Part II: Medieval & Reformation Responses to Islam
Early Christian Responses to the Advent of Islam
When the armies fueled by Islamic expansionism swept out of the Arabian peninsula into the Eastern realms of the Christian Empire in the middle of the seventh century C.E. Christians in general (even the non-Chalcedonian Orthodox who in some cases welcomed the Arab armies as liberators from a century of deprivations visited on them by the Chalcedonians) reacted with what can best be described as incredulity. Seventh century Christendom operated with a near monolithic mindset that assumed the triumph of the Christian faith. Islam came in this case as an invasion not only of armies, but ideology, offering an alternative religious vision that Christians found difficult to categorize, particularly those Christians in the western reaches of the Empire who were not in the path of the conquering armies. R.W. Southern labels this initial response of Western Christians to the rise of Islam an “ignorance of confined space.”
This is the kind of ignorance of a man in prison who hears rumors of outside events and attempts to give shape to what he hears, with the help of his preconceived ideas. Western writers before 1100 were in this situation with regard to Islam. They knew virtually nothing about Islam as a religion. For them, Islam was only one of a large number of enemies threatening Christendom from every direction, and they had no interest in distinguishing the primitive idolatries of Northmen, Slaves, and Magyars from the monotheism of Islam, or the Manichaean heresy from that of Mahomet.
This remained the situation through much of the early part of the Middle Ages which gave Western Christians a creative license to indulge their fantasies about a religion and culture about which they knew next to nothing. This was not the case in the East where Christians experienced Islam not only as the faith of an invading army, but within a relatively short span of time the dominant faith of an Empire that would subvert the Christendom paradigm and relegate its Christian residents to dhimmi status.