The Rise of Islam and the Crusades (Introduction to Western Civilization 6.10)

In addition to the disputes between Christians, there were also other challenges that the Christians of the Middle Ages faced. One of the greatest challenges was a new religion, Islam. Muslims, followers of the religion of Islam, spread quickly across the Middle East and North Africa and into Europe, conquering many places that were important to Christians, destroying the last of the Roman Empire, and converting many people from Christianity to Islam.

Islam began with a man named Muhammad, who was born in about 570 in Mecca, a city on the Arabian Peninsula. At the time that Muhammad was born, the Arabs were divided into a number of different tribes which competed for power and wealth. Almost all of the Arab tribes were polytheistic, though there were a few Jews and Christians among them.

Muhammad was very interested in religion from a young age and spent time with the Jews and Christians to learn about their religions. He used to spend time alone in a cave in the mountains outside of Mecca praying and meditating. When he was about 40 years old, he told people that an angel had come to him while he was praying in the cave. He said the angel Gabriel had appeared to him. Gabriel had presented a book to him and ordered him to read from it. Muhammad then memorized and recited the words that Gabriel had given to him over many years. The book that was put together from Muhammad’s recitations is the Quran, the holy book of Islam. In Arabic, the language of the Quran, the word “Quran” means “recital.”

Muslims believe that Muhammad was the last prophet sent by God to earth. Other prophets before him included Moses, Abraham, David, Solomon, and even Jesus. Muslims believe that each of the prophets was sent to bring people to monotheism and to submission to God. When a person becomes a Muslim they say a short creed, called the shahada, proclaiming their belief that “there is no god but God and Muhammad is his prophet.”

The message of Islam took some time for the Arabs to accept. At first, many rejected Muhammad’s message and fought against him. After years of fighting, Muhammad’s followers were able to take over the city of Mecca, which, as Muhammad’s birthplace, became the holiest city in Islam. Eventually, the Muslims conquered all over the Arabian Peninsula and nearly all of the Arabs converted to Islam.

It was then that the Arabs, now united into a single kingdom and a single religion, began to invade the lands around the Arabian Peninsula. Within just a few centuries, the Muslims were able to conquer a vast empire that stretched from India in the east to Spain in the west. Along the way, the Muslims conquered or destroyed many empires which had dominated those areas for hundreds of years.

One of the empires the Muslims was the Byzantine Empire, what remained of the Eastern Roman Empire. As the Muslims steadily conquered the lands of the Byzantine Empire, including Egypt, Palestine, and Mesopotamia, the Byzantine emperor sent messages to the Pope begging him for help. Although the churches had split apart from each other, the Christians of Western Europe were eager to help their fellow Christians in the East. The Pope encouraged the Christian kings of Europe to put together an army, exclaiming “Deus Vult!,” which, in Latin, means “God wills it!”

The Christians of armies launched a series of Crusades, a word which means “Wars for the Cross,” beginning in 1096. At first, the Crusades were successful in recapturing land that had been taken from the Byzantine Empire. As time went on, however, enthusiasm for the Crusades waned among European Christians and the size and strength of the Muslim empire grew. The last few Crusades, launched in the 13th century, were terrible failures for the Christians, who lost all of the land they had taken from the Muslims and were unable to gain anymore. Although there were further attempts to launch a Crusade to reconquer important Christian sites like Jerusalem or to liberate Christian communities under Muslim power, each of these failed and the Byzantine Empire continued to shrink in size and significance.

Finally, in 1453, a Muslim army led by Mehmed II captured the city of Constantinople itself. On May 29, 1453, Mehmed’s army stormed the walls of Constantinople and made their way into the city. The last Byzantine emperor, Constantine XI Palaeologus, dressed in the clothing and armor of a common soldier and died fighting alongside his men. The largest Christian church in the world, the Hagia Sophia, was converted into a mosque, a place of worship for Muslims.

Ironically, the end of the last remaining part of the Roman Empire also led to the end of the Middle Ages. As refugees from the Byzantine Empire poured into Western Europe along with the Greek books and art they took with them, a rebirth of Greek and Roman civilization began to take place in Western Europe. As the old Roman and medieval chapters closed, a new and amazing chapter in Western Civilization was just beginning: the Renaissance.


