Why Did Islam Spread?

Islam won battles. Sure. But still there must have been something likeable about the doctrine for people to cling to Islam for generation after generation after being conquered by it. In his book “The Great Heresies,” Hillaire Belloc (1870-1953), the great French Catholic historian, offered a clue why Islam proved appealing to the oppressed masses.

Wait… Did I Hear You Say “Heresy?”

Yes. Belloc considered Islam a heresy, of course, because it denied the radical Christian doctrine of the Incarnation. Christianity is not much of a religion without the Incarnation. Also, Islam plagiarized several Christian doctrines; not the more unpopular ones, however. Belloc was writing in 1936, trying to explain the appeal of Islam and why it had lasted so long.

Desperate for Islam? for Anything, Please!

“It was the combination of all these things, the attractive simplicity of the doctrine, the sweeping away of clerical and imperial discipline, the huge immediate practical advantage of freedom for the slave and riddance of anxiety for the debtor, the crowning advantage of free justice under few and simple new laws easily understood that formed the driving force behind the astonishing Mohammedan social victory. The courts were everywhere accessible to all without payment and giving verdicts which all could understand (ch 4).”

So Belloc says that these poor people were ripe for the heresy of Islam (which was a simplified and watered-down version of Christianity) because of the slavery, debt and taxation they were experiencing in places like Egypt and Syria.

I Found This Book By This Aristotle Guy…

“In the East it became more than a menace, and spread continually for seven hundred years, until it had mastered the Balkans and the Hungarian plain, and all but occupied Western Europe itself. Islam was the one heresy that nearly destroyed Christendom through its early material and intellectual superiority.”

People under the Caliph could read, whilst most of the people in Christendom were illiterate. Islam did a good job of preserving the works of Greek and Roman authors, be they philosophers, scientists or other intellectuals.

Mohammed Marries a Cougar, Begins Career as AgitatorĀ 

“Mohammed was a camel driver, who had had the good luck to make a wealthy marriage with a woman older that himself. From the security of that position he worked out his visions and enthusiasms, and undertook his propaganda. But it was all done in an ignorant and very small way. There was no organization, and the moment the first bands had succeeded in battle, the leaders began fighting among themselves: not only fighting, but murdering.”

So the wealth produced by Mohammed’s father-in-law subsidized the young man’s bizarre religious discoveries in the caves. Mohammed found the best of both worlds by taking a simplified Catholicism, such as the attractive idea of an omnipotent God, and mixing itĀ  with convenient pagan ideas.

Why Has Islam Maintained Its Charm?

“(European apologists for Islam) always give the same answer — Islam is indestructible because it is founded on simplicity and justice. It has kept those Christian doctrines which are evidently true and which appeal to the common sense of millions, while getting rid of priestcraft, mysteries, sacraments, and all the rest of it. It proclaims and practices human equality. It loves justice and forbids usury. It produces a society in which men are happier and feel their own dignity more than in any other. That is its strength and that is why it still converts people and endures and will perhaps return to power in the near future.”

But all heresies claim to be effective because they are based on true human morality. Most heresies don’t maintain their charm for centuries and centuries. How has Islam been so much more effective?

“Islam has differed from all the other heresies in two main points which must be carefully noticed: (1) It did not rise within the Church, that is, within the frontiers of our civilization. Its heresiarch was not a man originally Catholic who led away Catholic followers by his novel doctrine as did Arius or Calvin. He was an outsider born a pagan, living among pagans, and never baptized. He adopted Christian doctrines and selected among them in the true heresiarch fashion. He dropped those that did not suit him and insisted on those that did-which is the mark of the heresiarch-but he did not do this as from within; his action was external. Those first small but fierce armies of nomad Arabs who won their astounding victories in Syria and Egypt against the Catholic world of the early seventh century were made of men who had all been pagans before they became Mohammedan. There was among them no previous Catholicism to which they might return. (2) This body of Islam attacking Christendom from beyond its frontiers and not breaking it up from within, happened to be continually recruited with fighting material of the strongest kind and drafted in from the pagan outer darkness. This recruitment went on in waves, incessantly, through the centuries until the end of the Middle Ages. It was mainly Mongol coming from Asia (though some of it was Berber coming from North Africa), and it was this ceaseless, recurrent impact of new adherents, conquerors and fighters as the original Arabs had been, which gave Islam its formidable resistance and continuance of power.”

… It was this recruitment of Mongol bodyguards in successive installments which kept Islam going and prevented its suffering the fate that all other heresies had suffered. It kept Islam thundering like a battering ram from <outside the frontiers> of Europe, making breaches in our defense and penetrating further and further into what had been Christian lands. The Mongol invaders readily accepted Islam; the men who served as mercenary soldiers and formed the real power of the Caliphs were quite ready to conform to the simple requirements of Mohammedanism. They had no regular religion of their own strong enough to counteract the effects of those doctrines of Islam which, mutilated as they were, were in the main Christian doctrines-the unity and majesty of God, the immortality of the soul and all the rest of it. The Mongol mercenaries supporting the political power of the Caliphs were attracted to these main doctrines and easily adopted them. They became good Moslems and as soldiers supporting the Caliphs were thus propagators and maintainers of Islam.”

The Crusades Failed

“In spite of the advantage of being fed by continual recruitment, the pressure of Mohammedanism upon Christendom might have failed after all, had one supreme attempt to relieve that pressure upon the Christian West succeeded. That supreme attempt was made in the middle of the whole business (A.D. 1095-1200) and is called in history “The Crusades.” Catholic Christendom succeeded in recapturing Spain; it nearly succeeded in pushing back Mohammedanism from Syria, in saving the Christian civilization of Asia, and in cutting off the Asiatic Mohammedan from the African. Had it done so perhaps Mohammedanism would have died. But the Crusades failed.”

In the end, Islam survived the Crusades and has thrived into the current period. Writing in 1936, Belloc showed an interest in Islam when very few were talking about it. He predicted its upcoming battles with the West and was gravely concerned with Christians not falling victim to the heresies of Islam, especially the disbelief in the Incarnation. In his book, Belloc demonstrated fairness to the various heresies, exploring the reasons why they convinced so many people. He looked at the Christian truth contained in each heresy and identified this copying of the Faith as the fuel by which the heresies stand.



Belloc, Hillaire. “The Great Heresies”. 1936.

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