Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Christianity and Islam, the Religions That Shape the Course of History

The belief of an almighty creator is an inherent nature of man. To cater to that belief, some people established religions that attracted large number of people. These religions even survive long after the death of their founders. By following a religion, a man has to suit his lifestyle in a way that his religion requires him. People’s collective adherence to a belief will somehow create a distinctive culture in a community. Indeed, religion has a profound impact on the social, political and cultural aspects of our lives. Since time immemorial many religions have been created and their struggle for expansion and dominance have resulted to the demise of empires, the change of the ethnic composition of a territory, the eruption of armed conflicts and the boom and decline of trade and commerce. Christianity and Islam are the two religions that in one way or the other affected the way many people live their lives in the past and present.

Jesus Christ and Christianity

The largest religion on earth was founded by a man named Jesus who was born in Bethlehem in Judea at around 6 AD during the reign of Roman Emperor Augustus Caesar. Little was known about his life in his younger age. He started his public ministry at the age of 30. With the help of his 12 disciples he preached to the people and healed the physically and spiritually sick. He told of the imminent coming of the Kingdom of God and of salvation. The Jewish high priests did not see Jesus’ activities in good light. For them he was a violator of the Jewish customs and traditions, and his claim to be the Messiah, the king of the Jews and the Son of God was highly blasphemous that called for a death penalty. The high priests plotted against him and put pressure on Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, to have him executed. To appease the Jews and to prevent them from rioting, Pontius Pilate had Jesus crucified.

Contrary to what the Jewish high priests and Roman authorities expected, the death of Jesus did not end the movement that he founded.  His disciples and other followers who denied and abandoned him when he was tried and executed became fearless even to the point of death to vouch for him. Many of them claimed to have seen the resurrected Jesus before his ascension to heaven. For Jesus disciples and followers he was what he claimed to be.

Christianity is a religion that believes that spiritual salvation can only be obtained through Jesus. Christians also believe that Jesus is God’s promise Messiah whose life, death and resurrection fulfilled the prophecies of the Holy Bible. Different Christian denominations however are in constant disagreement as to the nature and or divinity of Jesus.

The early Christians were persecuted by the Jews and Romans and were falsely accused of having caused the disasters and other unfavorable things that happened in their community. However, despite the hardships and difficulties, they continued to spread the teachings of Christ.

Things started to change for the better for the Christians during the reign of Roman Emperor Constantine I. He allowed freedom of worship in the empire. It was said that he saw a vision of the cross against the sun at the Battle of the Melvian Bridge in 312 AD, and that the sign would give him victory. Constantine later defeated his rivals and became the sole Roman emperor. The conversion of Constantine to Christianity which he made as the official religion of the empire enabled it to spread like wildfire within its territories. The Romans’ acceptance of Christianity also effectively eradicated their old polytheistic pagan belief.
During his reign Constantine transferred his capital from Rome to Byzantium, which was later called Constantinople in 330 AD. His move divided the empire into east and west, and the east became known as the Byzantine Empire.

Muhammad and Islam

Muhammad was born in 570 AD in Mecca. He became an orphan in his early childhood and at age 25 he married a rich widow named Khadija. Becoming a merchant, he traveled to Syria where he came into contact with Jews and Christians. At age 40 Muhammad had a vision of the Angel Gabriel in a cave which ordered him to go forth and preach. At first Muhammad was so afraid of the vision that he even believed that it was a malevolent spirit. However, his wife convinced him that it was from God.

Muhammad was later convinced that he was indeed a messenger of God. He started to preach, but was able only to get few converts. His activities put him in a collision course with the religious leaders of Mecca, who plotted for his life. Muhammad and his followers fled to Medina in 622 AD.  His departure was referred by Muslims as Hegira. Muhammad established an Islamic community in Medina and gained religious as well as political prominence. He was victorious in the Battle of Badr and Uhud and captured Mecca with little bloodshed. He then cleansed the Kaaba of idols and converted the people there of his new religion.                                                                                                                                                                          
During his lifetime Muhammad was able to convert all of Arabia to his new religion which is called Islam or submission. In the centuries after his death in 632 AD Muslim armies spread the faith by conquest and conversion and forged an Arab empire that stretched from Spain to India.                                                                                                                                                         

Islam is a monotheistic religion that has some component of Judaism and Christianity. Muslims live by abiding with the five pillars of their faith. They are: shahada- professing that  Allah is the only God and Muhammad is His prophet; salat- praying 5 times a day; zakat- giving alms to the poor; sawm of Ramadan- fasting during the holy month and haj- the pilgrimage to Mecca. Islam’s holy book is called the Koran which Muslims believe as the literal words of Allah. Muslims governs their action based on the Sharia, a legal system that is adopted from the Koran.

