek, oriental and Balkan qualities.  But the powers in the west, the Church with its central leadership and monastic orders, and the Frankish monarchy, were thrown back on their own resources.

His successors had to cope with invasions of Mongolian and German tribes on the Balkan front, and Persians on the east.  The Sassanids of Persia under Khosrau II posed the greatest threat.  They unleashed a tremendous attack that almost drove the emperor Heraclius I, the successor to Justinian, from Constantinople.   Many of Heraclius’s disgruntled subjects sided with the Persians, including the Jews of Jerusalem--it was Jews within the walls of Jerusalem that opened the gates to the invaders in 614, and then joined the ravaging of the city.  The Persians butchered 60,000 Christians in Jerusalem and sold 35,000 into slavery.  In their attacks they destroyed most of the churches in the Holy Land, including the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, but with the exception of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.  As the story goes, the mural of the magi made them think it was some shrine to an earlier Persian presence.

Heraclius inflicted a defeat on the Persian Empire in 629, and the eastern threat disintegrated.  He probably saved the Byzantine empire from destruction.  But in the process his own forces were weakened considerably.  In the southern end of the Dead Sea his forces were attacked by bands of bedouin on camels, the first major attack by Moslems against a foreign enemy.  The leader was a prophet named Mohammed who was launching a jihad or “holy war” against the idolatrous people of Arabia. 

Mohammed began his ministry against idolatry in Mecca, but his fellow Koreish succeeded in driving him and a few followers from Mecca to Medina, some 210 miles away.  The date of this historic “hadjira,” or flight to Medina, was July 2, 622. Of the men who went with him, four would become in turn the great caliphs of early Islam.  They were Abu Bakr, Omar ibn al-Khattib, Othman ibn-Affan, and Ali, the prophet’s young cousin.  In the next few years the prophet recorded the revelations and teachings.  When he returned in 630 to take Mecca, convert the Koreish and re-dedicate the Kaaba (the square house that served to house about 360 Arabian gods) to Islam, he had an army of 10,000.   This was just months after Heraclius defeated the Persians.  The new threat came from Arab tribes now united by a new faith.

By 637, only five years after Mohammed’s death, an Islamic army of 60,000 camped outside the gates of Jerusalem.  To the dazed Christians, still recovering from the Persians, this army seemed to have materialized out of nowhere.  But they knew that the “sword of Allah” had been menacing the Byzantine empire for some time.  The leader of the Moslem faithful, Caliph Omar ibn al-Khattib, had been given instructions by the prophet concerning the city of Jerusalem.  Omar was charitable to Christians and Jews living in the city if they surrendered, but he was convinced of the prophet’s visions and the correctness of the new faith:

in a night vision Mohammed is said to have been carried by Gabriel to Jerusalem, stopping at Sinai and Bethlehem;  in the holy city he was met by Abraham, Moses, Solomon, Jesus and other of Allah’s ancient prophets;  Gabriel took Mohammed to the rock on the temple mount, and there a golden ladder appeared;  Mohammed ascended on it to the Seventh Heaven where he received instructions from Allah; he then descended, and in the same night returned to Mecca. 

And so, near this spot, Omar built the  monument and the mosque.  His successor rebuilt the monument that still stands today, called erroneously the Mosque of Omar, but in reality the Dome of the Rock (the golden domed building on the plateau; it is not a mosque--the mosque is at the southern end of the plateau).

By the time of Heraclius’ death in 641, Moslems from the Arabian desert were changing the world.  They were no longer divided by ancient tribal affiliations, but united under a common faith.  By 680 they had conquered Syria and were beginning to take Persia and Egypt.  Within three decades they would take North Africa.  Now the known world was divided into three blocks of power: the Byzantine, European, and Islamic.


The Islamic Conquests

Mohammed the Prophet.  Mohammed was born in 570 A.D., a city-dweller, a poor member of a prominent family in Mecca.  He made his living as a caravan manager for a wealthy widow much older than he, whom he eventually married.   His early doctrine reflects the revulsion of the simple nomadic life for the corrupt society.  Very little is known of his early development.  He was acquainted with Judaism and Christianity from business connections.  He was given to epileptic fits in which he received visions and the word of Allah through the aid of Gabriel, which he recorded in the Koran.  He was a capable military leader and political organizer.   He followed the principle that the end justifies the means.  He relied for support on Jewish people in Medina, but when he no longer needed them he turned on them.  He organized bandit attacks on caravans to fund his enterprise.  The few facts from his biography and from the Koranic doctrine show him to have been an austere, devout, strong, almost violent man with a little learning and moderate level of intellectual sophistication. 

