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Leo III’s 1300-Year-Old Lesson: Understand Islam to Defeat Jihad

Tuesday (September 11, 2018) marks the 17th anniversary of the cataclysmic jihad terror attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001. Thirteen centuries ago, on August 15, 718, under the wise and stalwart leadership of Byzantium’s Leo III, the Arab Muslim jihad siege of Constantinople was broken, and the invaders—and Islamdom—suffered an ignominious defeat. These events are described with unique lucidity and unbowdlerized knowledge of their animating Islamic and Christian motivations in Raymond Ibrahim’s compelling new book, Sword and Scimitar.  Would that today’s U.S. and other “Western” leaders reconsider their largely feckless policies against the resurgent jihad depredations of our era (~34,000 acts of jihad terror since 9/11/2001) and re-examine Leo III’s timeless words and actions.

Leo III’s alleged eighth-century reply letter to the contemporary Muslim Caliph Umar II, who had invited the Byzantine Emperor to renounce Christianity and adopt Islam, was preserved by the eighth- (to tenth-?) century Armenian chronicler, Ghevond. Ibrahim’s  Sword and Scimitar re-introduced me to both Leo III’s letter, and the great linguist and Islamologist Arthur Jeffrey’s (d. 1959) annotated 1944 English translation and analysis of Ghevond’s rendering of it, which was succinctly characterized in my 2005 compendium on jihad:

Leo’s reply is an extensive and well-written defense of the major tenets of the Christian religion. In it the Byzantine emperor, who was as zealous in his Christian faith as Umar was in his, refuted Islam on the basis of the Christian Gospel, as well as the basis of the Koran.

Together, Jeffrey’s translation, with its guiding commentary, and Ibrahim’s equally learned, but broader historical analysis in Sword and Scimitar, make plain that Leo III thoroughly understood Islam and its core jihadist doctrine in both theory and practice.

Jeffery argued cogently in support of the “possibility of such an exchange of [8th-century] letters,” citing the religious zeal of both Umar II and Leo III, including other accounts of their respective histories of engaging in religious polemics.

No one familiar with the Arabic accounts of Umar's reign would find anything strange in the story of such a letter to the Byzantine Emperor. Umar's zeal for the propagation of Islam was as noteworthy as that of Leo for propagating a pure and undefiled Christianity. The Muslim accounts of this Caliph’s reign abound in eulogies of his piety and his interest in religion, which he was eager to spread even at the expense of the Treasury…We find accounts of how he wrote to the [then mainly Zoroastrian?] Princes of Transoxiana [modern Uzbekistan], inviting them to accept Islam; of how he addressed a rescript [edict] to the [Hindu] Kings of Sindh [in modern Pakistan], to whom he promised all the privileges and immunities of Arabs if only they would become Muslims; and of how he had great success with the letters he wrote to the [animist] Berbers of North Africa to accept Islam…Nor is it difficult to believe that Leo should write, or have written in his name, a reply to such a letter from the Caliph. His interest in the promotion of the Christian religion is one of the outstanding features of his reign. His activities in connection with the iconoclastic controversy need not be more than mentioned, but he was also active in promoting the baptism of Jews and Montanists, and not always, perhaps, by the most reputable methods. That he too indulged in lengthy correspondence on points of theological disputation, is clear from his correspondence with Pope Gregory II in Rome, in one of which letters, indeed, he claims to be priest as well as Emperor.

With the informed candor that epitomizes his approach, Ibrahim demonstrates that Leo III’s ultimate military and political success hinged upon his thorough experience-based understanding of Islam and Muslims.

[H]e spoke fluent Greek and Arabic and was intimately acquainted with and had spent his entire life fighting Muslims, beginning in the north Syrian town of his birth, Marʽash …[His] experiences are similar to those of all non-Muslims (of that era) who shared a frontier with Islam…Born and bred fighting Muslims…He quickly rose to the highest echelons of the [Byzantine] military.

As detailed earlier by Jeffery:

Leo’s relations with Muslim peoples had begun long before his elevation to the imperial throne. The [town of] Germanicia of his childhood days is the Arabic Marʽash, in the far north of Syria at the border of Asia Minor, and this Marʽash was taken as early as 637 [A.D.] by Khalid b. al-Walid [the jihadist general], who destroyed it…Under [the Muslim Caliph] Yazid (r. 680-683]…the Greeks succeeded in driving the Muslims out of it entirely, and from then on it was the scene of almost constant battles between Muslims and Greeks…In the days of Leo’s youth it probably contained  more Muslims than it did Greeks, so that he must have been in constant contact with Muslims at Marʽash, while most of his active life as a soldier…or as a military commander …under [Byzantine Emperor] Anastasius II, was spent in combating Muslim armies, long before his brilliant relief of [Christian] Amorium in 716, his relief of Constantinople from the Muslim fleet in 717, and his final defeat of [the Muslim leader] Maslama’s armies in 717-718, gave him the name of champion of Christianity against the Muslims. It would not even be surprising if Leo knew Islam from direct acquaintance with Arabic sources, as he claims in the text of his letter…[ O]ne Arabic source informs us that as a Christian citizen of Marʽash he could speak fluently and correctly both Greek and Arabic. The Leo who so obviously enjoyed his controversy with Pope Gregory and with John of Damascus, we may well imagine would enjoy equally well a similar controversy with Umar, Caliph of the Muslims.

