By the year 600, Christianity had established itself throughout much of the region of what we now know as the Middle East, including the coastal regions of western North Africa. To the north, Christianity was a presence up to the Danube and the Rhine. Christian expan- sion had also taken place to the east of the Roman Empire in Persia, where a form of Christianity that came to be known as “Nestorianism” had gained influence.
The situation changed significantly through the rise of Islam – the religious belief system based on the teachings of Muhammad (570–632), which provided a new religious identity for the Arab people. Initially, Islamic expansion was confined to the Arabian peninsula. During the Rashidun Caliphate (c. 632–61), immediately following the death of Muham- mad, Islam expanded rapidly by military conquest. The ease with which this was achieved was partly a reflection of the weakness of surrounding regions, which were often exhausted by internecine struggles or tensions with their neighbors. By 640, the Caliphate had extended to Mesopotamia, Syria, and Palestine; by 642, to Egypt; and by 643, to the Persian Empire. Three of the five metropolitan sees of the “Pentarchy” – Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch – were now in Islamic hands, and ceased to function as centers of Christian theology and political administration.
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