Whatever weaknesses might have existed in the man, no religious leader has ever founded a faith that so rapidly appealed to so many people.  Its appeal as a universal religion is that  its theology is simple and easy to grasp; it embraces an all-powerful God who makes severe demands on people but promises reward in eternal life for fulfillment of his precepts.   Part of the appeal of this new faith was that it made clear, absolute claims without requiring a great deal of individual responsibility. The belief system was not complex; the code of conduct was simple and clear; and it seemed to offer a way for the bedouin to connect their cultural distinctives with a unified faith.  And, we would have to say, from a theological point, it was not Christian--there has always been an attempt in the world to oppose and undermine Christianity. 

The Development of Islam.   The Islamic faith came into existence with the teachings of Mohammed who was received as the final prophet of God.  Because of his flight to Medina in 622 (which is the starting point of the Islamic calendar), that became the second holy place for Islam’s followers after Mecca.  Jerusalem was the third holy place in Islamic tradition behind Mecca and Medina; it was from there that he was believed to have ascended into heaven and then returned.   As mentioned above, in honor of these events, the Dome of the Rock was built in the year 690.  It followed the pattern of the earlier Christian octagonal-shaped buildings, but with innovations.  Next to it was the Al Aqsa Mosque, where Muslims have prayed for centuries now.

The Spread of Islam.   It soon became clear that Islam had as its goal the conversion of the world to their way, either by persuasion or by force.  It is now fashionable to portray Islam as a peaceful and unifying religion, one that fought a defensive war against the Christians, the Crusaders, and the pagans, who were all barbaric and bloodthirsty.  But little is said of the military spread of Islam throughout the Mediterranean and into Europe and the sword of Allah that forced submission to this faith.  Besides, had Islam not pursued the conquest of the Mediterranean and Europe, there may never have been any Crusades.

Why so many of the formerly Christian nations converted to Islam remains somewhat of a mystery.   Many gave in to the overwhelming force of the Islamic armies; many were attracted by Arabic culture and language, and perhaps the moral absolutes. The Islamic regimes allowed Christians and Jews to live in their lands, but with civil disabilities.  These were not too oppressive, but they did prevent the politically ambitious from developing, and the evanglizers from witnessing.  Within two hundred years of the death of the prophet, Islam had all but replaced Christianity along the Mediterranean coast as well as in the south of Spain and Italy.   To this day in these countries Arab nationalists deny the right of Europeans to rule these areas. 

The main spread of Islam lasted a hundred years, from 632 until 732 when they were defeated in the battle of Tours and turned back from France.   After the death of the prophet, many of the Arabic tribes had become violent and restless, and so the Caliph, the “successor” of the prophet, urged them on marauding expeditions against the Byzantine empire.   Jerusalem had fallen in 638, and soon all of Syria was in Moslem hands.   So they turned their attention to North Africa and southern Spain in the west, and Persia and India in the east.  They moved north from Spain to try to enter Europe through France, but may have expended all their resources by the time of the Battle at Tours in 732, for they were driven back by the Frankish power.  They seemed satisfied for the time with what they had conquered.   Constantinople was able to hold them off; but in the end Asia Minor was all that was left of the Byzantine Empire.

The Leadership of Islam.  The Caliph was the recognized, nominal authority, the successor of the prophet.  But three parties soon emerged.  The largest was the orthodox or traditional party (Sunnis).  The messianic party, known as Shiites, believed in other successor prophets with new revelation.  They were opposed bitterly by the orthodox.  The mystical party was a reaction against the dead orthodox and its confining teachings.  The mystics (sufists) sought direct personal relationships with God and mystic experiences.

All the conquered territory was under one rule unto the middle of the 8th century. It started in 658 when Mu’wawiya, the governor of Damascus, had himself declared the fifth Caliph.  The line he founded, the Umayyads, would last a hundred years.  And so Damascus replaced Medina as the political capital of the Muslim world.  It was a time of great building, including the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.  But it was also a time of internal struggle; Damascus had to put down revolts in Iraq and Arabia.

In 750 a new power, the Abbasids, seized power and moved the caliphate to Baghdad.   Syria and Palestine went into rapid decline; administratively, they were no more than a coastal strip of land stretching in to Damascus and Jerusalem.

