108. How Islam converted entire nations
108. How Islam converted entire nations

108. How Islam converted entire nations

The last three months examined the evangelisation strategy of the Church. It began by distinguishing between evangelisation and proselytisation. It showed that the Church moved from evangelisation to proselytisation and back to evangelisation—evidence of the continuously evolving spirituality and religiosity stemming from the continuous reinterpretation of the values of Christ. In doing so, the posts explored the Doctrine of Discovery, how the Church consistently sought to end the abuse of indigenous people, and finally, the Church’s official distancing from the Doctrine of Discovery. All these posts came in the context of the discussion about the growth of Islam.

There are continuous discussions on how Islam converted entire nations in the past and how the religion continues to spread today. The five principal Sees of the early Church were Rome (Italy), Alexandria (Egypt), Constantinople (Istanbul – Türkiye), Antioch (Antakya – Türkiye), and Jerusalem (Israel). Hence, we sometimes wonder how Islam conquered a previously Christian and polytheistic North Africa and West Asia, which produced great saints such as Augustine of Hippo (Annaba – Algeria) and Athanasius of Alexandria (Egypt). How did it happen?

First, Islam converted many territories through military conquest. Muhammad personally led some of these conquests. This practice has continued down the ages. Christianity also temporarily adopted this strategy. Although no pope led a battle from the frontline, some papal documents empowered European colonialists to plunder indigenous territories in the Americas and impose Christianity on the natives. The Church has officially apologised for these and dissociated itself from this Doctrine of Discovery. Popes also asked the European kings to fight wars (Crusades) to protect Christianity and Christian territories from Muslim invasion.

Second, Islam is more than a religion because it is a way of life that seeks to guide the spiritual, social, economic, legal, political, moral, and cultural aspects of human living. When Muslims reside in a territory or trade with a group, they live out their faith, which automatically influences everything about their life. These practices may be admired by others who freely convert to the faith. Islam appealed to the early Arabs who practised polytheism, and apart from the military conquest, many willingly chose the new religion. The conversion of West Africa to Islam happened largely through trans-saharan trade between the Arabs and the tribes in the Sahel (including the peoples of Northern Nigeria). Of course, the Jihad of Uthman dan Fodio was a military conquest that entrenched Islam in Northern Nigeria and helped push Islam down to southern Nigeria.

The third reason is the lukewarmness of Christians to the Christian faith. Sadly, Muslims value their religion more than Christians do, and they are more unlikely than Christians to disrespect their religious symbols or betray their faith for financial gain. One recalls how some Christians faked to be bishops to support a Muslim-Muslim presidential ticket in the 2023 Presidential Elections. 

In 2017, the British National Trust removed ‘Easter’ from its annual children’s egg chocolate hunt, renaming the “Easter Egg Trail” as the “Great British Egg Hunt”. Cadbury, a British multinational confectionery company, sponsored the hunt. The then British Prime Minister, Theresa May, described the decision as “absolutely ridiculous,” and the Archbishop of York maintained that the decision was like “spitting on the grave” of John Cadbury, the firm’s Christian founder. In their defence, Cadbury argued that they wanted to appeal to non-Christians. Yet, increasing profit from selling Easter chocolate to non-Christians probably influenced this decision.

Crucifixes are increasingly removed from public places in many European countries. In 2004, France passed a law on secularity and conspicuous religious symbols in schools, which bans putting on conspicuous religious symbols in public schools. The law emphasises the French constitutional principle of Laïcité, separation of Church from State. This principle is the primary cause of tension between Christians and Muslims in France. Islam is a way of life. Hence, Muslims argue that the hijab or burkini is an ordinary dress, not a religious one.  

Finally, a major reason Islam displaced Christianity is the lack of inculturation of the Christian faith.

On Pentecost day, people from the following areas listened to the apostles: “Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians” (Acts 2:9-11).

Although most of these places are now Muslim, the Egyptian Coptic Christians, Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, the Chaldean Christians in Iraq, and the Maronite Christians in Lebanon have survived for two millennia even with Muslim military conquest and conversion strategies. Why did they survive till today? I argue that the quality of evangelisation is probably the most significant reason.

The four Churches described above are all Orthodox Churches attached to a nation – Egypt, Ethiopia, Iraq, and Lebanon. This shows that the Christian faith was inculturated and developed as a national or cultural heritage. Hence, Islam reduced their population but could not wipe them off, even through military conquest, because the Christian faith was firmly rooted. Other parts of North Africa fell because Christianity was not inculturated. North Africans such as St Augustine and Tertullian (Carthage, Tunisia) adopted Western constructs, principles, and language (Latin) in evangelising and teaching Christianity, thereby prohibiting the gospel from incarnating into the culture of their people. When Islam arrived, it swept Christianity away.

Today’s post enables us to introspect on our adaptation and practice of Christianity in Africa. As Christians accuse Muslims of trying to take over, we must admit that we acted like them in the past, and our present lukewarmness to the Christian faith and principles is self-damaging. Furthermore, our continuous imposition of Westernised Christianity to Africa continues to undermine the inculturation of Christianity in Africa and threatens its continuous existence. Let’s not forget that we were first Africans before becoming Christians at baptism.

May God continue to help us🙏🏾


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