Europe’s Amazing Rise: Foretold in Bible Prophecy
Where is the ever-closer, ever-more-powerful union of Europe heading? Do history and Bible prophecy help us understand where these trends are leading?
by Scott Ashley and Gerhard Marx
Bible prophecy clearly shows that Jesus Christ will return to establish the Kingdom of God, a literal world-ruling kingdom, on earth. This hope is so fundamental that Jesus instructed Christians to regularly pray, “Your kingdom come” (Matthew 6:10; Luke 11:2). Prophecies throughout the Bible give many details about Christ’s return and conditions in the world leading up to that event.
However, one little—understood fact prophetically highlighted in the Bible is that a new superpower will emerge on the world scene shortly before His return. It will, in fact, fight Jesus Christ at His return, only to be destroyed—but not before this superpower reshapes today’s geopolitical landscape in ways that will shock and surprise the entire world.
Understanding of future empires revealed
The rise of this final world superpower is foretold primarily in the biblical books of Daniel and Revelation. We’ll begin with what God revealed to the prophet Daniel in Old Testament times.
Daniel 2 records that the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar had a dream of a gigantic image of a man, with different parts of the image composed of different metals—gold, silver, bronze, iron, and iron mixed with clay. None of the king’s astrologers, advisors or wise men could interpret the meaning of the dream until Daniel, to whom God had revealed its meaning, stepped forward.
Daniel told Nebuchadnezzar that “there is a God in heaven who reveals secrets” and that He had made known to the king what would happen in the future (verses 28-29). Daniel then went on to explain that a series of empires would arise to dominate the Holy Land and much of the known world of their day.
The image’s head of gold, Daniel explained, represented Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylonian Empire: “You are this head of gold” (verse 38). After Babylon, “another kingdom inferior to yours,” Daniel told the king, would arise, followed by a “third kingdom of bronze,” and finally a fourth kingdom “as strong as iron,” which would “break in pieces and crush all the others” (verses 39-40).
From history we know that these next three kingdoms after Babylon were the Persian Empire, the Greek Empire of Alexander the Great and his successors, and the Roman Empire.
All were the superpowers of their day. Rome indeed broke in pieces and crushed all its competitors in building the greatest empire the world had ever seen up until that time. (Although we won’t go into it for lack of space, Daniel 7 contains a similar prophecy of these four empires, symbolized by beasts described as being like a lion, a bear, a leopard and a fourth beast unlike the others.)
Fast-forward to the end time
The feet and toes of the image Nebuchadnezzar saw were composed “partly of potter’s clay and partly of iron,” meaning “the kingdom shall be divided…partly strong and partly fragile.” This means it would be made up of people who “will not adhere to one another, just as iron does not mix with clay” (Daniel 2:41-43).
The timeline represented by this image began with the head in Nebuchadnezzar’s day. Continuing that timeline from head to toes, the image represented, after Babylon, the Persian, Greek and Roman Empires that would follow, each in its own era. But regarding the last of these great empires drawing to a close, we see another dramatic symbol introduced into the vision.
Describing the time represented by the feet of iron mixed with clay, Daniel said to Nebuchadnezzar: “While you were watching, a rock was cut out, but not by human hands. It struck the statue on its feet of iron and clay and smashed them…The rock that struck the statue became a huge mountain and filled the whole earth”(verses 34-35, New International Version, emphasis added throughout unless otherwise noted).
What does this mean?
Daniel went on to explain this symbolism: “In the time of those kings [the leaders of the mixture of people represented by the iron and clay], the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever. This is the meaning of the vision of the rock cut out of a mountain, but not by human hands” (verses 44-45, NIV).
This “kingdom that will never be destroyed,” we know from many other prophecies, is the Kingdom of God, which Jesus Christ will establish on earth at His return. This is confirmed by the triumphant announcement that accompanies His return as recorded in Revelation 11:15: “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign for ever and ever” (NIV).
We see here that, odd as it may sound, Daniel’s prophecy reveals that the fourth empire—the Roman Empire—will exist in some form and be destroyed at Christ’s return to earth! As we will see, a comparison of several Bible prophecies with secular history will show how astoundingly accurate those prophecies have proved to be!
More details in the book of Revelation
Revelation, the final prophetic book of the Bible, reveals more details about this fourth and final empire. In Revelation 13, John records a vision he saw of “a beast rising up out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns” (verse 1). This beast, representing a final empire or geopolitical superpower, has characteristics of a leopard, bear and lion (verse 2)—showing continuity with the ancient gentile empires of Babylon, Persia and Greece, symbolized by these same animals in Daniel’s vision found in Daniel 7.
