Was Islam the inspiration for Iconoclasm?

Jan 24 2012

Craig asks how much Leo’s Syrian origin influenced his iconoclasm. The traditional answer is that it was a major factor and in fact many textbooks present iconoclasm as if it were an obvious (and somewhat unavoidable) outgrowth of Islamic contact with the Empire. But I think this is misleading. Leo did indeed have an eastern mindset. He was born in Syria and clearly had a good handle on the Arab psyche. This was recognized by the emperor Justinian II who sent him on a diplomatic mission to the East to keep the various tribes from uniting against the empire. While there he faced two huge Arab armies which had come to sack the major imperial city of Amorium and somehow managed to talk each of them into going home empty-handed. (Probably by hinting that he would soon be emperor and would make a useful puppet when the time came. Each Arab commander decided to wait for the bigger prize.)

In his negotiations with the enemy commanders, Leo wouldn’t have needed a translator. Arabic was most likely his first language, which is one of the reasons why Islam is suspected as being an influence on him (even though it merely proves that not every native Arabic speaker was a Muslim). It’s tempting to think that the Islamic stricture against images was the inspiration for iconoclasm, but it more likely a development of Monophysitism- the Christian heresy that rejected Christ’s humanity in favor of his divinity. If Christ was purely divine then depicting him as a man was a form of heresy. Monophysitism had deep roots in Syria, and Leo wouldn’t have been the first emperor to pay lip service to Orthodoxy while harboring private Monophysitic beliefs.

Added to this natural dislike of icons was probably a bit of pique. When the Saracen army and navy showed up to besiege Constantinople Leo had been preparing for five months. It was he who had bolstered the city’s morale, intrigued with the Arab commanders outside the walls to keep them divided, incited most of the galley slaves of the relieving Muslim armada to revolt, and finally convinced the Bulgarian army to march down to Constantinople and deliver the coup de grace. And yet credit for Constantinople’s deliverance was popularly given to the icon of Mary that had made daily circuits of the city’s walls and was believed to have the city under its protection.

Leo gave a sermon thundering against Icons in the Hagia Sophia a few weeks later. When that produced no great outcry he issued his famous decree.

2 responses so far

  1. A lot of historians do seem to favor contact with islam as a reason for Ionoclasm. But it also might be a frontrunner to Protestantism in the west later. During the reformation there was also the destrucation of icons. In the east, the iconoclastic movement was defeated, not so in the west. Probably another difference from eastern and western christians. A lot of western christians today don’t vernerate objects like the Virgin’s Belt is being vererate in Russsia currently.

  2. The only thing I think against monphysites influencing the iconolastic were that in many monophysties churches there are icons.

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