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August 2, 2014

Nationalism in the Conflict Between Muslims and Romans

By His Eminence Metropolitan Hierotheos
of Nafpaktos and Agiou Vlasiou

The relationships and conflicts between religions have been analyzed many times, particularly between Islam and Christianity. Many angles can be examined on this issue, but in this article I would like to focus on the catalytic importance of nationalism in the conflict between Islam and Romiosini.

1. The Quran on the Romans

The Quran, which is the "sacred book" of Islam, speaks of the Romans in the 30th chapter. It says:

Ar-Rum. In the name of Allah, the Merciful. Alif-Lam-Mim. The Romans have been defeated. In the nearest land. But they, after their defeat, will overcome. Within a few years. With Allah is the decision, in the past and in the future: on that Day shall the Believers rejoice with the help of Allah. He helps whom He will, and He is exalted in might, most merciful. (It is) the promise of Allah. Never does Allah depart from His promise: but most men understand not.

Ali Nour, in his doctoral thesis titled The Quran and Byzantium, claims that Muhammad is not speaking here of the Greeks in general, as it was implied in an old translation, but of the Romans. Having studied the Quran in the Arabic language, he argues that the title of the chapter is not "The Greeks" but "The Romans". It consists of two words: Ar is the article and Rum means Romans. In other words, it refers to the Orthodox Christians of the Roman/Byzantine Empire.

Thus, the reading of this chapter in the Quran mentions the conflicts between the Romans and the Persians of that time, how the Persians defeated the Romans, but after a short time the Romans would go on to defeat the Persians with the help of God. Hence the believers, the Muslim Arabs, will rejoice. The Muslims clearly show sympathy towards the Romans, because both are "people of the Book".

This should be considered in light of the fact that the Arabs, and Muhammad, oversaw the trade between Romans and Persians, maintaining the Syria-Yemen line, and they carried the goods of the East to Byzantium. Thus they had a better relationship with the Romans/Byzantines. Moreover, Muslim Arabs harbored respect for Byzantine culture, which they received and appropriated in many places, but they also harbored admiration for Byzantine power.

2. Two Different Interpretations

Nadia Maria El Cheikh, a professor at Harvard University and the American University of Beirut, in a study titled Byzantium Viewed by the Arabs, among other things refers to two different interpretations of this passage in the Quran mentioned above. She claims, with arguments, that the interpretation of the 30th chapter of the Quran dominant among Muslims until the eleventh century was that which was referred to above, that the Romans were defeated by the Persians, but soon the Romans would defeat the Persians, which will cause the faithful Muslims to rejoice. But from the eleventh century and after there disseminated a completely opposite interpretation, namely that the Romans defeated the Persians, but then the Persians would defeat the Romans and so the Muslims will rejoice.

Hence, the first authoritative interpretation is that Muslims are on the side of the Romans, and later the second interpretation is that Muslims are with the Persians. Both interpretations coexist with the first being more dominant.

It is of interest to see how this change of the interpretation of this passage from the Quran took place.

3. Nationalist Hatred

As mentioned earlier, Arabs initially cooperated with the Romans/Byzantines, primarily through trade and their receiving of cultural traditions. Influenced by the Monophysites and the Nestorians, who lived on the eastern border of the Byzantine Empire, they later changed their attitudes towards the Romans/Byzantines. However, there must have been an important and dramatic event.

Fr. John Romanides, as well as other literary sources, argues that the shift of the Arabs against the Romans/Byzantines is observed when the religion of Islam spread towards the East and the Persians became Muslim, who until then had been Zoroastrians.

Then the eternal hatred of the Persians against the ancient Greeks, as manifested in the Greco-Persian wars, and against the Romans, passed into Islam. In other words, as long as Islam remained in Arabia, it had a good relationship with the Byzantines, who considered it a heresy of Christianity and not a religion. However, when Islam penetrated Persia, then it received the hostile element maintained by the Persians against the Greeks and Romans, and so national hatred became religious.

Of course, this change of disposition of Muslims against Christians increased with the despicable behavior of Western Christians, who with their Crusades caused various disasters in their lands.

And this suggests that the conflicts between religions should be examined from the perspective of nationalism, wherever it may come from, and not place the fault entirely on religions. Ethnophyletism, when invested with religious elements, becomes very dangerous. The same applies when the various global political rivalries and various politicians use religion for their own purposes and then incriminate.

Of course, religious leaders are also responsible, when consciously or unconsciously they become partakers in this dangerous "game" for humanity.

Source: Ekklesiasti Paremvasi, "Μουσουλμάνοι και Ρωμηοί", August 2009. First published in the Sunday Vema on July 17, 2009. Translated by John Sanidopoulos.