Most educated people by now know that Constantinople was attacked and conquered by Muslims in 1453.
They probably also know that, for many centuries throughout the so-called “Dark Ages” and into the Middle Ages, Constantinople was the greatest Western city of the Eastern sphere of the West—that it was, indeed, the “Rome” of that Eastern sphere, called “Byzantium”. Fewer educated people know more of the details: that the first Roman Emperor to make Christianity the religion of the Roman Empire—Emperor Constantine—founded that great Eastern city in the 4th century A.D., and it and the sphere of which it was the center, Byzantium, more or less flourished for centuries afterward, as the region where that branch of Christianity known as Orthodoxy developed; though plagued off and on by repeated attacks from Muslims (as well as fellow Christians at times) at its peripheries.
What most educated people do not know about this epochal catastrophe—the Fall of Constantinople—came as an astounding particle of information to me recently, when I happened to stumble on another dusty old Orientalist in a dusty old scholarly journal: namely, that that attack and conquest had been fervently imagined, envisioned, prophesied and planned in religious manner (prayers and sermons and religious visions) by Muslims for centuries upon centuries beforehand!
It would be pertinent now to quote that dusty old scholar, Louis Massignon, from his essay, Textes relatifs à la prise de Constantinople en 1453, [Texts pertaining to the capture of Constantinople in 1453] published in 1953 in the journal Oriens (Vol. 6, No. 1):
....in the case of the capture of Constantinople by Islam, we are in the presence of authentic texts which, going back more than six centuries prior, have clearly foretold that event, conceived as a sort of Sign of confirmation of the finality of Holy War for the Muslim World.
Again, the educated reader may not know a couple of important details that are relevant in this regard—namely, that not only was Constantinople the greatest city of the Eastern Ecumene throughout the Middle Ages; and not only was it therefore a logical jewel of a prize to be taken by expansionist Muslims emanating Westward out of the East (and particularly as their expansionist efforts into the Western flank of the West—the Iberian Peninsula—had reached a limiting stasis, steadily deteriorating over the centuries until finally the West reconquered Spain in 1492, only a few decades after the Muslims, in fact, took Constantinople); but also, the conquest of the Byzantine Empire was an expansionist desideratum in Islam even as far back as Mohammed himself, who tried to attack at least some outposts of it, while some of his successors penetrated deep into Byzantium to attempt attacks on that fabled City itself, as early as the later part of the same century in which Mohammed died, the 7th century.
Mohammed himself dreamed of the conquest of “Rome”—which in his milieu meant foremost the Eastern Empire—as chronicled by the first Muslim biographer of Mohammed, Ibn Ishaq (died circa 773 A.D.): According to the tale, Mohammed during the Battle of the Trench rolled up his sleeves and jumped in to help his men dig the trench they needed to defend their position. As he was digging into the rocky earth, his spade (or whatever comparable tool they had in 7th-century Arabia) struck a rock and a bright spark shot out, illuminating the trench in the dark of night. Then he struck again and a second spark was ignited, and then a third. Mohammed was supposed to have taken this for a sign:
Did you really see that. . .? The first [spark] means that God has opened up to me the Yaman [i.e., Arabia]; the second Syria and the west; and the third the east.
While the third spark indicated the lands to the East (the Persian Empire and the kingdoms of India), the second spark’s signification—“Syria and the west”—would embrace not only the remainder of the Middle East to the west of Arabia, not only Africa and Spain (and, hopefully, the West proper—i.e., Europe), but also the greatest Empire during that era: Byzantium.
Notable and authorative Islamic exegetes of the Koran—including Ibn Kathir and Ibn Juzayy of the 14th century, and As-Sawi of the 13th century—, interpreted Koran 9:29 to be contextually referring to Mohammed’s religious imperative to expand Islam by military attacks on “Rome”.
Koran 9:29 states:
Fight against such of those who have been given the Scripture as believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, and forbid not that which Allah hath forbidden by His messenger, and follow not the Religion of Truth, until they pay the tribute readily, being brought low.
The aforementioned exegetes wrote:
[Koran 9:29] was revealed when the Messenger of Allah was commanded to fight the Byzantines. When it was sent down, the Messenger of Allah prepared for the expedition to Tabuk [a Byzantine trading outpost in the northwestern part of the Arabian peninsula].
