Did Islam Purify the Church?

St. Sophronius of Jerusalem

After Church yesterday I had a good discussion with my Priest.  We talked about heresy in the first Millenia of the Church and the Islamic Invasions.  He put forward a very interesting hypothesis that I had never thought about before.  I don’t know if I believe it but it certainly got me thinking.

Our conversation started with a discussion of Patriarch Sophronius of Jerusalem who was the prelate in Jerusalem when it was conquered by the Muslims.  Patriarch Sophronius was a good friend of the Pope and a huge promoter of Chalcedonian Christology against Monophysitism.  Sophronius also viewed these invasions as a judgment from God.  These invasions continued for 100 years after Muhammad’s death until Charles Martel stopped the invasion at Tours, France in 732 AD.

In these 100 years, two thirds of Christendom was conquered including much historical Christian land and Episcopal Sees.  It’s quite a tragedy.

However, as my Priest pointed out, all of the land conquered by the Muslims was either heretical, or had a large presence of heresy.  We talked quite a bit about the geography that came under Muslim rule and I realized that my Priest might be onto something.  Egypt and Syria were majority Monophysite.  The Holy Land was officially Catholic though many Monophysite sympathies existed, hence the need for the strong preaching of Patriarch Sophronius.

Latin North Africa which constitutes modern day Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco was officially Catholic though they only recently defeated Donatism and it still would have been present, though in smaller numbers.  There is a similar situation with Spain.  Spain was officially Catholic but they had only recently overcome Arianism and it would still have been prevalent to a certain degree.  In France, where the Muslims were halted, there was no heresy.  Coincidence?

France, the rest of Western Europe, Rome, Constantinople, Anatolia, and other areas with orthodox uniformity were able to fend off these invasions.  Did God preserve them?  It’s hard to say.

At the time of the invasions, there was the Monothelyte heresy which was present briefly in Rome, and much longer in Constantinople.  This heresy was smaller but still took it’s toll on the Church.  It was defeated in 681 AD at the Third Council of Constantinople by Pope Agatho but like the other heresies, they would have still been present after they were condemned.  How much longer is the question?  Monothelytism doesn’t exist today while Monophysitism is thriving.  How quickly did this heresy fade?  Especially in the lands that weren’t conquered by these invasions?  It’s hard to say.

My Priest admitted that there were true believers in all of these lands that were conquered and that these communities even persisted for quite some time.  After all, there was still a vibrant Christian community in Carthage in the 1070’s as evidenced by correspondence between their Church and Pope Gregory VII in Rome.  Spain eventually became Catholic again and was one of the most powerful Catholic countries that helped spread the faith globally.  However, Christianity in Latin North Africa eventually disappeared.  In both regions, their respective heresies were on the decline.

Do I endorse the theory that God used Islam to purify the Church?  I’m leaning toward no, but it’s certainly worth thinking about.  After all, the Church has successfully defeated many heresies in the past without having that land conquered by a foreign religion.

I’d like to hear some input from my readers.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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11 thoughts on “Did Islam Purify the Church?

  1. Most of North Africa had become Arian through the Vandal invasions, “Vandal Arianism” – overtaking/ destroying/supplanting most of the Donatists and Catholics. (summary of article below) Though you cited a Catholic correspondence in Carthage in 1070 AD, according to this article, they were very small; (as is the only churches that are left in some areas of Middle East and North Africa.)

    on page 395, the author calls it a “modified Arianism” that the Vandals brought, and because the churches adopted that, they had left the faith, leaving the Deity of Christ, and so Islam easily converted them. The Coptic Church survived because they held onto the Deity of Christ and the Trinity. (Nicea, Constantinople, Athanasius, Cyril – they honor those 2 “saints” more than any, it seems)

    “When Islam made inroads into Africa it offered a faith which was closer, in some respects, to the Teutonic Arianism of the Vandals than Teutonic Arianism was to Catholic Christianity of the Byzantines.” (page 392, see below)

    From this Journal article: ( I paid for it years ago from http://www.jstor.org website)

    “The Disappearance of Christianity from North Africa in the Wake of the Rise of Islam” by C. J. Speel, II, Monmouth College, Church History, volume 29, no. 4 (Dec., 1960) pp. 379-397. Cambridge University Press.

    I think the rise of Islam was a judgment on the churches that had “left their first love” – Revelation 2:1-7
    Arabs and later, the Ottomans.

    But nominalism and ritualism over heart religion (true faith; regeneration; being alive) on RCs, Protestants and EOs is also a judgement.
    In my opinion, and many other Protestants, Purgatory becoming dominant in the 600s onward; and Transubstantiation (1215) and the development of Indulgences, and the Council of Trent (1545-1563) were judgments on the RC – they anathematized themselves.
    And liberal theology is also a judgment on mainline Protestant churches.

    • Hi Ken,

      I don’t know if North Africa was majority Arian at the time of the Islamic Invasions. I assume there were some from Spain but I think the last Arian king converted to Catholicism in the late 6th century. I think they may have been south of Spain, not in Carthage. Carthage was always the big Catholic city. Something else that we should consider, the population of Latin North Africa was probably pretty low. I don’t know if they had any major cities outside of Carthage. It would have made conquests easy.

