Within a few years after the death of Gregory the Great, a new religion was set up by an Arabian named Mahomet, who seems to have been honest, although mistaken, at first, but grew less honest as he went on, and as he became more successful and powerful. His religion was made up partly from the Jewish, partly from the Christian, and partly from other religions which he found around him; but he gave out that it had been taught him by visions and revelations from heaven, and these pretended revelations were gathered into a book called the Koran, which serves Mahomet's followers for their Bible. This new religion was called Islam, which means submission to the will of God; and the sum of it was declared to be that "there is but one God, and Mahomet is his prophet."
One point in the new religion was, that every faithful Mahometan (or Mussulman, as they were called) was required once in his life to go on pilgrimage to Mecca, a city which was Mahomet's birthplace, and was considered to be especially holy; and to this day it is visited every year by great companies of pilgrims. Another remarkable thing was, that he commanded his followers to spread their religion by force [NOTE: this is denied by many moslem scholars--check other references]; and this was done with such success, that within about sixty years after Mahomet's death they had conquered Syria and the Holy Land, Egypt, Persia, parts of Asia Minor, and all the north of Africa. A little later, they crossed the Straits of Gibraltar, and got possession of Spain, where their kingdom at Granada lasted until 1492, nearly eight hundred years. In the countries which the Mussulmans subdued, Christians were allowed to live and to keep up their religion; but they had to pay a heavy tribute, and to bear great hardships and disgraces at the hands of the conquerors.
I have mentioned that before Gregory the Great's time almost all Europe had been overrun by the rude nations of the North (Part I, Chapter XXIII). Learning nearly died out, and what remained of it was kept up by the monks and clergy only. There is but little to tell of the history of those times; for, although in the Greek empire there were great disputes about some doctrines and practices, these matters were such as you would not care to know about, nor would you be much the wiser if you did know.
I may, however, mention that one of these disputes was about images, to which the Christians of those ages, and especially the Greeks, had come by degrees to pay a sort of reverence which St. Augustine and other fathers of older days would have looked on with horror. It had become usual to fall down before images, to pray to them, to kiss them, to burn lights and incense in their honour, to adorn them with gold, silver, and precious stones, to lay the hand on them in taking oaths, and even to use them as godfathers or godmothers for children in baptism. Those who defend the use of images would tell us that the honour is not given to them, but to Almighty God, to the Saviour, and to the saints, through the images. But when we find, for instance, that people paid more honour to one image of the blessed Virgin than to another, and that they supposed their prayers to have a greater hope of being heard when they were said before one image than when they were said before another, we cannot help thinking that they believed the images themselves to have some particular virtue in them.
There were, then, some of the Greek emperors who tried to put down the superstitious regard for images, and they were the more set on this because the Mahometans, who abhorred images, reproached the Christians for using them. These emperors, wishing to do away with the grounds for such reproaches, caused the figures of stone or metal to be broken, and the sacred pictures to be smeared over; and they persecuted very cruelly those who were foremost in defending them. Then came other emperors who were in favour of images; or widowed empresses, who governed during the boyhood of their sons, and took up the cause of images with great zeal; and thus the friends and the enemies of images succeeded each other by turns on the throne, so that the battle was fought, backwards and forwards, for a long time, until at length an agreement was come to which has ever since continued in the Greek Church. By this agreement, it was settled that the figures made by carving in stone or wood, or by casting metal into a mould, should be forbidden, but that the rise of religious pictures (which were also called by the name of images) should be allowed. Hence it is said that the Greeks may not worship anything of which one can take the tip of the nose between his finger and his thumb. But in the Latin Church the carved or molten images are still allowed; and among the poorer and less educated people there is a great deal of superstition connected with them.