HISTORY WELCOMES A NEW IDEOLOGY
One wonders why Islam made such a rapid advance across the Middle East and North Africa in only one hundred years after its beginning. Though Charles Martel stopped the advance of Islam into Europe at the Battle of the Tours, its advance continued to the east and northeast of Arabia into the territories of the Byzantine and Persian Empires. Even to the middle of the tenth century there were great numbers of “Christians” converting to Islam. In fact, it is estimated that over one million Christians had converted to Islam by the end of the tenth century. The answer to this conquest over Christianity reveals some interesting lessons for Christians today, some lessons that might be appropriate for to learn something from history.
I. Dysfunctional religious and political leadership:
By the middle of the fifth century, the Roman Empire had lost its influence over the Mediterranean Sea basin. Rome itself fell in 476. The western territories of the Empire had waned before the fall of Rome. At this time in history, the Persian and Byzantine Empires became the dominant powers of the eastern parts of the former Roman Empire. For two centuries, these two empires conquered one another back and forth, during which time one or the other was the major controlling empire of the Middle East.
In 614, the Persians, under the rulership of Chosroes II, besieged and took control of the city of Jerusalem. He did this with the help of the Jews, and subsequently, many church buildings in the city of Jerusalem were destroyed and the Jews were allowed to take control of the city. But in 629, the Byzantines retook the city, and the Jews were banished. Nine years later, Jerusalem was again besieged and finally fell to the Islamic Caliph Omar. What Christians were left in the city were allowed to stay, and the remaining Jews were assigned to what became known as the “Jewish Quarter.”
From the seventh century until the middle of the twentieth century, Muslims controlled the city of Jerusalem, with the exception of those brief periods when the Crusaders conquered and occupied the city.
By the middle and end of the seventh century, the Byzantine and Persian Empires had consumed themselves in so much war with one another that they exhausted their efforts to maintain control over the territories they had formerly conquered. The “Christianity” of the time had removed itself from focussing primarily on the central and western part of the now dysfunctional Roman Empire. The center of the Eastern Orthodox Church established its seat in the city of Constantinople. By this time in history, we must keep in mind that Christianity was no longer identified as the true Christianity of the New Testament. It was a divided religion that had institutional power structures seated in both Rome and Constantinople. As a result of this turn in the focus of Christianity from the lives of the people to power struggles within the institution, both political and religious confusion prevailed among Christians throughout the Middle East.
The groundwork was thus laid for the birth and expansion of a new ideology that appealed to the people. The collapse of the Byzantine and Persian Empires opened up the opportunity for a religion that encapsulated both political and religious ambitions. Since the Christianity of the era was more political than practical, Muhammad was presented with the opportunity to give birth to a simple faith that met the needs of the Arab people, which faith would consolidate his military force in order to conquer the western areas of Arabia. The Roman and Orthodox churches had both failed the people in that organized churches became consumed with power struggles from within. Muhammad simply presented a faith to the Arab people that was for the people and by the people. In order to do this, of course, he had to proclaim himself as a prophet, and thus become the center of focus to unite the people. Self-proclaimed prophets are always narcissistic in that they think the world revolves around them.
II. Allegiance to one God:
Muhammad was very successful in his attack against the polytheism of the nomadic Arabian tribes. He saw in Judaism and Christianity the power of the concept of one God to bring people together into one family of believers. Since the roots of his religiosity were initially established through a shallow contact with Judaism and Christianity, he knew enough about both religions at the time to bring the simple concept of the one God into the Arabian tribal groups who were divided among themselves because of beliefs in many gods. The commitment of his followers to the concept of the one God was very appealing, and thus, it became a strong political force to subdue and unite a divided Arabian people. The theology of the one God, who in Arabic was called Allah, was a rallying deity around whom the Arab people were brought together as one religious/political movement.
