Why did Islam succeed where Christianity failed?

In http://www.straightdope.com/classics/a5_248.html

Unca Cece, explaining how and why Christianity became so popular, sez:


What set Christianity apart was its sophistication. It was the West’s first modern religion, coupling a coherent and attractive picture of how the world worked with a commonsensical moral code. Most western religions prior to Christianity, Judaism included, were narrowly focused ethnic affairs, primarily concerned with placating a perpetually pissed-off godhead. (The Roman state religion was merely an amalgamation of such local beliefs.) Christianity, in brilliant contrast, offered the following propositions: God is good, God is universal, God wants you to live forever with him in paradise provided you … well, exactly what you had to do to be saved was a matter of dispute. But the point was you could be saved…

The idea of salvation was appealing enough in its own right but it had an equally appealing subtext: the universe makes sense, you have a central place in it, and you can, up to a point, control your own fate. (I realize we get into the free will vs. predestination argument here, but you see what I’m getting at.) The complexity and emotional power of this system of belief swept away the primitive religions that preceded it. Tellingly, Christianity made less headway against the religions of the east, which offered a world view that was equally compelling.


Fair enough. But then why did Islam, which came along a good five or six centuries later, make so much headway against these same religions? Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia – all had been Buddhist, Hindi or both, but today are the largest Muslim states in the world. Islam has also swept North and East Africa, places where early Christianity made some intial forays, but never really took hold.

I am NOT interested in starting a religious war here, or debating which of these several religions is “better,” “greater,” “stronger,” etc. I’m looking for historical and/or cultural reasons why some faiths spread the way they did. Thanks.

One explanation I might offer about the spread of Islam across northern Africa; maybe this is correct, maybe not:

Any attempts to make inroads into Europe from the Middle East would have had to go through the Byzantine Empire. After the fall of Rome, and in the early days of Islam, the Byzantine Empire was probably the strongest power in Europe, and orthodox Christianity perhaps too well-ensconced for Islam to be appealing in general.

Whereas this would not necessarily have been the case in northern Africa. In Iberia/Spain, at least, Islam was introduced by military invasion from northern Africa, not just “cultural” exchange. So I wonder if this wasn’t the case across all of northern Africa, which would have presented a less defensible target than eastern Europe.

This technique was not unique to Islam, of course. Plenty of Christian invasions were predicated on the need to “Christianize” various lands.

This is a slight aside, but did you see that the Pope yesterday said that priests should not try to promote the idea that all religions are deserving of respect? He insists they keep the view that only one is right and everything else is wrong (which I thought was the way all religions worked); to say otherwise undercuts the efforts of missionaries.

Let’s not forget that Islam has a low attrition rate. After all, leaving Islam is punishable by DEATH. Proselytizers who lure people out of Islam must also be put to death, according to the Koran.

Thus, the growth rate of Islam is not heavily offset by attrition. This also results in more Moslem proselytizer, which further fuels their growth.

Beruang writes:

and MJH comments:

I would point that, at the time of the initial Islamic conquests, north Africa was a highly Christianized and Romanized area (it is estimated that, at one time, 40% of all Latin speakers lived in north Africa), and it was ruled by the Byzantine/Eastern Roman Empire (in fact, about the time that Muhammad began preaching in Arabia, Heraclius I, son of the exarch (governor) of Africa, sailed from Carthage, seized Constantinople from the execrable Phocas, and began a counter-offensive against the Persians[sup]1[/sup]). It is also worth noting that, whilst Egypt fell to Islamic efforts quite quickly (probably because Melkites (Orthodox Christians) were so hated there), north Africa resisted for over another half-century, and didn’t succumb to the efforts of the Ummayad caliphs until the time of Justinian II, Heraclius’ great-great-grandson.

[sup]1[/sup] For an excellent, if highly fictionalized, version of this story, see Harry Turtledove’s “Time of Troubles” tetralogy.

… I was wrong about north Africa. It was just a guess.

My info about Spain/Iberia was not a guess, however. The Visigothic kingdom of Spain, while Christian and Romanized (to some extent), was not especially well-organized or -defended. The Muslims found this easy pickings, and took over about 3/5 of the peninsula in a matter of years.