As Rome had swallowed up and incorporated characteristics of these earlier empires, so does this final great empire, represented by a beast in John’s vision, incorporate characteristics of the creatures that represented these earlier empires as seen by Daniel.
Why is this final empire represented as a beast? It’s because ultimately its actions are more like a powerful and vicious animal than a human being. Whereas a person can be open to the guidance of God and exercise qualities such as compassion, care and concern for others, an animal is driven primarily by the motivations of self-preservation, power and control.
And indeed we see that these have been the motivations of most human governments throughout history. Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome and countless other kingdoms, empires and governments have wielded their power to attack, oppress and enslave others so they could preserve their power and control. So a “beast” is indeed a fitting symbol for a world empire—particularly one such as this.
“The dragon”—Satan the devil (see Revelation 12:9)—is the unseen supernatural influence at work behind the scenes in this final world superpower (Revelation 13:2). And it will wield enormous influence over the world in the end time. All the world will marvel and follow it (verse 3). People will say: “Who is like the beast? Who is able to make war with him?” (verse 4). It will appear invincible and unstoppable.
With Satan behind it, this power will “make war against the saints”—killing and persecuting the faithful servants of God. So great will be the dominance of this beast that it will have “authority over every tribe, people, language and nation” and “all inhabitants of the earth will worship the beast” (verses 7-8, NIV).
Centuries of history bear record of man’s unjust rule without the guidance of God. Like its ancient predecessor, this end-time system will set itself against God, ruthlessly suppressing His truth and attacking those who faithfully serve Him.
All signs point to Rome
Do other signs lead us to identify this final world superpower as a modern-day incarnation of the Roman Empire? In addition to what we have seen above, many other Bible indicators point in that direction.
One is found in verses 3 and 12, where it is stated that this beast has a “deadly wound” that is healed. Prophetically, what does this mean?
After years of decline, the Roman Empire indeed received a “deadly wound” in A.D. 476 when Rome’s Emperor Romulus Augustulus was deposed by Germanic tribes led by Odoacer. But that was not the end of the Roman Empire. As we will see, that “wound” was indeed healed and the empire would rise again—and again and again through history.
In Revelation 17 this beast appears again, in another form, here linked with a powerful and influential church called a “great harlot” (verse 1). (To learn more, see “Europe: A New Superpower on the Rise.”) This fallen woman, representing a great false church, sits on “seven hills” (verse 9, NIV). Rome, of course, is famously known as “the City of Seven Hills.”
Bible prophecy sometimes has dual meanings. Hills or mountains are also prophetically symbolic of governments or kingdoms, as is the case here.
We see that verse 10 speaks of seven kings—leaders of governments or kingdoms—of which “five have fallen, one is, and the other has not yet come,” who will “continue a short time.” Allied with this final seventh king will be 10 other leaders or rulers who will “receive authority for one hour [symbolic of a short time] as kings with the beast” and “give their power and authority to the beast” (verses 12-13).
Crucial to understanding the time frame of these final events is verse 14: “These [the 10 allied rulers or leaders] will make war with the Lamb[Jesus Christ], and the Lamb will overcome them…” As with Daniel’s prophecy discussed earlier, we see that this final empire, characterized as a beast, exists at the time of Jesus Christ’s return and is destroyed by Him.
A study of history shows the fulfillment of these remarkable prophecies. After Rome’s “deadly wound” of A.D. 476, that wound was indeed healed. Following that would come seven “kings” or leaders of revivals of the Roman Empire in cooperation with the Roman church. Let’s see how this was fulfilled in recorded history and what lies ahead yet to be fulfilled.
Justinian’s Imperial Restoration
After Emperor Romulus Augustulus was deposed, less than a century passed before Justinian, the Eastern Roman or Byzantine emperor, ruling from Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul), committed himself to restoring the empire in the West, launching what would be known to history as the “Imperial Restoration.”
William Langer’s An Encyclopedia of World History states, “Justinian’s whole policy was directed toward the establishment of the absolute power of the emperor and toward the revival of a universal, Christian Roman Empire” (1960, p. 172). This same work refers to Justinian’s “grandiose reconstruction of the Roman empire.”