III. Substituting complexity for simplicity:
The simple Christianity of the New Testament had by the seventh century become a conglomerate religion of man-made creeds that had evolved out of the marriage between Christianity and state powers. Judaism was a confused assortment of the traditions of the fathers. Both faiths were thus complex and confusing to the simple Arabian tribes who were basically uneducated and rural in their culture. When faith becomes complex through an assortment of doctrines and traditions, it removes itself from the daily needs of the common people.
The manner by which Muhammad claimed his words to be the word of God compared closely with the revelation and ministry of Jesus. Jesus is mentioned twenty-five times in the Qur’an, with a similar description of His life and ministry as that revealed in the Bible. According to the Qur’an, Jesus was born into this world through Mary. He was a prophet of God. He was the revelation of the “word” to man. He was the sinless man of God who would again return to bring judgment upon all men. Muhammad simply cloned this story of Jesus However, he would claim to be the last of God’s prophets to man, and his writings, the last “word” from God to those who would submit. He and his teachings thus appealed to those who were confused with the complexity of what was called Christianity and Judaism.
Muhammad presented to his followers a simple legal means by which every man could assume that he was legally right with Allah. If one repeated the creed of Islam, observed the Ramadan Fast every year, gave alms to the poor, prayed five times a day, and made a pilgrimage to Mecca at least one time in his life, then he was a good Muslim. Islam, as a simple faith, appealed to the uneducated.
IV. Integration of faith with all aspects of life:
It seems that Muhammad gleaned his theology from the theocratic system of the Old Testament law. He successfully brought together the everyday life of the individual with the civil laws of an Islamic state, thus making Islam a theocratic system of power. When one became Muslim, his or her entire life was centered around Islam. There was no dichotomy of faith and state, secular life and religious life, work for gain and worship. When one was Muslim, all life was given duty to live one’s faith. This made Islam a very powerful military incentive that was able to spread rapidly to defeat empires that needed the allegiance of the subjects to be faithful to a state that did not necessarily represent the wishes of the people. With Islam, the people are the state. Any attack against an Islamic state, therefore, was an attack against Islam.
War to the Muslim is always religious. Victory in war by the Muslim, therefore, is not simply the overthrow of a dictator or monarch or king of a secular state. It is an advancement of Islam to bring the totality of the function of one’s life under the umbrella of being Muslim. Muhammad was able to weld together the patriotism that citizens manifested toward a secular state with the devotion of a subject to his god. The combination of the two gave the individual Muslim a most valiant cause for which to fight.
Victory to the Muslim in war was not the simple conquest of an enemy. It was the conquest of the Islamic faith over an infidel state. When Muslims go to war, therefore, they do not simply fight and die for a state, but for their faith. Even war between Muslim sects is a jihad to maintain one’s allegiance to his particular sect of Islam.
The secular citizen who is devoted to a state alone will never understand this thinking. But when one fights for the survival of his theocratic state, he is fighting for the existence of his faith and God. This is the reason why the Israelites dominated their enemies when they conquered the land of promise. Israel went to war against the “infidel” nations within the land of promise in order to introduce God and His law into the land. If one of the “infidels” wanted to stay in the land, then he had to become a proselyte, that is, a convert to the God and law of Israel. As stated before, Muhammad gleaned his theocratic theology right out of the Old Testament. If one would seek to understand the theology of Islam, a good study of God’s laws for Israel when they entered into the land of promise would help.
V. Economic benefits of common religiosity:
One of the prevalent economic practices of the Arab world at the time of Muhammad was the slave trade, which trade is still sanctioned by the Qur’an. This practice existed for centuries among Arabs who captured people out of Africa, and then sold them across the Middle East as slaves. One can only imagine how willing many Africans were converted to Islam simply because they were less likely to be sold as slaves.
