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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.