Babylon to Baghdad – A History of Monotheism

On February 9, 2016 Livius Onderwijs organized a lecture day on the history of monotheism. In ten short lectures lasting ten minutes each, Dutch historians Jona Lendering and Richard Kroes discussed various topics, including the origins of monotheistic thought, the birth of the various monotheistic religions, the reasons why they split up into different sects and the origin of fundamentalism. Of course it is quite a challenge to present such a complex theme in a series of ten mini-lectures. Nevertheless, Jona Lendering and Richard Kroes managed quite well. Their lectures went smooth (aside from a breakdown of the beamer during the second lecture and the fact that some lectures did surpass the ten minute limit) and they managed to introduce the audience to the basics, leaving the wanting for more. Now I am facing the challenge of summarizing these mini-lectures in even fewer words…

Babylonians and Zoroastrians (Lendering)
No one knows exactly how religion originated. All we know for certain is that by the time that the Sumerians had invented writing around 3000 BC, they and their neighbors were already worshipping several anthropomorphic gods. This multitude of gods was confusing to many, which is why the priesthood created pantheons in which each god had a fixed role and a fixed relation to the other gods. The Babylonians also believed that mankind was created by the gods. Since these gods themselves had both good and evil aspects, their creatures were made up of good and evil parts as well, which explains the complexities of human nature.

The prophet Zarathustra, who lived during the late second millennium BC in Central Asia, had similar ideas about human nature. According to his teachings the cosmos consisted of seven good creations, created by the good god Ahura Mazda, and seven evil ‘counter-creations’, created by an evil entity known as ‘the Lie’. Humankind itself contained these good and evil creations within himself as well, but it was his religious duty to honor the good god Ahura Mazda by constantly choosing good over evil. Thus, ethical behavior became a religious obligation.

Jews (Kroes)
During the first millennium BC a small nation of farmers lived in the hill country west of the river Jordan. They were not much different from the rest, aside from the fact that they did not eat pork. Originally they worshiped many gods, like everyone else, but they did have one national god named Yahweh, who required their special devotion. Already during the ninth century BC there was a prophetic movement that was vehemently opposed to the worship of other gods. According to them Yahweh was such a special god that he required exclusive worship. The gods of neighboring nations, like the Ba’als, Asherah, Moloch and Chemosh, were an abomination to them. This prophetic movement gained infuenced in times of crisis. These crises were explained as the result of Yahweh’s displeasure with the worship of other gods. Especially the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC by the Babylonians and the subsequent exile of prominent Jews to Babylonia led to a revolution in religious thought. In Babylon the Jews were influenced by Zoroastrians and they incorporated their idea of a cosmic struggle between good and evil into their religion. In 539 BC Cyrus the Great allowed the Jews to return to their land and rebuild their temple. Judah became a theocratic state centered around the worship of Yahweh in Jerusalem and thus the foundations of Judaism were laid.

Funerary stele with the Ichtys symbol

Christians (Lendering)
One of the beliefs among Jews was that a Messiah would come to restore Israel to its former glory. Additional ideas were that this Messiah would judge mankind and create a new paradisical world were even the Gentiles would worship Yahweh. In the first century AD one Jewish sect believed that Jesus of Nazareth was this Messiah. Although he was crucified, the Christians believed that Jesus rose from the dead and ascended to heaven. All Christians agreed that Jesus would one day return to fulfill his mission, but the opinions were divided on when and how this would take place. Because Christianity welcomed Gentiles and sought to distance itself from the other Jews after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD, the religion gained a lot of non-Jewish followers.

Once Christianity had become an established religion in the second century AD, there was again disagreement on several issues, like Christianity’s relation to the Jews and the Old Testament and the question of dualism. There were some Christians who believed that the God of the Old Testament, the Creator of the world, was a lesser or even evil God and that there was a higher, truly good God in heaven. According to these Christians human souls were divine sparks trapped in evil material bodies and Jesus was sent to earth by the good God to liberate these souls from their bondage. Eventually, however, the Christians who accepted the Old Testament, who rejected dualism and who saw the universe as an essentially good creation became dominant, whereas their opponents, dubbed ‘gnostics’, passed into obscurity.