The Visigoths believed (at least traditionally) that God had raised up the Muslims to punish them (i.e. the Visigoths) for the sinful ways into which they had fallen. Once God had decided that the sins were repaid, He would allow them to re-take the territory that was theirs. The “Mozarabic Chronicle” (aka “The Chronicle of 754”) and the “Chronicle of Alfonso III” (late ninth-century) both reflect this belief – as do some later comments attributed to Fernando I and Alfonso VI, kings of Leon-Castilla from the mid-to-late eleventh century. In the early days of the reconquista (reconquest), the struggle was mostly about territorial control, not religion, on both sides. Influences on both sides altered this considerably in the late-11th/early 12th-centuries.

A sizeable minority of the population of al-Andalus was still Christian at this time – perhaps as much as 20-25%. The Andalusian Muslims were more tolerant of their minorities (Jews and Christians) than Christians were of their own. Also, converstion to Islam may not have been seriously stressed, since Christians and Jews paid a tax allowing them to practice their religion; mass conversion would have eliminated a source of income. On the other hand, 25% Christians is a lot less than it was when the Muslims first came, in the early 8th-century; even allowing for immigration of Muslims from outside Spain, Islam must have been quite an attractive alternative, for perhaps many reasons.

Islam spread in the Mediterranean world, including the Iberian penninsula and, very temporarily, into what is now France, through military conquest. It didn’t spread there because the people chose Islam over Christianity. In this regard, it was different from the spread of Christianity in the Western/Central European theater, which was accomplished almost entirely through prostelyzing efforts of missionaries such as Patrick, Columba, Augustine, et al.

Nothing about the spread of Islam westward from the arab world should be inferred to apply to the eastward spread of the religion, discussion of which I note is missing and which I leave to those with positive information on the subject. :wink:

Jubilation –

Can you cite a reference? Which part of the Qur’an calls for death for people leaving Islam (or for prostelytizers encouraging them to leave)? My Muslim girlfriend is reading over my shoulder and complaining rather loudly. The Qur’an states, quite clearly, that there shall be no compulsion in religion. If someone wants to leave, you are permitted to try to persuade them otherwise, but if they insist, they are allowed to go.

This is not to say that there may be, in some regions, organizations which believe anyone who abandons Islam deserves to die. There is in the United States an organization which believes anyone who is Jewish, Catholic, or black deserves to have a flaming cross on their lawn. This action is not sanctioned by the Bible of any mainstream denomination, so it would be misleading to claim this was an inherent feature of Christianity. So too, the fanatical fringe of Islam must not be mistaken for the faith as a whole.

DSYoung –

Absolutely right! I would love to hear some theories (or, preferably, facts) about how and why Islam spread eastward, and why Christianity didn’t.

No positive data, but a hypothesis, subject to refutation by someone with real information:

Notice your mention of the spread of Christianity through the core of once-Roman Europe as mostly a proselytizing effort. This also applies to such nations as Armenia and Ethiopia.

But then, notice a characteristic about most predominantly-christian nations outside those that converted in ancient time: North & South America, Australia, the Phillippines? All positively conquered by Europeans AFTER Europe got its act together in the 1400-1500’s. Not just subjugated or placed in Europe’s orbit, conquered. Settled. Big chunks o’society reshaped in Europe’s likeness. (BTW Right off the top of my head, the only large expansion of Christianity between the 500’s and 1400’s was North and East, to the Vikings and Slavs: those in direct contact with already-Christian Europe.)

Meanwhile, between 700 and 1400, it was Islam that was in any shape to move East in a confident, decisive manner. so during all that time, that was the vigorous, assertive monotheistic religion, full of conversion zeal, to which the South Asians were in direct contact.

Anyway the development of Muslim societies in these lands WAS achieved by a kind of conquest. Oh, maybe not always the sort of direct imperial conquest, but say the guys across the river convince your local prince to convert – either by a reasoned debate, impassioned preaching, the offer of marriage to their cutest princess, or a gentle reminder of how their army has ten times as many men and elephants as his. And your prince now says his people should pray to the True God. What do you do? Mr. Prince ain’t going anywhere. So even if ever so gentle, you got an enforced islamization of your society.

