Reviewing GW Bowerstock’s The Throne of Adulis: Red Sea Wars on the Eve of Islam at the NYRB , Peter Brown points to the “religious wars” between Christian Rome and Persia that provided the context for the rise of Islam: “Bowersock also shows how the two great empires of the north came to be embroiled in the conflict. The eastern part of the Roman Empire (‘East Rome’) and the Sassanian Empire of Persia were driven by competition to reach ever deeper into the Arabian Peninsula and the Red Sea. Their representatives came no longer for giraffes, but in search of allies and, even, in support of coreligionists. For the Red Sea Wars in the sixth and seventh centuries quickly took on the explosive quality of religious wars. The kingdom of Axum (the future African Zion of Ethiopia) became Christian in around 340. A century later, ‘suddenly, remarkably, and inexplicably’ the kingdom of Himyar adopted Judaism. The bitter fighting between the two powers became holy wars that pitted Christians against Jews. Each side was as brutal as the other. The memory of this spasm of holy violence was still vivid in the Hijaz in which Muhammad was born in around 570. In this way, ‘the tumultuous events in sixth-century Arabia may reasonably be called the crucible of Islam.’ And so Bowersock’s excursion to the apparent fringes of the ancient world leads back to the ground zero of the detonation that created the Islamic world of medieval and modern times.”

More on: History, Religions

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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