Written by Vladimir Moss



     St. John of Damascus (+749) says of the origins of Islam: “There is also the superstition of the Ishmaelites which to this day prevails and keeps people in error, being a forerunner of the Antichrist. They are descended from Ishmael, [who] was born to Abraham of Agar, and for this reason they are called both Agarenes and Ishmaelites. They are also called Saracens, which is derived from Sarras kenoi, or destitute of Sara, because of what Agar said to the angel: ‘Sara hath sent me away destitute.’ These used to be idolaters and worshiped the morning star and Aphrodite, whom in their own language they called Khabár, which means great. And so down to the time of Heraclius they were very great idolaters. From that time to the present a false prophet named Mohammed has appeared in their midst. This man, after having chanced upon the Old and New Testaments and likewise, it seems, having conversed with an Arian monk, devised his own heresy. Then, having insinuated himself into the good graces of the people by a show of seeming piety, he gave out that a certain book had been sent down to him from heaven. He had set down some ridiculous compositions in this book of his and he gave it to them as an object of veneration.”[1] 

     By the time of his death in 632, Mohammed had established the dominion of his new religion of Islam over the whole of Arabia. He did not proclaim himself a king, still less a Persian-style “king of kings”, but a mere prophet – albeit the last and greatest of them. In fact, he was the prophet of one of the Arabian pagan demons, the moon-god Allah[2], whom he proclaimed to be the one true God. In spite of the clearly pagan origins of his faith, Mohammed claimed to abhor every kind of man-worship and idolatry.

     Although Mohammed himself fought only relatively small-scale wars for the control of Arabia, his sucessors, the early caliphs, went with fire and sword throughout the Middle East and North Africa[3]; and Islam in general has been the most violent religion in history.[4]

     The despotic pagan civilizations place the rights of the collective over the rights of the individual, thereby giving the state a despotic power and discouraging freedom of thought. Western civilization, on the other hand, generally allows freedom of conscience and some autonomy to the religious sphere. The main difference between the Islamic civilization and the other two is that it places religion above the state, and religious law above state law.

     Roger Scruton has probed the difference between western and Islamic ideas in an illuminating way.[5] The core religion of the West, Orthodox Christianity, grew up in the context of the Roman empire, and from the beginning gave the state a certain autonomy. The Christian was obliged to obey the state in all its laws that did not directly contradict the commandment of God: “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22.21). For although his ultimate loyalty was to God, the Christian was also a citizen of the state. He did not rebel against the State, but gradually worked on its crude mores until it became Christian itself. Then Church and State worked in harmony with each other in a “symphony of powers”. The Church was universal, and had members in many different countries. The State, on the other hand, was territorial, being based on the feeling of a common destiny of all or most of the people on that territory, reinforced by commonalities of language, culture and religion. 

     Islam, however, did not encourage the growth of stable territorial nation-states or empires. There were tribes, and there was the universal religion, and very little of what we may call “political infrastructure” in between. There was shariah, the law of Allah, but very little in the way of state law, and certainly nothing comparable to the legal structures created by Constantine, Theodosius and Justinian. And so, while the Muslims considered “the People of the Book”, the Jews and Christians, to be higher than pagans and therefore entitled to some respect, there was no such thing as equality under the law for all citizens, regardless of their faith, a typically Roman conception.

     The promises of the Muslims to “the People of the Book” have counted for little in practice. Thus Bishop Dionysius (Alferov) of Novgorod writes: “In 638, after a year-long siege [of Jerusalem], [Patriarch Sophronius] handed over the city to Caliph Omar on definite conditions. The churches at the holy places (first of all Golgotha and the Holy Sepulchre) remained in the possession of the Jerusalem Patriarchate, half of whose churches were turned into mosques. The preaching of Christianity to Muslims was forbidden, and the Christian churches into which Caliph Omar entered were seized by the Muslims and converted later into mosques. Later, this agreement was often broken by the Muslims, and the majority of the churches were destroyed. Even the very church of the Resurrection over the Holy Sepulchre was destroyed more than once. And yet the agreement with Omar created a certain basis for the further existence of the Jerusalem Patriarchate. It was recognized as a legal person, and the possessor of a series of churches and plots of land in Palestine. It was allowed to carry out Divine services, to look after the spiritual needs of Christians and even to judge the Christian population in civil cases. On the whole the Mohammedans did not interfere in the internal administration of the Jerusalem Patriarchate, although they often carried out external acts of violence and theft on the Christian population and clergy. The patriarch himself was elected by the Synod, although the Caliph confirmed him.