But how come after 1500 this did not re-balance itself, with the Brits in India, the Dutch in Indonesia, etc? Well, mostly because, with exceptions like Spain in the Northern Phillippines, these empires in the East did NOT go for the kind of full-top-to-bottom-reshape-this-place-into-home kind of takeover attempted in the Americas, Australia, or the Cape Colony. They preferred a different tack: send just enough troops and bureaucrats to keep the natives in line, but the East India Company cares about trade, not souls. Deliver the tea, who cares who they worship. With the conquering armies enforcing things OTHER than the religious conversion effort, the missionary work was nowhere near as effective. (Straight missionary work WAS getting results in Japan in the late-16th, early 17th Centuries. The Shoguns decided they would have none of that and took care of it, quite nastily.)

This also seems to have applied to the European African colonies. It seems that anywhere where the spread of either Christianity or Islam has had to depend exclusively on the merit of pure un-enforced misionary effort, progress has been ultra-slow.

So, my hypothesis:
(1) Pakistan, Bengal, parts of the Malay and Indonesian regions, went Muslim because when the time came for their particular societies to undergo a transforming takeover, Islam WAS and Christianity WAS NOT the religion of those in a position to do the taking over.
(2) In the absence of outright conquest, or in the case of a conquering force NOT having as one of its motivations the zeal to convert, odds are AGAINST large-scale conversion of a well-organized, heavily populated, spiritually sophisticated society.



Interesting hypothoses, and probably on the right track. A few points for further consideration:

A) The Philippines is not quite in the same category as the Americas and Australia. In those latter instances, the aboriginal populations were displaced (killed, removed, we all know the story). In the Philippines, the Spanish gave the people Christianity (in the native-religion north, but not – tellingly – in the Muslim south) and surnames, but otherwise did little to spread their culture and religion. As far as being an economic enterprise, the Philippines was never a money-making proposition – too far away from anywhere. The Spanish hang onto it for three centuries largely out of imperial pride.

B) I am fairly certain that early (pre-500) Christianity did make some prostelytizing efforts as far east as India, but met with little success.

C) What little I know about Indonesian history (which, admittedly, ain’t much) indicates that Islam originally reached those islands via traders. Perhaps economic expansion played a larger role in the spread of religion than we suspect.

I believe there is a tradition that one of the twelve apostles of Christ did go as far as India to “spread the word”. Unfortunately, I can’t recall which one – and I realize that tradition is not the same as historical fact. But let me see if I can dig up more information on this point.

According to the timeline on this website, tradition has it that Saint Thomas died in India in 53 CE:


St Bartholomew (another one of the twelve) is also traditionally associated with evangelism in India. A few lines about both apostles can be found in:


which has the appearance of being an official document of the Roman Catholic Church.

It is to be noted that, leaving out some claims of early proselytization that are of dubious veracity, Christian missions east of the Caspian, prior to the European Age of Discovery, were principally by the so-called Nestorian Church, which was not backed by any strong polity. Although the Nestorians did make converts as far east as Beijing, they never did succeed in making a state-level conversion.

(N.B.: A lot of mass conversions to both Christianity and Islam resulted from the conversion of the local chieftain, who then informed his tribe, “You’re all going to be Christians (or Muslims) and like it”.)

Islam’s expansion to the east was, in early centuries, as based on military conquest as its expansion to the west). After the chaos brought to Persia by the successful reconquest of Asia by Heraclius I, it was conquered by Muslim Arabs from Yezdigerd III (called, not without reason, “the Unlucky”) between 633 and 642. Yezdigird did survive the fall of his kingdom by nearly a decade, but restoration of a Zoroastrian Persian dynasty never had a serious chance.

(Incidentally, it can and has been argued that a large part of the Muslims’ successes against both Rome[sup]1[/sup] and Persia was due to their having just recently finished a devastating war against each other.)

The Muslim tide of conquest swept to the Oxus and Jaxartes, later into Gandhara (roughly, northern Pakistan) and, perhaps most famously, they defeated the T’ang armies at Talas in 751. Possibly due to the struggle between the Ummayads and Abbasids, there was no political expansion in that direction, but Turkish military slaves (mamluks) returning home undoubtedly helped Islamicize Central Asia in the 9[sup]th[/sup] and 10[sup]th[/sup] centuries.