The Roman church hierarchy played a key role in this revival. As historian Will Durant points out, “In 554 Justinian promulgated a decree requiring that ‘fit and proper persons, able to administer local government, be chosen as governors of the provinces by the bishops and chief persons of each province'” (The Story of Civilization, Vol. 4: The Age of Faith, 1950, pp. 519-520, emphasis in original).
The Roman Empire was alive again, having experienced its first of several revivals in league with the church. However, in the process of time, this imperial revival waned and gradually fell apart. Six more revivals were to follow Justinian’s restoration.
Charlemagne, Holy Roman emperor
The second of these prophesied revivals or resurrections of the Roman Empire occurred at the time of Charlemagne—Charles the Great—who was crowned by Pope Leo III in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome in A.D. 800. This act was indicative of the power and influence the Roman church would hold over the empire in future years, when emperors would receive the title Holy Roman emperor.
Langer’s Encyclopedia of World History refers to this time as the “Revival of the Roman Empire in the West” (p. 155), adding that “Charlemagne’s rule was a theocracy.”
If there is any doubt that the Roman Empire was very much alive through Charlemagne’s revival, he adopted as his official title, “Charles, the most serene Augustus, crowned by God, great and pacific emperor, governing the Roman Empire.”
Otto I, “the Great Emperor”
After Charlemagne’s death, his empire was divided among his grandsons, and although the imperial title continued, the empire disintegrated and remained weak and divided until the time of Otto the Great.
The new emperor of the German nation united the imperial realm mostly by conquest. He received the title of Roman emperor in A.D. 962 when he was crowned by Pope John XII. This marked the third of seven prophesied revivals or resurrections of the original Roman Empire.
According to Langer’s Encyclopedia of World History, Otto’s “coronation by the pope as Roman Emperor marked the revival of the Roman Empire”(p. 216). His Latin-inscribed seal read Otto Imperator Augustus—“Otto the Great Emperor.”
The German newsmagazine Der Spiegel, in a 2007 special edition on history, made the following observation about the German emperor: “Otto called himself…ruler of the Roman Empire, even though it came to an end a few centuries earlier. Charlemagne had already carried such a title.
“A belief spread about by Christians was that the Roman Empire would last until the end of the world. The prophet Daniel from the Old Testament prophesied of four world empires; then the anti-Christ would come. According to the configuration of the time, the Roman Empire would be the fourth empire. According to this interpretation, Otto saved the people and as such highlighted the claim to be over all other rulers in Europe” (p. 28).
Although the medieval concept of prophetic events as noted here was somewhat muddled, it does show thatthe idea of the Roman Empire as a contemporary power, and one that would exist at the time of the end of this age, was a well-established concept.
Charles V, on whose empire the sun never set
Although Otto passed from the scene, his empire lasted for almost three centuries before being divided by rival factions.
This was followed, after nearly two decades without an emperor, by Rudolph I of the Habsburg family becoming “King of the Romans” in 1273—this distinction being used for those assuming the imperial throne without official coronation in Rome by the pope (as circumstances often prevented this from happening right away or at all). This title gave way in 1508 to Elected Emperor of the Romans, and emperors ceased making the journey to Rome. Only one was crowned by the pope—Charles V of the house of Habsburg in 1530 (all the elected emperors between 1438 and 1740 being of this royal family).
From his father, Charles inherited the vast Habsburg possessions of Central Europe, Germany and Italy. From his mother, daughter of the famed Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella, he inherited Spain and its American possessions. Ruling over an empire on which the sun never set—an empire even larger than ancient Rome’s—he was the most powerful man in the world.
Determined to realize the age-old dream of a unified Europe, Charles V’s reign was the pinnacle of the fourth prophesied revival of the Roman Empire. “One of the greatest of the kings of Spain and Holy Roman emperor, [Charles V] was perhaps the last emperor to attempt to realize the medieval idea of a unified empire embracing the entire Christian world” (The Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th edition,Micropaedia,Vol. 2, “Charles V”).
However, major challenges thwarted his vision. In the course of his reign he fought against France, the Ottoman Empire of Suleiman the Magnificent, Protestants, and even forces of the pope. He eventually abdicated in 1556, leaving his Spanish possessions to his son Philip II and his Central European holdings to his brother Ferdinand.