The Abbasids also had their share of problems; by 900 they lost their control of power and had been replaced by other families.   Imperial control slipped away from Baghdad.  By 980 all of Palestine and part of Syria with Damascus had fallen under Fatimid Cairo’s rule.  Aleppo and northern Syria and Iraq were controlled by the Hamdanids, Shiite Moslems.

For some time there was a peaceful co-existence of Christians and Moslems in Jerusalem.  It was a “mecca” to both religions, but they had different interests.  Christians were not interested in the old Temple Mount because it had been cursed by Jesus--they had their churches in other parts of the city.  And Moslems were primarily interested in the Dome of the Rock and the al Aqsa Mosque.   Other “people of the Book” had been permitted through the Islamic legal code.   One time stained the period--the fanatical reign of al-Hakim.  In 1009 he destroyed the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and brought terror on all the people, Christians, Jews and even Moslems to some extent.  But his son al-Zahir, gave the Byzantine Emperor Constantine VII permission to rebuild it; that took place from 1042-1048.

Early in the eleventh century a fierce band of Turkoman nomads, called Seljuks after an eponymous ancestor, burst out of Central Asia and overran the caliphates of the Abbasids of Baghdad and the Fatimids of Cairo.  By 1055 they controlled Persia, Iraq, and Armenia, and by 1071 they had begun to take the Byzantine empire of Asia Minor, interdicting the land routes pilgrims had used to reach the Holy Land.  The Seljuks also turned against the empire of the Fatimids in an intra-Moslem holy war.  They were converts to Islam, but as is often the case, more zealous than the old guard.  In 1077 they took Jerusalem.  Rejecting the Fatimid code as heresy, they suppressed Christian worship in the holy city.  To the Christians in Europe, it was as if Hakim the Mad had returned from the dead.

The response to such a serious threat came from the leadership of the Church, Pope Urban II. The first Crusade succeeded in re-capturing Jerusalem and safeguarding the pilgrim roads.  The Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem was established in 1099 and lasted for approximately a hundred years. 

But the Moslems regained control in 1187 when Saladin crushed the Crusaders in the Battle of Hattin.  When Richard I of England arrived, there followed a series of clashes, culminating in a peace treaty made in 1192, giving the Crusaders the coast and the Muslims inland territories.  Saladin died three months later in Damascus.  The empire he left was ruled by his family dynasty, the Ayyubids (the family name was Ayyub), who divided up the territory.

The Ayyubids were succeeded by the Mamluks in 1250, who ruled for three centuries. The Mamluks are said to be of Turkish origin by Arabic writers; but in fact they were European boys from Hungary, the Balkans, Germany and Italy who had  been enslaved from the wars in Europe.  They were brought to the Arab lands and trained in the Arabic language, the Islamic faith, and in military skills.   By 1250 they became the warrior ruling class in Cairo.    Their victorious leader Beybars ruled over a reunited Syria and Egypt until his death in 1277.  The Mamluks finally drove the Crusaders out of the land by taking Acre from them in 1291, and the fortified island of Ruad in 1302.

In 1401 the Mongol invader Tamerlane sacked Aleppo and Damascus, carrying many people off in the victory.  This defeat sent the Mamluk kingdom into a decline for the next century.

Then, by 1516 Palestine and Syria were occupied by the Ottoman Turks and would stay that way for the next four centuries.  But most of the desert lands of Syria and beyond remained under independent Bedouin tribes.   The most significant ruler for our concern from the early Ottoman rule was Suleyman (the magnificent), who ruled from 1520-1566.[4]  He tried to capture Hungary, the Balkans, and even Vienna in 1529.  He is the one who in 1537 (eight years after failing to take Vienna) built the walls that one sees around Jerusalem today.  The great Damascus Gate remains as a model of Ottoman art.  In 1565 he tried to drive the knights off of Malta, but failed. 

The Ottoman empire had to settle back into their secured territories.  In 1699 they ceded Hungary and Transylvania to Austria.  The Turks held control of Palestine up til the first World War, but were not able to care for it.  Everything, including the Dome and the Mosque, were in great disrepair.  And the population of the land had shrunk to about 200,000.