Allah commanded His Messenger to fight the People of the Scriptures, Jews and Christians, on the ninth year of Hijrah, and he prepared his army to fight the Romans and called the people to Jihad announcing his intent and destination.
Furthermore, an entire chapter of the Koran, Sura 30, is devoted to “the Byzantines” (as Robert Spencer, in his series on Blogging the Qur’an, has aptly translated the Arabic title, Ar-Rum, explaining that it “literally means ‘The Romans,’ but refers to the forces of the Eastern Roman Empire, commonly known today as the Byzantine Empire.”). This chapter, unsurprisingly, is saturated with supremacist military overtones in the context of how the true Believers (Muslims) must fight the Unbelievers (non-Muslims), reading more like a medieval history of Mongol conquests than any spiritual manual.
To return to Massignon’s thesis: He discusses one source of the prevalent prognostic in Islam concerning Constantinople, a hadith of Sahih Muslim in the 9th century—which Massignon notes was still, at the time he was writing (the 1950s) inscribed on the exterior portal of the Séraskierat, the ancient Armory of the Ottomans in the center of Istanbul (i.e., Constantinople) still used by the Kemalist regime of Turkey:
fath-Qustantiniya—“To the Capture of Constantinople”
ni‘ma l-jaysh, jayshuhâ, ni‘ma l‘amir, amiruhâ—“Blessed be the army, blessed be the leader who took the city”.
And not only that, Massignon informs us that this hadith was still in his day read aloud at the entrance to the Hagia Sophia mosque (formerly the central church of the Greek Orthodox, also stolen by the Muslims upon the conquest of 1453).
This premonitory hadith, Massignon continues, “for six centuries exercized its subconscious influence in collective prayers, like a mystic omen of the confirmation in the orthodox Muslim of the Islamic Nation predestined to one day take that City. . . ‘Istanbul’.”
It might be meet at this point to interject some features of Louis Massignon (1883-1962) that will illuminate his biases. He was one of the great modern Orientalists, and beginning in the 1930s he mentored, and thereby passed the torch to, perhaps the most respected Orientalist today, Bernard Lewis (though that respect is not entirely merited, since the latter’s scholarship on Islam is on a few crucial points severely impaired with the politically correct multi-culturalist paradigm—see Hugh Fitzgerald’s essays on this, archived here).*
I will not delve deeply into Massignon’s curriculum vitae, and will only note three things: Like the great Orientalist travelogue Pierre Loti, his near contemporary (1850-1923), and to some lesser extent (because of more level heads) the great 19th-century novelists Théophile Gautier and Gustave Flaubert, Massignon was evidently fascinated, and swept up, by the narcotic exoticism of the Orient—the nearer Orient of the Muslims, that is. His Romantic fascination and attraction to the world of Islam was deepened by many sojourns there (his first trip taken to Algiers in 1901, at the age of 18), in a sense climaxing in early 1908 with his arrest and intimations of a death sentence by Muslim authorities aboard a Turkish steamer (initially a charge bound up with a confrontation he had over his homosexual lifestyle with a puritanically indignant Muslim assistant, then later over-layered with vague insinuations of “espionage”). His life was spared at the intercession of various influential friends, including some “nice” Muslims he had befriended in that part of the Ottoman Empire later demarcated by the British, in the years after the First World War, as “Iraq”. His personal experience with these nice Muslims (and perhaps a few others—at least ostensibly friendly—here and there on his travels), in addition to a mystical experience of divine union which he had during his arrest, contributed to the movements of his heart, over time, to flood his mind with a deep sympathy with, and magnanimity for, Muslims in general (expressed in, among other things, his anti-Zionist stance, from the 1930s up until his death, in favor of the poor oppressed Arabs of the region; and of course he took the wrong side in the French-Algerian conflict of 1954-1962).
