Christian History Home > Issue 74 > Secrets of Islam's Success
Secrets of Islam's Success
It spread faster than any other religion in history. Here are some reasons why.
Christians thought they were getting a good deal. High taxes were nothing new, and Muslim authorities took no sides in the bitter doctrinal wars that divided the Christians. The Nestorian patriarch wrote to a fellow cleric, "They have not attacked the Christian religion, but rather they have commended our faith, honored our priests … and conferred benefits on churches and monasteries."
Unfortunately, seventh-century Christians failed to see the deeper threat of Umar's bargain. Modern apologists for Islamic tolerance generally make the same mistake. Protected status really meant second- or third-class status, with strictures guaranteed to erode all religions but Islam.
Granted, both Eastern (Byzantine) and Western (Roman) Christian powers put a high priority on enforcing what they deemed to be true religion, and neither was above using physical or civil coercion to achieve this aim—in the seventh century or for centuries afterward.
Indeed, Muslims apparently adapted parts of their policy on other religions from existing Christian codes. It is less often reported that Muslims also looked to Persia's ghetto-like melet system for guidance.
At various times, especially under comparatively secular caliphs, Islamic regimes did display more religious tolerance than Christian regimes, particularly toward Jews. But neither the Qur'an nor Islamic law, which are much more closely linked than the Bible and any past or present system of governance, ever sanctioned the fundamental equality that predicates modern tolerance.
One of the most popular verses in the Qur'an states, "There is no compulsion in religion" (2:258). Yet the Qur'an also mandates:
"Fight those who do not believe in Allah, nor in the latter day, nor do they prohibit what Allah and His Apostle have prohibited, nor follow the religion of truth, out of those who have been given the Book, until they pay the tax in acknowledgment of superiority and they are in a state of subjection" (9:29).
Umar's pact is thus not a peace treaty, but a description of the terms of his victory. Per the prophet's instructions, it prohibits what Allah prohibits (wine) and imposes a steep tax—failure to pay the poll tax (jizya) voided the contract. It also codifies Muslim superiority while humiliating anyone who clings to another religion.
Even some provisions that seem preferential undercut non-Muslim communities. For example, dhimmi were exempted from military service—and from the rich bonuses in pay and plunder that soldiers received. This placed dhimmi beneath mawali, recent Arab converts to Islam who were barred from some privileges but could serve in the military.
Despite the obvious incentives to convert, most Christians and Jews under early Muslim rule held onto their faith. But resistance eventually died out in all but a few pockets. The inability to build new places of worship or repair old ones, the prohibition on evangelism, and the fact that Muslim men could marry Christian and Jewish women (and raise their children as Muslims) while dhimmi could marry only their own kind achieved exactly what they were supposed to achieve. Islam won the region.
Elesha Coffman is managing editor of Christian History.
Copyright © 2002 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian History magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Christian History.
Browse More ChristianHistory.net
Home | Browse by Topic | Browse by Period | The Past in the Present | Books & Resources