The text of Leo’s putative response letter opens with a declaration of the Byzantine emperor’s familiarity with Islam:

[W]e are not now for the first time learning about the substance of your beliefs…[W]e possess historical documents composed by our blessed prelates [clerics] who were living at the same epoch as your legislator Muhammad, and these writings make it unnecessary for us to importune you on the subject of your religion…

Following a personal retort to the Muslim Caliph"Puffed up as you are in your despotism, nevertheless hearken to my replies”—and a lengthy rebuttal of Umar’s crude understanding of Christian theology, Leo establishes his own contrasting intimate knowledge of Islamic doctrine regardless of what was actually understood (or not) by 7th-century Byzantine prelate contemporaries of Muhammad. Perhaps the most remarkable feature of Leo’s critique is his focus on the extreme nature of Islam’s misogyny—even by 8th-century standards. The Byzantine Emperor highlights Islam’s sanction of women as “tilth” (per Koran 2:223), Muslim concubinage (per Koran 4:3; 23:6) and polygamy (per Koran 4:3; 33:50-52), and most strikingly, the circumcision of Muslim women (as sanctioned in the canonical hadith, and by the “fiqh” or jurisprudence of Islam’s sharia).

You…ought to be ashamed of the fact that at so modern a time as ours, when God has delivered the human race by breaking the bonds of the law [of circumcision], you announce yourself as a defender of circumcision, and in so doing have covered it with opprobrium. In the ancient law God ordered every male to be circumcised on the eight day after birth, whereas among you [Muslims], not only the males but also the females, at no matter what age, are exposed to this shameful operation.

Elsewhere I have extensively analyzed the sharia basis of female circumcision in Islam, and its current historical relevance to the global Muslim epidemic of what is more aptly characterized at present as female genital mutilation (FGM). Interestingly, Jeffery’s essay cites an explanatory medieval  “Arabian Nights” reference to Islamic circumcision of women from the tale, “The Moslem Champion And The Christian Damsel”:

So he expounded to her the tenets of the Faith [Islam], and she [the Christian damsel] became a Moslemah, after which she was circumcised.*

The 19th-century scholar and Arabian Nights translator Sir Richard Burton added this elaboration:

*It is now (or should be) universal in Al-Islam and no Arab would marry a girl “unpurified” by it.

Leo takes particular umbrage at the Koranic concept of women as tilth, as well as what he argues are related degradations of women, and the institution of marriage—polygamy and concubinage. Moreover, Leo questions the entire ethical framework for these (and as we shall see, other) Muslim practices rooted in the creed’s ultimate concept of divinity, Allah, his minion, Muhammad, referred to as “your legislator,” and the blind, fatalistic submission to the purported will of these sacred entities as an excuse not to seek pardon for sin.

Nor do I wish to pass over in silence the abominable authorization given by your legislator to have with your wives a commerce that he has compared, I am ashamed to say, to the tilling of fields. As a consequence of this license, a a goodly number of you have contracted the habit of multiplying their commerce with women, as if it were a question of tilling fields. Nor can I forget the chastity of your Prophet and the manner full of artifice whereby he succeeded in seducing the woman Zeda [sic, Zaynab; see Koran 33:37- 38; see further elaboration from the hadith, and jurisprudence, etc. here and here]. Of all these abominations the worst is that of accusing God of being the originator of all these filthy acts, which fact has doubtless been the cause of the introduction of this disgusting law. Is there indeed a worse blasphemy than that of alleging that God is the cause of all this evil?...[F]or I know nothing worse than not holding sin to be such as it is, and that is what you really do in never seeking nor receiving pardon [see Koran 14:4]. In the Gospel God  has commanded the husband not to repudiate the wife save for the cause of adultery, but you act otherwise. When you are tired of your wives, as of some kind of nourishment, you abandon them at your fancy. It had been my intention to conceal, if possible the shamelessness with which you remarry, and how before retaking your repudiated wives you make them sleep in the bed of another. [Koran 2:227- 2:232] And what shall I say of the execrable debauchery which you commit with your concubines? For you are prodigal with them of all your fortune, and then, when you are tired of them you sell them like cattle [Koran 4:3; 4:24- 25; 23:6]

Describing what he maintains is Islam’s warped conception of “impurity” and abhorrence of images, Leo segues to the creed’s fanatical hatred of Christian symbols (especially the cross), and destructive, murderous attacks on Christian communities.