Muslims and Christian Conflicts

After Muhammad’s death, his armies conquered the Zoroastrians in Persia and the Pagans of Arabia and the Jews and the Christians in Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and Palestine and in the process replacing the original dominant religions with Islam.

Having conquered much of the east, the Muslims trained their eyes on Europe. The Moors and the Arabs crossed into the Iberian Peninsula and occupied Spain. Advancing toward the north, they crossed the Pyrenees Mountains but were halted by Charles Martel who defeated them at the Battle of Tours in 732 AD and forced them to retreat back to Spain where they stayed and established their own dynasty. 

In Anatolia the Turks posed a grave threat to the Byzantine Empire. The Turks were nomadic people from central Asia who migrated to the Middle East and to Asia Minor. They were converted to Islam and championed the religion. Overtime, they became the power to be reckoned with in those areas. The Turks defeated the Byzantine forces at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071 in which Emperor Romanus IV was captured by Turkish leader Alp Arslan. Their capture of Jerusalem made it difficult for Christian pilgrims to visit their holy places.

To eliminate the threat of the Turks on the Byzantine Empire and to free Palestine from them, Pope Urban organized the crusades to deal with the situation. The crusaders were composed of troops from different European nationalities. There were eight crusades that were launched from 1095 to 1270. But these military campaigns ended mostly in failures because of the mutual distrust among their leaders and the primary cause of the crusades was obscured by their selfish political and economic interests. The fourth crusade in 1204 was diverted to Constantinople and sacked the city and replaced the rulers there with Latin emperors, an action that alienated the Byzantine subjects from their Christian allies.

Victories and Defeats

The marriage of King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castile strengthened their Christians kingdoms in Spain.  Their combined forces defeated the last Moorish kingdom of Granada in 1492, and the Moors were expelled from Spain. At first the Muslims and the Jews who opted to stay in the country were treated fairly. But later, the inquisitions made many of them leave Spain.

The Ottoman Turks were able to take over large area of Asia Minor and conquered some countries in the Balkan Peninsula thereby surrounding the city of Constantinople the seat of the Byzantine Empire and Christendom’s second most important city after Rome. It was just a matter of time before the moribund Byzantine Empire with its capital city would fall to the Muslim Turks. Finally, on May 29, 1453, forces under Sultan Muhammad II laid siege to the city and successfully captured it. The fall of Constantinople marked the end of the Byzantine Empire which was supplanted by the Ottoman Empire which made Constantinople as its capital. The Ottomans wanted to take Europe for Islam. Led by Suleiman the Magnificent, they attempted to cross Western Europe through Vienna in 1529. However, they were driven back by the city’s defending troops.

Alternative Trade Routes to the Sea and the Age of Exploration

The control of important traditional trade routes by the Muslims made it difficult and expensive for goods such as spices from Asia to reach Europe. To get around the trade routes that were in the hands of the Arabs and Turks, Christian European kingdoms particularly Spain and Portugal looked to the sea to reach India where those goods were said to come from. Early explorers thought that the source of spices in the east could be reached through the sea by sailing westward, and around the Cape of Good Hope. Queen Isabella sponsored and financed the expedition of Christopher Columbus into the Indies in 1492. He was not able to reach India although he discovered a vast unexplored land that was later named the America.

Columbus exploration paved the way to the settlement of new lands that were at that time unknown to Europe. Other European powers such as Britain, France and Netherlands joined Spain and Portugal in the exploration of the New World. As a result, colonies were established which later became independent countries. New countries such as United States, Mexico, and Brazil among others were born. Their people are composed of indigenous inhabitants and settlers of divergent nationalities around the world.  Some countries such as the United States and Canada even became richer and greater than their former mother countries.

The discovery of new lands during the Age of Explorations enabled the European powers to extend their territories beyond the sea. It provided them economic benefit and enabled them to propagate their traditions, language, culture and religion in those lands. Somehow, the Age of Exploration has paved the way for the spread Christianity outside of Europe and the Middle East. Although many people believe in God and adhere to a religious belief, there are others who consider religion as absurdity. But it is an undeniable fact that religion is one of the factors that shaped the courses of events in history.

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