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An Upside-Down History of the World [Japanese]
[Chapter 3] The Origins of Monotheism

Part 1: A Human Hypothesis
33 Splintered Empires

St. Peter’s Basilica. The Christian Church became the glue that held the Eastern Roman Empire and the Western Roman Empire together. The Church itself, however, couldn’t curb its own split. St. Peter’s Square, Vatican City.

The last breath of the prophet Muhammad ushered in a new age. Over five hundred years would have to pass before the onset of the Crusades, a period, seen with historical eyes, that was far from enduring.

In many ways, human history only really began after the invention of writing some five thousand years ago. A five-hundred-year period occupies just one-tenth of the timeline. But the past five thousand years of human history also reveals a pattern. As civilization advances, so does its population. Which means, the first twenty-five hundred years is very different from the next.

So, to stay clear of the potential pitfalls of the traditional historical narrative, my focus within this latter, denser half will be targeted rather than all-encompassing. After all, I’m writing as a historian, not an academic of history.

In the grand sweep of human history, the Islamic world’s period of peace and isolation isn’t particularly noteworthy. The same goes for the pax Christiana.

Within the same five-thousand-year span, there are pieces of the historical discussion that can be largely omitted. One such period is Christianity’s and Islam’s years of development, when both civilizations were evolving independently without any contact with each other.

But, of course, using a word like “omit” when talking about the past risks implying a complete disregard for large swathes of history. So instead, it will be summarization in lieu of extensive elaboration.

The age of the Rashidun, the period directly after Muhammad’s death, was extremely short-lived. It was later that the Umayyad Caliphate (661-750) established the Islamic Empire. Here, the caliph was ruler. This meant that the Islamic empire was a theocracy, or a system of government in which the caliph was the religious as well as secular head of state.

In contrast was the Christian world. In the Roman Empire, the center of Christianity, these powers were separated. There was its secular leader, the Roman emperor, and the leader of the Church, the pope.

The reason for the difference also happens to be one of the greatest differences between Muhammad and Jesus. In contrast to the prophet Muhammad who, as both the “apostle of God” and a talented military leader, used military conquests to spread the Islamic faith, was Jesus, a man who spread “God’s word” not through military intervention but through missionary discourse. This is also part of what differentiated Islamic society from Christian society in the middle ages.

Roman and Christian Disunion

The Roman Empire’s territory was vast. So vast, in fact, that the primitive means of transportation and communication available at the time made effective rule impossible. By as early as AD 395, the western empire had split from the east.

After the death of Emperor Theodosius I (lived 347-395, reigned 379-395), his two sons inherited the empire, thereby cementing its monumental split. To his eldest son, Flavius Arcadius (lived 377-408, reigned 395-408), went the eastern half of the empire (The Byzantine Empire). Theodosius’s second oldest, Flavius Honorius (lived 384-423, reigned 393-423), received the western portion (Western Roman Empire 395-476).

About half a century earlier before the split, Christianity was officially recognized by Constantine the Great or Flavius Valerius Aurelius Constantinus Augustus (lived c. 274-337, reigned 306-337). Fast forward to the year 380, fifteen years before the empire’s split, and we see Theodosius I making Christianity the official religion of the empire, a move that would hold the East and Western empire together.

But the Church had its own problems. As troubles over the trinity and other issues of doctrinal conflict were creating factional infighting, the church turned to religious conferences. And while ecclesiastical dignitaries convened to discuss and settle matters of Church doctrine and practice, council members became increasingly resistant to each other’s opinions, and discussions came to an impasse.

The result was a divided Church. Christianity had split into the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern (Greek) Orthodox Church.

The main point of contention was what’s called Filioque. But since avoiding extraneous discussions is critical to being able to cover our vast human history, filioque will have to make room for the bigger picture. The important point here, however, is that religious differences, despite their perceived triviality, can lead to serious often deadly conflict.

That is, if there’s one truth human history can teach us, it’s that, when it comes to religion, it’s the little things that drive people to murder each other. The split of the Christian Church was a case of irreconcilable differences. And the result, was a divided Roman empire. In the west was the Church of Rome, and in the east was the Church of Constantinople. Each church excommunicated the other. And each church presided over its own independent organization.