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.
The Spread of Christianity and Islam
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.
Christianity and Islam
Christianity and Islam are the two largest religions in the world and they have many points of contact. Both inherited from Judaism a belief in one God (monotheism) who created the world and cares about the behavior and beliefs of human beings.
Although Islam and Christianity seem to have certain points of doctrine in common, there is an enormous difference between them, not only in beliefs about salvation, forgiveness and Christ but in many other areas affecting daily life, human behavior and attitudes.
The Prophet Muhammad knew Christians in his lifetime and respected them along with Jews as “People of the Book.” Because of their monotheism and roots in the revealed Jewish Bible, Muhammad and his successors extended conquered Christians (and Jews) more freedoms than conquered pagans.
In the approximately 1,300 years of history since the life of Muhammad, the relationship between Christianity and Islam has rarely been harmonious. As it spread, the Muslim Empire quickly conquered much of the Judeo-Christian Holy Land and the Christian Byzantine Empire. The Christian Crusades from 1096 to 1291, waged in response to Islam jihad, further widened the divide between the two faiths. Constantinople, the “New Rome” and the center of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, fell to the Turks in 1453 and has been under Islamic rule ever since.
In recent centuries, mutual distrust between Christians and Muslims has continued to grow. Some people believe that the conflict has more to do with political tensions and divergent cultural worldviews than with religion, and efforts have been made by both Christians and Muslims to find common ground and engage in respectful dialogue.
To illustrate the similarities and differences between the two largest religions of the world, the following chart compares the origins, beliefs and practices of Christianity and Islam. Please note that numbers are estimates and descriptions of beliefs and practices are simplified for brevity’s sake.
Click here to download this chart as a 4-page PDF file: Christianity-Islam Chart ~ PDF file
Approx. 30 AD (CE)
622 AD (CE)
Jesus, Peter, Paul
Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant
The inspired and inerrant word of God. (2 Tim. 3:16). Consists of Hebrew scriptures of Judaism (Old Testament); and later writings recording the lives and teachings of Jesus and his followers (New Testament).
Respected word of the prophets but the Bible has been corrupted through the centuries and is only correct in so far as it agrees with the Koran. (3:78)
The work of Muhammad. It is not inspired, nor is it scripture. There is no verification for its accurate transmission from the originals.
The final revelation of God to all of mankind given through the archangel Gabriel to Muhammad over a 23 year period. It is without error and guarded from error by Allah. Accepts the Christian Bible (2:136, 4:163, 10:94)
Creed (Apostle’s or Nicene – One God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). We are sinners, but God loves us, Jesus died for us; believe in him and you are saved. (John 3:16)
Six Articles of Faith (No God but Allah, angels, sacred books (Torah, Psalms, New Testament, Koran), prophets, day of judgement, Allah’s predestination
Major Sacred Rituals or Practices
Baptism, Communion (Eucharist)
Five Pillars: prayer, pilgrimage to Mecca, fasting, confession of faith, almsgiving and charity (to Muslims only)
Religious Law or Commands
Ten Commandments (Ex 20:1-17), Greatest commandment (love God, love others – Mark 12:29-31), Great commission (make disciples of all nations, baptize them, teach them. – Matt 28:19-20)
Sharia (Islamic Law) regulates every aspect of a Muslim’s devotional and personal life as well as the governing of Islamic nations. Also specifies harsh punishments for crimes.
Leaving the faith
Punishment is death
God is a trinity of persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Trinity is not three gods in one god, nor is it one person who took three forms. Trinitarianism is strictly mono-theistic. There is no other God in existence. The Lord God and Allah are not the same.
God is known as Allah. Allah is one person, a strict unity. There is no other God in existence. He is the creator of the universe (3:191), sovereign over all (6:61-62).
One God in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
Christian Trinity is denied. (4:171, 5:116) Islam trinity sometimes considered to be The Father, Jesus, and Mary.