      I think the community in Carthage was bigger than you think. If you read Pope Gregory VII’s letter, the Carthaginian Catholics were mutinying against their Archbishop and handing him over to Saracen authorities. You wouldn’t do that if you were in super low numbers. This letter can be found in this book:


      I think what finished the Catholics off in Latin North Africa was the Almohad Caliphate. They were in Spain and North Africa and were known for their horrible persecution of dhimmis. Far more than other Islamic controlled areas. This is what forced the Jewish Scholar Moses Maimonides to flee Spain for Egypt which was out of reach of the Almohads. Most likely, most of the Carthage Christians fled to Sicily at this point.

      But we can agree that heresy was in North Africa.

      I suppose it’s hard to answer this overall question since as a Reformed Baptist, you probably think that all these people were heretics. Even the areas considered orthodox by historical standards and certainly by Catholic standards. Do you think the unconquered areas of Christendom in the 7th and 8th century were orthodox in belief? Certainly not by your standards I would assume. There was no sola fide, TULIP, or believers only baptism.

      “In my opinion, and many other Protestants, Purgatory becoming dominant in the 600s onward; and Transubstantiation (1215) and the development of Indulgences, and the Council of Trent (1545-1563) were judgments on the RC – they anathematized themselves.”

      Yeah, you probably do think this.

      • There is a difference between individuals vs. the leadership doctrinal position of a particular church. I think a lot of Christians existed in history in the early church, the RC, EO, and Coptic and other OO churches, if they had true faith in Jesus alone. (even if they had wrong ideas of some doctrines. But if they trusted in Christ to save them, and had the right believe in Christ – Son of God by nature, Deity; etc. – then they are Christians.)

        I don’t think the RC went totally apostate until Trent.

        But the process became worse and worse from the 500s & 600s onward. (Purgatory, indulgences, Transubstantiation, treasury of merit, etc.)

        • Ken,

          I might consider Protestants to be in error about some beliefs and practices, I even consider that some of the beliefs and practices of Catholics are incorrect, but I would call none of them, nor their churches, apostate. It is possible that I may not have read your posts correctly, but I do not think it is sensible or charitable to make statements like that about people who try to follow Jesus Christ.

          • Thanks Patrick for your comments.
            Nothing I wrote is meant to be harsh or insensitive or uncharitable or personal.

            It is a matter of the official doctrines and dogmas that we believing Protestants sincerely believe are wrong and unBiblical. It is not personal; I cannot see nor judge individual people’s hearts.

            I appreciate Allan because he believes in Tridentine Roman Catholicism (the official position before Vatican 2 confused things.) The Council of Trent anathematized the Reformation and Sole Fide, etc. and that has never been officially changed, although IMO, Vatican 2 actually did practically; but as Allan will say, not technically, since, as he wrote here before, at the end of Vatican 2, the Pope said that that Council was not infallible.
            So what was the point of having a council, etc. and making all sorts of pronouncements, etc. and then at the end say, “this is not infallible” – which seems to be a trickly way of “covering one’s ass” (sorry for the language, but this is honestly what it seems like.)

          • Hi Ken,

            I just want to reply to your point about Councils.

            Vatican II didn’t touch on areas of soteriology but Church attitudes since then have de-emphasized it for ecumenical purposes.

            “So what was the point of having a council, etc. and making all sorts of pronouncements, etc. and then at the end say, “this is not infallible” – which seems to be a trickly way of “covering one’s ass” (sorry for the language, but this is honestly what it seems like.)”

            If you look at the documents from most councils, usually very little is infallible. however that does not mean it’s not important. None of the Council of Orange was infallible but Catholics still treasure it. Much of Trent and Florence isn’t infallible but all of it is valuable. Just because something isn’t infallible, doesn’t mean that it’s not important. If that’s the case we’d have to throw out the writings of all of the Saints.

      • Allan,
        So how do you know which parts of all the Ecumenical Councils were infallible and which parts were not?

        Some theologians / historians consider the Councils as infallible (like the EO Church on the first 7 Councils)

        Some even Roman Catholics qualify the infallibility of the Pope with (in accordance with the E. Councils in history)

        • You apply the criteria from Vatican I. Watch the Sungenis vs White debate. He explains it well.

          Btw, my next post will be on this video. Stay tuned.

          • Thanks for sharing that video of Vines vs. Sean McDowell. I watched a few minutes but need to watch and listen more. Not enough time for these things.

            Vatican 1 – 1870 – well applying those decisions back into history is very anachronistic.

            It is a total contradiction to history and logic and Scripture.
            No such thing as a Pope or bishop over other bishops or infallibility to a human, no matter how much you qualify by ex cathedra, etc. Just does not exist. I listened /watched that debate a long time ago. White defeated Sungenis. Cause White has the Bible and Sungenis just has a presupposition that whatever the RC dogma says, that’s it.

          • when I wrote, “does not exist” I mean Biblically, and in early centuries did not exist. (Pope, Papacy, infallibility dogma)

            developed much much later from 600s onward slowly to 1870.

            I don’t think even Leo 1 (440 AD) claimed as such.

            But definitely before him, there is nothing for any kind of singular Pope or bishop over other bishops. The EO is right about that issue.

  2. I have heard that theory before, combined with the idea that the Crusades helped solidify the European kingdoms as Catholic kingdoms. My knowledge is much shallower than yours, but it seems from what I remember that the European petty kings, small fiefdoms or what ever you want to call them started coalescing into stronger larger kingdoms around the time of Crusades. Here is the series I was listening to: http://www.ewtn.com/series/shows/miltOrders/miltOrdersEpisode.htm They talk about the spread of Islam in the primarily Christian Middle East, but mention the idea of purification throughout their series.