This leads us to the second revealing detail about Massignon: he is one of the few of the classical Orientalists who is highly regarded by Muslims who know his work—that in itself is suspect (see, for example this notice of an encomium for him in Iran this past summer). In addition, his scholarly work after his near-mortal crisis in the Middle East became suffused with a mysticism that also informed his spirituality, largely idiosyncratic and syncretistic of Sufi mysticism and the medieval mystical heritage of his own chosen religion, Catholicism (to which he was born again, as it were, at the age of 25 in 1908 after a welter of personal mystical agonies triggered by and unfolding from the protracted trauma of his arrest and near execution we mentioned above). This mysticism of Massignon, needless to say, “embraced” Islam as a fellow “Abrahamic” faith, and provided a key for him to rise above differences to some ethereal religiousity where the exigencies and more intractable divisions of real life need not get in the way. Indeed, he founded a special Christian society in Cairo, Egypt, in 1934—the Badaliyya—dedicated to a pietistically flaccid (if mystically robust) confraternity between Christians and Muslims. As this current follower of the Badaliyya movement puts it, with nauseatingly noble-sounding naivete, on his blog:
Fr. Louis Massignon’s clear message to effect peaceful relations and reconciliation with those of other faith traditions is to begin by opening our own minds and hearts to conquer our fear of differences. He spoke often of the need to “cross over” to the “other”, to learn their language, study their beliefs, practices and culture as the beginning of mutual respect and understanding. In the process of learning to truly know others, from the inside out so to speak, we find that our own values and belief systems become more defined and clear. Our faith experience is enhanced rather than diminished. The goal of “substutionary prayer”, of “Badaliyya”, is to see the face of Christ in every human person and learn to love them as Christ loves us.
As Christians we are challenged to overcome centuries of misinformation and prejudice that we have sometimes even unconsciously absorbed. In one of his books the Fransiscan Fr. Giulio Basetti-Sani writes about his own journey of studying the condemning writings of the scholars of his time about Islam and Muhammad and approaching Louis Massignon with those ideas. He wrote:
“Once, when Professor Massignon was in
Basetti-Sani quotes much more than this as he describes how, following Massignon’s advice, he began to move in a totally different direction in what became years of Islamic studies. He wrote: “Islam is a mystery linked with the blessing obtained by Abraham from God for his son Ishmael and Ishmael’s progeny. This line of thought, derived from the Bible, is the one to take in order to grasp the significance of Islam.... Before we parted, Massignon gave me two thoughts meant as guidelines in my reorientation, one from
I guess the brutally violent conquest of the great Christian City of Constantinople, as well as the Eastern European lands around it, with horrific slaughters and rapes of the Christian and Jewish populations therein during and after—including their institutionalized mistreatment under dhimmitude for centuries thereafter right into our own present—, was the pinnacle of that “reflection of the infinite goodness of God” which is “in Islam and the Muslims”, eh Father Basetti-Sani? There is, in the gushing placations that ooze from the mealy mouths of such Christians, a sort of profound masochism—as though they see in the Muslim a divine instrument of their own abasement and suffering as salutary and thus conducive to their suffering path toward salvation: but not in any way condemning that instrument’s brutality, Heavens no! No, rather positively welcoming it in a perversion of selfless love—a selflessness that, furthermore, turns out to be rather hollow, seeing as how it selfishly endangers all the innocents (including Christians) who are menaced by Muslims. Sometimes I think Nietszche was right about the corrupting and civilizationally debilitating weakness of Christianity. . . Thank God, nonetheless, that there were sufficient numbers of Christians with sufficient brains and balls to rally to the defense of the West, throughout the thousand years (7th century to the 17th century) that Muslims were attacking Europe.
One such Christian was the great Greek Orthodox saint and mystic, Gregory Palamas who, as Andrew Bostom writes, “wrote this commentary while living as a captive amongst the Turks in 1354. . .”
(Note the year, a century before the conquest of Constantinople.)
Bostom then quotes Gregory Palamas:
For these impious people, hated by God and infamous, boast of having got the better of the Romans by their love of God. . . they live by the bow, the sword and debauchery, finding pleasure in taking slaves, devoting themselves to murder, pillage, spoil. . . and not only do they commit these crimes, but even—what an aberration—they believe that God approves of them. This is what I think of them, now that I know precisely about their way of life.
Finally, it seems—at least from his essay—that the irenically unhinged mysticism of Massignon colored his historiography, transmuting it into a kind of opposite of the materialist school exemplified by, among others, Fernand Braudel. Rather than focusing on the material and organic structures of life to extrapolate history—history from the bottom up, as it were—, Massignon seems to posit a sublimation of the historian up to a plane where he can tap into a deeper, higher trans-cultural and trans-temporal consciousness—sort of like Teilhard de Chardin and Thomas Merton meet Arnold Toynbee and all three have a cup of coffee with Jacques Derrida. Thus, though he does not, as a Marxist would, turn philosophy on its head in order to lead it by its materialist rear end, his mystical historiography does seem suffused with a sentimentalist concern and compassion for the suffering poor and oppressed Muslim masses—who, for Muslim apologists, of course, cannot ever be said to suffer due to anything that might be wrong, systemically, with Islam. When the poor suffer in the West, you see, it always has something to do with pathologies of Western civilization; but when the poor suffer in Islam, it can never have anything to do with pathologies in Islam, since Islam is perfect.
