Is THIS why Islam succeeded?

For those of you just tuning in…

Some years ago, Cecil wrote a column, explaining why Christianity achieved wide-spread and enduring popularity, while numerous other contemporary religions had faded away:

Among his explanations, Cecil noted that Christianity offered a compelling world-view and satisfying spirituality which the more “primitive” religions of the Roman world couldn’t match. He also noted that Christianity made much less headway against the religions of the East (presumably Buddhism and Hinduism, though he doesn’t mention them by name), which were also satisfying and compelling. Sure, there were Christian enclaves in the East; a few tribes and even a couple of nation converted. But it achieved nothing like the sweeping success it had in Europe.

All fine, well, and good, but it begs an important question. Islam, which came along a good six centuries after Christ, made significant inroads into lands which had once been Buddhist and/or Hindu (or even Christian, in some cases). What was the source of its relative success?

(Implicit in this question is the notion that all four of these major faiths are sophisticated, complex, satisfying and compelling. We are not interested in weighing the relative merits of the different faiths – a task which falls somewhat outside the realm of objective quantification – but rather are looking for social or historical factors.)

About a month ago, I posted this question in this forum:

And engendered a lively and (mostly) polite debate. Unfortunately, we failed to find a conclusive answer, and the thread eventually drifted off into a theological debate.

However, taking the valuable input of the Dopers, and combining it with the wonderful new book A Short History of Islam by Karen Armstrong (which I highly recommended to readers of any faith), I believe I may have come to the crux of the issue. And the short answer is (drum roll please)…

Military conquest.

I know. I was a bit disappointed too. A tad prosaic, for such a weighty issue. But Armstrong paints a compelling picture.

First, consider how Christianity spread. As Cecil and others have noted, it was Christianity’s good fortune to develop within the Roman Empire at the height of its power. Sure, it might not have felt like such a lucky move to the guys down in the lions’ den, but it had its advantages. A large, stable, peaceful empire surrounding a major navigable waterway (the Mediterranean) certainly helped the spread of this new idea. And of course, once Christianity became the official religion of the Empire, most of the subjugated peoples quickly picked it up – due either to expediency or coercion. From this Roman base, Christian missionaries the spread the faith throughout Europe, meeting mostly tribal peoples with no established polity who had a serious stake in maintaining the local pagan religion.

The story was different in the East. Travel over land was of course slower than travel over sea. Travel through foreign, often hostile countries was more dangerous for a Roman citizen than travel through the Empire. But most of all, missionaries ran into established nation-states with a hierarchy intent on keeping its religion-based power. With one or two exceptions (Ethiopia, Armenia), Christianity failed to convert any nations, and was a minority religion throughout southwest Asia.

Islam, on the other hand, was established under much different circumstances. Seventh-century Arabia was not a unified state, but a no-man’s land of warring, nomadic tribes. With not enough resources to go around, one of the primary means of earning income was to raid your neighbors. Into this world, Muhammad preaches Islam. In addition to its inherent strengths as a religion, it carries a particular advantage for this time and place: it forbids Muslims to wage war against one another. The Arab tribes found this very attractive. But, with raiding your neighbors forbidden, a main source of income is shut down. How to survive? By raiding other nations! Arab armies explode out of the peninsula and, within a very brief time, conquer an empire stretching from Morocco to Afghanistan. (The power vacuum left after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire surely helped.)

Armstrong points out that these were strictly economic and military excursions, and not holy wars meant to spread the faith. Indeed, at first the Arab ghazi (militia) sequestered themselves from the local populace, and non-Arabs were not allowed to become Muslim (and later, only with an Arab sponsor). But after a few centuries of Muslim rule, most local populations were able to spot the winning horse, and most converted.

Unfortunately, Armstrong’s History is a bit too short, in that it concerns itself almost exclusively with the heartland of Islam (Arabia, Iraq, Iran), and dedicates only the briefest passages to its eastward expansion – which was, of course, the initial point of our query. Though there had been a smattering of Muslims in India from the 9th century, they did not become a major presence until the mid-1500s, when the Moghul Empire filled the power vacuum left by the collapse of the Mongols. Again, conversions were not mandated, but enough people did convert to give Islam a majority in certain areas of otherwise Hindu India.

Islam’s spread into the Far East is dealt with in a couple brief sentences – something about Muslim traders and later Sufi preachers picking up the slack after the collapse of Hindu and Buddhist trade routes between the 13th and 16th centuries. Details, please?

So, at best, a partial answer, and three further questions for anyone who cares to pick them up:

My description of Christianity’s failure to capture the East is at best wildly speculative. Can anyone paint a clearer picture, perhaps throwing in a fact or two just to liven things up?

In India, Muslims became dominant in the areas now known as Pakistan and Bangladesh. Pakistan I can understand – it’s right on the border with long-time Muslim territory. But why Bangladesh?

And finally, how and why did traders have such a profound influence on the established sophisticated religions of the Far East?

Sorry about the long post. If anyone ha anything to add, I’d love to hear it.

Begs the question about how Islam spread in areas of non-military conquest. E.g. West Africa. I think that seeking a single cause for the entire history of the religion is an excercise in futility.

Agreed. There must be multiple causes. But what are they? Armstrong paints a convincing picture of military conquest as the dominant (though surely not the only) cause for Islam’s spread in the Middle East, North Africa, and Central, South and Southwest Asia.

Military conquest also played no role in Islam’s spread to the Far East. Perhaps trade contacts were also the catalyst in West Africa?

Beruang, great post. I hope we can return to the topic and away from proselytizing and debates over the merits of religion.

Greetings :slight_smile: . Thought I would finally emerge from lurkage to add my $.02, since Beruang asked for more info on East Asia.