Napoleon, rival of Charlemagne and Alexander
One of history’s most famous figures, Napoleon Bonaparte, was to lead the fifth prophesied attempt to resurrect the Roman Empire with the endorsement of the Roman church. As Will Durant observed, Napoleon“dreamt of rivaling Charlemagne and uniting Western Europe . . . then of following Constantine . . . to the capture of Constantinople . . . and proposed to rival Alexander by conquering India” (The Story of Civilization,Vol. 11: The Age of Napoleon, 1975, pp. 242-243). At the height of his power he ruled 70 million subjects across the European continent.
Born on the Mediterranean island of Corsica, Napoleon began to make a name for himself in the aftermath of the French Revolution. Having received a military education in France, he quickly proved himself a military genius in campaign after campaign.
But military power wasn’t enough to satisfy his ambitions. In 1799 Napoleon maneuvered himself into France’s top political position. In 1804 he crowned himself emperor of France, and later that year was crowned Emperor Napoleon I by Pope Pius II at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Before long his military conquests led him to rule Europe from the Elbe River to the Atlantic Ocean, as well as over Spanish and French territories in the New World—the greater part of the Americas.
Looking to Rome and Charlemagne for inspiration, Napoleon determined to unify Europe under his reign. However, his great ambitions proved his undoing. Plans to invade Britain fell apart after his navy was defeated by Admiral Lord Nelson at Trafalgar in 1805. In 1812 his invasion of Russia proved disastrous, with the loss of more than half a million men. Forced to abdicate his throne, he was sent into exile in 1814.
With this, the fifth revival of the Roman Empire drew to a close. But this was not the end of imperialist attempts to unify Europe.
German and Italian dreams
Germany as we know it is a relatively modern creation. Before Napoleon, there were literally hundreds of small German states, each ruled by its own prince, duke or king. Austria and Prussia were the most dominant. In the 19th century Otto von Bismarck managed to unite most German territories under the Prussian Hohenzollern dynasty, with others allied with Austria.
In 1870 both groups of German states fought together against France, and in 1871 Prussia’s King William (or Wilhelm) was proclaimed emperor of Germany in the French palace of Versailles. His title, kaiser, harkened back to the Roman title caesar (as did the Russian title czar). Centuries earlier Otto the Great had established the first great German empire—the First Reich. Now Germany had its Second Reich.
German dreams of a greater empire inevitably led to more war. In 1914 the First World War broke out, a conflagration that took the lives of millions and transformed the face of Europe. But when it ended four years later, major problems remained. In the coming years two new strongmen would arise with new dreams to unite Europe and expand beyond—Benito Mussolini in Italy and Adolf Hitler in Germany. Both these men signed agreements with the Roman church that gave legitimacy to their fascist regimes.
Declaring the reappearance of the Roman Empire, Mussolini formed an alliance with Hitler, bringing about the Rome-Berlin Axis. Adolf Hitler proudly proclaimed Germany’s Third Reich, envisioning a new German empire that would rival the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation established by Otto the Great. The sixth of the seven imperial revivals foretold in Revelation 17 was under way.
From 1939 until 1945 the Allied and Axis powers fought the Second World War, battling and bloodying each other across Europe, Africa, Asia and the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Germany’s dream of a Europe united under a new empire almost succeeded, and at a horrendous cost. As in World War I, millions perished and Europe was again left in ruins.
Back to the future
In the devastated aftermath of World War II, it seemed unimaginable that Europe could rise again. Its cities had been bombed and battered to rubble, its infrastructure had been shattered, its economy was in shambles and millions of its citizens were dead or maimed.
Yet Europe has risen. The 27-member European Union has grown to become the world’s largest economy and its biggest trading power. The EU has its own president and foreign minister. It is quickly developing global political power to match its economic clout. Military power will surely follow its expanding economic and political might.
But it is not yet as it will be.
Returning to Revelation 17, we see that John “marveled with great amazement” at the vision he had seen of the woman and the beast (verse 6). An angel then explained to John that “the beast that you saw was, and is not, and will ascend out of the bottomless pit…” When they see it, people “will marvel… when they see the beastthat was, and is not, and yet is” (verse 8).
What does such unusual wording mean?
Having gone through this historical background, we can now understand how an empire could once exist, then disappear, then reappear in a somewhat different form. The fact that this beast, symbolic of an empire, “was, and is not, and yet is” tells us that the Roman Empire, which does not exist at this time as such, will be restored yet again in the near future.
It “was,” meaning it existed in the past, it currently “is not,” meaning it doesn’t exist at this moment, and “yet is,” for it remains an undercurrent in European politics, and “will ascend out of the bottomless pit”—meaning it is destined to rise yet again.
