The Rise of Islam and the Fall of the East

In the early sixth century, a warlord, claiming prophetic authority, by the name of Mohammed arose in Arabia. Drawing upon the venerable Arabic tradition of inter-tribal raiding (later termed jihad) his military forces were soon masters of Arabia, and they began to push for military victory and plunder further afield. In a political landscape where the Romans were weakened by decades of war, Mohammed and his forces were spectacularly successful, and within a hundred years the armies of Islam (as the new movement was soon called) had conquered vast sections of the Roman world. Westward expansion was halted by Charles Martel in 732 at the Battle of Tours (in modern France). Much of the Christian east was swept away, submerged under the tidal wave of Islamic advance. In some places (such as Egypt) the rule of the Byzantine emperor was so resented that the Islamic forces were welcomed as liberators. The Islamic power tightened its grip, and many Christians converted to Islam to take advantage of the benefits that came with being a Muslim.

As a world power, the Islamic state reached political stability and coexisted with the other world powers, though never renouncing the ultimate goal of world domination. Atrocities in the Holy Land against the Church of the Resurrection (also known as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre) provoked a series of military attempts by western kings to overthrow Islamic forces in the Middle East and retake the Christian sites. A number of these so-called Crusades were held, and for a while the Holy City of Jerusalem was indeed retaken by western Christians. But the project was too expensive to maintain long term, and eventually Islamic dominance reasserted itself.

In the mid-fifteenth century, the head of the Islamic state began yet another attempt to conquer the Christian capital of Constantinople—by then the city was much reduced and standing almost alone in the east, like and island in the sea of Islam. After a long siege, the city fell to the Muslim armies in 1453, bringing to an end the long rule of a Christian Roman Empire. Christians throughout the east now had to learn how to live with a reduced and subservient status as dhimmis, “protected peoples”, under their Islamic overlords. The Christian west remained free, as did the Christian north, in the land of the Rus. But the Christian east had fallen, and along with the ancient category and rank of martyr, a new category was emerging—that of “new martyr”, those who had perished for their Christian confession of Christ under Islam.