Manichaeans (Kroes)
In the third century BC a man named Mani lived in present day Iraq. His father belonged to a gnostic Judeo-Christian sect and his mother descended from Parthian nobility. Thus he was exposed to Judaism, both orthodox and gnostic Christianity and Zoroastrianism from his early life on. Later in life he traveled to Afghanistan, where he met Buddhists and Hindus. Mani was very impressed by the ascetism and spiritual ideas of these Indian religions and tried to incorporate them into his own beliefs. When he returned to Iraq he started to preach his own religion, which was basically a more systematized form of gnosticism that was open to Zoroastrian, Buddhist and Greek ideas. Initially the Sasanian Persian kings supported Mani, but during the reign of Bahram I and II things started to change. A Zoroastrian high priest named Karder had set out to systematize the Zoroastrian religion in response to the increasing popularity of Christianity and tried to rid the religion of foreign or ‘heretical’ elements. Mani himself fell victim to this purge. After losing a debate with Karder he was incarcerated, where he most likely died of old age. Later narratives claim that he was crucified or even flayed alive. Despite the death of his founder, Manichaeism was pretty succesful during the centuries following his death, spreading to the Roman Empire to the west and China to the east.

Mandaeans and Yezidi’s (Lendering)
Before orthodox Christianity and Islam took over, the Middle East was home to numerous monotheistic or dualistic religions. Most of these were simply folk religions that had adopted elements from the established religions with which they came into contact. Two of these religions still exist today: Mandaeism and the Yezidi faith.

The Mandaeans claim to be descended from the Jews that followed John the Baptist. Their views are similar to those of the gnostics and their religion is based on Biblical tradition. They venerate several Biblical prophets like Adam, Seth, Noah, David and John the Baptist, yet they view Jesus, Moses and even Abraham as false prophets. As for their Jewish origins it must be said that they do hold some apocryphical Jewish books in his esteem, but there is no evidence that the Mandaeans existed before the Islamic period. Moreover, their knowledge of Biblical prophets may also have originated in a Christian of Islamic milieu. They may have split off from these religions, or they may simply have borrowed ideas from them.

The Yezidi’s are a Kurdish group that has often been persecuted because of their percieved devil worship. They believe in a creation story that is very similar to the Islamic narrative, in which Satan refuses to bow to Adam because he wants to bow down to God alone. While Muslims rebuke Satan for this, Yezidi’s venerate Satan for his strict monotheism. Aside from this view, the Yezidi’s also believe in baptism, multiple levels of creation and reincarnation. Their religion seems to be an amalgam of pagan Babylonian beliefs, Kurdish folk religion, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Council of Nicaea (325)
Council of Nicaea (325)

Schisms within Christianity (Lendering)
In AD 313 Christianity was legalized in the Roman Empire and soon became the dominant religion. Now that the Christians held political power, it was time to standardize the doctrines of the religion. The most important doctrines concerned the nature of Christ. Although all Christians believed that Jesus was either God himself or the Son of God, the implications of this claim were controversial.

A bisshop named Arius claimed that Christ, being the Word of God, was created by God and therefore not equal to him. This idea was unacceptable to many of the other bisshops and at the Council of Nicaea (325) it was decided that God the Son was equal to God the Father. The followers of Arius were persecuted, but Arianism was adopted by several Germanic tribes. The Council of Constantinople (381) also accepted the Holy Spirit as being equal to the Father and the Son, thus creating the doctrine of the Trinity.

At the Council of Ephesus (431) it was decided that the man Jesus of Nazareth was not only God in spirit, but also God in body, making the virgin Mary literally ‘Mother of God’. Nestorius, the patriarch of Constantinople, disagreed and founded his own church. Nestorianism took root in the Middle East and went on to become one of the largest sects in Christianity.

Throughout the Councils, the divine nature of Christ was constantly upgraded, but eventually a group of Christians arose who believed Jesus Christ to be fully divine and not human. These Christians were known as monophysites. This doctrine went too far for most orthodox Christians, however, and was rejected at the Council of Chalcedon (451). The monophysites continued to exist in Egypt, Armenia and Arabia.

The coming of Islam (Kroes)
The Arabian Peninsula, like the rest of the Middle East, was home to many different religions. Therefore, a lot of religious discussions took place. It was under these circumstances that the prophet Muhammad started preaching. Mohammed preached the oneness of God and warned the people for the Final Judgment. Concerning the nature of Christ, Muhammad had a radical opinion. Whereas all Christians had agreed that Christ was at least part divine, Muhammad denied his divine nature altogether, stating that an infinite God has no equals or partners and that Jesus was only a prophet who performed his miracles through the will of God.

Muhammad often referred to commonly known stories from the Torah, the Gospel, the Talmud and oral tradition and retold them in order to illustrate his own message. For example, orthodox Christians knew a story about Jesus creating sparrows out of clay and making them come alive. This story was meant to illustrate that Jesus really was God himself. However, Muhammad took the same story and added that Jesus said that he was only able to do these miracles with the help of God. In order to understand Islam, one needs to understand its place in the debates with Christianity. Many Islamic doctrines are formulated in such a way that they directly contradict common Christian doctrines. That is also the reason why the inscriptions on the Dome of the Rock mainly address the nature of Christ.