[sup]1[/sup]Rome or Byzantium? Well, by the end of the reign of Heraclius I, the Empire was certainly a Greek monarchy. OTOH, there was no momentous event between 395 and 867 whereby one could make the claim, “This marks the end of the Roman, and beginning of the Byzantine, Empire”. (And it should be noted that in 1453, Constantine XI was still calling himself Basileus Rhomaion – “Emperor of the Romans”.)

Thank you, Akatsukami. That was a very interesting discourse.

True, and that is, of course, what this thread is about. I should say that by mentioning Thomas and Bartholomew, I didn’t mean to imply that they had accomplished state-level conversions. Sorry for any confusion.

… as in Russia in 988 (?) when the tsar decided that he found Orthodox Christianity more appealing than Islam, and had his people baptized en masse.

Good point. But perhaps we could alleviate any potential confusion by referring to the “Eastern Roman Empire”.

MJH writes:

The confusion is entirely my fault. I apologize for having written something that could taken to imply that.

I checked, and you’re partially right. Contrary to my prior claim, the Koran itself does not prescribe death for leaving Islam. However, this death penalty is firmly enshrined in the federal laws of many Moslem nations, and thus, can not be dismissed as the mere actions of “the fanatical fringe.”

Consider the following statement: “According to the teachings of Islam, a Muslim man who is born a Muslim, including his entire family, are dutybound to remain Muslim. The Koran teaches that conversion to another faith(apostasy) is punishable by death.”

This quote was taken from the web sites http://esoptron.umd.edu/ICC/iccoct95.html and http://www.persecution.org/concern/1995/12.html. Is this an accurate assessment. Maybe, maybe not. However, this teaching is echoed in the laws of many Moslem countries, where it is ILLEGAL to proselytize Muslims or leave Islam, and where such offenses merit execution. This is in direct violation of the Koran itself, which says, “There is no compulsion in matters of faith” (2:256).

In Saudi Arabia, for example, apostasy (i.e. leaving Islam) carries the death penalty. In Sudan refugee camps, food and water are withheld from Christians until they convert to Islam. In Iran, non-Muslim proselytizers are put to death. Similar horror stories are commonplace in Pakistan, Morocco, Egypt, Assyria and many other Moslem nations.

These cases, and more, are described at the following web sites:


and in the book, Their Blood Cries Out by Paul Marshall.

Other references on the Islamic penalty for leaving the faith are described at:


Apparently, this teaching is not based on the Qur’an, but on the Shari’ah (Islamic law). Islam is more than just the Qur’an, after all.

I think that the following statement from http://www.answering-islam.org/Hahn/2statements.htm nicely sums up the differences in perception about Islam’s doctrine on apostasy.

On the other hand, many Muslims today strongly oppose the traditional Muslim doctrine of apostasy and its punishment. Some of these, however, while wishing the law had never existed, are acutely aware of its existence in all Islamic legal schools and its widespread influence over Islamic society. Others of these Muslims, especially residents in the West, perhaps for reasons of ignorance or for apologetic purposes, glibly dismiss the traditional Islamic law of apostasy and its punishment as if the law did not really exist, or as if it were a relic of the past, or as
if it were, in the words of a letter to The Toronto Globe and Mail, “an obscene edict from a fanatic sect in Islam”.

Jubliation –

Thanks for the web sites! I have forwarded them to my friends, where they have become a topic of much, um, discussion. :wink:

To bring the thread back to its original topic (and perhaps to sum up)…

According to Cecil, Christianity spread through Europe (and North Africa, says Akatsukami) mostly through prostelyzation. It supplanted the less-sophisticated tribal religions it found there. It eventually became the state religion of the Roman Empire, thus solidifying its position in Europe. (As MJH2 points out similar state-level conversions took place in Russia. Perhaps elsewhere?)

Early Christianity did prostelytize to the East, but made little headway against the established religions there. Unca Cece credits this to the equal sophistication of those religions (Buddhism, Hinduism). Akatsukami also cites the lack of a political power to back the Christians up.