Review Questions

1. What are people who practice the religion of Islam called?

2. Who is the founder of Islam?

3. Who was the last Byzantine emperor?

"I have to find Zaabalawi"

Naguib Mahfouz’s short story “Zaabalawi” exhibits the qualities of both the traditional allegorical stories often told in the mystical traditions of many religions as well as the dreamlike tales of twentieth century existentialists such as Franz Kafka. In bringing together these two streams of thought, Mahfouz establishes himself directly in the line of religious existentialists such as Soren Kierkegaard and especially the storytellers of that tradition, the most remarkable of whom is probably Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Mahfouz also brings a unique element to this synthesis of mysticism and existentialism in drawing upon the contents of his Islamic heritage to present a story that is both universal in its meaning and yet unique Islamic in its content.

The character from whose perspective the story is told is never explicitly identified by name. As with other stories which stand in the existentialist strain, the identity of the main character as an individual person is unnecessary and perhaps evens a dangerous distraction. Rather, the story itself is a means by which the reader can enter into the subjectivity of another. The main character has no individual identity; the reader is expected to identify himself or herself with that character. In this story, the character is suffering from “that illness for which no one possesses a remedy.” Although ailment remains unexplained and undefined throughout the story, it is clear that the reader is expected to identify with it; it is the universal human condition identified by Kierkegaard as “the sickness unto death,” a state of despair at the meaninglessness and ennui that permeate human life.

The main character of the story, and the reader through him, sets out on a desperate search to find Zaabalawi, the only one who can heal his affliction. Although Zaabalawi is identified as a holy man and sheikh, it is clear from what is said about him that he stands as a symbol of God. The first sentences of the story, in which the character explains why he decided to search for Zaabalawi, make this connection clear. He explains that “the first time I had heard of his name had been in a song.” The connection with Islamic worship practices, in which prayers are generally recited in song and chant, makes the identification of Zaabalawi with God obvious.

The ensuing search for Zaabalawi consists of a number of short scenes in which the main character questions various characters concerning the nature and whereabouts of Zaabalawi. Each of these characters represents a group in Islamic society and their stereotyped reactions to and thoughts on God. A businessman, for instance, exhibits little interest in Zaabalawi and even seems to imply he may be dead, a parallel with Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous exclamation on the death of God, that is, the irrelevance and unsustainability of the idea of God in the modern mind. Similarly, a theologian who is questioned about Zaabalawi responds to the main character by drawing a complex map the character is unable to understand, a scene which conjures the famous words of Thomas Aquinas, a Medieval monk who is one of Christianity’s most prolific and influential theologians. Late in his life, he experienced a mystical vision which caused him to state to his companions that “all that I have written seems like straw compared to what has now been revealed to me,” after which statement he never wrote again. In other words, the both Aquinas and Mahfouz reject the complicated conjecture and theory of the academic theologians in favor of a direct approach to God through mysticism. Interestingly, all of the characters who is featured in this series of scenes exhibit a felt absence of someone who is very important to their lives. Although not all of them are willing to acknowledge the importance of this person to their lives, each clearly feels that something is lacking because of this person’s absence.

After a series of such encounters, the main character finally has a direct mystical experience of Zaabalawi/God. In line with many mystical traditions from around the world, including the Sufi tradition of Islam, this experience is presented as a state of intoxication and a kind of stupor. The main character experiences a “deep contentedness” and “ecstatic serenity” as well as ontological unity with the cosmos. The disorientating imagery used by Mahfouz to describe the experience, including phrases such as “the world turned round about me and I forgot why I had gone there,” is reminiscent of the practice of whirling famously associated with certain groups of Sufis.

Following his experience, the main character is unaware that he has had a direct experience of Zaabalawi. He becomes more determined in his search. Mahfouz’s conclusion once again brings together the mystical and existential in his thought. The main character confides that he sometimes doubts Zaabalawi’s very existence and yet he asserts that he is unable to go on without him. His search for Zaabalawi, he concludes, must continue.