Seems to me that the Byzantine emperors, including the Palaeologan line from the thirteenth century, persecuted religious minorities, including Jews, Manichaeans and dissident Christians, during centuries in which the Islamic world showed relative tolerance. I’ve read the texts of anathemas that virtually everyone in some parts of the Empire was obliged to pronounce publicly in the sixth century: “I renounce Mani, Buddha his teacher,” etc. On pain of death, basically. There was no division between church and state. Many Byzantine Jews welcomed the initial Muslim Arab advances, providing relief from Christian persecution.  ~Gary Leupp, Counterpunch

The claim about church and state is just hideously wrong.  You cannot be more wrong about Byzantium than to say “there was no division between church and state.”  Of course there was a division–the division was consciously maintained at several key moments in Byzantine history, particularly when there were heretical emperors on the throne; the role of emperors in the Church was strictly circumscribed and defined by precedents and canons; there was an entire (slightly idealistic) theory of symphoneia composed in the prologue of the Epanagoge, a ninth-century law code of Basil I that elaborated a similar division of labour outlined in Justinian’s Sixth Novella.  Anyone with a vague familiarity with late Byzantine history knows just how controversial and divisive attempts to dictate church policy for the sake of political expediency were, and how they ultimately always failed because the Church retained its sense of independence and its conviction that the bishops, not the emperor, defined doctrine and governed the affairs of the Church.  The intolerant aspects of Byzantine Orthodoxy also served as a guard against state control of the Church.  Of course the emperor had influence and could briefly, but ultimately futilely, exert power over the Church, but to say something as simplistic and risible as “there was no division between church and state” is to prove that you have no business talking about the subject in question.  And if “there was no division between church and state,” what on earth was the situation in the Islamic world, where the supreme secular authority and the supreme religious authority during the Caliphates was the same person

Many Byzantine Jews also welcomed the Persian invasions of the early seventh century and even allegedly helped in the sack of Jerusalem in 614, so I’m not sure why Prof. Leupp wants to bring this up as a particular example of Byzantine Christian flaws.  (It cannot be a promising sign for the quality of education at Tufts University that Leupp is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion.)  Yes, there was legal discrimination against heretics and non-Christians, just as there were legal codes prescribing inferior status for non-Muslims in Islamic lands.  In those lands there was no “tolerance,” relative or otherwise, but simply the toleration that said for all intents and purposes “we will probably not attack and kill you–probably.”  There were exceptional cases in Byzantium of violent punishment, forcible coercion and execution, but these were very rare in Byzantine history.  For every emperor you can find that engaged in such things, I can show you five who didn’t do any such thing and a considerable number of Church Fathers who explicitly condemned such things.  For every anathema against Manichees you can show me, I’ll show you the martyrs of Gaza or the neo-martyrs of the Turkokrateia or any of the nameless thousands butchered under the green flag. 

There was nothing comparable in all of Byzantine history to the ninth-century anti-Mu’tazilite Islamic inquisition in the court of Baghdad under Ma’mun, try as some might to make the trial of John Italos into a great attack on all things rational.  Presumably the Mu’tazilites did not appreciate just how tolerant their persecutors were.  What is more, Italos was condemned for excessive Hellenism, which means reliance on pagan philosophy to the detriment of revelation in this context, not the use of reason applied to Scripture all together–the Mu’tazilites were condemned and persecuted because they dared to say that the Qur’an was created and that man had free will.  They were the first–and last–Islamic rationalists, the last, great hope, so to speak, of every apologist for the good side of Islam–and they were crushed, never to be seen again.  The contrary positions–that the Qur’an was eternal and man does not really have free will, but all things are done by Allah–became normative and all but universally accepted.  The fate of the Mu’tazilah alone confirms what Pope Benedict was saying about relationship of Islam and reason.  I would like to assume that Prof. Leupp is simply painfully ignorant about all of this, because otherwise he would be something of a gross liar. 