Sunni and Shia (Lendering)
Not long after the foundation of Islam the religion split up into two major sects that are still around today: the Sunni and the Shia. The conflict revolves around the question of who should succeed Muhammad as the leader of the Muslim community. Most Muslims agree that Muhammad himself had appointed his cousin and son-in-law Ali as his successor before his death, but after Muhammad’s dead the majority of Muslims chose the older and more experienced Abu Bakr to lead them. Subsequently the Muslim community was led by Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali, who are recognized by the Sunnites as the four rightly guided caliphs. The Shiites, however, don’t recognize the leadership of the first three caliphs and hold that only Ali and his descendants should lead the community.

Battle of Karbala (680)
Battle of Karbala (680)

Eventually Ali was murdered, upon which the family of Uthman, the Ummayads, inherited the caliphate. Ali’s son Hussain, however, intended to reclaim the caliphate for his family with the help of his father’s supporters in Kufah. On his way to Kufah, however, Hussain and his men were stopped near Karbala by an Ummayad army led by caliph Yazid. This meeting led to a battle that ended in the death of Hussain, the grandson of the prophet. His death shocked the entire Islamic world, but most Muslims decided to accept the caliph as the leader of the Muslim community. They became known as the Sunnis. Those who refused and instead kept on hoping for a descendant of Ali to rise to power became known as Shia. Ali’s family had a lot of support among the less fortunate subjects of the caliphate, like Persian converts and religious minorities, which may explain the continuous success of the Shia movement.

Karaite Judaism (Kroes)
While Christianity and Islam were on the rise, Judaism kept developing as well. After the destruction of the Second Temple in AD 70 the Pharisees had come to dominate the Jewish community. The Pharisees believed in an oral Torah in addition to the written Torah. They believed that this oral Torah consisted of clarifications and commentaries on the written Torah that were given to Moses on Mount Sinai. Over the course of centuries the Mishnah was written, which was a commentary on the Old Testament, and the Talmud, in which rabbis discussed all aspects of the implementations of Torah law.

This Talmudic Judaism is the Judaism that we know today. However, during the early Islamic period there were some Jews who rejected the oral tradition and the Talmud, instead seeking to interpret the Torah on their own. These Jews were known as Karaites. Karaite methods of deriving rules from the Torah was derived from Islamic methods of deriving rules from the Quran. Moreover, Karaite Jews pray in a way that is very similar to Islamic prayer. Although the Karaites claim to have preserved original Judaism from before the ‘innovations of the Pharisees’, it is more likely that Karaite Judaism split off from rabbinical Judaism as sort of a counter-movement, inspired by rebellious preachers like Anan ben David (715-795).

Fundamentalism (Lendering)
Around the year 1000 rabbinical Judaism, the non-Protestant sects of Christianity and Sunni and Shia Islam had largely taken on the form that we know today. The period of schisms was over and throughout most of the Middle East the different religions had found a way to coexist under the hegemony of Islam. It is interesting to note that in many Middle Eastern regions Islam was not even the majority religion. Things started to change, however, after the Mongol invasions under Genghis Khan (1218-1221) and his grandson Hulegu (1256-1258). These invasions devastated much of the Islamic world and broke the political power of the caliphate. Many Muslims were looking for a scapegoat and the Christians were an easy target, since the Mongols leaders often had Christian wives. Throughout the centuries the number of Christians diminished due to massacres and forced conversions, whereas the number of Muslims increased. It must be said, however, that there were relatively tolerant periods as well, under the Persian Safavid dynasty and in the early Ottoman Empire. Conflicts between the Ottoman Empire and Christian Europe rekindled hostility against Christians, however, and around 1800 the fundamentalist Wahhabi movement was founded on the Arabian Peninsula.

The Wahhabi movement was different from earlier forms of Islam, because its adherents claimed to have the only right interpretation of Islam. This made them very intolerant to other forms of Islam, especially the Shia. Although Wahhabism had remained a relatively small movement until the early twentieth century, this sect has grown big due to monetary support from the Wahhabi House of Saud. The Saudi’s, in turn, had gotten rich by selling oil to the Western world. The increasing influence of Wahhabism led to a backlash among the Shia, especially in Iran. Grand Ayatollah Khomeini tried to counter the influence of Wahhabism by creating a more assertive and militant version of Shia Islam that eventually succeeded in exerting great influence over the Middle East that rivaled that of the Saudi’s. It is this Saudi-Iranian conflict that lies at the basis of the current religious conflict in the Middle East. The present conflict is political as well as religious and arose from specific historical circumstances. However destructive this conflict may be, history teaches us that such political conflicts are temporary, which gives us just a little bit of hope.