Revelation 17:10 prophesies that there would be seven kings or rulers who would lead resurrections of the Roman Empire in cooperation with the Roman church. History shows that this development has occurred sixtimes in the past. A final revival, linked in prophecy to God’s intervention in human affairs with Christ’s return, lies ahead.
In 1957 six Western European nations—West Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Belgium—came together to create the European Economic Community through the Treaty of Rome. These groundbreaking steps toward European unification were taken in the ancient capital city of the Roman Empire and home to one of the world’s oldest and major religions.
Paul Henri Spaak, former secretary-general of NATO, later remarked on that signing in a BBC documentary: “We felt like Romans on that day… we were consciously recreating the Roman Empire once more.”
Europe’s long dream of unity retains its hold on European leaders. Although slow to come together, and certainly not yet in its final form, that union will emerge as a global superpower that will stun and shock the world.
Again, Revelation 17:12-13 tells us of an alliance of 10 “kings”—which today could refer to presidents, premiers or prime ministers—who “will give their power and authority to the beast” in a final union of nations. Little do they know how monstrously evil their creation will become, ultimately plunging the world into catastrophe.
The next verse clearly states the time setting for this prophecy: “These will make war with the Lamb, and the Lamb will overcome them…” The Lamb, of course, is Jesus Christ. He will not return until this prophecy of 10 rulers who form an end-time superpower is fulfilled. Yet all indications are that His return must be soon—and the appearance of this empire will of course be even sooner.
As history shows, the Roman Empire has fallen, risen and fallen several times in the past. Be assured that it will rise once more, yet soon afterward will be destroyed and replaced by the Kingdom of Jesus Christ, which willnever be destroyed!
This is what Bible prophecy reveals regarding the end time as it focuses on events in Europe. The foundation is laid, the structure is being built, and the time for the final revival of the Roman Empire draws ever closer.
Will you be ready to face these events that are destined to transform the world? GN
The Book of Revelation Unveiled
Is the book of Revelation relevant today? Is it possible to understand it?
The Rising European Superpower: Prophesied in the Bible?
Events in Europe are reshaping the world. The European Union has now expanded from 15 to 25 members. Most of Europe already shares a common currency and plans within months to have a European constitution to further unify the continent. Military and intelligence cooperation is increasing. Why are these developments taking place? Where are they heading and how will they affect you? The shocking truth was foretold centuries ago in the pages of your Bible!
Who Will Be the Next Superpower?
Bible prophecy shows the United States will not be the world’s preeminent power indefinitely. A new superpower is rising to challenge the United States and the other English-speaking nations.
The Coming of Islam
The descendants of Ishmael lived in relative obscurity throughout the period of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah and the Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek and Roman Empires. They mostly kept to themselves in the Arabian Peninsula where desert life was hard, frequently fighting among themselves. But this changed early in the seventh century, less than 600 years after the time of Jesus Christ, when the most famous of Ishmael’s descendants came on the scene.
Until the early 600s the Arabs were idol worshippers. The great temple in Mecca had 365 idols (one for each day of the year) and was a source of considerable revenue for local merchants who relied on pilgrims visiting the site for their income.
This religious landscape was to change dramatically with the prophet Muhammad and the religion he founded, Islam.
Muhammad (sometimes spelled Mohammed or Mahomet) was of the Hashemite family (in Arabic, Beni Hashim) of the powerful Koreish (or Quraish) tribe, which controlled the pagan temple in Mecca. According to Islamic belief, it was near Mecca, at Mt. Hira, that the archangel Gabriel first appeared to Muhammad in A.D. 610, revealing wisdom from God. This and subsequent revelations form the Koran (or Quran), the holy scriptures of Islam, a book roughly the length of the New Testament.
Muhammad, whose name means “highly praised,” became a courageous and determined preacher of monotheism, the belief in one God, a belief that threatened the commercial prosperity of other members of his tribe. Their attempts to have him killed failed, and in a short time Muhammad brought an end to the polytheistic idolatry of the area, replacing it with Islam (literally meaning “surrender” or “submission” to the one true God, Allah).
Muhammad’s preaching achieved something that had eluded Ishmael’s descendants from the beginning—unity, thereby enabling them to become a great nation that could spread out and influence other nations.
From these lowly beginnings in the desert of the Arabian Peninsula, Islam has spread throughout the world. Today 57 countries are in the Islamic Conference, comprising more than a quarter of all the nations on earth.