Add to this the sociological fact that Islam permeated the totality of one’s life. If one lived within an Islamic society, he would convert to Islam in order to be a part of a community that was comprised primarily of Muslims. One had to be a Muslim in order to fit in with the community. If at all possible, all business dealings of Muslims were done with fellow Muslims. For this reason, there was a great conversion of many to Islam simply for the purpose of economics. When Islam became the majority faith in any society, those who were not Muslim were simply boycotted out of business if they did not convert to Islam. Those who worked for a Muslim as an employee eventually had to convert to Islam if they wanted to keep their jobs. Muslims today still use this means to convert people of any society. For this reason, Islam grows easily among the poor, or those who feel that they have been disenfranchised from the economics of society.
VI. Offer of a simple faith:
By the seventh century, the religious leaders of Rome and Constantinople had turned Christianity into a corrupt religion that was identified as a regional state faith with many catechisms, rather than a daily way of life that met the spiritual needs of the people. The hierarchal leadership of religion in Rome and Constantinople had so distanced itself from the needs of the common people, that there was a deep spiritual void of spiritual leadership in faith among the people. This unconcern on the part of the “Christian” religious leaders among the people of the time was so great that no need was felt to translate the gospel records of the New Testament into Arabic until the middle of the tenth century. As a result, that for which God had intended the written Scriptures to be among His people was vacant in the lives of the Arabian people for over nine centuries.
Luke wrote the gospel record of Jesus to Theophilus to correct word-of-mouth misunderstandings concerning the life and ministry of Jesus (Read Lk 1:1-4). If these misunderstandings of Jesus started to be circulated less than forty years after the personal ministry of Jesus, then just imagine what misunderstandings concerning Jesus prevailed among the Arabs by the time of Muhammad. If within forty years word-of-mouth communication concerning Jesus corrupted who He was and what He taught, then how corrupted would word-of-mouth information concerning Jesus be after over nine hundred years? Christians of the West will never understand this because they have taken for granted printed Bibles at a bookstore or online at the touch of a keyboard. Because the West is quickly turning away from printing Bibles for the world, they are laying the foundation for a biblically ignorant world to arise that is fertile soil for the spread of Islam.
Add to this the fact that the Christianity of the era of Muhammad was burdened with controversies over traditions and catechisms because of ignorance of the word of God. The authority of the word of God had long left the “Christianity” of the day. Christianity was subsequently viewed by the Arab people to be a foreign faith with foreign doctrines and traditions that were void of spiritual strength in the lives of the individual Arab. This inevitably led to the following reason why Muhammad’s teaching became so appealing to the Arabs, and many other cultures who suffered from the same spiritual void.
VII. Muhammad’s teaching was Arabian:
According to the thinking of the Arabian people, by the beginning of the seventh century Christianity was a “religion” that was centered in foreign countries. To the Berbers of North Africa, for example, Christianity was never a faith that was adopted within the culture of those who believed, because the leadership of “the church” was somewhere else. Doctrine, tradition and dictates were handed down from some foreign city in another country. And because there were no copies of the Bible in the hands of the common people, the people were subject to the dictates of “church authorities” of either Rome or Constantinople. Religious authority was in the authorities of the church in a foreign land, not in the Scriptures in local hands. In reference to Judaism, all traditions came from the Jews and were sent out from Jerusalem for the Jewish world to obey. At every annual Pentecost/Passover Feast these traditions were renewed in the minds of the faithfuls who made their trip to Jerusalem and returned to their homes throughout the Middle East. With both Judaism and Christianity, the institutionalized church leadership of each perspective faith stole the authority of the Scriptures from the faith of the people. The faith of the people was based on either pope or priest, depending on who was in power at that time over the church.
We see this same apostasy today when people place their faith in the local pastor who has graduated with a degree from the “University of Jerusalem.” The people have forsaken their personal knowledge of the Bible and handed their brains over to the pastors. The result of this has led to the rise of “miracle churches” that have grown throughout the world as favorite pastors proclaim their miracles to gullible audiences who have little knowledge of the Bible.