There are no Byzantine Christian groups comparable to such “tolerant” folk as the Almohads and Almoravids, who showed just how “tolerant” Islam could be with their spate of brutal persecutions.  The “relative tolerance” of the Aghlabids led to the decay and disappearance of North African Christianity, which had barely hung on into the 11th century before going extinct.  The fate of Anatolian Christianity at the hands of Turkomen raiders needs no introduction.  In more recent times (i.e., the 1920s), Kurdish Muslims showed their “relative tolerance” towards the Assyrian communities of Iraq by slaughtering them.  One looks largely in vain for similar treatment meted out to Muslim populations by Christian authorities and peoples.  The Zoroastrians received similarly “tolerant” treatment in Iran, and the Muslim raiders and conquerors of India were not all together model spokesmen for religious tolerance, to put it mildly.  When the Il-Khanids converted to Islam under Gazan Khan, the former protection extended to Nestorians in Iran diminished rapidly.  Indeed, the record of toleration under the Muslim Mongol states compares very poorly with that of their more barbarous, pagan predecessors–because the pagan Mongols didn’t care whether anyone else worshipped Tengri, but Muslim Mongols took a dim view of those who did not submit to Allah.  In fairness, rulers such as Timur killed all kinds of people, but his devastations of Armenia and Georgia were particularly severe.   

The “Golden Age” mythology of Islam, which seems to be the extent of Mr. Leupp’s knowledge base, rests on a very few moments in Islamic history in a very few places: Abbasid Baghdad, Umayyad Cordoba, Mughal Delhi.  Take these away and the picture gets unbelievably bleak.  Where dhimmis were treated “well,” they were second-class people just as heretics had been under the Byzantines, and where they were not treated well they were outside the protection of the law and subject to violence and harrassment when the government didn’t actively engage in mass murder (Caliph al’Hakim is representative of the latter).  There is nothing remotely similar on the Byzantine side in the treatment of Muslims in the reconquered territory in Syria to the Fatimid treatment of Christians in their domains.  People who blithely refer to the “tolerance” of Islam relative to Byzantium either know nothing about Byzantium and Islam or simply shill for Islam because it serves other purposes.  

Almost all dissidents in the great Christological controversies suffered exile or loss of the opportunity to serve in the civil service and military; bishops were deposed, priests defrocked, but only an ignoramus would imply that the penalties for Manicheanism extended to the empire’s treatment of all heretics.  Manicheans were the only heretics for whom the death penalty was mandatory, because it was held that they were a particularly destructive heresy that seemed to reject any and all earthly authorities.  Manichees were treated similarly in the Sasanian Empire as well as the Roman and was the case long before there were ever Christians on the throne of Constantinople.  Maybe that doesn’t make it any better, but everyone despised the Manichees wherever they went because they were seen as a menace to public order. 

Anyone who was a heretic and wanted to become a communicating member of the Orthodox Church had to denounce all sorts of errors and affirm others.  There were typically no death penalties for heretics in Byzantium, and anyone who tries to give a different impression doesn’t know what he’s talking about. 

Manichees were considered a special category of subversive.  They were also largely extinct in most places by the time of the sixth century.  Different sects in later medieval Byzantine history would be identified sometimes with the Manichees as a way of aligning them with the most hateful thing imaginable, and polemicists loved to apply the title Manichean to people whom they particularly disliked as a way of insulting them, but Manichees as such had all but disappeared.  No one would have been punished for refusing to renounce Mani because no one was following Mani.  Denouncing Manicheanism in the sixth century was largely a sort of moral and spiritual stand, akin to denouncing fascism today–very few are actually in favour of reviving fascism, but to listen to the way we obsess about fascist-this and fascist-that you would think it was still a live issue.  It is a way of declaring that you are committed to the right things.

Manuel I Komnenos was in some ways an atypical Byzantine ruler, but he took the interesting step of forcing a controversy over the ritual of renouncing Islam that shows one aspect of the difference between the Byzantine Christian and the Muslim.  Manuel was definitely on shaky theological ground for obvious reasons, but he supported a move to change the renunciation of Islam so that converts to Christianity would only have to reject Muhammad and not Muhammad’s God.  There was a willingness, however rare, at the highest levels in Byzantium to acknowledge that Muslims worshipped the same God but followed a false prophet, while there was not and could never have really been a similar willingness on the other side.  There are many things modern people could learn from a serious study of the careers of Manuel I and Manuel II, among others, but that would require knowing something about Byzantium.  Or you can spout tired cliches about Orientalism and the “tolerance” of Islam and think that you have demonstrated something other than your own ignorance.  

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