Although 22 of them are Arab nations, many of which are populated with descendants of Ishmael, another 35 nations also are either exclusively or significantly Islamic. These range geographically from West Africa across the center of the world to Indonesia, a wide belt of nations that identify with each other as followers of Islam.
In addition, millions more Muslims, followers of Islam, live in North America and Western Europe. The religion continues to expand rapidly due to a high birthrate and aggressive proselytizing.
Today Islam (pronounced Is-LAM, with the emphasis on the second syllable) has around 1.3 billion followers. They all worship Allah (similar emphasis on the second syllable), whom they consider to be the one true God. They worship in mosques, with Friday as their chosen day of worship, though it is also permissible for adherents to work on that day.
Their one-sentence creed, called the shahadah (“testimony”) is only eight words in Arabic—La illaha ila Allah, wa Muhammadun rasul Allah—meaning “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is His Prophet.” A solemn and sincere recitation of these words is the sole requirement for being a Muslim. The word Muslim (or Moslem) means “one who submits (to Allah).”
Muslims date their years from the hijrah (sometimes spelled hejira or hegira), Muhammad’s flight from Mecca to Medina in A.D. 622. As the Muslim year is set according to the lunar calendar, there are 354 or 355 days in each year, which means that their year is about 11 days shorter than a year in the Western world, which is based on the Gregorian solar calendar. This means that Islamic festivals fall on different days each year according to the Gregorian calendar and gradually work their way back through the Gregorian year.
Muhammad died on June 8, A.D. 632, leaving no male heir and no designated successor. The result was chaos and confusion throughout the Islamic Empire, which after only a decade had already grown to one third the size of the present 48 continental United States.
Only one child by his beloved first wife Khadija had survived him, the beautiful Fatima. She grew to adulthood, married and bore children who also survived. It is through Fatima that all Muhammad’s present descendants, called sharifs and sayyids, trace their ancestry. Fatima’s husband, Ali ibn Abi Talib, first cousin and adopted son to Muhammad, was also his first convert after Khadija. Ali and Fatima had two young sons at the time of Muhammad’s death.
As the nearest blood relative, many thought that Ali should be Muhammad’s successor as their leader. After a great deal of argument, he was rejected in favor of a wealthy Meccan cloth merchant who had been an early convert and Muhammad’s companion on his famous camel-back flight 10 years earlier. His name was Abu Bakr. He was also the father of Muhammad’s favorite wife, Ayesha, and had been appointed to take the place of the prophet leading public prayers at the time of Muhammad’s last illness.
The revelations had been to Muhammad, so Abu Bakr was not fully succeeding Muhammad. However, he was given authority over the secular political and administrative functions of the empire, with the title “Khalifah rasul Allah” meaning “Successor to the Messenger of God.” In English the title is usually shortened to “caliph” and is given to the head of state in Muslim-governed countries. The office of Islamic Caliphate remained an Islamic institution right down to the creation of the Turkish Republic in 1924, when it was abolished by the secular government of Kemal Ataturk.
Although the transition following the death of Muhammad was sudden and unexpected and caused some bad feeling among the followers of Ali, Fatima’s husband, the tribes remained united under Abu Bakr.
Rapid expansion of the Islamic Empire
Before he died Abu Bakr appointed Omar ibn al-Khattab as his successor. Caliph Omar (or Umar) was the first caliph to assume the illustrious title Amir al-Muminin, meaning “Commander of the Faithful.” It was during his 10-year reign that the first great wave of Islamic territorial expansion occurred as the children of Ishmael pushed outward in all directions from their ancient desert homeland.
Caliph Omar was an able commander of his troops and proved a formidable foe to the two great superpowers of his day, the Byzantine and Persian Empires. The former was the Eastern Roman Empire, which had developed out of the older Roman Empire after Constantine, in the fourth century, established a new capital in Byzantium (renaming it Constantinople, after himself)—now Istanbul, Turkey. It controlled Asia Minor, the Aegean Peninsula, much of North Africa and the Near East.
To the northeast of the Arabian Peninsula lay the Persian, or Sassanid, Empire. The Persian and Byzantine Empires were constantly fighting each other, weakening them and making them vulnerable to the new, vigorous, zealous and youthful Islamic Empire coming out of Arabia. The Sassanid Empire fell, but the Byzantine remained as a continually threatened and shrinking empire, finally falling to Muslim Turks in 1453.