At any rate, we mention all this not because it is (pun intended) directly material to the remarkable data he has presented in his essay; but only because someone so sympathetic with Islam, and someone so highly regarded by Muslims, has delivered—largely unaware, of course, of the full import of his own essay—up to our table a delectably savory dish of Islam-damning kabob to sink our teeth into.
Let us return to some of that meat, shall we? Massignon tells us how for six centuries prior to 1453, this hadith about the hoped-for triumph over Constantinople was transmitted, and “the hope of the ‘martyrs’ killed in holy war was nourished”—in the form of prayers and sermons, framed for the most part in the religious genre of the apocalypse.
And, while the community of Believers were content to participate in raids, more and more frequently, on the Byzantine frontier, the underlying ‘sub-historical’ significance of the ‘desire for Constantinople’ became accessible to certain souls of the spiritual elite, beings of pain and compassion, whose clairvoyant piety ‘assumed’ the anguish and the crisis of social conscience of Islam in that era.
One cannot help but be amused, and amazed, here by the ability of Massignon to lift the rapine lust of Muslims for expansionist conquest up to spiritual heights—particularly when, in his brief survey in this same essay, of Christian Byzantium in the centuries leading up to its grand assault, he finds nothing but base motives and crass political corruption. He goes on in this vein to mention a Muslim mystic, al-Hallaj, famous for his torture and execution (in 922 A.D.) at the hands of Muslim authorities. Because al-Hallaj had in his mystic excess, while experiencing some trance of communion with the divine, uttered the ejaculation which would horrify any good Muslim—“I am Allah!”—he was put brutally to death. This is not surprising, however. As the Koran itself says (2:191; 217): “Shirk [any dilution of the absolute monotheism of Allah and of the absolute separation between Creator and creature] is worse than murder”—and therefore logically, its punishment cannot be any milder than what is meted out for murder.
Indeed, here is how the historians Christian Destremau and Jean Morcelon in their book on Massignon summarize the description of Hallaj’s official Islamic execution in 922 A.D.:
In front of a vast crowd, Hallaj was whipped, his hands and feet cut off, and then he was crucified. Still living when taken down from the cross the following day, he was decapitated, his body sprinkled with petrol and burnt, and the ashes thrown to the winds. His head was stuck upon a pole and displayed on a bridge across the river Tigris.
As it turns out, however, this heretic Hallaj came to be (for complex reasons too tedious to go into now) revered by certain Muslims, and then by the dominant Turkish Muslims of later centuries. What interests us about Hallaj in this regard is that, in the agony of his public torture, he was reputed to have offered up his punishment in a prayer for the sake of the dream that Constantinople would be taken. Wow, some “spiritual mystic” he was! Some “development of Sufism and. . . preaching of a mystic path to the pure love of God” (which is how the above-cited Destremau and Moncelon put it) he demonstrated! His dying wish was that a city of Infidels be attacked and conquered!
In the Massignon essay I am analyzing here, he characterizes Hallaj as, in a manner of speaking, the “principal patron of the army that conquered Istanbul”—not only because of his fervent desire to give his death throes as a sacrifice for that eventual conquest, but more pertinently because he was the premier Muslim apostle in Turkestan, and in the centuries after his death, Turkish poetry regarded him as a veritable saint of Islam, and also as an Ansari—that is, as a descendant of the great Muslim warrior who was killed at the door of the famous mariological Orthodox church, Blachernes, in the second attempt to attack Constantinople, in 672 A.D.
Two centuries after Hallaj’s death, Massignon informs us, another Muslim of note, Ibrahim-b-Edhem, had said: “If I could vow what is in my heart to God, I believe I would give Him even more than conquering Constantinople”—meaning, of course, that what he wants to give God from the outpouring of his heart would be even greater than that great deed cherished by the good Muslim, of taking that vaunted City. Wow, measuring the profundity of one’s spirituality by the standard of attacking and seizing somebody else’s city!
In the ‘Awarif—a 13th century religious manual for Muslims—it is written, Massignon says, that “If all the Muslims unify their takbir [i.e., their cries of Allahu Akbar!], the walls of that City would crumble.”
