In the wake of 9/11 there has been increased discussion of historical Islamic-Christian interactions and clashes. Recently an article was published in Newsweek concerning the extent of "Christophobia" -- attacks on Christians all over the world today, particularly in Islamic nations. Most people know little about the history of Islam, where it was founded, and how and where it spread. Following is a study of the growth of Islam, particularly at the expense of Christian held lands. I am not judging who was right or wrong- most self identified Christians did not act very Christ-like.
At the time that Muhammad founded Islam in AD 622; the entire Mediterranean Sea Basin had been Christian for centuries, from Spain in the west to Palestine in the east. This included southern, western, and eastern Europe and all of North Africa, south to Ethiopia. In addition, Christianity had spread eastward throughout the Middle East to Syria, Armenia, Mesopotamia (now Iraq), and the Arabian Peninsula. The Coptic (Egyptian), Ethiopian, Syrian, Armenian, and Assyrian Churches, in addition to Catholic and Orthodox, were as many as 500 years old by the time of the founding of Islam. Many Arabic tribes were converting to Judaism and Christianity. The Bible had been published for several hundred years.
Islam was founded in west central Arabia and spread very quickly via a blitzkrieg-like war. If later Christian incursions into Muslim held lands are called Crusades, the much more extensive Islamic incursions into Christian held lands can rightfully be named “crescentades”. From the city of Mecca in 622, Muhammad conquered the Arabian Peninsula by 632 when he died. His armies immediately defeated the Persian Empire, now Iraq and Iran, by 634. Syria fell in 636 and Jerusalem and Palestine followed in 638. Egypt was defeated in 639. Muslims spread through North Africa and conquered Carthage in 670. They continued across what is now Algeria and Morocco to the Straits of Gibraltar by 682. The conquest of the south coast of the Mediterranean Sea was complete.
The Muslims then looked northward to the Iberian Peninsula, now Spain and Portugal. In 711, their armies crossed over the Mediterranean and began to conquer southwestern Europe. After sweeping through what is now Spain and Portugal in only 8 years, they crossed the Pyrenees Mountains into the south of France. Then in 732, 100 years after bursting out of Arabia, the Muslims were finally stopped at the Battle of Tours by the French army under Charles Martel.
By 900 AD, Islam had spread from a small area in Arabia to controlling all of the Middle East, North Africa, and; in Europe, Iberia, Sicily (850-1091), and parts of southern Italy. In addition, the Muslim navies owned the western Mediterranean and continually raided Sardinia, Corsica, and ports further north in Italy and France. Eastward, Islam conquered all of Persia and what is now Pakistan and western India by 750 AD. Central Asia was taken about the same time. Islam spread southward into Africa during this time, except for Abyssinia (Ethiopia) which has been a Christian island in a Muslim sea since 700 AD. Muslims both enslaved and converted Africans for hundreds of years before Europeans did.
For 460 years Islam had expanded by conquest, nearly uncontested. The Byzantine Empire held them in check in southeastern Europe, but was slowly pushed out of Asia Minor (now Turkey) by the Seljuk Turks. Muslims were firmly in control in southwestern Europe. A major reason for the lack of continued expansion of Islam at that time was division and infighting between Muslims.
In 1096, after centuries of Islamic expansion into Christian held lands, Christians turned the tables for a short period of time. In the First Crusade, Christian armies retook Jerusalem /Palestine, Lebanon, coastal Syria, and a portion of Anatolia. The reprieve was short lived as, within 50 years, the horribly overextended conquered lands with their untenable supply lines began to fall back into the hands of the Muslims. Jerusalem fell in 1187; and all but a few coastal areas were lost by 1200. The last coastal fortress, Acre, fell to the Muslims in 1291. So the Crusaders held on to part of their originally conquered land for only about 190 years, most of it for a much shorter period of time. By contrast, parts of Spain and Portugal were held by the Muslims for 781 years (711-1492).
By 1300, the attempts of the Christians to reclaim the Holy Land had failed. In around 1250, Muslims received new blood and renewed fanaticism with the arrival of the Ottoman Turks and Islamic incursions into Christian lands, temporarily delayed, began anew. The Byzantine Empire was only a shell of its former self. The Muslims took advantage of this and crossed over into Europe in the 1300’s. They quickly conquered most of the Balkans- what is now Bulgaria, Greece, Albania, Romania, Serbia, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Bosnia- and knocked on the borders of Croatia and Hungary. Constantinople, the isolated capital of the once great Eastern Roman Empire, was bypassed for the moment, but it too fell into Muslim hands in 1453 AD and its name was eventually changed to Istanbul.
So, in 1492, by the time the combined kingdoms of Aragon and Castile-Spain- finally pushed the Muslims out of southwestern Europe; the Islamic Turks had conquered all of southeastern Europe, including lands around the Black Sea. For the next 200 years, the Muslims continued to push further and further into central Europe. Hungary was conquered in 1541. Continuing northwest, the Turks made it all the way to the gates of Vienna in 1529 and again in 1683. This was the high water mark of Muslim incursions into Christian lands. Though stymied on land, Muslim pirates continued to raid European coasts- from Italy to Ireland and England- at will, carrying away over a million people to be sold as slaves in Africa and Asia. This continued until the United States, refusing to pay tribute for free passage of its ships, defeated the Muslims in the Barbary Wars in 1805. This is memorialized in the US Marine Hymn's "to the shores of Tripoli."
The peoples of southeastern Europe never lost their sense of identity, began to rebel against their Muslim rulers, and agitated to become free of Ottoman control. One by one, each nation gained their independence- Romania, Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, Greece, and Bulgaria. By 1912, the Turks were pushed back entirely out of Europe except for a small area around Istanbul.
By the 19th century, the western Europeans had gained significant power, and most of North Africa was taken from the declining Ottoman Empire by the French (Algeria 1830-1958, Tunisia 1881-1956 and Morocco 1912-1956), British (Egypt 1882-1952), and Italians (Libya 1911-1951). Today, these are all independent nations under Islamic control again.
So overall, in the full scope of time and space, Islamic incursions into Christian lands have far outweighed the inverse. Again, this is not to say that self described Christians were better or more moral than their Muslim counterparts. They were often very brutal and barbaric in their treatment of each other and others they encountered. This is all simply a matter of historic fact. Was Islamic expansion wars of conquest or liberation? Each individual needs to make that decision for themselves.
Postscript: What was not accomplished by conquest is now being done by peaceful migration. Whether seeking political freedom, asylum from oppressive regimes, or economic opportunity; over 50,000,000 Muslims from North Africa and the Asia have immigrated to Europe in the past century. Whether this should this be considered a cause for alarm or celebration is a personal choice.
Tom Tillapaugh is the founder and executive director of the Denver Street School and President of the StreetSchool Network. An educator with a heart for urban and at risk youth, he has spent the last twenty seven years giving hope anda second chance to our nation’s most troubled teens.