Back in the 1930s, when white men were preparing for another round of mutual slaughter, few of them paid any attention to the Muslim world. They assumed it to be a backward region that history had long since passed by.
One man saw it differently. The great Catholic polemicist Hilaire Belloc, an Englishman of French ancestry, remembered Islam’s past and predicted, in his book The Great Heresies, that it would one day challenge the West again. As late as 1683 its armies had threatened to conquer Europe, penetrating all the way to Vienna; Belloc believed that a great Islamic revival, even in the twentieth century, was altogether possible.
Belloc saw Islam not as an alien religion, but in its origins as a Christian heresy, adopting and adapting certain Christian doctrines (monotheism, the immortality of the soul, final judgment) and rejecting others (original sin, the Incarnation and divinity of Christ, the sacraments). Its simple, rational creed had a powerful appeal to Arabs who had known only the arbitrary gods of grim pagan religions. It swept the Arab world, then made converts — and The Great Heresies Best Price: $17.24 Buy New $50.60 (as of 07:10 EDT - Details) conquests — far beyond Arabia.
Islam was a militant religion from the start. Mohammed himself conquered the entire Arabian Peninsula in just a few years. The new faith was torn by violent internal divisions even as it continued to spread. But spread it did, with incredible rapidity.
Christians had good reason to fear Islam, which soon conquered Spain and held it for centuries. But because Islam has little attraction for Christians, the West has generally failed to grasp its appeal for others, its profound and permanent hold on the minds of believers. Unlike the Christian West, the Muslim world has never had crises of faith like the Reformation and the Enlightenment.
Islam is a simple religion, easily understood by ordinary people. Its commandments are rigorous but few. When it conquered, its subjugated people often felt more liberated than enslaved, because it often replaced burdensome old bureaucratic governments with relatively undemanding regimes — and low taxes. As long as its authority was respected, Islamic rule was comparatively libertarian. It offered millions relief from their traditional oppression; for example, no Muslim could be a slave.