     “The main feature of this agreement was the preservation of the earthly existence of the Jerusalem Church, the guarantee of its legal existence, possession of churches and property, the right to carry out open public services. The cost that had to be paid for this was not only complete loyalty to the Mohammedan authorities and prayers for the caliph and his army, but also – which is more important – the refusal to preach Christianity to the Muslims and their own children who had been seduced into Islam. But the Arabs by deceit and violence converted thousands of Christians to their faith – and the archpastors of the Church did not dare to protest against this, and did not dare openly to carry out anti-Islamic propaganda, which was punished by death at all times in Islamic countries.”[6]


     What was the nature of Islamic power? Bernard Lewis writes that “the power wielded by the early caliphs was very far from the despotism of their predecessors and successors. It was limited by the political ethics of Islam and by the anti-authoritarian habits and traditions of ancient Arabia. A verse attributed to the pre-Islamic Arabic poet ‘Abid ibn al-Abras speaks of his tribe as ‘laqah’, a word which, according to the ancient commentators and lexicographers, denotes a tribe that has never submitted to a king. ‘Abid’s proud description of his people makes his meaning clear: 

They refused to be servants of kings, and were never ruled by any.

But when they were called on for help in war, they responded gladly.

     “The ancient Arabs, like the ancient Israelites depicted in the books of Judges and Samuel, mistrusted kings and the institution of kingship. They were, indeed, familiar with the institution of monarchy in the surrounding countries, and some were even led to adopt it. There were kings in the states of southern Arabia; there were kings in the border principalities of the north; but all these were in different degrees marginal to Arabia. The sedentary kingdoms of the south used a different language, and were part of a different culture. The border principalities of the north, though authentically Arab, were deeply influenced by Persian and Byzantine imperial practice, and represent a somewhat alien element in the Arab world…

     “The early Muslims were well aware of the nature of imperial monarchy as practised in their own day in Byzantium and in Persia, and believed that the state founded by the Prophet and governed after him by his successors the caliphs represented something new and different…”[7]

     However, the Ummayad Caliphs in Damascus, and then the Abbasid Caliphs in Baghdad, fell under strong Byzantine and then Persian influence…

Take the case of one of the best, and probably the most powerful, of the early caliphs, Muawiya, who in 661 became, as Simon Sebag Montefiore writes, “the Caliph of the vast empire that included Egypt, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Persia and Arabia… He ruled through Christian bureaucrats and tolerated Christians and Jews alike, seeing himself as something between Arab sheikh, Islamic caliph and Roman emperor. He was tolerant and pragmatic, following an early, looser version of Islam, happy to worship at Christian and Jewish sites, and share their shrine.” However, despite his “tolerance”, he continued to conquer Christian lands such as Rhodes and Cyprus, and almost took Constantinople. Later he expanded the empire into eastern Persia, central Asia, the Sahara and today’s Libya and Algeria.

     Living as he did in Syria, whose culture was Byzantine, Muawiya began to be influenced by Byzantine ideas and practices. “Byzantine influence on the emerging Islamic civilization, a tidal pull that now reached its high-water mark, went far beyond the caliph’s assumption of royal ways. It covered virtually all areas of life…”[8] Thus he was criticised, writes Colin Wells, “for putting on royal airs. In defense he explained ‘that Damaxcus was full of Greeks, and that none would believe in his power if he did not behave and look like an emperor.’”[9] And his public designation, before his death in 680, of his son Yazid as his successor constituted a break with Islamic tradition and the adoption of the principle of dynastic succession.[10]

     “Yazid failed to grasp the succession, facing rebellions in Arabia and Iraq. Muhammed’s grandson Hussein rebelled to avenge his father Ali’s death but was brutally murdered at Karbala in Iraq, his martyrdom creatin the Shia, ‘the party’, a division that still splits Islam today. However, after Yazid’s early death, Muawiya’s old kinsman Marwan started to reconquer the empire, dying in 685 and leaving this troubled inheritanceto his son Abd al-Malik, the second of the titanic Ummayad Caliphs. Abd al-Malik was less human and flexible but more ruthless and visionary than Muawiya. He first mercilessly crushed the rebellions, retaking Iraq and Arabia; in Jerusalem he built the Dome of the Rock…