The diffusion of Islam is actually a fairly complex subject and there is still some controversy in areas like SouthEast Asia due to the lack of early documentation. But some general comments ( some of them cadged from Ira Lapidus’ A History of Islamic Societies - at about 1000 pages a very nice general introduction):

India - Largely through the conquest route. But there was plenty of variation. Much of the conversion seems to have been actually among the lower classes. As most of the ruling Islamic elites were in fact foreign invaders ( mostly Afghan and Turk, with some Persian elements ) there may have been some reluctance to convert members of the local aristocracy who could conceivably have begun to act as more acclimatized compeititors for power. Also since those same local aristocracts were already on top of the social ladder and often involved in power-sharing arrangements with their Muslim conquerers ( albeit in subordinate positions ), there was little social impetus for them to convert. On the other hand Islam, with its emphasis on social justice ( no matter how often ignored in reality ) was understandably more attractive to the lower castes.

Much of the mass conversions of the peasantry seem to have been undertaken by proselytizing Sufi orders ( some of which were actually “forced” into such activities due to being dispersed from the centers of Islamic power by rival factions or the orthodox Sunni Ulema or the govt. or some combination of these ). There were a bewildering number of these orders and there influence ( and that of the official Ulema ) waxed and waned as political and social winds changed directions over time. And the circumstances under which these conversions came about varied quite a bit. For example in East Bengal ( modern Bangladesh ) the conversion to Islam appears to have coincided with the sedentarization of the tribal societies there, which were heavily interpenetrated by Sufi mystics, but remote from the influence of mainstream Hinduism ( unlike West Bengal which bordered the Gangetic Plain and sedentarized a little earlier - largely going Hindu in the process ).

And of course in many areas Islam remained solely the provenance of the ruling elites. The muslim Sultanates of the Deccan in Central India were all ruled by small Shi’a aristocracies, presiding over huge Hindu majorities, right up to the termination of the ‘Princely States’ in post-independence India.

And that above also leaves out the influence of Muslim traders in Gujarat, and later the Carnatic and Coromandel coasts, as well as diffusing religious sects on the move for political reasons ( i.e. the Bohra and Nizari sects of the Is’maili branch of Shi’a Islam ).

pause for breath :smiley:

SouthEast Asia - In contrast to the above, in areas like Malaysia and Indonesia conversions were society wide. Lapidus outlines 3 main theories ( which I’m going to paraphrase just a very little for brevity ).

  1. Merchants intermarried with important families bringing with them important contacts and wealth. And the first converts were local chieftains seeking to attract Muslim trade and support for throwing off the authority of the ( then Hindu ) central Javanese Empire of Majapahit. ( Note: The period of Muslim diffusion in the SE Asia is presumed to be the 13th - 15th centuries ).
    2)Missionary activity by Sufi’s from India, already well-experienced in ministering to pantheistic societies in India.
    3)Mirroring the conversions in India, Islam may have first spread among the lower classes. To quote: “Islam provided an ideological basis for individual worth, for solidarity in peasant and merchant communities…In an era of expanded tradeIslam may have helped to create an integrated community to replace the village-scale societies disrupted by commerce and political change.”

Of course likely all three factors ( and perhaps others ) were at work at different times and places.

West Africa and East Africa - Similar to SE Asia ( yeah, okay I’m getting tired of typing :wink: - you try it at 10wpm :smiley: ). I’ll go into detail at request. And more detail on Asia as well, if anyone wants it.

Oh but I will make a quick, only tangentially related, aside. It’s been noted in these discussions, that contrary to the stereotype there have been in fact very few cases of ‘Conversion by the Sword’ in Islam. I find it interesting that the only examples I can think of were of one Muslim sect vs. another. The most prominent example ( maybe the only “good” example ) being the conversion of Iran from a strongly Sunni society to a majority Shi’a one in the very late 15th and the 16th centuries. Muslim law does preclude the killing of other Muslims. But in less-civilized times there were plenty of loopholes and belonging to a ‘heretical’ sect was certainly one of them.

-Tamerlane ( Who is rather enjoying these threads )

Since I’ve already opened the floodgates and it’s slow here at work :wink:

Beruang: Just to quibble slightly with a very minor point of yours - You seem to be implying ( and please correct me if I misunderstood ) that Ethiopia and Armenia are examples of nations converted to Christianity well outside the boundaries of the Roman Empire and the bulk of the Christian world ( i.e. ‘exceptions that prove the rule’ ). If so, I don’t quite agree.

Definitely not in Armenia’s case, which was a Roman/Byzantine province for centuries. In fact, if I’m not mistaken it supplied several Emperors. And it was a bulwark of the middle-period Byzantine state, both economically ( gold mines ) and militarily ( a significant portion of the Byzantine soldiery ). Granted it was a borderland, unique in culture and language, that developed in its own idiosyncratic way. But it wasn’t really separated from the rest of Christianity until the Seljuk conquests following Manzikert in 1071.

Ethiopia is a better example of your point. But even here we’re talking about a society that was in direct contact with the Roman State and contiguous with other Christian cultures extending right up to Egypt. It was the Bedouin migration into the Sudan in the 12th and 13th centuries and the conquest of the Christian states of Nubia by the Mamelukes shortly thereafter ( in the North ) and the rise of the Muslim aristocracy-dominated Funj state, which overthrew the Christian kingdom of Alwa ( in the South ), that left Abyssina/Ethiopia as isolated as it is today. Oh and throw in Muslim settlements and conversions on the coasts of the Horn of Africa, which completed that isolation.

Yes, nitpicky I know :smiley: . But all in the spirit of fun and inquiry :wink: .

-Tamerlane ( On the job, but bored )