April 10, 2003
Rome and Baghdad
The pagan Roman Empire was the most complex and refined civilization that had ever appeared on earth. Its religious practice ensured eternal protection by the gods. Its emperor was appointed by the divinity as ruler of the Roman state. Although the empire flourished for many centuries, its religious system did not. The Roman Empire Christianized under Constantine, and this new reality created a new Christian self-concept: imperial Christianity. The Christianization of the empire proved the triumph of Christianity over all its religious competitors and demonstrated that God loved the church and its mighty kingdom.
This new and improved Roman Empire was called the Byzantine Empire, and its Christian emperor became known as God's regent on earth. With God's protection, the empire reigned in the Mediterranean world for centuries, and during this time, Christians convinced themselves that they were God's chosen and would rule the world until the return of their Lord.
They were in for a shock. That shock came with the Arab conquests in the seventh century, when tens of thousands of warriors roared out of Arabia and captured the fattest holdings of the Byzantine Empire, pushing the imperial armies back to the Taurus Mountains of Asia Minor, in what is today Turkey.
These strange conquerors of the greatest power on earth were dark and wiry. They emerged from the Arab steppe -- simple, primitive and confident. It turns out that they were believers in a new religion, a novel form of monotheism called Islam. And the one-two punch of military power and faith created a new religious empire known as the Islamic Caliphate.
Christians never fully recovered from the shock of their empire's demise. So-called Christian "empires" continued to pop up and then collapse for another thousand years, but none could compete with the power and confidence of the caliphate.
The Christian failure to defeat Islam was the best thing that ever happened to Christianity. Initially, the religious intelligentsia was defensive, finding myriad ways to vilify non-Christians and blame them for its defeat. It practiced self-denial, wrung its hands, inflicted self-flagellation and tore itself apart in its aspiration for imperial domination. But eventually, Christianity looked inward. And that deep and long introspection resulted in a reappraisal of what it means to be a religious human being. It finally ceased longing for an empire and got down to the much more important business of feeding the hungry and caring for the sick and indigent.
Something similar occurred with Judaism after the destruction of the Temple and the failure of the holy war crusade against Rome, known as the Bar Kochba Rebellion. Rabbinic Judaism reappraised what it meant to be a Jew and determined that, whether or not under self-government, being a Jew meant -- above all -- building a caring community.
Christianity and Judaism both suffered the terrible jolt of this worldly political and military collapse. Each was deeply shocked to learn through hard knocks that God was not in the business of supporting political and military regimes, even if intended to be godly.
Islam, however, never had the privilege of such political and military collapse. The caliphate was never overwhelmed, but rather, simply faded away. Muslim religious leaders and scholars did ask themselves why their empires weakened and disappeared, but they were never forced to engage in the deep introspection that was forced upon Jews and Christians. They were never forced to honestly confront the collapse of Islamic power.
Until today. The newspapers are beginning to report Arab reaction to the fall of noble Baghdad, the seat of the great caliphate and the symbol of the greatest Islamic political and military power in history. Its collapse has been absolutely shocking. It is causing depression, sleeplessness, headaches and stomach trouble. For many, it is a flashback to the debacle of 1967. Na ïve expectations of Arabs holding their own against the incursion of the Western coalition are giving way to dejection and grief.
We are witnesses to the blessed collapse of Islamic aspirations for military and political domination. While Saddam Hussein was anything but a religious Muslim, the absolute and overwhelming defeat of Baghdad is considered by Muslims, especially in the Arab Middle East, as a defeat of Islam. This may be the one-two punch that Islam has lacked all these years as it has declined. My hope is that Muslims, like their Christian and Jewish brothers and sisters in earlier generations, will decide to look inward and engage in the introspection needed for a reappraisal of what it means to be a Muslim and religious human being. Let's hope that this failure of a Muslim regime will become the victory of religious Islam.
Reuven Firestone is director of the Edgar F. Magnin School of Graduate Studies and is professor of medieval Judaism and Islam at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.