     “… Abd al-Malik saw himself as God’s shadow on earth: if Muawiya was Caesar of the Arabs, he was a mixture of St. Paul and Constantine the Great – he believed in the marriage of empire, state and god. As such it was Abd al-Malik who collated the book of Islam – the Koran – into its final form (the inscriptions in Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock are the first examples of the final Koran text), who defined Islamic rituals and who unified Islam into a single religion recognizable today with the emphasis on Koran and Muhammed, expressed in the double shahada: “There is no God but God and uhammed is the apostle of God’. Abd al-Malik and his son Caliph Walid expanded their empire to the borders of India and the coasts of Spain. Yet their dynasty remained part Islamic theocrats, part Roman emperors, often living in a distinctly unIslamic decadence. This led to the family’s downfall in the revolution of 750, when they were replaced by the Abbasid caliphs who ruled from Iraq and blackened the reputation of the Ummayads. To the Shia, they remained heretics and sinners because the Shia believed the real Caliphs were the twelve descendants from [Muhammed’s cousin] Ali and [his wife] Fatima: indeed the Shia of Iran still await the return of the Twelfth…”[11]

     It was Abu Muslim, a manumitted Persian slave, who raised the standard of revolt, defeated the Umayyads and created the Abbasid dynasty. A few years later, Al-Mansur (754-775), having moved the capital of the empire to Baghdad, came under the influence of Persia with its strong despotic tradition. And so Muslim “democratism” soon passed into a despotism no less fierce than the monarchies that Islam had destroyed. The caliphs of the ninth century, particularly Mamun (813-833), believed their authority to be unlimited. And the Fatimid ruler Al-Hakim even believed he was god…

     Despotism in politics leads to the persecution of all non-State religion. Thus when Caliph Mutasim, Mamum’s brother and successor, conquered the Byzantine fortress town of Amorion, he executed forty-two prisoners who refused to renounce Christianity and embrace Islam.[12]That Muslim statehood should become despotic was a natural consequence of the lack of a separation of Church and State, which gave an absolute, unchecked power to the Caliphs, embodying as they did both religious and political authority.

     “The increasingly authoritarian character of government”, writes Lewis, “and the disappointment of successful revolutionaries is vividly expressed in a passage quoted by several classical authors. A certain Sudayf, a supporter of the Abbasids, is cited as complaining of the changes resulting from the fall of the Umayyads and the accession of the Abbasids to the caliphate: ‘By God, our booty, which was shared, has become a perquisite of the rich. Our leadership, which was consultative, has become arbitrary. Our succession, which was by the choice of the community, is now by inheritance.”[13]


     There were differences between the Sunnis and the Shias on the nature of Islamic power. One of the questions dividing them was whether the caliphate should be elective or hereditary. “The Shia maintained that the caliphate should be hereditary in the line of the Prophet, and therefore that all the caliphs, except only for the brief rule of Ali and of his son Hasan, were usurpers. The more generally accepted view of the Sunni Muslims was that the caliphate was elective, and any member of the Prophet’s tribe, Quraysh, was eligible.”[14] Al-Mansur in Spain made the caliphate there hereditary, but thirty years after his death the people abolished it altogether. 

     Another of the differences between the Sunnis and the Shiites was that the latter believed in a certain separation, even antagonism between the imamate and the State. “The myth of the Hidden Imam… symbolized the impossibility of implementing a truly religious policy in this world, since the caliphs had destroyed Ali’s line and driven the ilm [the knowledge of what is right] from the earth. Henceforth the Shii ulama [learned men, guardians of the legal and religious traditions of Islam] became the representatives of the Hidden Imam, and used their own mystical and rational insights to apprehend his will. Twelver Shiis (who believe in the twelve imams) would take no further part in political life, since in the absence of the Hidden Imam, the true leader of the ummah [the Muslim community], no government could be legitimate.”[15]

