Civilizations in Africa

The Islamic Invasions 

Islam entered Africa shortly after its inception in the seventh century AD. After the death of Muhammad, the rasul, or "messenger," and prophet of Islam, in 632, the first caliph ("deputy of the prophet") of Islam, Abu Bakr, ambitiously undertook a series of military conquests to spread the new faith across the world. Although he died two years later, his nephew, Umar, continued the ambitious program. In 636, the Muslims occupied Jerusalem, Damascus, and Antioch; in 651, they had conquered all of Persia. But they also moved west into Africa, for Arabic culture saw itself as continuous not only with Middle Eastern culture, but with northern African culture as well. In 646, the Muslims conquered Egypt and quickly spread across northern Africa. From northern Africa, they invaded Spain in 711. Look at the dates: Islam is founded in 610 when Muhammad has the first of his revelations in the caves above the city of Qumran. In 711, one hundred years later, the Muslims conquered the Middle East, Persia, the Arabian Peninsula, northern Africa, and had just entered Europe. The initial spread of Islam is the single most dramatic cultural change in the history of the world, and it loomed large in the subsequent history of African civilizations.

The largest African cities and kingdoms were located in the Sahel, a desert and savannah region south of the Sahara. After 750 AD, these cities and kingdoms arose because they served as way stations and terminus points for the trade routes across northern Africa. The northern Africans, however, were Muslim; one particular people, the Berbers, were a north African people who were fervently Muslim. The Berbers and their wars of conversion figure very large in the history of the Sahelian kingdoms; by the 1300's, these large kingdoms became Islamic and, more importantly, centers of Islamic learning.

   Beyond religion, there are several important cultural practices that the Arabic culture of Islam gave to Africa. The first is literacy. Egypt and the Nilotic kingdoms of the Kushites and the Nubians had long traditions of writing, and the Ethiopians had acquired it through their ties to the Semitic peoples of southern Arabia. But these writing systems did not spread throughout Africa. Islam, however, as a religion of the book, spread writing and literacy everywhere it went. Many Africans dealt with two  languages: their native language and Arabic, which was the language of texts. However, this gradually changed as Africans began using the Arabic alphabet to write their own languages. To this date, Arabic script is one of the most common scripts for writing African languages.

   With literacy, the Arabs brought formal educational systems. In north Africa and the Sahel, these systems and institutions would produce a great flowering of African thought and science. In fact, the city of Timbuctu had perhaps the greatest university in the world.

   Islam also brought social fragmentation. As the faith spread throughout Africa, political authority of established African institutions and kingdoms began to collapse under the burden, particularly when groups of Muslims declared holy war, or jihad, against pagan social groups.

Richard Hooker


The Spread of Christianity and Islam
by Rit Nosotro
Comparative Essay

Compare the spread of Christianity with the spread of Islam during the first two centuries of each religion's existence.

A strange historical significance seems to surround the Middle East. It has served as the birth place for many cultures and religions. Its Fertile Crescent contained one of the earliest culture hearths where civilization developed. In this area great kingdoms of the ancient world, such as Babylon and Persia, arose to shape history. Judaism had its roots in the Middle East, and Israel—the country of God’s chosen people—was formed here. Later two of the largest and most historically important religions on earth—Christianity and Islam—also emerged and spread from the Middle East. As they expanded from this region, both of these religions had substantial impact on the course of history. Both of them also made considerable progress during their first 200 years of expansion. However, during the first two centuries of the existence of each religion there were fundamental differences between the expansion of Christianity and that of Islam, despite early similarities in the way they spread.

Christianity existed several centuries prior to the birth of Islam, and by the time Muhammad founded Islam in the Middle East, Christianity had moved its center to Europe, where it had firmly established itself as the official religion. But Christianity originally sprouted in the Middle East after Christ’s resurrection in A.D. 30. The church began in Jerusalem and the surrounding area, and it initially preached the Gospel only to the Jews. It grew quite rapidly for a time—in fact, the book of Acts records the conversion of 3000 Jews in a single, extraordinary day.1 During this early period, however, Christianity2 did not expand far beyond Jerusalem and its vicinity. That would soon change. After the first few years of relative peace for the church, a terrible persecution broke out following the stoning of Stephen.3 Jewish leaders hunted down the followers of Jesus and threw them into prison. At this time many in the church scattered to the surrounding countryside of Judea and Samaria. Christianity’s worldwide expansion was beginning.

When Islam was founded about 550 years later, around the beginning of the seventh century, its initial experience was strikingly similar to the early experience of the Christian church. In 610 A.D. Muhammad—a native of the Quraysh tribe in Mecca, Saudi Arabia—claimed that he received revelations from God that called him to preach a new religion called Islam. At first he began to do so secretly, but after three years he found the courage to proclaim his new faith publicly and gained a growing number of followers.4 However, his monotheistic message was not well received by many in his polytheistic city, where people were used to profiting from pagan pilgrims.5 As a result, the early Muslim converts faced persecution, just as the early Christians had. Islam’s growth was limited during this time, and it did not spread far beyond Mecca. Eventually the harassment forced Muhammad to leave Mecca, so he fled to Medina. Here he gathered many converts who became his militant followers. As with the early Christian church, therefore, persecution caused the first significant spread of Islam.