But for the humble Arab Bedouin, Muhammad was their prophet. His teaching was their faith since they accepted his claim that he was a prophet. Islam supposedly originated from their land, though this is highly debated among historians (more later). Arabic was their religious language. And Islam would always have its capital in Arab territory. And by word of mouth, Muhammad gave to the people what he claimed to be their own message from Allah. The appeal of these aspects of Islam was so strong to Arabians that the Islamic faith swept across Middle East and across every society of people who felt disenfranchised by the institutionalized “Christianity” and Judaism of the day.
The tragedy of Christianity during these centuries of the spread of Islam was the fact that Christianity had turned from being a rewarding personal relationship of the disciple to Jesus to being a religion that was hijacked by church authorities in a foreign land. And because the structure of popes and bishops and priests had become the identity of the institutional religion, the common person felt detached from the God he was to serve on a daily basis.
As a result of this apostasy from true Christianity, the evangelistic spirit of the individual disciple simply vanished. There was no mission spirit in the church simply because “church” was a hierarchy of religious authorities in another land, not an expression of personal faith in one’s daily life. Such should be a tremendous lesson for every Christian today. When “church” is identified by “church authorities,” then we know that we are in trouble.
We must never forget that Christianity is about relationships, first with our Lord, and then with one another. We must never allow “church” to become an institutional organization of hierarchial authorities who separate themselves from the people. The church is the people. So what happened with the beginning of the preaching of Muhammad was that he came at the right time in history to the Arabs when meaningful Christian faith had vanished from the individual lives of the people, especially the Arabian people.
VIII. Right message for the right time:
We must not think that the rapid acceptance and growth of Islam is evidence of divine origin. Such rapid acceptance of Muhammad as a self-proclaimed prophet is assumed by Muslims to be proof of his supposedly divine calling. Likewise, the phenomenal spread of Islam in a century throughout a vast territory of Middle East could be assumed to be evidence of divine intervention, but it is not.
Muhammad’s message to his followers was simply the right message at the right time. The Qur’an is not a book of great literary genius or prolific pros. Its literary style is actually quite awkward and disorganized as a catechism for a legalistic faith. Nevertheless, Muhammad was accepted by millions to be the final prophet of Allah, and his “word” as the final word from Allah to man. So why such a phenomenal acceptance and growth of Islam across the Middle East, across North Africa, up into Europe, and on to the borders of China?
The time was simply right for a paradigm shift in religion in a world where Christianity ceased to be Christianity. The personal faith of Christianity had digressed to an organization of church authorities who handed down dictates from a foreign land. In the Arab world, Muhammad came at the time when what was known as Christianity no longer appealed to the people of Arabia. The result was a paradigm shift of faith that has changed the world from the day Muhammad died.
Before Muhammad there were great spiritual leaders, even some greater than he. These wrote with great literary excellence, certainly better than the awkward literary style of the Qur’an. There have been great literary works of religion published and distributed since. But from the first century, none of these great men and their masterpieces of religious literature affected the religious world as much as Muhammad and his teachings. It was simply that the Middle East was religiously in a void of personal faith, and thus, ripe for the introduction of a new faith that would appeal to the common man, with “scripture” that was in the language of the common man. And since Muhammad became a great military leader to unite the Arabs, what he said gained great acceptance among his followers.
The same paradigm shift of Christian faith happened in Europe during the Reformation Movement of the sixteenth century. It happened because the same religious cultural conditions were in place. When the Bible was eventually translated into the language of the people, and great men of faith stood up to the institutional authorities of the Catholic Church, change was in the air. The people were subsequently led from the bondage of institutional religiosity to a faith that was based on Scripture, not institutional churchianity. Unfortunately, many of these initial Reformation churches have become that from which they fled. They too are now led by church authorities who seek to maintain the heritage (traditions) and identity of their particular denomination. Muhammad was most successful in his appeal to the people because he was of the people and for the people. What is necessary today is another restoration in order to get people back to the authority of the word of God.