God then, who has so honored man by creating him in His image, would not think it shameful to take man’s image in order to save him, since, as I have said, there is nothing unclean in human nature save sin, and all those things in man which you consider filthy, have been organized so by God for our good. For example, the menses of the female serve in the reproduction of the human species, and the evacuation of  the excesses of food and drink serve for the conservation of our life. It is you alone who consider them impure, whereas in the eyes of God it is pillage, assassination, blasphemy and other such crimes, which are considered as defiling, rather than those things above-mentioned which are designed for the purpose of reproduction and the conservation of human life…Further, in your letter are some words apropos of the Cross and picture. We honor the Cross because of that Word of God incarnate borne thereon… [Jeffery notes, “It was very natural for the Caliph to raise an objection to Christian veneration of the Cross. In Muslim tradition (for eg., Sahih Al-Bukhari, Vol. 3, Book 43, Hadith 656) as to the Last Day we find an account of how Jesus will return before the end and become a Muslim, and among the particular acts he will perform is that of breaking all the crosses, the reason, of course, being that the cross is an offense to Muslims. We have early attestation of Christians being reproved for their veneration of the Cross.”]…As for pictures, we do not give them a like respect, not having received in Holy Scripture any commandment whatsoever in regard to this. Nevertheless, finding in the Old Testament that divine command which authorized Moses to have executed in the tabernacle the figures of the Cherubim, and animated by a sincere attachment for the disciples of the Lord, who burned with love for the Savior Himself, we have always felt a desire to conserve their images, which have come down to us from their times as their living representation…I see you, even now, excited by a species of fanaticism worthy of a pagan, exercising such cruelties towards the faithful of God, with the purpose of converting them to apostasy, and putting to death all those who resist your designs, so that daily is accomplished the prediction of our Savior: “The time will come when everyone who puts you to death will believe that he is serving God” (John XVI, 2). For you are far from thinking that in killing all those who resist you, you are putting yourself to an eternal death. It is thus that Muhammad, your uncle* [*Jeffery writes, “The reference is to Umar’s uncle Muhammad b. Marwan, whom Leo would have known only too well, for it was he who in the year 694 A.D. led the summer campaign which resulted in the severe defeat of the Byzantines at Marʽash, Leo’s own home…His (Muhammad b. Marwan’s) cruelties and evil deeds in Armenia had already been dealt with at length by Ghevond…”], acted aforetime, when on the very day he went to immolate the profane sacrifice of a camel, at the same time had decapitated a number of Christians, servants of God, and mingled their blood with that of the animal which was offered in sacrifice. Yet you are annoyed when we gather together the remains of the martyrs who have sealed the profession of their faith by their blood, so that we may bury them in places consecrated to God.

Leo concludes his letter with a denunciation of Islam’s jihad warfare, including the perverse carnality of jihad “martyrdom,” whose ravages can only be stopped by Christian patience and faith.

You call “the Way of God” [i.e., the Koranic sabīl Allāh, or most appositely the doctrine of jihad war, jihad fi sabīl Allāh, to submit non-Muslims to Islam, and the Sharia]  these devastating raids which bring death and captivity to all peoples. Behold your religion and its recompense. Behold your glory, ye who pretend to lead an angelic life. As for us, instructed in and convinced of the marvelous mystery of our redemption, we hope, after our resurrection, to enjoy the celestial kingdom, so we are submissive to the doctrines of the Gospel, and wait humbly for a happiness such that “eyes have never seen it, nor ears ever heard it, but which God has prepared for those who love Him” (I Cor. II, 9). We do not hope to find there springs of wine, honey, or milk. We do not expect to enjoy there commerce with women who remain forever virgin, and to have children by them, for we put no faith in such silly tales engendered by extreme ignorance and by paganism. Far from us be such dreams, such fables…For you, who are given up to carnal vices, and who have never been known to limit the same, you who prefer your pleasures to any good, it is precisely for that reason that you consider the celestial realm of no account if it is not peopled with women [see Koran 43:70; 36:56; 55:70; 37:48]…[P]ersisting in your tyranny and your usurpations, you attribute to your religion the success which heaven favors you. You forget that the Persians also prolonged their tyranny for 400 years [likely a reference to the Sassanian Empire, 226-652 A.D.] God alone knows; but surely it was not for the purity of their religion…For the sake of our unshakable and imperishable faith we have endured at your hands, and will still endure much suffering. We are even prepared to die, if only to bring ourselves the name of “saint”…Because such is our hope you continually menace us, you strike us with death, but we respond not to your blows with anything other than patience, for we count on neither our arm nor our sword to save us, but on the right arm of the Lord, and on the light of His face.

Marshaling persuasive evidence, Ibrahim avers that it was Leo III’s devout Christian piety, courage, and studied, unapologetic understanding of Islam and the tactics of jihad warfare that enabled him to be the “architect” of the devastating triumph over an enormous Muslim jihadist army at Constantinople in August, 718.

Endorsing Byzantine historian par excellence A.A. Vasiliev’s (d. 1953) assessment that Leo III’s genius and energy…saved not only the Byzantine Empire, and the Eastern Christian world, but also all of Western civilization,” Ibrahim concludes:

It would be some seven centuries before any Islamic power would again attempt to breach the stone walls of Islam’s archenemy…That the Eastern Orthodox Christian kingdom was able to repulse the hitherto unstoppable forces of Islam is one of Western history’s most decisive moments.

Leo III’s successful example must be re-affirmed as a living lesson for combating jihad warfare against the willfully blind heirs of Western Civilization, a full thirteen centuries later.