3.3C: Empires Belief Systems


AP Theme

Cultural Developments and Interactions

Learning Objective 3.3C

Explain the continuity and change within the various belief systems from 1450 to 1750. 

Main Idea 1

Islam continued to spread, and the religion also continued to be divided between the Sunni and the Shia. The growth of Islam in Asia further increased the diversity of Asian belief systems.

Main Idea 2

The new religion of Sikhism developed in South Asia. 

Main Idea 3

There was a major revolt against the authority of the Catholic Church in Europe. Christianity also spread to new locations following European conquests.


Islam Continued to Spread

The expansion of Islam continued during this period.

Islam conquered Anatolia and moved into Eastern Europe:  In 1453, the Muslim Turks completed their Conquest of the Christian Byzantine Empire when they conquered Constantinople in 1453. This conquest brought an end to the last Christian power in the Middle East. From the 15th century, the Ottoman Empire became the dominant power across the Middle East and North Africa. The Ottoman Empire also continued its expansion into Southeastern Europe in an area known as the Balkans.

Islam continued to spread into West Africa: In Western Africa and parts of the northern African interior, Islam was initially a religion of the elite classes. In the 17th and 18th centuries, more ordinary people began converting to Islam from their traditional belief systems. Conversion of the masses began in the early 18th century when the leaders of the Fulbe tribes started a series of jihads (holy wars) against other regional powers. Fulbe leaders fought these jihads in the name of rooting out infidels (non-Muslim and Muslims they viewed as not true Muslims) and ending the corruption of elites and ruling groups. Fulbe leaders preached their message in terminology pulled directly from Islam and the Quran.  Islamic anti-elite and anti-corruption messages were popular with the people, resulting in Islam’s increasing spread.

Islam continued to spread into North India: In South Asia, the Islamic Mughal Empire’s expansion led to continued government support of Islam. Mughal emperors’ treatment of religious minorities was inconsistent. Certain Mughal emperors were much less tolerant and a few downright hostile to Hindus and other religious groups. As a result, some people converted to Islam to escape religious hostility. Others converted to gain higher social standing in their local communities or to have the ability to work at higher positions within the Mughal government and bureaucracy. At the same time, others converted from the actual conversion of faith.

Islam continued to spread into South India: In 1724, Hyderabad State became the first Islamic kingdom in South India. The Nizam (ruler of Hyderabad) had been the Mughal governor in the region until he led a rebellion against Mughal authority in South India. The Asaf Jahi dynasty ruled over this large portion of South India until Indian Independence in 1947, when India’s various kingdoms integrated into the modern nation of India.

Islam continued to spread into Southeast Asia: The effect of long-established Islamic merchant communities in Southeast Asia increased during this historical period. The first major Islamic sultanate established was the Malacca Sultanate on the Malaysian peninsula and the island of Sumatra in the early 15th century. Like in Africa, Islam initially remained a religion of the ruling classes and elites before spreading more widely to the masses. Over the next few centuries, despite Portuguese and Dutch colonization in the region, other Islamic sultanates emerged across the islands of Southeast Asia.

The Divide between Sunni and Shia Muslims Widened

Following Muhammad’s death in 632 CE, a division opened up in the Islamic world over who should be the next leader of the Islamic community. 

How the Sunni-Shia divide formed 

  • Sunni’s believed that members of the Islamic elite should choose Muhammad’s successor. 
  • Shia thought that Muhammad’s successor should be a member of Muhammad’s family, and their chosen successor was his cousin and son-in-law Ali. 
  • Eventually, the Sunni won the leadership battle, and Muhammad’s friend Abu Baker became the first caliph (leader of the Islamic community). 
  • Sunni Islam had remained the dominant Islamic practice until the Safavid Empire adopted Shia Islam.

The Sunni-Shia divide and Ottoman and Safavid conflict: The desire for land and hate for followers of Sunni Islam justified the Ottoman Empire’s invasion and conquest of Shia lands following the Battle of Chaldiran (1514). Ottoman Sultan Selim secured an Islamic scholar’s opinion that branded Safavid Sultan Isma’il an “unbeliever and heretic,” providing the justification he needed to invade the Safavid territory.