To cries of Allahu Akbar (“God is Great!”), the Islamic call to arms, the camel- and horse-mounted Arab warriors were formidable opponents, defeating all the forces that were sent against them. Not since the days of Alexander the Great had there been such a force, conquering all before it so quickly. A century of conquest lay before them. Syria and the Holy Land were taken in 635-6; the area of Iraq, the following year; Egypt and Persia, four years later.
Jerusalem was their greatest prize, captured in 638. Called Al-Kuds in Arabic, meaning “the Holy,” Jerusalem remains the third-holiest city of Islam, after Mecca and Medina. Muslims believe that Muhammad ascended to heaven on his winged steed Burak from the rock that is visible inside the Dome of the Rock, built in the late seventh century and one of the most architecturally magnificent buildings on earth.
Muslims also believe this is where Abraham came to sacrifice his son—the son, however, being Ishmael rather than Isaac as the Bible attests (Genesis 22:1-14). Built on the great platform of the Temple Mount constructed centuries earlier by Herod the Great, the Dome of the Rock and the surrounding area is today the most bitterly contested piece of real estate on earth.
Within a century after the death of Muhammad, the Arab Empire stretched from the Middle East across North Africa to Spain in the west and eastward across Central Asia to India. One of their advances even reached the gates of Paris before being halted by Charles Martel at the Battle of Tours near Poitiers in 732, exactly 100 years after Muhammad’s death.
Rapid Muslim expansion now halted until the 12th century, when another great expansion of Islam took place under the Sufis (Muslim mystics) who spread Islam throughout India, Central Asia, Turkey and sub-Saharan Africa. Muslim traders helped spread the religion even further, to Indonesia, the Malay Peninsula and China.
“Islam’s essential egalitarianism within the community of the faithful and its official discrimination against the followers of other religions won rapid converts,” notes the Encyclopaedia Britannica (15th Edition, Vol. 9, p. 912, “Islam”). Although Jews and Christians, as “people of the Book” were tolerated, they had to pay a special tax called jizyah. However, “pagans … were required to either accept Islam or die” (ibid.).
Following the assassination of the Caliph Omar in November 644 while leading prayers in the mosque of Medina, a body of electors once again bypassed Ali when choosing a successor. The caliphate was bestowed on Othman ibn Affan, who had been an early convert to Islam and a close companion of the prophet.
During his period of rule the Koran was completed in its present form. Previously, most of its contents had simply been memorized in the heads of Muhammad’s followers (Muhammad, himself illiterate, had never written them down). These were now collected by a team of men authorized to put the sacred writings together, under the leadership of the Islamic scholar Zayd ibn Thabit.
Muslims believe the Koran is the literal word of God (Kalimat Allah), not the words of Muhammad. The first words of the Koran are Bism’illah ir-Rahman ir-Rahim, meaning “In the name of Allah, the Merciful, the Compassionate.”
Islam splits over succession
Othman ruled 12 years (644-656) before being assassinated in Medina. His assassination heralded open religious and political conflicts within the Islamic community that continue to this day.
After Othman’s death, leadership of the community finally fell to Ali, Fatima’s aging husband, who had been living in retirement as a scholar. To his followers, Ali was the first and only lawful caliph. Most Muslims accepted him as the fourth caliph, but many were bitterly opposed to his rule.
The empire was to suffer continual political and religious strife, uprisings and rebellions. Five years later Ali, too, was assassinated. Before any of his sons could be appointed as successor, Othman’s nephew, head of the Umayyad (or Omayyad) branch of the Koreish tribe, assumed control, bringing the dispute between the factions to a head.
Ali’s followers believed that all caliphs must be descended from Ali as Muhammad’s closest blood relative. This group was called the “party of Ali” (in Arabic, the Shiat Ali, or Shiites). The majority believed that anybody could be appointed caliph, regardless of lineage. This group was called the Sunni Muslims, sunna being the “path” or the “way” of the Prophet. In contrast to the Shiites, the Sunnis have generally accepted the rule of the caliphs.
Violence followed in 680 when Ali’s son Hussein, a grandson of Muhammad, was killed along with 72 of his relatives and companions at Karbala in what is now Iraq. The Shiites now had a martyr. They grew in numbers and resolve and were increasingly embittered at the dominance of the Sunni Muslims. This animosity continues to the present day.
The majority Sunnis make up about 85 percent of all Muslims, and the Shiites (or Shia) constitute the remainder. Although they agree on the fundamentals of Islam, political, theological and philosophical differences have further widened the gap between the two. Complicating things even further has been the tendency among the Shiite Muslims to break up into various sects.
