Good and bad polytheists (Parts 15-16)

Towards the end of the 4th century, after the death of Emperor Julian (who had renounced Christianity), there was little hope for polytheism to be restored to its former position, and Christianity was now gaining permanent ground. The Eastern Roman Empire, with its capital at Byzantium (renamed Constantinople after the first Christian Emperor discussed before), was the strongest seat of Christianity; in the west, even though Rome held sway, there was more toleration for polytheism and hopes for keeping it alive. In 392 CE, Eugenius, though a Christian, became a usurper in the west and was the last emperor to support polytheists, but his ambition was cut short two years later when he was defeated and killed in battle by the armies of Theodosius I. This Theodosius was the same emperor who declared Christianity the only legal religion of the empire. However, as evidence of the continuance of polytheism in the west, his successors afterwards passed harsh laws that outlawed polytheism altogether and often prescribed capital punishment for not only those who practised its rituals, but also the magistrates who failed to destroy religious sanctuaries and carry out the laws. The Roman Empire was now in effect a theocracy, particularly in 457 CE, when Leo I was the first to be crowned by the Patriarch of Constantinople, as if in acknowledgement (or rivalry) of the Pope’s miraculous intervention against Attila the Hun. Historians disagree whether Illus tried to re-establish toleration for polytheism in his support for usurpation as late as the end of the fifth century. In any case, polytheism was to decline afterwards by force, fear, or treason, both by Christianity and Islam, but it was too beautiful and precious to be entirely destroyed, or indeed abandoned by the brave and righteous.

AMR IBN HISHAM

This was an Arabian who was by the epithet of “the wise” by the elders of Quraysh, the tribes of Mecca. When Mohammed (an aristocrat from Quraysh) announced his prophethood about the year 613 CE, Amr was among the very first to challenge and mock him, whereby Mohammed, out of hatred, gave him the epithet of “the ignorant”. He is known to have thrown entrails of camels over the back of Mohammed while he was in devoted prostration at the Kaaba. Amr also took care to lead the efforts in shunning and ridiculing those who converted to Islam. He also devised an ingenious plot to kill Mohammed, whereby each tribe of Quraysh would provide a noble warrior to do the deed, and thus prevent Mohammed’s tribe from revenge, forcing them to accept blood-money instead. This failed, however, when Mohammed escaped. Amr warned the elders that the Muslims would gradually gain power, especially after their migration to Medina. Mohammed’s strategy, always determined by invented verses attributed to Al-Lat, Al-Uzza, and Manatrevelation, had now changed from passive to active conquest, and his first raid against Meccan caravans occurred in 623 CE. The banditry continued for a year, the pretext being self-defense, and it was done even in the sacred month of peace to the Meccans. An expedition was sent to combat the Muslims in 624 CE, headed by Amr, but there was disagreement about continuing it when the caravans were seen to arrive safely. Several chieftains were jealous of Amr’s leadership and feared his power if the Muslims were to be destroyed. Part of the troops returned home, and even Amr’s tribe needed to be threatened to stay; this reduced the spirit of the men. In the ensuing Battle of Badr, Amr was slain honorably and the Muslims unfortunately won. Mohammed called him a “pharaoh”, a title he should wear with as much honor as that of the “lion” (companion of the three Arabian goddesses) given to him by his fellow polytheists.      

SAKHR IBN HARB

A renowned and rich chieftain of Quraysh, also known as Abu Sufyan. In spite of his opposition to Islam, he was one of those who shamefully left Amr ibn Hisham at the battle of Badr, preferring his caravans to danger. The Muslims could have been destroyed at that time, but the delay strengthened them. After the defeat, Sakhr was elected leader of a confederation of tribes and he vowed revenge against Muslims, which was obtained it at the Battle of Uhud in late 624 CE. This, however, was actually a grave mistake: His decision to avoid a siege of Medina and skirmish with the Muslims in the field (where he killed about 70 only), forced him to return after two years, by which time the Muslims had recovered their numbers and added much strength to their fortifications. The failed siege led to much shame in Quraysh and increased Mohammed’s renown and power; while more tribes joined Mohammed, Sakhr committed the huge fault of signing a treaty of peace for 10 years, and resorted dishonorably to aiding some of the violators of it. Mohammed took advantage of this: four years later, in 640 CE, he besieged Mecca itself and took it with little resistance, a sure sign of Sahkr’s bad leadership and poor preparation, if not conspiracy. When Mohammed entered the city, Sakhr betrayed the noble cause of Amr ibn Hisham and declared that the Meccan Gods were powerless and thus accepted Islam. As evidence that he was a bad polytheist, after Mohammed’s death, instead of announcing apostasy like others, he would later take part in expeditions that formed the Arabian-Islamic empire.   

