In the course of human history, there have been several main movements of religion. From the start of history, mankind has thrown away their relationship with God in the Garden of Eden and then again after Noah when humans built the Tower of Babel. Since then, mankind replaced the “glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man—and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things” (Romans 1: 23). However, God kept a remnant for himself in the Jewish people. From the Jewish people there came a sect who followed the man Jesus Christ, their Messiah. They became known as Christians and their influence was felt throughout the world spreading from Israel in all directions. Due to the origins of Christianity rising during the height of the Roman Empire, there was a natural avenue for the gospel to go forth. Initially the sect of Christianity spread quickly around the world almost immediately reaching Africa, Europe, and Asia. During the first couple hundred years of Christianity, the growth was hindered almost entirely by the persecutions of polytheistic peoples. However, the spread of Christianity faced a challenger in the religion of Islam. Starting from nomadic herdsmen, initially Islam would spread in the Middle East and Africa by the sword. Those who didn’t convert would die by the sword. This method of spreading Islam was effective and therefore, while it was a religion, it also became a way of life for the region and took on a political movement too. Ultimately, the rise of Islam created a hostile environment where people were forced to convert to Islam or face death hindering and almost stopping the good news of Christ from reaching much of Africa and the Middle East. In order to understand the full impact of Islam on the spread of Christianity, there must be an understanding for what caused Islam to spread so rapidly as well as its impact on the political climate of the area. The political system of Islam would play into in impact and interactions these regions had in dealings with Rome and the people associated with Christianity.
History of the Region
Before launching into an investigation on Islam, it is necessary to understand the background and the culture of the region in which Islam spread. Islam originated in Arabia where Muhammad lived. After his initial revelation, he had to seek refuge in Medina, a Christian controlled town. This region was special because while a large part of Arabia was and still is a desert, it also is part of the fertile crescent which was predominant in what is known of world history. These lands, as their name implies, are very fertile and also on a major trade route between Africa, Asia and Europe. In dealing with southern Arabia, the peoples were typically nomadic shepherds and farmers. “Because of its geographical isolation, the states and kingdoms of South Arabia were remarkably long-lived in spite of constant wars and political instability.” The people were able to avoid most conflict but were never a dominant force. However, due to their lifestyle as shepherds and the climate, they were a very tough people capable of surviving. In contrast to South Arabia, “The fertile south became the center of an entrepreneurial empire linking the lands of the Indian Ocean, India, and Africa and their rich products which were carried and traded with the Fertile Crescent and the Mediterranean to the north and west.” This area had more cities and was a hub of activity. They kept the trade routes secret between the different regions and this provided the resources for the rise of Islam. All of Arabia originally had worldviews focused on pluralistic family religions. However, with the rise of Christianity, there was a turning away from polytheistic religions to monotheistic religions. The polytheistic religions would tend to be based on familial ties and would vary by clan. Therefore, by necessity, Christianity had to accept people from all backgrounds due to its singular God. This classifies Christianity as a universalist religion, in the same family that Islam is. Tying the religion into the political situation, there was much turmoil, and without a universalist religion, there would be no way to unite the region behind one ruler as shown by the constant wars. “It would seem obvious by the sixth century, when universalist religions had spread almost completely over the Fertile Crescent, that no king or emperor could dominate the minds of so many, over such vast distances and over mortal time Not even a dynasty could have such a powerful impact unless it had the universalist religion’s sanction and support.” The other very important thing to take into account here is how the areas Islam spread in the most were areas that had been at war with Rome at first. By being against Rome, Islam was then able to be spread against the Christians that had essentially taken over the old Roman empire. It was an easy conversion for those who wouldn’t separate political from religious. This didn’t even include the Christians and members of Rome who would seize upon the political and religious areas which helped spread Islam by creating a common enemy for the peoples of Arabia to fight against.