In the 19th century there had begun an Arab awakening that would challenge this weakened Turkish rule.  During World War I there was fierce fighting in Syria and Arabia between the Turks, who had German backing, and the British, who were based in Suez.   The British General Allenby fought the Turks in the war, notably at Megiddo (and so was called “Lord of Megiddo”) and then Jerusalem.  The Australian forces engages the Turks at the famous battle at Beersheba.  And the British soldier T. E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia, helped the Arabs to take Damascus and the Emir Faisal to set up a government in 1918.    


The Essential Features of Islam


Islam is one of the fastest growing faiths in the world.  It shares its roots with the great monotheistic faiths that sprang from the Middle East, Judaism and Christianity. Anyone who visits the Middle East will be very much aware of its presence with the loud calls to prayer and the many mosques throughout the land.

The holy book of Islam is the Qur’an (also Koran); it is divided into 114 chapters or suras.  They are not arranged in chronological order but according to length.   It contains much that would be familiar to Christians and Jews; it has many references to Adam, Ibraham, Noah, Moses and others.  Jesus is listed as one of many prophets in a lon g line that leads to Mohammed, the final and definitive prophet.  The Qur’an is said to record the word of God that was revealed to Mohammed by the angel Gabriel in the seventh century. And even though Islam respects Jews and Christians as people of the book, it claims to be the culmination of the development of faith.  To the more zealous Christianity was in many ways an improvement on the Torah and Judaism, and Islam was the next logical step and therefore superior.   To the Qur’an was added the Sunna, Arabic for “rule.”  This is a body of traditional Islamic law laying out the way of behavior.  It is based on the teaching of Mohammed explaining how he and his wife lived their daily lives and treated others.   Originally handed down orally, it was written down in the 9th century.

At the center of the Islamic faith is the teaching that there is only one God, Allah.  He is all-powerful and all-knowing.  The idea of the trinity is completely unacceptable to Islam.   There is only one God and He is sovereign.  He at times is considered free, others would say somewhat capricious--he may be a gracious God, but he may not always be gracious.  The essence of the message of Mohammed was a call to submit to the will of Allah.  “Islam” means “submission”; the word may be related to the word for “peace,” but does not mean “peace.”  Submission and devotion to the will of Allah is very zealous, almost in a fatalistic sense.  And the will of Allah is stern and puritanical. 

Mohammed is the prophet of Allah.  But he is not divine; he is the last and the greatest of the prophets.  To Islam, Jesus is also a prophet--but not the Son of God (one line reads, “There is one God and He has no son”).  He prepared the way for Mohammed.  In fact, Islam believes that Jesus went to heaven, but that he has not yet come back as Mohammed did.  When he does, he will affirm the Islamic faith.

If Muslims want to live a devout life there are several things they must do as part of their faith.  These are referred to as the Five Pillars of Islam:

Shahada.  This is the profession of faith: “There is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet” (you will hear it often enough in the call to prayer: “La illaha illa Allah Mohammed rasul Allah”).  This is the foundational tenet of Islam.  It must be repeated many times during the day; and it is intoned from the minaret five times a day.  Anyone who pronounces this before Muslim witnesses embraces Islam.

Sala.  This is the obligation to pray, five times a day.  Although Muslims can pray anywhere, their sense of community draws them together in the mosque to pray.  The prayer must be made by facing Mecca and bowing to the ground; they must be up off the ground, and so prayer rugs are used.  The routine is carefully orchestrated:    

1.       Standing upright, hands raised to shoulder height, and facing Mecca, they say in Arabic,           “Allah is great . . . .” 

2.       Still standing, with arms down, or the right hand placed over the left in the middle of the body, they recite the first sura of the Qur’an and then the other sura or verses. 

3.       Bowing with hands on knees, they praise Allah. 

4.       They further praise while prostrate with the forehead touching the ground. 

5.       After every prayer and after the last one they recite the creed with the forefinger of the right hand placed on the knee. 

6.       At the conclusion of the prayers, still kneeling, they greet the protecting angel or the others at prayer by looking over their right shoulders and then their left.


Muslims do not include requests or intercessions in their prayers.  Everything is predetermined by Allah in their system, and so nothing can be changed.  Their fate is entirely in Allah’s hands.   This accounts for the fatalism found in Muslim lands. 

Zakat.  Alms-giving to the poor is a necessary part of the faith.  In some countries this emphasis led to various forms of taxes for the poor.  But it has always been a moral obligation to give to the poor, especially poor neighbors.  Poor people are not hesitant to ask for donations either.