     The Sunnis, on the other hand, tended to conflate political and religious power. Thus according to T.P. Miloslavskaya and G.V. Miloslavsky, they believed that the caliphate's secular and spiritual powers (the sultanate and the imamate) were indivisible.[16] Again, Colin McEvedy writes that “the successors of Mohammed, the Caliphs, combined, as he had, the powers of Emperor and Pope”.[17] Again, Ninian Smart writes that Islam “demands institutions which cover the whole life of the community. There is nothing in Islam… corresponding to the Church. There is no place for a special institution within society devoted to the ends of the faith. For it is the whole of society which is devoted to the ends of the faith.”[18] And again, Bernard Lewis writes: It is sometimes said that the caliph was head of State and Church, pope and emperor in one. This description in Western and Christian terms is misleading. Certainly there was no distinction between imperium and sacerdotium, as in the Christian empire, and no separate ecclesiastical institution, no Church, with its own head and hierarchy. The caliphate was always defined as a religious office, and the caliph’s supreme purpose was to safeguard the heritage of the Prophet and to enforce the Holy Law. But the caliph had no pontifical or even priestly function… His task was neither to expound nor to interpret the faith, but to uphold and protect it – to create conditions in which his subjects could follow the good Muslim life in this world and prepare themselves for the world to come. And to do this, he had to maintain the God-given Holy Law within the frontiers of the Islamic state, and to defend and, where possible, extend those frontiers, until in the fullness of time the whole world was opened to the light of Islam…”[19]

     However, this indivisibility of powers resulted in a gradual undermining of the quasi-democratic ideal of early Islam by the reality of the caliphs’ almost unlimited power. On the one hand, the caliphs wanted to create an order in which, “as ideally conceived, there were to be no priests, no church, no kings and no nobles, no privileged orders or castes or estates of any kind, save only for the self-evident superiority of those who accept the true faith to those who wilfully reject it – and of course such obvious natural and social realities as the superiority of man to woman and of master to slave.”[20] But on the other hand, they were military leaders, and success in war  required that they should be able to command no less obedience.

     As François Guizot points out, the separation of spiritual and temporal power is a legacy of Christianity which the Islamic world abandoned: “This separation is the source of liberty of conscience; it is founded upon no other principle but that which is the foundation of the most perfect and extended freedom of conscience. The separation of temporal and spiritual power is based upon the idea that physical force has neither right nor influence over souls, over conviction, over truth. It flows from the distinction established between the world of thought and the world of action, between the world of internal and that of external facts. Thus this principle of liberty of conscience for which Europe has struggled so much, and suffered so much, this principle which prevailed so late, and often, in its progress, against the inclination of the clergy, was enunciated, under the name of the separation of temporal and spiritual power, in the very cradle of European civilisation; and it was the Christian Church which, from the necessity imposed by its situation of defending itself against barbarism, introduced and maintained it… It is in the combination of the spiritual and temporal powers, in the confusion of moral and material authority, that the tyranny which seems inherent in this [Muslim] civilisation originated.”[21]

     Another reason for the despotism inherent in Islam is the belief that all people are bound to obey Allah, and that those who do not obey – with the partial exceptions of the Jews and Christians - have no right either to life or freedom or property. The whole world is divided into the “House of Islam” (which means “obedience”), on the one hand, and the “House of War”, on the other. Therefore the natural state of relations between the two “Houses” is one of struggle, or “jihad”, interrupted only by temporary periods of peace permitted for purely tactical reasons.[22] Thus the Koran says: “Kill the unbelievers wherever you find them” (Koran 2:191). “Make war on the infidels living in your neighbourhood” (Koran 9:123).“Fight and kill the unbelievers wherever you find them, take them captive, harass them, lie in wait and ambush them using every stratagem of war.” (Koran 9:5; cf. 8:60).“O believers, make war on the infidels who dwell around you. Let them find firmness in you” (Sura: 9; Ayat: 123). “Fight those who believe not… even if they be People of the Book [Jews and Christians] until they willingly agree to pay the tribute in recognition of their submissive state” (Sura: 9; Ayat: 29). “You will be called to fight a mighty nation; fight them until they embrace Islam” (Sura: 48; Ayat: 16).

      The Islamic scholar Ibn Khaldun summed up the difference between the Christian view of war and the Islamic view: "In the Muslim community, jihad is a religious duty because of the universalism of the Muslim mission and the obligation to convert everybody to Islam either by persuasion or by force. The other religious groups did not have a universal mission, and the jihad was not a religious duty for them, save only for purposes of defense. But Islam is under obligation to gain power over other nations."