Spread of Islam
While Islam at first had very few converts and started out peacefully, it soon deteriorated into a warring state. Muhammad had to start out as peaceful, by his “second year in Medina, life became very difficult for the immigrants from Mecca Their funds were exhausted, and probably the hospital of the believers from Medina was being strained…What solution was provided by Allah? This revelation came to Muhammad: ‘O Prophet, contend against the infidels…and be rigorous with them’ (Sura 9:73, Rodwell).” Of the major groups that faced persecution from Islam were the Jews who were among the first to be attacked and defeated by Muhammad. Muhammad would force the Jews to submit to him and then while letting them live and still practice their religion, they had to pay heavy tribute. This did strain their relationship, but “treaties with Jews elsewhere were still possible, even if they were concluded after bloody battles.” After fighting the Jews, he then turned his attention on his old tribesman. Mohammed “had tried for thirteen years by peaceful means to induce them to submit to him, and had failed. Now he would use the sword, and by capturing their caravans, he would both hurt them and help himself.” This became the modus operandi for all of Islam even after the death of Muhammad. Immediately following the death of Muhammad, there was dissention among Muslims as the fight for a successor ensued. However, “within twenty years or less of the Prophet’s death, the mainly Christian lands of Syria (including Palestine), Egypt, Mesopotamia and even parts of North Africa were in Muslim hands. Nor was this the end of the matter: the Persian Empire was wholly conquered and Byzantium lost its fairest provinces, but more was to come with Muslim advances into Spain and southern France.” These armies were able to quickly conquer many lands and spread quickly. While the claim that Islam spread by the sword is true, the standard perception whereby everyone would die or convert isn’t entirely true. In fact, “many Muslim armies did not put even true pagans to death, but gradually converted them with economic and political pressure.” This is still typically the standard most Muslims and Islamic countries hold today.
Islam in Politics
There are now many countries that hold to Islamic rule. These countries are primarily centered in the same areas where Islam spread initially. With that being said, within Islam, is the mandate to convert as many people and enforce Islamic law upon those around them, even when the others are not Islamic. Within the Qur’an there are many sections. One of these is the Shari‘a which is often called as Shari‘a law when enforced within a country. “The Shari‘a is the fundamental law of Islam, the constitution of the Islamic community, and is considered the application of the divine will to every situation in life. Several Islamic countries base their governing constitution law on Shari‘a.” While in many situations in which Muslims are the minority in a country, they will obey the laws of the land, when they do start to seize the majority or at the least come to a place of dominance in a country, there tends to be an attempt to institute Shari‘a law in whatever land they are in. There are numerous examples of this, such as in Indonesia and more predominantly Egypt where the Muslim Brotherhood operates. “Van de Weyer (2001) believes that the aim of the Moslem Brotherhood is to push for adoption of Sharia the Islamic law – by all governments of Moslem countries.” This has been the past trend in countries with large Islamic populations and while not all countries always follow Shari‘a law, it is expected when possible and does tend to impact all religions and the growth of any due to the same restrictions Muhammad originally placed on the Jews, Christians, and other conquered peoples. One of the crucial components of Shari‘a law as it relates to other religions is where those who are Muslims, whether by birth or by choice are forbidden from converting to any other religion. Therefore, any convert to Christianity from Islam would be under the death penalty. This law is still carried out routinely and even in not under Shari‘a law if possible.
Islam in the Middle East
The primary location of Islam has always been in Arabia. “Islam spread rapidly after the death of Muhammad. Political rule was extended to Syria, Mesopotamia, Persia, Palestine, Egypt, North Africa, and the Iberian Peninsula.” The early conquests were met with resistance originally from the crusades, but over time, the end result has been one where Islam is the dominant religion in all of the Middle East. In the very lands that Jesus walked, they were quickly seized by the Islamic conquerors, and quickly stopped the spread of Christianity in those regions. “In the end the church lost three patriarchates (Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria), and many Christians in the East lived under Islam.”
Islam in Africa
While Islam did spread rather rapidly in northern Africa, it did not command the same dominance of culture as in the rest of the Middle East. In many of the African cities, Christianity had spread beyond the reaches of the eventually spread of Islam. The Christians also typically stood stronger than in other areas even when the Islamic conquest did come. This did create some stability, and as a result, “in Africa, with the exception of South Africa, dialogue between Muslims and Christians is limited to occasional cooperation in the capital cities.” Islam itself primarily focused on the northern parts of Africa and therefore never made its way throughout Africa with the same intensity and zeal that was commonly found in the Middle Eastern countries who’s leaders were and are Muslims.