Sawm.  This is the month of fasting during Ramadan, the ninth month of the Muslim calendar.  Borrowed from Judaism, this fasting commemorates the time that Mohammed received the revelation.  As part of the renewal of their faith, Muslims are asked to observe this month as holy.  They are to refrain from sex and from letting anything pass their lips from dawn to dusk for the whole month.  This includes food as well as tobacco.

Hadj.  The highpoint for a devout Muslim is a pilgrimage to Mecca.  There they participate in the ancient pre-Islamic ritual of veneration of the great black meteorite, Hadja, contained within the holy shrine, the Kaba, in the cnetral courtyard of the great mosque of Mecca.  They believe that Abraham and Ishmael erected this shrine.  It is best if they can go in the last month of the year, Dulhija, and join others from all over the world for the great feast.  After making a trip the pilgrim may be addressed as Haj, or even have Al-haj written on his wall to attest to the visit to the holy sites.

In addition to these major elements, ordinary life under Islam is rather straightforward.  The people must follow a stern code of conduct.  This involves refraining from drinking, eating pork, gambling, usury, fraud and slander.  They are to deal with people in justice and mercy, showing charity to all, and assisting the unfortunate.  Family life is important to Islam; a man is allowed four wives (if he can afford them) and as many concubines as he wishes (although monogamy is the law in Turkey); but the precepts of sexual morality are strict--death for adultery.  Women are required to dress modestly in public with their heads covered; in some cultures only the hands and face (or eyes) may be seen.

Muslims  are required to give their life, if necessary, to further and protect the faith.  Those who die in holy war are assured the rewards of eternal life.  So they are in jihad, the promotion of the Islamic faith “by any means” throughout the world.  Some are now explaining this to mean conquering one’s own shortcomings.

Eternal rewards are rather easily understood.  Those who follow the word of Allah and serve God with sincerity and devotion are assured eternal life.  None of the difficulties and doubts raised in the other religions are encompassed here.  Sin and guilt are not the major concerns.   And the heaven which the Muslim is promised is attractive to human desires.  It is a heaven in which he can partake of the pleasures denied him in this world--drinking, gambling, and the pleasure of dark-eyed beauties.  The latter reward is held out as a promise for the most faithful.  Women, of course, do not rank very high in the Islamic order.

It is no mystery why this religion appealed to the Arabian warriors of the desert, and to people all along their path of conquest.




The mosque embodies the Islamic faith and is its distinctive architectural feature. The structure was developed very early; it follows the pattern of a private house where people would gather to worship.  The prototype is said to have been Mohammed’s house.   The original setting was an enclosed courtyard with huts (for the wives) and a portico for shade.  The house was the prayer hall.

In mosques the prayer hall is normally divided into a series of aisles.  The center aisle is the widest; it leads to a vaulted niche in the wall called the mihrab.  This niche indicates the direction of Mecca, the direction of prayer.

There are no priests in Islam.  The imam is spiritual leader.  He is one who has been schooled in Islam and Islamic law.  He may also be the muezzin, the one who calls people to prayer from the tower of the minaret (now they use recorded calls).  At the Friday noon prayers (Friday is the holy day to Islam) the imam gives the sermon of khutba, from the minbar, a pulpit that is beside the mihrab.  Women are seated in a balcony behind a curtain.  This separation of the women from the men influence the synagogue and the church to similar practices.

Before entering the prayer hall Muslims must perform the ritual of washing.  They must wash their hands, forearms, face, and neck.  For this washing mosques usually have fountains or rows of taps in the courtyards.

The mosques serve several other purposes.  They may function as a kind of community center, or a place of instruction for children in the Quran, or a place of private prayer, or of simple tranquility from the chaos outside.


Sunnis and Shi’ites


In the early days Islam split into two main streams of the faith, the Sunnis and the Shi’ites.  The power struggle between Ali, the last of the four companions of Mohammed, and the powers of the day, led to the split.  Succession after Mohammed had always been marked by intrigue and bloodshed.  Ali lost the struggle and was killed, paving the way to the caliphate for the Umayyed leader Mu’awiya.  The followers of Mu’awiya, the majority, came to be know as sunni Muslims.  This is the orthodox or traditional branch of the faith.

