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Religion and Spirituality

While the Emperor Constantine's legalization of Christianity as a legitimate religion ended the persecution of Christians, it also ushered in an era when, for better or worse, politics became entwined with the Church. In the East, Justinian's influence on the Christian world allowed the Greek Orthodox Church to establish its power over society. Upon restoring Byzantine dominance in the region, Justinian immediately began reviving a form of the Christian faith through urban development and building new churches. Orthodox teachings spread from Aksum, the center of northern Ethiopian civilization, to Sudan. However, the Eastern Church became more superstitious as it relied on a host of saints, relics and icons in religious worship. The Western church under the Holy Roman Empire also departed from Biblical Christianity. In addition to developed a theology of saints, rituals, and traditions, it became increasingly politicized. The belief in Apostolic Succession gave the Roman pope ultimate authority in things not only pertaining to faith, but the state as well. The lines between church and state were rapidly diminishing. The two churches of East and West continually clashed over theological issues like the clerical celibacy, the Iconoclastic Controversy and papal authority.

Meanwhile, the precepts of Islam gained recognition throughout Arabia. Born in 570, Muhammed (also called the Prophet of Mecca) began preaching in Mecca in the early part of the seventh century. Muhammed erroneously taught he was the recipient of the ultimate revelation from God the Father, and that Jesus Christ was merely an earlier messenger of God. The message delivered by Muhammed stressed prayer and penance, brotherly love and almsgiving. The prophet was driven out of Mecca in 622 and migrated to Medina, where he attracted a large following. In 630, his followers marched to Mecca and called upon the rulers to submit to Islam. That same year, the Muslims overpowered Byzantine forces near the Dead Sea, and by Muhammad's death in 632, all of Arabia had submitted to Islam. Upon Muhammed's death, his teachings were incorporated into the Koran and Muslims began invading the Near East and Africa in a militant effort to further Islam and convert neighboring peoples. In barely a century, Islam had penetrated North Africa, Persia, and the fringes of India. By the eight century, Muslims crossed as far as south-central Asia and Spain. By the end of the 10th century, Islam was an established world religion.

The principles of Buddhism also gained prominence in the East. Introduced into China from India about 65 B.C., Buddhism was already widely accepted by the beginning of the T'ang Dynasty. During this dynasty, Buddhism was transformed into various new sects adapted to Chinese life. One sect which became popular was the Ch'an or Meditation sect, better known by its Japanese name, Zen. The Ch'an sect was influenced by Chinese Taoist philosophy from Lao-Tzu. During the T'ang period, Taoism itself became a formal religion, partly through antagonism to Buddhism and partly through borrowing from its rival.

In 800, Charlemagne was crowned the first Holy Roman Emperor. His reign was one of conquest, reform and cultural expression. Under his rule, religious art and music experienced a renaissance. Meanwhile, dazzled by the splendor and might of the Byzantine empire, the Russians of Kiev officially adopted Greek Orthodox Christianity in 996. However, the growing dominance of Greek Orthodox church led to increased religious tensions in the region, creating circumstances ripe for violent clashes. In 1054, Pope Leo IX, angered by the Orthodox Church's rejection of papal supremacy, excommunicated the Byzantine empire and began the Great Schism between eastern and western churches. At the same time that the Holy Roman Empire and the Byzantine empire parted, religious conflict increased on another front. The state of the church in both Eastern and Western forms had become superstitious and political while the threat of Islam continued to trouble the Church. Soon, clerics and political leaders rallied the masses to join in an effort to take back the Holy Land from the Muslim "infidels" and particularly to regain control of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the traditional site of Jesus' empty tomb. Religious and social fervor mounted to such a degree that many of those enlisted in Crusader armies did not truly know what they were fighting for. Many joined the ranks in hope of wealth to be gained and the promise of adventure abroad. The first crusade culminated in the conquest of Jerusalem in 1099. Seven more crusades followed and for the next two centuries, the Crusades ravaged the Holy Land. Muslims, Jews and many others were killed in the name of Christ, and the Crusades became a shameful blemish on the Christian church. The Crusades turned into an unholy war which Jesus would have never sanctioned.

Monasticism in the Medieval period was usually always movements of Christians back to what they believed was a purer version of Christianity in the face of what they saw as the Church at large which had been corrupted by politics and superstition. In Europe, Christianity experienced a restorative season, with the founding of the Franciscan order by St. Francis of Assisi in 1210. Forty years later, Thomas Aquinas developed the official Roman Catholic theology. However, Christianity met challenges in later years with the emergence of Humanism under the writings of Dante Alighieri and his contemporaries.