The divide in the modern world: The Sunni-Shia conflict still divides the modern Islamic world and justifies much of the terrorism and political strife that plagues the Middle East. Much of the conflict centers between Iran, the dominant Shia power, and the Sunni Muslim leadership in the other dominant Middle Eastern countries.

East and Southeast Asia Continued to Practice a Diverse Set of Belief Systems

East Asia remained a land of diverse belief systems. Across China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam, the three great teachings of Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism continued to play essential roles in society. These traditions, like in previous historical periods, coexisted peacefully. 

The most influential of these belief systems continued to be Confucianism.

  • While the roles of women in society did experience minor improvements, Confucian patriarchy remained strong. The dominant expectation in Confucian cultures remained the submissiveness of women to men. 
  • Merchants’ social status and the suspicion of merchant activity also did not improve much during this period. Ming Emperor Hongwu went as far as to restrict the domestic and foreign merchant classes’ power by placing international commerce under the government’s control. After his death, his successors reversed these trade policies. By 1750, Japan also had limited international merchants’ access to Japan. 
  • Filial piety also continued to dominate Confucian societies. Parents expected complete obedience of their children even after reaching adulthood, and ancestor worship and veneration remained a dominant practice.

The New Religion of Sikhism Developed in South Asia

Sikhism developed in India’s Punjab region out of complicated relations between South Asia’s majority Hindu population and Muslim rulers. The life of Sikhism’s founder Guru Nanak coincided with the end of the Delhi Sultanate and the rise of the Mughal Empire. The additional teachings of the successive nine Sikh Gurus, after which there were no more Sikh Gurus, were written and taught from 1509 to 1738 at the Height of Mughal power in South Asia. 

Sikhism has remained a relatively small religion, with just about 25 million followers. While Sikh diaspora communities live worldwide, most Shiks live in India’s Punjab region, where Guru Nanak founded the religion.

Sikhism brought together Hindu and Muslim beliefs: Sikhism attempted to reconcile the friction between Hindu and Muslim communities and promoted equality. Guru Nanak (1469-1539) argued that “there is no Hindu and there is no Muslim.” His other messages emphasized gender and caste equality. Guru Nanak’s message appealed to both Hindu and Muslim communities. This cross-religious appeal resulted from Skhisms blending of elements of both Hinduism and Islam. Aspects of Islam included a monotheistic god and an emphasis on charity and responsibility for promoting the community’s well-being. From Hinduism, Guru Nanak adopted the ideas of karma and reincarnation. The ultimate goal is to merge one’s soul with god, similar to the Hindu notion of Moksha.

The Christian World Began a Period of Remarkable Change

The 15th century began a period of change for the Christian world as the Protestant Reformation split the Catholic Church and Christianity expanded to new areas with European conquest.

The Protestant Reformation in Europe

In the 16th and 17th centuries, the Protestant Reformation challenged the power of the Catholic Church in Western Europe. Multiple new branches of Christianity arose from the Protestant Reformation, and these new Christian communities rejected the authority and many of the traditions of the Roman Catholic Church.

The causes of the protestant reformation

Anger at Church corruption: In 1517, Martin Luther, a monk in Wittenberg, Germany, launched the Protestant Reformation when he published his 95 theses. In this document, Luther rejected the Church’s selling of indulgences (tickets that people could buy to have sins forgiven). He also argued against the practice of simony (the sale of offices when the church bureaucracy). Pope Leo X excommunicated Luther from the Church in 1521, and Luther and his followers set up a new church, the Lutheran Church.

Theological differences:  Theological differences arose in western Christianity. John Wycliffe (1328-1384), a seminary professor at the English university of Oxford, argued against some of the Catholic Church’s most fundamental beliefs. Two of Wycliffe’s most revolutionary views were that individuals did not need priests for salvation and that people could achieve redemption and heaven on their own. He argued that the Bible should be available to people to read in their native language and that keeping the book only in Latin, which was the practice at the time, kept people ignorant of Christ’s gospels.

