The Christian Community and the Rise of Islam in Afghanistan
After the death of Islam’s founder Muhammad (pbuh), Islam expanded its authority throughout the Middle East, North Africa, and Persia. The Kingdom of Sassanid Persia was one of the first kingdoms to fall to the hands of the Arab raiders. The new religion that rose from the deserts of Arabia under the leadership of the second leader or caliph after Muhammad’s death, Umar, defeated the Persian armies in 636 AD and captured the rich Persian capital Seleucia-Ctesiphon uprooting its once powerful king Yazdegerd III.
After the defeat of the Yazdegerd III some of the regions of Afghanistan quickly came under the rule of Arab control. In the early period of the new Arab conquerors Christians and Jews were allowed to live in peace and continue their religious practices. Non-Muslims living under Muslim control were given the name dhimmis, meaning those under ‘regulation of agreement of protection’.
It was the Caliph Umar that is known for making several treaties with both Christians and Jews, allowing them to keep their property, places of worship and the freedom to continue to practice their faith as long as they paid a tribute or “jiza”. Christians as far as the borders of Afghanistan and India continued to live in peace under the new rulers as some documents attest to communities and their locations, and even names of church leaders in the region from the 7th to the 11th century. However, in the regions of Afghanistan and India Christians peaceful coexistence with their new ruler was to be short-lived.
By the 10th century, the number of Christians in the region was to greatly decrease if not become extinct. Though the reason for the disappearance of Christian communities is unclear, some evidence show that economic pressures, strong preaching from Muslims teachers persuading Christians to leave Christianity, and attacks and persecution by new Muslim rulers in the region gave to the reduction of its numbers.
C.E. Bosworth, historical scholar of the region, noted that the fall of Christians in eastern Persia could have been attributed to their remoteness from spiritual communities found in the west. Though this needs further research, there are several stories pertaining to the persecution of Christians, especially during the rule of King Mahmud Ghaznavid in the 11th century. The Afghan historian Sistani’s describes an event when Mahmud Ghaznavid’s armies invaded Zaranj and set churches on fire.
Other sources point out the destructive campaign of Mahmud Ghaznavid whose forces were not only against Christian communities, but Jews, Hindus, and even Muslims. One account tells how mosques and churches were plundered and Muslims and Christians burned alive as their homes were set on fire.
The cause of the disappearance of this past community of Christians that once lived in the region of Afghanistan can be credited to many factors that occurred during the long history of this area, but the fact remains that not only did Christians live in this land but that they were in fact some of the first communities to accept and follow the message of Christ and remain faithful for over eleven centuries.
Religious and historical scholars of this area cannot overlook the blaring evidence of the existence of Christians and their contribution to the region. The challenge remains as further investigation and scholarly non-bias research is needed to provide the world with a more complete picture of the history of this region.