     Thus, as L.A. Tikhomirov wrote: “In submitting without question to God, the Muslim becomes a spreader of the power of God on earth. Everyone is obliged to submit to Allah, whether they want to or not. If they do not submit, then they have no right to live. Therefore the pagans are subject either to conversion to Islam, or to extermination. Violent conversion to Islam, is nothing prejudicial, from the Muslim point of view, for people are obliged to obey God without question, not because they desire it, but because Allah demands this of them.”[23]

     Again, as Kenneth Craig writes, holy war, or jihad, “was believed to be the recovery by Islam of what by right belonged to it as the true and final religion but which had been alienated from it by the unbelief or perversity embodied in the minorities whose survival – but no more – it allowed....”[24] 

     And if it allowed their existence, this was not because they had the “right” to survive, but because, for the time being, it was not advantageous to the Muslims – or beyond their power – to kill them…


[1] St. John, The Fount of Knowledge, Part 2: Epitome of Heresies.

[2] Nektarios Lignos writes: “Allah, worshipped in pre-Islamic Arabia, is the god Muhammad’s Quraysh tribe worshipped, …. the moon god who was married to the sun goddess and they had three daughters – Al-Lat, Al-Uzza, and Manat. This is why we see the crescent moon symbol in conjunction with Islam.”

[3] In Africa, the Muslims reached as far south as Makuria (modern-day Sudan). “During the summer of 642 AD, the Orthodox Christian Kingdom of Makuria defeated a Muslim invasion at the First Battle of Dongola. Ten years later the Orthodox Makurians would defeat a second and larger invasion force by the Caliphate. This resulted in a peace that lasted for nearly 700 years.” (Hieromonk Enoch, Facebook communication, July, 2016)

[4] Samuel P. Huntingdon, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, London: Simon & Schuster, 1996, pp. 254-258.

[5] Scruton, The West and the Rest: Globalization and the Terrorist Threat, London: Continuum, 2002.

[6] Alferov, “Vizantijskij servilizm i sovietskoe sergianstvo” (Byzantine servility and Soviet sergianism),, pp. 5-6.

[7] Bernard Lewis, The Middle East, London: Phoenix, 1995, pp. 140-141.

[8] Wells, Sailing from Byzantium, New York: Bantam Deli, 2006, pp. 129-130.

[9] Wells, op. cit., p. 129.

[10]Wells, op. cit., p. 132.

[11] Montefiore, Titans of History, London: Quercus, 2012, pp. 98, 99-100.

[12] In Moorish Spain, too, we find an increase in Christian martyrdoms (and apostasies to Islam) at this time. See Richard Fletcher, The Conversion of Europe, London: HarperCollins, 1997, pp. 308-312; Andrew Wheatcroft, Infidels, London: Penguin Books, 2004, pp. 80-88.

[13] Lewis, op. cit., pp. 143-144.

[14] Lewis, op. cit., p. 139.

[15] Armstrong, Islam, New York: Modern Library, 2002, pp. 67, 68-69.

[16] Miloslavskaia and Miloslavsky, “Kontseptsia ‘Islamskogo Edinstva’ i Integratsionnie Protsessy v ‘Musulmanskom Mire’” (“The Conception of ‘Islamic Unity’ and Integrational Processes in ‘the Muslim World’), in Islam i Problemy Natsionalizma (Islam and the Problems of Nationalism), Moscow: Nauka, 1986), p. 12.

[17] McEvedy, The Penguin Atlas of Medieval History, London: Penguin, 1961, p. 36.

[18] Smart, The Religious Experience of Mankind, London: Fontana, 1971, p. 538.

[19]Lewis, op. cit., pp. 138-139.

[20] Lewis, op. cit., p. 72.

[21] Guizot, The History of Civilization in Europe, London: Penguin, 1997, pp. 42, 55.

[22] Henry Kissinger, World Order, London: Penguin, 2015, pp. 101-102.

[23] Tikhomirov, Religio-filosofskie Osnovy Istorii, Moscow, 1997, p. 296.

[24] Craig, The Arab Christian, London: Mowbrays, 1992, pp. 57-58.

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