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)…
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.