Monday 19 December 2016

Ten events that shaped religious history

NJ Bridgewater
19 December 2016

History is shaped by many singular events which echo throughout the ages, such as D-Day, the fall of the Soviet Union and 9-11. In religion, also, there are a few key events which have altered the course of history.

A depiction believed to be of Emperor Ashoka

1. The Conversion of Ashoka
Ashoka was the third monarch of India’s Maurya dynasty who was noted for his piety and virtue.[i] Early in his reign, he decided to conquer the state of Kalinga, which prided itself on its sovereignty and democracy. The conquest was a bloody one, with over 100,000 people being killed—from the Kalinga alone—as well as 10,000 of Ashoka’s own forces. The whole state of Kalinga was ravaged and plundered by the emperor’s army.[ii] One day, as he wandered through the city and saw all the burnt houses and dead bodies, he cried: “What have I done?”[iii] This led Ashoka to adopt the non-violent religion of Buddhism and he is said to have ruled wisely and justly for the rest of his days.[iv]

The Conversion of St. Paul on the road to Damascus

2. The Conversion of St. Paul

St. Paul, originally called Saul of Tarsus, was strongly opposed to Christians, as he regarded their practices as idolatrous and objectionable. He travelled from synagogue to synagogue, urging the punishment of Jews who accepted Jesus as the Messiah.[v] Then, one day, on the way to Damascus, he had a life-changing vision. As he was walking on his way to Damascus, he suddenly saw a light from heaven and a voice which said: “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?” He asked: “Who art thou, Lord?” and the voice replied: “I am Jesus whom thou persecutest.”[vi] From then on, he took the name Paul and became one of the foremost disciples of Jesus Christ, spreading the Gospel to the Gentiles. It is difficult to imagine Christianity today had Saul of Tarsus not received his vision on the road to Damascus.[vii]

The Siege of Jerusalem

3. The Siege of Jerusalem

In 66 CE, a rebellion started in Judaea which led to the final siege and destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE.[viii] The siege began on 14 April 70 CE, during Passover, and the ensuing destruction and death-toll was enormous. One defector to the Romans told Titus that the total estimated number of dead was 115,880. The Jewish Temple was destroyed and Jews were systematically expelled from Judea and scattered to the four corners of the earth, leading to the modern Jewish Diaspora.[ix]

The Battle on the Mulvian Bridge

4. The Vision of Constantine the Great

By the 4th  century CE, Christianity was a growing but still officially-proscribed religion. This changed, however, when the Emperor Constantine I experienced a vision which forever changed the course of Western history.[x] It was while faced with the forces of the Western Roman Emperor Maxentius on the Mulvian Bridge over the River Tiber that Constantine saw a flaming cross in the sky which bore the words “in this sign thou shalt conquer”.[xi] The prophecy proved to be true and he defeated his enemy on that day. This occurred in 312 CE and, the following year, Constantine signed the Edict of Milan, which granted religious tolerance to Christians. Constantine went on to build a new capital at Byzantium, which became known as Constantinople, and later as Istanbul. Freed from centuries of oppression, Christianity now spread throughout the empire.[xii]

Yathrib / Medina

5. The Hijrah of the Prophet Muhammad

The Prophet Muhammad (c. 570 – 632 CE) was forty years’ old when he received his first Revelation from the Angel Gabriel. His teachings proved controversial, as he lived in a largely polytheistic society. The city’s temple, called the Kaaba, was surrounded by polytheistic idols which were maintained and protected by the local tribe, called the Quraysh. The Quraysh felt threatened by Muhammad’s teachings and began to persecute Muhammad and his followers. The persecution increased to such a point that he had to leave Mecca and seek refuge in the town of Yathrib (now Medina).[xiii] This emigration, which occurred in 622 CE, is known as the Hijrah.[xiv] In Medina, Islam was widely embraced by the population and Muhammad established the first Islamic state.[xv] From Mecca and Medina, the religion then spread throughout Arabia and the world.

The Conquest of Baghdad

6. Hulagu Khan’s destruction of Baghdad

The Mongol ruler Genghis Khan died in 1227 CE and, upon his death, his empire was divided into five parts. One of Genghis Khan’s grandsons, Hulagu Khan (c. 1218 – 1265), was based in Isfahan in Persia. In 1257 CE, in the winter, Hulagu moved towards Baghdad.[xvi] Baghdad was then the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate, which presided over the Golden Age of Islam.[xvii] In June of 1258 CE, Baghdad surrendered. The sacking of Baghdad which followed lasted a week, with up to a million inhabitants being slaughtered.[xviii] The great Golden Age of Islam, which had resulted in tremendous advancements in science, technology, arts and culture, was brought to a swift end.[xix]

The Conquest of Constantinople

7. The Conquest of Constantinople

Constantinople, the city of Constantine the Great, was the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, later known as the Byzantine Empire. In 1453 CE, the Ottomans, a Turkish dynasty, decided to conquer what was then one of the greatest centres of Christendom. The Ottoman sultan, Mehmed II, conquered the city on the 29th of May 1453.[xx] The conquest of Constantinople led to end of the Byzantine Empire and the beginning of the Ottoman Empire, which lasted until the early 20th century. It ruled over vast stretches of the Middle East, North Africa and Eastern Europe, spreading Islam and unifying the Sunni Islamic world.[xxi]

Martin Luther posting the 95 theses

8. The Posting of the 95 Theses

Martin Luther (b. 1483 CE) was a German monk and theologian who began teaching at the Unversity of Wittenberg in 1512 CE. In 1510 CE, he visited Rome and was incensed by the corruption and abuses of the clergy there. Angered by what he had seen, on 31 October 1517, he published his famous 95 theses, which attacked both papal abuses and the selling of indulgences. From 1519 – 1520, he wrote pamphlets developing his main theological ideas, teaching that Christians receive salvation through faith alone and not through works, in contrast to the Roman Catholic dogma that salvation is through both faith and works.[xxii] His teachings led to the Protestant Reformation and he Christian world has never been the same since.

The Room in which the Báb made His Declaration in 1844 in Shiraz, Persia

9. The Declaration of the Bāb

In the middle of the 19th century, a merchant from the city of Shiraz in Iran called Sayyid ‘Alī Mohammad Shīrāzī (1819 – 1850), announced that he was the Bāb (Arabic for ‘door’ or ‘gate’) to the Promised One, i.e. the Mahdī expected in Islamic prophecies.[xxiii] On the evening of the 22nd of May 1844, Sayyid ‘Alī Mohammad made his famous declaration to Mollā Hosayn that he was, indeed, the Promised One expected in Islam. Mollā Hosayn and other followers then spread the message of the Bāb, initiating the Bābī movement in Iran, which later became known as the Bahā’ī Faith.[xxiv] There are currently over five million Bahā’īs worldwide, living in over 100,000 localities across the globe. The Bahā’ī Faith is now the second most widespread religion on the planet.[xxv]

The Last Caliph

10. The abolition of the Caliphate in 1924

From the time of the Prophet Muhammad up until the downfall of the Ottoman Empire, there had always been caliphates which had maintained some form of unified leadership for the Islamic—or at least Sunni—world.  In 1517, the Ottomans forced the last Abbasid caliph to give up his title, which passed to the Ottoman ruler, Sultan Selim, the first Ottoman caliph.[xxvi] For several centuries, they ruled over most of the Middle East and North Africa. However, in the aftermath of World War I, Turkish Nationalists ended the Ottoman sultanate and, on the 8th of March 1924, abolished the institution of the caliphate.[xxvii] This has had great repercussions within the Sunni Islamic world and has led to the modern Middle East that we know today.

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