The Shi’ites, however, recognize only the successors of Ali (Arabic Shiat Ali is the “party of Ali”).  They are bitterly opposed by the Sunnis because they reject the Sunna because it contains words of the successors of Mohammed as well as the prophet. They believe in only twelve Imams who must be of the true blood line from Ali; the last of these, the twelfth, has disappeared but will appear someday to create an apocalyptic empire of the true faith and righteousness.  Some believe there are seven imams.   The Shi’ites venerate the Imams as saints; they are more mystical than Sunnis, and they are generally more zealous and/or militant than most Islamic people.


The Alawites


The Alawites are an offshoot of the Shi’ites.  They were probably founded in the ninth century on the Arabian peninsula by a preacher named Mohammed ibn Nusayr.  They believe there is one God with a hierarchy of divine beings, the highest of whom is Ali--so the name Alawites, or followers of Ali.

In Syria the Alawites have lived in the mountainous regions along the coast.  As a minority they have often been persecuted by the ruling Sunni dynasties.  Saladin, the Mamlukes, and the Ottomons all massacred them or forced them into conversion.  They always held the poorest land and least skilled jobs.

In the 20th century the French allied with the Alawites and gave them their own rule.  They then entered the political scene successfully.  Hafez al-Assad, an Alawite, became the president of Syria in 1970.  So the minority Alawites (one million people) now rule the Sunni population (16 million people).


The Druze


The Druze religion is an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam as well.  It was spread in the 11th century by Hamzah ibn Ali and other missionaries from Egypt who were followers of the Fatimid caliph Al-Hakim (remember Al-Hakim, “the Mad,” the one who destroyed the Church of the Holy Sepulcher).

The group takes its names from a subordinate of Hamzah named Mohammed Darazi.  Darazi had declared Al-Hakim to be the last imam and God in one.  But most Egyptians did not think the bloody ruler was divine.  With the death of Al-Hakim, these folks had to flee from Egypt.  They settled mostly in the mountainous regions of Lebanon, although some are in the border regions of Syria and Jordan, and some in Mt. Carmel.  They are a peaceful, isolated folk; but they are also excellent fighters

Their faith has survived because of its secrecy.  They permit no conversion to or from the faith.  Only an elite, known as ’uqqal (“knowers”), have full access to the religious doctrine (called hikmeh).

This doctrine is hand-written in seven holy books.  It is essentially Islamic; but it also teaches a gnosticism (the body is evil, but the spirit is not)  and reincarnation (so the spirit can be reborn in another body).  It has a code called taqiyyah (“caution”), which allows a Druze to live in outward conformity to Christianity and still be Druze.  They believe God is too holy to be named, is amorphous, and will reappear in other incarnations.  They revere the New Testament and the Quran; but they read their own scriptures at the study houses on Thursdays.




The beginnings of Islam, and its rapid spread throughout the countries of the Middle East and the Mediterranean, was anything but peaceful.  In that respect, it stands in stark contrast to the Byzantine Empire before it, from the time of Constantine to Justinian.  Liberty, peace, and hope all were subjugated to a rigid religious system.  


[1]“Bar Kochba” means “Son of the Star.”  This was a messianic title based on the prophecy delivered by Balaam in the Book of Numbers (24:17).  Many, even Rabbi Aqiba, were convinced he was the messiah.

[2]The Donatists were a 4th and 5th century schismatic group that declared the Church to be apostate and its baptism invalid.  Named after the North African Bishop Donatus, they were noted for severe discipline, separation of church and state, high standard for ministry, baptismal regeneration and infant baptism.  They degenerated into bigotry and extremism.  They were opposed by Augustine.

The Arian controversy arose in Alexandria, Egypt about 320 and was concerned with the person of Christ.  An elder, Arius, thought there was a difference between God the Father and Christ the Son, which made the latter secondary.  To him Christ was created first and then he in turn created the universe.  In the writing of the Nicene Creed, under the leadership of the Bishop of Alexandria, the expression homoousia was included, which said Christ was of the same substance of the Father, and not homoiousia, of similar substance, as Arius had wanted.  The section reads, “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, being of one substance with the Father.”  Because Constantine accepted a moderating view, Arianism survived for a while longer until Athanasius ended it officially in 381.  Pockets of Arianism persisted even after that, even to this day.

[3]First-century tombs were found at the same spot.  Since Jews did not bury inside the city, it was concluded that this place was originally outside the walls.

[4]Suleyman was without equal in Islamic history--codifier of Moslem law, patron of poetry, scholarship and art, and builder.  He enriched his empire with schools, hospitals, mosques, fountains, palaces, aqueducts, and public baths.