Vladimir Solovyev’s view of Islam as anti-Catholic Byzantinism

By Fadi Abu-Deeb


I could not resist the temptation to publish this excerpt from Vladimir Solovyev’s Russia and the Universal Church. Solovyev argues that Islam is nothing but a kind of resurrection of the Eastern Mind disguised itself once under the mask of the Byzantine pseudo-Christian empire.

The most interesting thing to me here is that this view is very similar to a view I have come to hold for some time that Islam is nothing but the ancient Arab Christianity coming to its logical end.  It is worth mentioning that Solovyev sharply distinguishes between Orthodoxy and Byzantinism.  The Byzantine empire, according to the Russian philosopher, tried to use orthodoxy defended by Rome and some Greek heroes of faith to disguise its social and political paganism.  Solovyev, on the other hand, maintains that The Eastern lands occupied quickly by Islam did not, in fact, converted, but just teared off its mask!

Solovyev says in pp.24-25 from his book:

This profound contradiction between professed orthodoxy and practical heresy was the Achilles’ heel of the Byzantine Empire. There lay the real cause of its downfall. Indeed, it deserved to fall and still more it deserved to fall before Islam.  For Islam is simply sincere and logical Byzantinism, free from all its inner contradiction. It is the frank and full reaction of the spirit of the East against Christianity; it is a system in which dogma is closely related to the conditions of life and in which the belief of the individual is in perfect agreement with the social and political order.  We have seen that the anti-Christian movement, which found expression in the imperial heresies, had in the seventh and eighth centuries issued in two doctrines, of which one, that of the Monothelites, was an indirect denial of human freedom, and the other, that of the Iconoclasts, was an implied rejection of the divine phenomenality. The direct and explicit assertion of these two errors was of the essence of the Moslem religion. Islam sees in Man a finite form without freedom, and in God an infinite freedom without form. God and Man being thus fixed at the two opposite poles of existence, there can be no filial relationship between them; the notion of the Divine coming down and taking form, or of the human ascending to a spiritual existence, is excluded; and religion is reduced to a mere external relation between the all-powerful Creator and the creature which is deprived of all freedom and owes its master nothing but a bare act of “blind surrender” (for this is what the Arabic word islam signifies).

This act of surrender, expressed in a short formula of prayer to be invariably repeated day by day at fixed hours, sums up the whole religious background of the Eastern mind, which spoke its last word by the mouth of Mohammed. The simplicity of this idea of religion is matched by a no less simple conception of the social and political problem: Man and the human race have no real progress to make; there is no moral regeneration for the individual and therefore a fortiori none for society; everything is brought down to the level of a purely natural existence; the ideal is reduced to the point at which its realization presents no difficulties.

Moslem society could have no other aim but the expansion of its material power and the enjoyment of the good things of the Earth. The spread of Islam by force of arms, and the government of the faithful with absolute authority, and according to the rules of an elementary justice laid down in the Koran — such is the whole task of the Moslem state, a task which it would be difficult not to accomplish with success. Despite the tendency to verbal falsehood innate in all Orientals as individuals, the complete correspondence between its beliefs and its institutions gives to the whole of Mohammedan society a distinctive note of truth and sincerity which the Christian world has never been able to achieve. Christendom as a whole is certainly set upon the path of progress and transformation; and the very loftiness of its ideal forbids us to judge it finally by any one of its various phases, past or present. But Byzantinism, which was hostile in principle to Christian progress and which aimed at reducing the whole of religion to a fact of past history, a dogmatic formula, and a liturgical ceremonial — this anti-Christianity, concealed beneath the mask of orthodoxy, was bound to collapse in moral impotence before the open and sincere anti-Christianity of Islam.  It is interesting to observe that the new religion, with its dogma of fatalism, made its appearance at the precise moment when the Emperor Heraclius was inventing the Monothelite heresy, which was the disguised denial of human freedom and energy. It was hoped by this device to strengthen the official religion and to restore Egypt and Asia to the unity of the Empire. But Egypt and Asia preferred the Arab declaration of faith to the political expedient of Byzantium. Nothing would be more astonishing than the ease and swiftness of the Moslem conquest were no account taken of the prolonged anti-Christian policy of the Second Empire. Five years were enough to reduce three great patriarchates of the Eastern Church to the condition of historical relics. It was not a matter of conversion but simply of tearing off the mask.

  History has passed judgment upon the Second Empire and has condemned it.  Not only did it fail in its appointed task of founding the Christian State, but it strove to make abortive the historic work of Jesus Christ. Having attempted in vain to pervert orthodox dogma, it reduced it to a dead letter; it sought to undermine the edifice of the pax Christiana by attacking the central government of the Universal Church; and in public life it supplanted the law of the Gospel by the traditional policy of the pagan State. The Byzantines believed that true Christianity meant no more than guarding the dogmas and sacred rites of orthodoxy without troubling to Christianize social and political life; they thought it lawful and laudable to confine Christianity to the temple while they abandoned the marketplace to the principles of paganism. They had no reason to complain of the result; they were given their wish. Their dogma and their ritual were left to them; it was only the social and political power that fell into the hands of the Moslems, the rightful heirs of paganism.



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