During or around the year 570 A.D., a baby was born. This child was fairly ordinary at first, but he would completely alter the course of history, and the effects of his life would continue to shape the world today.
This man was Muhammad, and those “effects” are religious turmoil and a multitude of martyrs. Muhammad was born into a poor family and quickly became an orphan. After his parents’ death, he moved in with his uncle, where he learned to trade. From the outset, Muhammad had the skill of persuasion, a quality some would perceive as holiness, others as manipulation. However received, this skill enabled Muhammad to both calm riots and incite the same; it allowed him to create one religion and condemn another. From the Christian perspective, Islam was no force to be reckoned with. It was no more than a few babbling Arabs who had accepted the radical Arian heresy with even more radical effects (the latter assertion may have merit, but the first certainly does not). Yet, much to the misfortune of the Christian Church, Muhammad and Islam had no intention of leaving the political and religious scene. Even before Muhammad’s death, violence broke out in the Arabic cities between those who accepted this new religion, and those who did not. Islam grew at alarming rates, not only in the religious spectrum, but also in the political realm. Despite the countless logical and basic philosophical shortcomings, Muslim theology posed a major threat to an already suffering Christian Church. By triggering a strong Eastern resurgence of Arianism and Iconoclasm, the rise of Islam arguably resulted in the Great Schism. It would not be implausible to claim Islam is at least partially responsible for the divergence of Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and even Protestantism (nor would it be rash to suggest Arianism is, at the root, the cause of all these Schisms). In any case, the Eastern and Western worlds were forever changed by the rise of Islam. In the Orthodox world, the Siege of Alexandria foreshadowed the Islamic conquests to come, and in the West, the Battle of Tours indicates future Crusades.
The Siege of Alexandria is typically nestled safely in the footnotes of a history book, or perhaps given a brief mention within the broader rise of Islam, but perhaps it is worth a deeper look. The insinuations of the Siege certainly merit more than a little concern. After all, Alexandria was formerly the center of sophisticated Christian thought. Another reason Alexandria played such an important role in the rise of Islam was because of the strategic position. Alexandria was a major port, and thus taking this port would both enable the Muslims to control the water, and eliminate a major Eastern Roman trading asset. In short, Alexandria in the hands of Islam meant the loss of both a center of knowledge and of wealth. After Muhammad’s death in 632, the Muslims began a swift expansion into virtually every territory they could sack. Christians suffered greatly from these conquests, and more than a few Churches were destroyed or converted to mosques. The Siege of Alexandria began in March of 641, just after the loss of Jerusalem in 638 and the loss of Babylon in 640. By the time 641 rolled around, the Byzantine hold on Egypt was already failing; losing Alexandria would likely be the last straw. That fateful March initiated a six-month siege on the city, which finally ended that September, when Byzantine officials fled the city. Several attempts were made to retake the city; none of which were successful.
Undoubtedly, the insinuations of such a siege were not simply geopolitical or economically disastrous for the Byzantines, but religiously scathing. In the siege, the massive library of Alexandria caught fire and much of it burned. Blame for the scholarly catastrophe was immediately hurled at the Christians, and although these claims were quite dubious, the rumors reflected badly on the Church as a whole. The very loss of Alexandria forced Christians to pay a much higher tax, a special tax which was imposed upon all the non-Muslims, among other monetary persecutions. In general, Christians were treated relatively well despite having their homes and livelihoods taken, a trend that would regrettably end. The Siege on Alexandria marked a political catastrophe for the Byzantine Empire, but much more than that, it marked the destruction of one of Christianity’s most important cities. Instead of Christian theology being articulated, refined, translated, and taught, it would be Muslim ‘scriptures’ and ‘prophesies’ which poured from this city.
Islam did not stop with Alexandria. Almost a century after the Siege of Alexandria, Islam attempted to take down the Franks. For years Islam had encroached into Europe, closer and closer to the Frankish territory, and it appears they underestimated the Frankish forces. To the Muslims, the Germanic tribes were simply minor tribes which could be easily conquered, but the massacre at Tours certainly gave them a sobering dose of reality. The battle was fought during October of 732. Charles Martel (the Hammer), who led the Frankish forces, strategically used a forest to both break up the Muslim cavalry and to hide the full breadth of his force. After a week of small squabbles between forces, the real battle took place, wherein Charles “scattered them like the stubble”. In other words, this battle is where Charles earned the title Martellus.
Western Christianity was preserved from the persecution their Eastern brethren suffered. As Edward Gibbons has observed, “A victorious line of march had been prolonged above a thousand miles from the rock of Gibraltar to the banks of the Loire; the repetition of an equal space would have carried the Saracens to the confines of Poland and the Highlands of Scotland; the Rhine is not more impassable than the Nile or Euphrates, and the Arabian fleet might have sailed without a naval combat into the mouth of the Thames. Perhaps the interpretation of the Koran would now be taught in the schools of Oxford, and her pulpits might demonstrate to a circumcised people the sanctity and truth of the revelation of Mahomet.” The West was preserved of this calamity, unlike their brethren in the East. If it were not for Charles Martel’s stand, the Western world may well be Muslim. In this case, not only would Europe be a Muslim continent, but North America would be as well.
Unfortunately, for both Christians and Muslims, the Siege of Alexandria and the Battle of Tours would not usher the closer of conflict: they would simply invite more. The Crusades, the Islamic Conquests, the Inquisitions, and Terrorism are, like it or not, just some of the many horrors initiated by the new Arian cult. The great Cathedral Hagia Sophia would eventually come into Muslim hands – never again to serve the Christian Liturgy. Jesus’ burial at Jerusalem would become a mosque, the Spanish Christians would be slaughtered, the Coptic Christians would be slaughtered, and peace would not even be found in the present day.