The Muslims and the Christians did have many interactions prior to the crusades. In fact, Muhammad first sought shelter in a Christian city. Muhammad would actually claim to be a prophet in the same line of Abraham, Noah, and Jesus. He would consider the greatest of the prophets to that point in time. Some have even said Muhammad was one of the most familiar with the Christian faith. However, as Islam would grow and take over the area, conflict between Islam and Christianity would rise. Christians were not the only ones who clashed with Islam as the Jews and eventually Zoroastrians did as well. When the Christians were taken over by Muslims, they were required to live in community groups where they were heavily taxed. As Muhammad took over more areas, he would look back at his first dealings with conquered people in Medina and Mecca and while there was “there was not complete theological agreement, there was enough to conclude a treaty, which in some ways was to serve as a model for the ones which were soon to come. It may be worth risking a generalization and saying that relations, in those early days, were better with Christians than with Jews.”
Impact on Christianity
Islam considers itself the true religion in the line of Christianity and Judaism. It considers itself to be the fulfillment of the prophets through Muhammed as the last prophet. There was an uneasy truce of sorts with Christians and Muslims early on as the Christian lands were among the first conquered by the Arab nations. In the lands conquered by Islam, Christianity wasn’t outlawed, but the Christians were required to be in small communities to get their protected people status and then had to pay tributes to the Islamic leaders of the country. The goal of both Christianity and Islam is to win as many converts to their own side as possible. “Political techniques, such as the dhimmi (protected) status for the church, or the application of forms of the law of apostasy to Muslims who would convert to Christianity, have combined to assure that the net flow of conversions always favored Islam.” The specific laws mentioned are ones whereby no Muslim can convert away from Islam to any other religion without facing the death penalty. This is probably the biggest thing these laws did was make it so completely unattractive to everyone who was already a Muslim so that Christian evangelism would fall on almost completely deaf ears. Thereby essentially ceasing the growth of Christianity in its tracks in the Middle East and much of Africa as well as parts of Asia. These laws are still in effect in many countries of the Middle East, and Parts of Africa in the countries ruled by Sharia law.
Christian Reaction to Islam
The study of the impact of Islam upon Christianity would be incomplete without exploring the Christian reaction to Islam. By first looking at the areas that were Christian, we can see how “the rapid expansion of Islam in the lands where Christianity had first taken root (Palestine, Syria, Egypt) demonstrates how superficial the Christianization had become…Many person’s Christianity was bound up with former pagan beliefs and practices, prayers to the saints, reverence for Mary, and use of amulets and other features of magic.” In many ways, the church did not have a strong reaction to Islam. Some considered Islam a heretical offshoot of Christianity, some dealt with it as a reaction and judgment against the Christians in the areas, but ultimately, the Christian reaction was slow and fairly unresponsive to the needs of the area. In fact, “the first writer to articulate the Christian case in Arabic was Theodore Abu Qurrah, whose work was more designed to keep Christians from being influence by Islam than to try to convert Muslims.” This tended to be the standard reaction of the church. They would attempt to encourage the believers in the area, but there were few tools with which to witness to the Muslim and even fewer for helping convert the Muslim to Christ. In many ways, the lack of separation of the Church from the political realm common in most of Europe led to having the church involved in many areas that many object to even today. The church eventually launched what has become a black mark on the history of the church in the crusades. While “the crusaders had economic or political interests, the primary motive of the Crusades was religious…The direct cause of the First Crusade was the appeal by Urban II at a synod at Clermont in November 1095 to launch a crusade against the Muslims.” They were attempting to win back souls to Christ by gaining the physical ground. However, this effort was doomed from the start since Christ had never intended His kingdom to be spread by the sword. Rather, His church was responsible for winning souls to Christ and fighting against the spiritual realms and reaching into the regions where Christ was not known with love and compassion to bring everyone to an understanding of Christ. This is why it is essential for Christians to continue to spread the gospel to the far reaches of the world and back into the lands that have been predominantly Muslim. “Throughout the history of the church the Christian position on the salvation of people apart from Christ has been simple, clear, and consistent: Jesus is on the only way to God, and there is no other name by which people can be saved apart from Jesus.”
From the standpoint of Christianity, the growth of Islam has been one of the largest factors limiting the growth of Christ. While Islam did spread by the sword, the majority of their battles tend to be of the taxation and death of those who are already Muslims. This created the most hostile way in which Christians could witness to Muslims. By taking over the lands in which Christianity first flourished, the Muslims took the teeth out of the spread of Christianity. By avoiding Islam as much as possible until the Crusades, Christianity didn’t do anything effective to promote Christ in the areas where Islam had its strength. A lesson to be learned from today as Christians and Muslims continue to contend for the souls of this world.
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