Rejection of Catholic political power: For centuries, the Catholic Church and the Pope had maintained political influence across Europe. Many European monarchs’ viewed the emerging Protestant Reformation as a tool to break the Catholic Church’s authority within their kingdoms. In the 1520s and 1530s, English King Henry VIII wanted an annulment (legal end) of his marriage to his first wife, Queen Katherine. When the Pope rejected his request, Henry sided with English Protestants. He set up a new Church of England under his control. The new English Church quickly allowed for the annulment of his marriage. His second daughter, who later became Queen Elizabeth I, set up the Anglican Protestant Church of England.

Technology: New technologies like the printing press helped Protestant reformers to spread their message widely. While printing presses had long been available in other areas–it originated in China–by 1450, European inventor Johannes Gutenberg had perfected his press. By the start of the Protestant Reformation in 1517, the printing press was available to reformers to print their anti-Catholic pamphlets in mass.

The effects of the protestant reformation

The Protestant Reformation was more than just a revolution in European Christianity. Over time, it also fundamentally changed the political and social fabric of Europe and later the world. The following are significant effects of the Protestant Reformation.

The weakening of the Catholic Church: The Protestant Reformation further weakened the Catholic Church. The Church and the Pope lost millions of religious followers as people converted to different branches of Protestant Christianity. As a result, Church power over the political affairs across Europe also began to weaken. Modern Pope’s authority comes mostly from their position as moral and spiritual leaders.

Wars of religion: As Protestant ideas spread and new Protestant communities grew, wars of religion spread across Europe as Protestant groups resisted the Catholic Church and Catholic leaders’ authority. These wars lasted from 1524 to 1697. The largest and most deadly was The Thirty Years War (1618 to 1648), which led to the death of nearly 8 million people in Europe. The conflict began when Ferdinand II (1578 to 1637) became the Holy Roman Emperor and decried that citizens would have to follow Roman Catholicism, despite the 1555 Treaty of Augsburg allowing regional kingdoms within the empire to choose their official denomination of Christianity. War broke out. After decades of conflict, the Peace of Westphalia, signed in 1648, reaffirmed regional kings’ right within the Holy Roman Empire to choose the official domination of Christianity their kingdoms would practice.

Diversification of Christian practice: The Protestant Reformation also led to the diversification of Christain practices. Within decades new branches of Protestant Christianity such as Lutheranism, Calvinism, Anabaptists, and Anglicanism arose. Today there are dozens of Christian denominations globally.

Catholic Church reform: Fearful at the loss of so many Catholics, the Roman Catholic Church began the Counter-Reformation within the Church to reform its practices and resist the spread of Protestantism. During the Council of Trent (1545 to 1563), the Church reformed or reaffirmed (continued) various Church teachings and practices. Significant changes included limiting the sale of indulgences for the remission of sin. Leaders also decided priests needed to be better educated and agreed to establish new seminaries for their training. Church leaders were discouraged from flaunting wealth and encouraged to live a more pious (religiously dedicated) life. However, the Church refused to move in the direction of Protestantism. Translation of the Bible continued to be forbidden. Additionally, the Church reaffirmed that beliefs like the bread and wine offered during communion were Christ’s actual body and blood (transubstantiation).

European Conquest Spread Christianity

In the 16th and 17th centuries, Christianity spread to new locations. This latest Christian expansion primarily resulted from conversion that followed European expansion and conquest between the 15th and 20th centuries. Within a few centuries, European expansion had largely exterminated diverse native practices across the Americas.

  • Catholicism spread widely across the Portuguese and Spanish colonies in Southern North America, Latin America, and South America. 
  • Protestant denominations of Christianity dominated across much of North America. In Africa and Asia, Christianity also spread with conquest. 
  • Alongside maritime conquest, Eastern orthodox Christianity spread east across Northern Asia from Russia as conversion pressures impacted native populations with Russian settlers’ arrival.