Political Milestones: 600AD to 700AD
Many events of profound long-term historical significance occurred in this century, and they mostly revolved around the dramatic birth of Islam. So we will deal with this topic first.
Muhammad, an illiterate orphan, was born around 570 AD. Deeply devout and superstitious, he received his first “vision” in 610 AD, calling him to start a new faith. Prior to this event, there were hundreds of “gods” in the Kaaba in Mecca. Muhammad borrowed a concept from Christianity and declared there was but one true god, Allah, who just happened to be the god of his tribe. Devotion to this god was to be superior to any tribal or ethnic loyalties, and Muhammad was the prophet of this god.
In 622 AD Muhammad fled Mecca for Medina as his message was no longer tolerated by the cities elite. It was at this point that his religion switched from being pacifist to militant. After gaining control of Medina by force and slaughtering the Jewish minority for refusing to acknowledge his prophetic claim, he marched on Mecca and secured it by force of arms. From this power base Islam began to grow to consume the Arab Peninsula.
Many of the unsettling teachings and of the Muslim faith familiar to us today can be traced directly to the lifestyle of Muhammad himself, including militarism, religiously justified violence, paedophilia, lies and deception, extreme religious intolerance, sexual exploitation, superstition, ethnic cleansing and the hegemony of the Arabic culture over all others.
Muhammad died in 632 AD but his armies continued to conquer surrounding tribes in what they saw as a holy war to rid the world of pagan religious impurities. Sadly, Islam also copied many of the ritualistic practices and doctrines it saw in the Christianity of the day.
This new religion sprung up in an era fertile for change. The plague and famine had ravaged both the Persian and Byzantine empires, weakening both sides of the Arabian Peninsula. In what was seen as a sign of divine favour, the Islamic armies quickly defeated both the Persian and Byzantine armies in battles where they were far outnumbered. Persia succumbed in 650 AD and adopted Islam. The Byzantines, twice besieged, recovered by 720 AD and kept Islam out of Eastern Europe for a thousand years. Undaunted by these setbacks, Islamic armies marched across North Africa, demanding conversion or slavery.
In 680 AD a permanent division occurred in the House of Islam that led to the establishment of Shia Islam in Persia and Sunni Islam in Arabia. These two religious and cultural factions have had an uneasy, and often violent relationship ever since.
By 700 AD Islamic armies controlled all the lands from the western tip of North Africa to the Indus River valley in Pakistan. In less than a century, Arabs had come to rule over an area that spanned eight thousand kilometres and was roughly the size of Russia today.
In other parts of the world life was still on the move. In 601AD, the Turkish general Tardu, sacked the capital of China. Early in the century the Vikings started invading England and Ireland. This was also the century when the Mayans began building their pyramids. In 621AD Japan adopted Buddhism as its state religion, as did China in 691AD. China was again invaded by the Khitan Mongols in 686AD.
Spiritual Milestones: 600AD to 700AD
In six centuries the Gospel had succeeded in winning one fifth of humanity to some form of Christian faith, often more diluted than pure. In the first half of this era it had overcome intense spiritual, political and cultural opposition without an army, money or allies. Some 2.5 million believers had been slaughtered in the process just for being Christian.
This all ended when Islam became the new superpower in the middle of the super continent. They now dominated the political, economic, military and spiritual landscape for the next thousand years. The Christian leadership centres of Alexandria, Jerusalem and Antioch were lost forever, as were the key Nestorian centres of Edessa and Adiabene. Christianity slowly became a stagnant religious backwater on the western edge of Europe.
For the first time, religious Christianity had a copy-cat religious enemy. Although deriving much from our faith, Islam openly denounced the core tenets of Jesus’ teachings. Its teachings and values came from the warlords of the Middle East and as such it emphasised works instead of grace, death and war instead of life and love, fatalism instead of rationalism, honour/shame instead of turning the other cheek, revenge instead of patience. Jesus and Muhammad could not have been more distant in origin, method and message. By 700 AD it looked like Muhammad’s violent approach to religion had won.
However, the century was also successful for our faith in Northern Europe, Central Asia and China. As the century opened, about 8 million people in the ethnic groups in Central Asia had adopted Nestorian Christianity, and the faith continued to grow for many more hundreds of years. Today these are the countries that end with the suffix “stan”. It would take 700 years for the strong faith of the Central Asians to disappear under the relentless violence of Islam. In 635 AD one of their missionaries, Alopen, reached China, planted churches there, received Imperial favour, and the Gospel grew rapidly.
From 612 AD onwards, humble and God-fearing Celtic missionaries, were evangelising Switzerland and Northern Italy. By 650 AD they were evangelising the Netherlands and revitalising Christianity in England. However, in 664 AD, at the Synod of Whitby, Oswy, king of a large part of England abandoned the Celtic Church and accepted the faith of Rome. This marks a major decline in the influence of the more Biblical Celtic faith in favour of the rising influence of Roman Catholicism in Britain. This ushered in a large and unnecessary persecution that would eventually see the Celtic faith die out, leaving England Catholic for 900 years.
In the meantime, over in Jerusalem, the Persians slaughtered 90,000 Greek Christians in 615 AD. They then invaded Egypt and killed another 10,000 Coptic believers. This relentless killing of Christians by Zoroastrians continued until 628 AD when they finally gave up. By this stage 30-40% of Persia was Nestorian Christian. A fact lost to history is that those Christians who lived under Persian rule suffered more death and persecution thane those who lived and died under the cruel hand of Rome. But in 642 AD Persia was itself conquered by Muslim armies! This was straight after Islam had taken Jerusalem from the Persians and killed another 80,000 Greek Christians, setting the stage for the Crusades 462 years later.
In the decade of 640 AD a call back to New Testament Christianity emerged in Asia Minor, home of many of the original churches in the Book of Revelation. They called themselves “Paulicans” and their message would be very familiar to modern believers. They sought a return to the simple holiness of Jesus and his followers. This was to be the first of many movements calling Christianity back to its roots. None succeeded until Martin Luther.
In the second half of the century the Christian Berbers of North Africa put up stiff resistance to the invading Muslim armies. It took ten military campaigns to fully destroy Christianity in the 5 million strong Berber communities. Even today they still regard themselves as forced converts, or “sword Muslims”.
The Seventh Century marked the first century since 33 AD that the percentage of people in the world claiming to be Christian declined. There was a new ideology on the block, and it was an uncompromising violent army, convinced of his own manifest destiny and set on the total destruction of any religion in its path. The next century would almost see the death of European Christianity.