 

 

WIDUKIND

He was a Saxon prince who led the resistance against Charlemagne, the king of the Christian Franks during the 8th century. Charlemagne, much like Islamic rulers a few generations before, was spreading Christianity by the sword in order to extend his dominions. The Germans in the north were still polytheists, but they were slowly changing, mainly through the treason of greedy nobles. In spite of Saxon gearCharlemagne’s destruction of a renowned Saxon sanctuary, Saxon nobles attended Charlemagne’s court in 777 CE, but Widukind was the only one among them who refused to go, and now being powerless alone, he went to the court of a Danish king, who was also a polytheist. However, after renewed Frankish raids, Widukind returned in 782 CE to incite the Saxon nobles to rebellion, but Charlemagne crushed it and put 4,500 chieftains and nobles to death in the infamous Massacre at Verden. The nobles, treacherous again, accused Widukind of inciting them, and declared that his escape was proof of it. Widukind continued to resist with the Saxons and turned to the Frisians when he failed. In 785 CE, being broken and lonely after more defeats, he agreed to surrender and was baptized by force. There are conflicting reports as to what he afterwards did, but his Saxon spirit of resistance lived on and appeared after about 750 years in the form of the Martin Luther, a Saxon cleric and the leader of Protestantism, a regional movement that actually weakened Christianity by challenging and subverting the imperial Catholic church.

WITZLAUS

A Slavic chieftain in the Obotrite region between Saxony and Germany. Charlemagne marched into the region in about 789 CE after defeating the Saxon rebellions, and Witzlaus submitted rather than resisted, in spite of being among other Slavic tribes to the East. This was a sign that he was one of those treacherous nobles who sought wealth and power rather than kept honor and duty to his people and ancestors. This was later proven; when other Slavic tribes rebelled from Christianity, Witzlaus went to battle against them, and he was killed in an ambush. His successor was to aid Charlemagne in subduing the Slavic tribes in the region and allowing more missionaries to convert them all gradually. This would later provide an opportunity for the Northern Crusades to take place by Charlemagne’s new political & theocratic state, the Holy Roman Empire. 

2 thoughts on “Good and bad polytheists (Parts 15-16)

  1. K

    It goes even deeper with the case of Abu Sufiyan. He and his descendants built and took over the early Islamic empire. Abu Sufiyan’s son Muawiyah became the first of a directly hereditary line of Islamic caliphs(the Ummayad dynasty). His grandson Yazid even killed Muhammad’s grandson Hussein and his followers. Abu Sufiyan’s lineage kept Muhammad’s out of any real power. Seems that he and his clan, being forced to submit, decided to make the best of it for themselves. And they did a pretty good job of it for a long time. There are even hadiths that insist that an Islamic caliph must be of the Quraysh.

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    1. Melas the Hellene Post author

      How interesting. This shows that Sakhr (Abu Sufyan) was indeed ambitious for his own descendents to rule the new “empire” that Mohammed had formed. Sakhr played cautiously on both sides and then converted when he saw the polytheists overwhelmed. Although this makes him a bad polytheist, perhaps it could be said that his descendents cracked Islam from the inside. I know that the divergence between the Sunni and Shia sects began with Sakhr’s son Muawiyah (against Ali, Mohammed’s son in law) and led a bloody civil war; to this day, the division is not resolved and only seems to grow. May it swell further and then burst open, to allow polytheists to enter once again!

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