By Roy Oksnevad and Mike Urton
In order to put Islamic history in context, we must compare the movements of Islam and Christianity, along with the impact each has had at different points in their respective histories.
The church Christ founded was commanded to go into all the world and preach the gospel. For the first three centuries of its existence, the church grew and expanded without military or governmental intervention, many times in the face of persecution. In the early part of the fourth century, Christianity began a slow process of becoming wedded to the state. This process was finalized in AD 380, when the Roman emperor made Christianity the official state religion and subjected non-Christians to forced conversion. This merging of church and state led to a gradual social decline of the Christian church, which resulted in divisions such as the Great Schism of 1054, in which the eastern and western churches split. It also led to such atrocities as the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition, in which refusal to convert to Christianity led to torture and death.
God raised up reformers for the Christian church, and one of the greatest of these was Martin Luther, who openly denounced the institutionalized church in 1517. Luther’s work birthed the Protestant Reformation, which wrestled power and control away from the Christian clergy, putting it into the hands of the laity. The Protestant Reformation was built upon three convictions: that the Bible was the final authority for matters of Christian faith and practice, that salvation was found in Christ by grace alone through faith alone, and that there was no distinction between clergy and laity. These ideas were quickly put into the hands of the common people, thanks to the invention of the printing press.
A few centuries later, the Reformation spawned the First and Second Great Awakenings. Under the preaching of such great Protestant revivalists as Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, and John Wesley, thousands upon thousands of people turned to Christ in the American colonies and Europe.
Because of these awakenings, a renewed interest in evangelism and missions exploded around the world. The modern missionary movement began with William Carey, who went to India in 1793. Samuel Zwemer, who served in various Arabian countries and Egypt from 1891 to 1929, is considered the first modern missionary to Muslims. The expansion of Christianity through missions has grown from an estimated 89 million evangelical Christians worldwide in 1960 to 546 million people in 2010. Today, the gospel continues to spread rapidly across Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
In the first two centuries of its existence, Islam experienced massive growth by military means, stretching from Spain in the west to India in the east. Due to these military conquests, the Islamic empire controlled major centers of learning such as Cairo, Samarkand, Baghdad, and Cordoba. It was also during this period that Islam flourished in the areas of culture, arts, knowledge, trade, and industry. Minority religious groups such as Jews and Christians were mostly tolerated during this period of the Islamic empire, but they were also heavily taxed and at times discriminated against. The crowning achievement of the Islamic empire was Cordoba, Spain, where contributions by Muslim, Jewish, and Christian intellectuals made Cordoba the most cultured city in Europe. However, this period of tolerance was brief, and after a few short decades, the culture of Cordoba descended into persecution and intolerance for Christians.
One of the main reasons for the thriving success of the Islamic empire through its first five centuries was its emphasis on creative thinking, which allowed the fusing of religious knowledge with the natural sciences, medicine, mathematics, and other disciplines. By AD 1111, the year the influential theologian Abu Hamid Muhammad ibn Muhammad Al-Ghazali died, orthodox Islamic clergy had begun to put an end to this creative thinking and become solely concerned with a strict interpretation of Islam, where secular knowledge was no longer valued and was viewed with suspicion. This development was a major turning point that led to the gradual decline of the Islamic empire.
Another devastating blow was dealt to the Islamic empire in the thirteenth century with the Mongol invasion of Islamic lands. Mongol forces swept through Islamic territories, destroying centers of learning and societal infrastructures. The effect of these Mongol invasions on the Islamic empire was catastrophic and led to a fracturing of power in the Muslim world. As a result, rival empires arose.
The fifteenth century saw the rise of European imperial powers on the world stage. By the close of the nineteenth century, many Muslim lands were under the control of these same European powers. In reaction to these colonizing and modernizing forces, many reform and militant movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Hezbollah, Al-Qaeda, and Hamas sprang up in the Muslim world. These movements sought to purify Islam of modernizing and secular forces, but they have plunged the Muslim world further into its own Dark Ages.
Today, it is popularly believed that Islam is enjoying a time of rapid conversion growth. However, while Islam may be experiencing numerical growth due primarily to birthrate, Islam is currently linked to a time of cultural and social decline. The 2009 Arab Human Development Report, “Challenges to Human Security in the Arab Countries,” by the United Nations Development Programme and the Regional Bureau for Arab States, says that obstacles to human development in the Muslim world have proved so stubborn because the answers lie in the fragility of the region’s political, social, economic, and environmental structures, in its lack of people-centered development policies, and in its vulnerability to outside intervention. Human security is a prerequisite for human development, and its widespread absence in Arab countries has held back their progress (New York: United Nations Publications, 2009, page 1).
Furthermore, although there are many Muslim countries with significantly large populations, no Muslim country is represented in the top fifteen world economies. While Islam had a positive social impact during the decline and political corruption of Christianity, its impact has taken a turn for the worse. On the other hand, the modern missions movement and great awakenings have ushered in a time of positive social impact for Christianity—the kind of impact Jesus always intended his church to have.
The source of this article is Journey to Jesus DVD curriculum, lesson 1, extra material.
For more information:
“The Surprising Discovery About Those Colonialist, Proselytizing Missionaries,” by Andrea Palpant Dilley, Christianity Today, January 8, 2014 (Robert Woodberry). Robert Woodberry, son of Dudley Woodberry and a celebrated sociologist, has recently overturned conventional secular wisdom about missionaries by powerfully demonstrating in the leading journal of political science that the distribution of democratic values and institutions around the world is best understood as a result of the historical influence of “conversionist” Protestant missionaries.
The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy
Missions Rescuing from Hell and Renewing the World
Video: Robert Woodberry on the Social Impact of Protestant Missionaries (5 minutes 27 seconds)
Reilly, Robert R. The Closing Of The Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist Crisis (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books), 2011. (Robert Reilly masterfully explains the frightening behavior coming out of the Islamic world. The Closing of the Muslim Mind provides the answers the West has so desperately needed in confronting the Islamist crisis).
2009 Arab Human Development Report: Challenges to Human Security in the Arab Countries: See the report,
Website for the report