Today, the Shiites are the dominant force in Iran and the biggest single religious community in Lebanon and Iraq. Remembering the fanaticism of the Iranian Revolution that overthrew the shah in 1979, many people think Shiites are inclined toward terrorism. However, most anti-Western terrorists come from the Wahhabi sect of Sunni Islam, which originated in Saudi Arabia in the 18th century.
One of the appeals of Islam is the emphasis on Ummah or community. “Though there have been many Islamic sects and movements, all followers are bound by a common faith and a sense of belonging to a single community” (ibid., p. 912). This sense of community has only been strengthened in the last 200 years during the period of Western supremacy. Achieving Arab and Islamic unity is very much a desire of Muslims in today’s world.
Ishmael becomes the prophesied “great nation”
After Ali’s death the Umayyads turned the caliphate into a hereditary office, ruling from Damascus for almost a century until 750. During this time most of the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal) was conquered along with what was left of North Africa. To the east, Islamic armies swept over Central Asia toward India and China. Before the end of their period of rule, the Muslims built an empire that was larger than Rome’s, converting millions to Islam.
The Umayyads were replaced by the Abbasid dynasty, whose 37 caliphs ruled from Baghdad for five centuries (750-1258). At this time, while much of Europe was still in the Dark Ages (isolated in no small part by hostile Muslims along its borders), the Islamic world was a great civilization, preserving the literature and learning of the ancient world, leading the world in knowledge and understanding of mathematics, chemistry, physics, astronomy, geography and medicine.
As had been divinely promised to Abraham and Hagar concerning their son so many centuries earlier, Ishmael truly did become a “great nation” (Genesis 17:20; 21:18)—one of the greatest empires the world has ever known.
Like all civilizations, however, the Abbasid dynasty came to an end after falling into a slow decay and decline. During this period, as central authority waned, the unity of Islam was shattered, a problem that impedes Muslims to this day. The deathblow for the empire came when the Mongol hordes descended on Baghdad in 1258, killing the last caliph, slaughtering the city’s inhabitants and ending the empire.
The Crusades: Battle for the Holy Land
During the reigns of the Abbasid caliphs, a major clash occurred between Islam and Catholic Europe. With the expansion of Islam into the Iberian Peninsula and the attempt to conquer France, there had already been conflict between the two, but the wresting of Jerusalem from the forces of Islam on July 15, 1099, was the beginning of a long and protracted period of rivalry between the two religious forces.
The European Crusaders pillaged, raped, murdered and enslaved the peoples of Jerusalem in a frenzy of carnage that both Jews and Muslims remember to this day. The sacred Dome of the Rock was taken over and turned into a church, with the Christian cross replacing the Islamic crescent. Muslims were incensed and vowed to retake the city from the infidels (meaning “unbelievers,” originally a Latin word used by Catholics to label Muslims).
Not until Oct. 2, 1187, were Islamic forces able to take back control of Jerusalem, under the leadership of Saladin (Salah ad-Din, meaning “Righteousness of the Faith”), the sultan of Egypt and Syria. Saladin proclaimed jihad (holy war) to retake Palestine from the enemies of Islam.
The golden cross at the top of the Dome of the Rock was replaced by the Muslim crescent, but Saladin did not seek revenge on his opponents. Instead, he treated both enemy soldiers and the civilian population with mercy and kindness—a stark contrast to the Europeans who had slaughtered tens of thousands when they took the city.
There were to be more Crusades for another century, briefly retaking Jerusalem from 1229 to 1239 and 1243 to 1244, but the forces of the cross eventually had to leave the Holy Land to Muslims. Not until 1917, during World War I, were Western Christians again able to retake Jerusalem, and then they kept control of the city for only three decades.
The rise of the Ottoman Empire
The next great power in the region was that of the Ottoman Turks, who seized control of Constantinople in 1453, finally destroying the collapsing Byzantine Empire founded by Rome more than a millennium earlier. The Turks, an Islamic but non-Arab people, took control of Jerusalem in 1517 and were to dominate the Middle East for the following four centuries.
The Ottomans expanded rapidly into southeastern Europe and on to the gates of Vienna before being pushed back toward the end of the 17th century. A period of decline followed in the 19th century with nations throughout the Balkans and North Africa breaking away from Ottoman rule.
The Arabs resented Turkish control and waited patiently for an opportunity to regain their independence and the former days of glory.
Ishmael’s sons would be heard from again
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