Every time it surges, Islam surges explosively. When it gets going, it makes the globe wobble.

Robert Wilken ( The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity ) writes that nothing during the first millennium of Christianity rivaled the rise of Islam; it was as an “unexpected, calamitous, and consequential” outbreak (288). Within a century, Islam had gobbled up most of the Christian world of the Middle East and North Africa: “in the span of less than a hundred years, the Arabs had conquered greater Syria (including the Holy Land and Jordan) and Egypt, and made their way from the western edge of Egypt along the North African littoral until they reached the Atlantic Ocean. From the Arabian peninsula they advanced northeast through Persia and across the Asian steppes to India. In 711 they reached Sind, today a province in Pakistan. Within the same decade, they crossed the Strait of Gibraltar into Spain and in midcentury established an independent Muslim kingdom in the peninsula” (307).

It’s of a shock to consider that the aftershocks of the Iranian revolution of 1979 might be of the same magnitude . James Buchan ( Days of God ) points out that it too was unexpected, calamitous, consequential.

Unexpected. Liberals didn’t see it coming because they “had come to believe that religion was nothing more than a pageant in political affairs.” Despite their expertise with Iran, the English were caught by surprise, Americans more so.

Consequential and calamitous. It was, Buchan says, “one of those events in which history changes direction. The destruction of the Iranian monarchy not only upset the political order in the Middle East and inaugurated thirty years of warfare, it also introduced a new way of looking at human affairs. Beside it, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was the tying up of historical loose ends” (1).

The train of human progress seemed to lurch suddenly into reverse: “The Iranian Revolution reminded the world that human beings are obstinate cattle and will not always accept what history says is good for them” (3). The French had tried to impose 1789 on Egypt in 1798, and the Egyptians were not interested. In 1979, Iran erupted with a long-simmering “No thanks” to Western Enlightenment values: “It was not that the Iranians of 1979 refused to be civilized. It was that they thought Mohammed Reza and his Western allies were destroying a civilisation they held dear” (3).

The explosiveness of Islam is important in many ways. For me as a theologian, it is one of the great theological puzzles facing Christians for the foreseeable future.

More on: History, Religions

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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