Question – why did Christianity not spread into the Arabian peninsula? The histories of Islam I have read indicate that Islam spread through Arabia for much the same reason Christianity spread through Europe – the existing pantheistic tribal religions were weak and unsophisiticated. So why did Christianity make no similar inroads into the Arabian peninsula?

Anyway, Christianity came to Rome when the Empire was more or less at its height. Few new lands were conquered for the faith. Islam, on the other hand, was spread by conquest – to the west into North Africa and Iberia (per DSYoungEsq) and to the east to Pakistan (per Akatsukami).

East of the Ganges, I must admit, I’m a little unclear. Did Islamic nations conquer India and parts east, and simply fail to make mass conversions (except in Bangladesh and Indonesia/Malaysia/Mindanao)? This would be consistent with Cecil’s theory, though the question remains why did those areas convert and not others? Or, did Muslim military activity end in Pakistan, and further expansion of the faith came through peaceful contact with traders? This is consistent with what I (recall having) read about Indonesia, but at odds with the notion that prostelytizers generally make little headway against sophisticated religions.

Finally, after 1500, Christianity spread greatly, and is now the dominant faith throughout the Americas, Australia, South Africa, and a few smaller outposts (Philippines, East Timor). However, in most of these cases, it was much less a matter of converting the existing population than of displacing those populations.

And there we have it. Holes and all. If I’ve made any mistakes in this summary, I am sure you will all be kind enough to notify me. Thanks for such an intersting discussion!

I’m sure that they have. :slight_smile:

Moslems in the West do tend to be a little insular in their understanding of Islamic prohibitions against apostasy. However, Moslems visiting from the Middle East are usually more knowledgeable about what really goes on there, as enforced by national law.

I suspect that this had something to do with the Arabian antipathy toward the Jews. After all, Christianity claims to be the fulfillment of Jewish prophecies, and its earliest evangelists were from the Jewish people.

That’s just a pet theory though. I’m sure that it was a factor, but I’m also sure that there are many other factors to consider.

Beruang asks:

and JubilationTCornpone answers:

Actually, both Christianty and Judaism made inroads into Arabia, and the latter had much greater successes than the former (there were Jewish Arab clans at the time of Muhammad, but no Christian Arab clans – not counting the settled border kingdoms – that I know of).

The answer seems to be in line with JRDelirious’s suggestion that both Christianity and Islam proved to be inefficient in one-on-one conversions. Augustus did send an expedition to the Himyarite kingdom occupying what is now northern Yemen (Arabia Felix) which failed; after that, no Roman emperor showed any interest in conquering any part of Arabia. Arabia was divided among so many clans and tribes that Christianizing one would have litle or no effect on the others. Thus, both kinds of state-level conversions were ruled out.

(It should be remembered that not only was Muhammad a convincing preacher, he was also a warrior and a captain who led troops in battle. A considerable portion of the Arabs were conquered, rather than convinced, by Islam.)

The conversion efforts in Europe were also motivated by an effect that I do not think has been mentioned here yet. The pagan kings of the Germans, Slavs, etc., wanted to be seen as civilized men and to have commercial and cultural relations with the Mediterranean – which meant that they had to become Christians. When Muhammad started preaching, the Christian missionary effort to that end hadn’t gotten underway yet – Christianity was basically limited to the old Roman Empire and the tribes on the limes, with a few outlying areas such as Ireland, Armenia, and Ethiopia, and the odd Nestorian in Persia, Central Asia, and China. Moreover, England and most of the Danube valley had been rebarbarized and repaganized by Germanic, Slavic, and Turkish tribes who wouldn’t be converted for decades or centuries.

The theory that pagan worship was found to be flat, stale, and unsatisfying seems to be largely limited to the Roman urban proletariat. Other conversions to Christianity occured by a judicious (if not always wholly intentional) combination of the carrot and the stick on the part of missionaries. Likewise, Muhammad convinced a few Arabs; he and his followers conquered widely, and widespread conversion to Islam in the conquered lands didn’t occur until late in the 8[sup]th[/sup] century CE.