The histories of Christian and Muslim expansion, however, lost much of their similarity after the points of their initial dispersions caused by persecution. Christians, for example, generally established new churches in cities, intending that the gospel would diffuse into the countryside from there.6 But this made the spread of Christianity during the first two centuries an essentially urban phenomenon, and it became an urban religion. In contrast, Arabia had very few cities, so Islam spread mostly through villages and rural areas. Another contrast was that the Christian church continued to face persecution throughout its first two centuries, and yet it continued to grow. This served as a testimony to the power and truth of the Christian faith as God preserved his church in spite of persecution. On the other hand, persecution against Muslims had essentially ended by the time Muhammad died. Many such distinctions made the spread of Christianity and the spread of Islam extremely different.

Perhaps the most significant difference between the first two centuries of the expansion of Christianity and Islam was between the methods used to spread their messages. These methods stemmed from the beliefs of each religion. While Christians recognized the truth that God loves all people and wants them to have a personal relationship with Him, Muhammad taught that “Allah loveth not those who reject Faith.”7 These contrasting attitudes caused Christians and Muslims to go about conversion in different manners. During their first two centuries, Christians did not force their religion on others but relied on missionaries, preaching, and leading godly lives to draw people to the one true God.8 Muslims, on the other hand, did not rely solely on preaching to spread their faith—they turned also to the sword. While it is true that many did convert willingly to Islam, the Muslims also conquered vast areas of land in the Middle East and Northern Africa during the seventh and eighth centuries. When they attacked or occupied new territory, they gave its inhabitants three options: convert to Islam, pay a special tax, or die. Under these circumstances many chose to pay the tax, and many others chose to convert to Islam. Clearly, the Islamic method of expansion did not match the loving approach of Christianity.

The differing methods of expansion actually helped determine the area each religion would cover as it spread. Christians during the first two centuries traveled from city to city in the Roman Empire, taking advantage of the excellent Roman roads. As a result, the first two centuries saw the Gospel spread primarily in Roman territory,9 although it was also carried to some other areas, including Ethiopia and perhaps even India.10 By the year 200 A.D., Christian communities existed throughout the Middle East and Turkey, and there were several in Greece and Italy as well. Islam, however, spread from Saudi Arabia and conquered most of the Middle East and North Africa. Muslims even extended themselves into the Iberian Peninsula and pressed north, nearly reaching Paris before Charles Martel checked their advance by defeating them at the Battle of Tours in 732.11 Because Islam advanced by force, it met with hostility and resistance in Europe, where Christianity was already strong. But in other areas, such as Egypt and Syria, it was accepted readily by people who had been living under suppressive rule.12 As a result of its method of expansion, therefore, Islam could not spread far north into Europe—as Christianity had done during the Roman Empire—but remained in the territory south of Europe instead.

Clearly, the first two centuries of Christian expansion differed greatly from Islam’s first two centuries of expansion, in spite of some early similarities. Although the spread of both religions was initially sparked by persecution, they went about spreading their messages in very different ways. As a result of Christianity’s reliance on missionaries—who used the Roman roads—it spread primarily in the Roman Empire. Since Islam, on the other hand, used force to expand its territory, it could not expand far into Europe because it met military opposition. Instead it engulfed most of the Middle East and North Africa. Even today the marks of Christianity and Islam can be seen in the areas where they first spread. After its first two centuries of expansion, Christianity eventually became the official religion of the Roman Empire,13 and it profoundly influenced the development of Europe and, consequently, of the Americas. Islam still remains dominant in much of the Middle East and North Africa where it once created an empire, and this area has now become a hot spot for conflict. As prophesied in Genesis 16:11-12, "...Ishmael ... will be a wild donkey of a man, with his hand against everyone, and everyone's hand against him; and he will live at odds with all his kin." Prime examples of this are Iraqi aggression and Arab nations attacks on Israel. Ishmael's descendants have pursued a course of violence that only increased with the spread of Islam. A twisted Christianity reacted to Ishmael's aggression during the Crusades but true Christianity follows Christ, the Prince of Peace. Unlike Ishmael's children who follow Mohammad's example of coercive and violent expansion. Over time, therefore, the spread of these two religions continues to drastically impact the stability of the entire world.


1. Christianity and Islam both faced persecution during their early years. What effect did this persecution have?

It caused them both to die out.
It caused Islam to thrive and Christianity to falter.
It made Christianity flourish but crushed Islam for many years.
Both Christianity and Islam began to spread as a result of the initial persecution.

2. Which of the following statements is FALSE?
Christianity spread by force during the first two centuries of its existence.
Islam spread partly by force during its first two centuries.
Christianity became a primarily urban religion during its early expansion.
Muslims penetrated into Spain and France.

3. Where did Christianity and Islam primarily spread during their first two centuries?
Christianity spread mostly within the Roman Empire, and Islam spread primarily through the Middle East and North Africa.
Christianity expanded to the Americas and Islam pushed its way into Russia.
Islam spread through most of Europe while Christianity spread throughout Africa.
Christianity spread primarily through South Asia, but Islam spread through the South Africa.

4. Which statement is TRUE?
Christianity and Islam followed very similar patterns in the way they spread during their first 200 years.
Despite some early similarities, the first two centuries of Christian expansion differed immensely from the expansion of Islam during its first two centuries.