World History 1 261 - 16.4.2 Religious Changes

Anxieties about spiritual redemption and conflicting doctrinal interpretations generated many transformations in religious life across Afro-Eurasia in the fourteenth century. While some religions splintered into subdivisions focused on reinforcing their own doctrinal purity and conformity of belief, others expanded in the face of adversity. In the wake of the plague and the demoralizing collapse of the Mongol Empire, for example, Islamic traditions in much of North Africa and central Asia did not deteriorate but increasingly solidified into institutional forms that helped develop a sense of common identity across a broad territory (Figure 16.16). To maintain this sense of community, Muslim scholars routinely corresponded with each other and traveled to Mecca to keep up with the latest theological teachings.

A large mass of land is shown in white and water is indicated in blue. Blue is seen along the west and in the southeast. Bodies of water are also seen in the middle. Areas are highlighted gold and labelled. An area in the west is labelled Mali Empire, and in the middle of the map, from north to south, areas in gold are: Golden Horde, Ottomans, Timurid Empire, Mamluk Sultanate, and Delhi Sultanate.
Figure 16.16 The shaded areas in this map depict the extent of the largest Islamic states at end of the fourteenth century. Despite the challenges of the Black Death and the Mongols’ conquest and decline, Islam’s scope and influence continued to expand into Africa and Asia in the fifteenth century. (credit: modification of work “TNM Download (v2.0)” by National Land Cover Database (NLCD)/United States Geological Survey (USGS)/U.S. Department of the Interior, Public Domain)

The Quran and the Hadith (the recorded actions and sayings of Muhammed) remained central components of all varieties of Islam, but different interpretations of ritual and the role of the mystical experience increasingly defined the contours of its myriad branches. In particular, Sufism, a mystical form of Islam that had first emerged in the eighth century, became increasingly integrated into everyday religious life. Although it could be expressed in a variety of ways, Sufism’s emphasis on inner personal contemplation and the believer’s connection with the divine became especially compelling during the period of instability and uncertainty following the collapse of the Il-Khanate.

By the end of the fourteenth century, the majority of the population from North Africa to eastern Persia was Muslim. This community of the faithful was increasingly defined by its diversity of languages and cultures. But allegiance to a shared historical tradition and set of core beliefs provided unity and coherence, as did believers’ social networks, schools, and mosques. This cohesion and continued growth enabled Islam to expand into sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, setting the stage for Muslim ascendancy in the fifteenth century.

While Islam spread across central and southern Asia, China focused on recovering its religious and philosophical traditions after years of Mongol rule. Thus, the Ming era represented a period of introspection and isolation. Zhu Di took the imperial title of Yongle emperor and ruled from 1402 to 1424 as the third emperor of the Ming dynasty. He reinstated Confucian-based rituals and learning by sponsoring the compilation of a massive encyclopedia that incorporated writing from thousands of Confucian scholars. Although Confucianism coexisted with Buddhism and Daoism in Ming China, it effectively complemented these traditions rather than competing with them.

Meanwhile, western Europe was grappling with emerging cracks in the foundations of Christianity, its principal religious tradition. By the end of the fourteenth century, leadership crises associated with the Avignon papacy and the Great Western Schism had badly damaged the papacy’s reputation and led many to question the church’s piety and integrity. After the conclusion of the Great Schism, some attempts were made to resolve such doubts and misgivings by granting more authority to councils of clergy rather than popes through the conciliar movement. Although this movement offered some hope that the church could be reformed from within, it met with severe resistance from popes who insisted on absolute papal supremacy.

Beyond their larger misgivings about the integrity of church leadership, however, many Christians who survived the trauma of the Black Death were primarily concerned with their own salvation and the church’s inability to appease God’s anger or mitigate the plague’s devastation. As a result, new forms of mystical and individualistic spiritual practices emerged that emphasized asceticism, a tradition of strict self-discipline and the denial of worldly goods, and that encouraged the rise of anticlerical groups such as the Spiritual Franciscans in Italy and the Lollards in England. Through their critiques of clerical wealth and corruption, these groups posed significant challenges to the authority of the church. Although the leaders of many anticlerical organizations were deemed heretics and suppressed by church leaders, they nevertheless laid the groundwork for the sixteenth-century religious revolution known as the Protestant Reformation. Born in central Europe, the Reformation came to emphatically divide the Christian Church.

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The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 1: to 1500 textbook by Openstax