And Massignon offers us a couple of other tasty morsels to round out our shishkabob of that inveterately and utterly martial religion, Islam:
Ibn ‘Arabi, at the beginning of the 13th century, vowed in his ‘Anqa Mughrib that the conquest of that City “would be due to the power of prayers, not of swords and spears”—meaning, of course, that while swords and spears would be used, the ultimate cause of the victory would be the religious ardor of Muslims and Allah answering their prayers. A “religion of peace” indeed.
In 1453, after the Fall of Constantinople, a particular religious order of Muslims, the Murshidiya, affirmed that it was the collective prayers of their 70,000 adherents which had made possible the conquest. This order had been influential in Brusa, the former capital of the Ottomans between the years 1327-1453—a city some 50 miles to the south of Constantinople, across the Sea of Marmara, which shows how deeply into Byzantine territory the Muslims had been eating away over time. One assumes that those patient Muslims had set up shop in Brusa to bide the 126 years it took to finally achieve their ultimate goal. Centuries mean nothing to Muslims; for individuals mean nothing, by themselves: only Allah and his Prophet Mohammed, the ultimate goal of Islam, matter to them.
In the remainder of his essay, Massignon starts waxing mystical and thereby attempts to elevate this epochal desideratum in Islamic culture for expansionist imperialism to some transcendental sphere of cultural consciousness in touch with the suffering of people throughout the ages; etc., ad nauseam. It is an unconscionable sublimation of a protracted lust for conquest and for all the mayhem and misery that entailed—and insult is added to injury when in the same essay he had the opportunity to extend the same favor to the Western Christians of Byzantium, but failed to do so.
What Massignon delivers, in spite of his harebrained mystical hermeneutics, is the astounding fact that Muslims were longing to conquer Constantinople for centuries before they finally got their excrement together to successfully do so. And make no mistake: this was no mere longing, vaguely diffused in the culture. It was vividly, deeply and institutionally woven into the many-layered texture of Islamic culture—prayers, mosque sermons, religious literature and inspirational stories of martyrs—laying down layers of centuries of patient fervent lust for the rapine of conquest.
In our era, we discover that Muslims not only nourish similar dreams of conquest of portions of the Dar-al-Islam which they lost—Israel, Spain, India, parts of Southeast Europe (which, thanks to the West they are managing to carve into)—but also that too many of them are now reviving what they had to incubate and put on the back burner for the last 300 years, due to the abysmal geopolitical nadir they had sunk to in the shadow of the spectacular and unique ascendancy of Western superiority. The conquest of “Rome”—which is no longer in Byzantium, and no longer in Italy (and certainly no longer represented as that “Third Rome”, Moscow!), but has shifted in the perennial process of the translatio imperii during the epochal reconfigurations of Western Progress, to America—is crystallizing in the Muslim world as the logical key to their original imperative to conquer the world.
It is highly unlikely that Muslims will succeed, of course, as they did with that Second Rome, Constantinople; for the West in the meantime has outstripped the Muslim world by veritable light years, and Muslims are no longer capable of launching major military invasions, as they were during the Middle Ages. Even then, when the playing fields—the Campus Martius, the Field of Mars—were closer to being level, Muslims proved unable to conquer Europe, though they persisted in trying for a solid millennium, and lost Spain in the process. Nevertheless, even if the newly permutated dream of ecumenical conquest of an Islam Redivivus is likely doomed to fail, this does not mean that fervently fanatical (and patient) Muslims—in merely trying to realize their eschatopathological dream—will not be able to wreak horrific casualties on countless innocent lives and shocks to our infrastructure.
* (As well as, among others, the dhimmi Lebanese Christian Youakim Moubarac (1924-1995), a diastrous influence on the issue of the problem of Islam in Lebanon and Israel; and the American scholar of Islam George Makdisi (1920-2002) who, according to one enthusiastic acolyte of his, Hamid Dabashi of Columbia University (in a review of two of his books in Journal of the American Oriental Society, 112 (1) 1992), located the source of “the two greatest prizes of ‘Western’ civilization—scholasticism and humanism—in the vicinity of their Islamic origin. . .” I.e., everything good in the West, the West owes to Islam: a form of intellectual rape and supremacism as a complement to the ongoing rape and supremacism of the millennial Jihad of Islam.)