Second person of the Trinity. He is the word who became flesh (John 1:1, 14). He is both God and man (Col. 2:9).
A very great prophet, second only to Muhammad. Jesus is not the son of God (9:30), not divine (5:17, 75) and was not crucified (4:157). Some say he will come back to earth as a Muslim, marry and have children, die, and be buried near Muhammad (19:33-34).
Son of God
Term used to designate that Jesus is divine. He is the spiritual son of God not a literal physical son (John 5:18).
A literal son of God. Therefore, Jesus cannot be the son of Allah.
“In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God...and the word became flesh and dwelt among us...” (John 1:1, 14).
Allah’s command of existence which resulted in Jesus being formed in the womb of Mary.
Death of Jesus
Did not die, but ascended bodily into heaven. A disciple died in his place.
The way in which Jesus atoned for the sins of the world. It is only through this sacrifice that anyone can be saved from the wrath of God (1 Pet. 2:24).
Jesus did not die on the cross. Instead, God allowed Judas to look like Jesus and he was crucified instead. (4:156-158)
The sacrifice of Christ on the cross (1 Pet. 2:24) whereby His blood becomes the sacrifice that turns away the wrath of God from the sinner when he believes and receives by faith the work of Christ on the cross. (1 John 2:2, John 1:12, Rom. 5:1)
There is no atonement work in Islam other than a sincere confession of sin and repentance by the sinner.
Resurrection of Jesus
Affirmed. Central part of faith.
Denied, since he did not die
Third person of the Trinity. The Holy Spirit is fully God in nature.
The arch-angel Gabriel who delivered the words of the Koran to Muhammad.
A non-inspired (by God) man born in 570 in Mecca who started the Islamic religion.
The last and greatest of all prophets of Allah whose Qur’an is the greatest of all inspired books.
Created beings, non-human. They are very powerful; they represent God and carry out his will. Angels have free will and some fell into sin and became evil.
Created beings without free will that serve God. Angels were created from light.
A fallen angel who opposes God in all ways. He also seeks to destroy humanity (Isaiah 14:12-15; Ezek. 28:13-15).
Iblis, a fallen jinn. Jinn are not angels nor men, but created beings with free wills. Jinn were created from fire, (2:268, 7:11-18, 114:1-6).
The place where God dwells. Heaven is the eventual and eternal home of the Christians who are saved by God’s grace. (Ps. 73:25, Is. 33:17, 60:19-20, 1 Cor 2:9-10, Rev. 21:3-4, 21:10-22:5)
Paradise to Muslims, a place of unimaginable bliss (32:17), a garden with trees and food (13:35,15:45-48) and virgins where all the desires of faithful Muslims are met, (3:133, 9:38, 39:34, 43:71, 53:13-15, 56:8-38, 88:8-16).
A place of torment in fire out of the presence of God. There is no escape from Hell (Ps. 63:9, Is. 30:33, Matt. 13:49-50, 25:46, 2 Thess 1:9, Rev. 20:10).
Hell is a place of eternal punishment and torment (14:17; 25:65; 39:26), in fire (104:6-7) for those who are not Muslims (3:131) as well as those Muslims whose works and faith were not sufficient (50:24-26, 78:21-30).
Occurs on the day of resurrection (John 12:48) when God will judge all people. Christians go to heaven. All others to hell. Two judgements: entry to heaven based on faith; position in heaven based on deeds. (Matt. 25:46, Rom. 2:5-11, Heb 4:13).
Occurs on the day of resurrection when God will judge all people. Muslims go to paradise. All others to hell (3:142, 183-85, 196-98). Judgment is based on deeds (5:9; 42:26; 8:29). Judgement is bypassed if one dies on a Friday, dies of stomach ache, or dies as a martyr.
Christians will be with the Lord in heaven (Phil. 1:21-24), in resurrected bodies (1 Cor. 15:50-58). Non-Christians will be cast into hell forever (Matt. 25:46). Catholics believe in an intermediate state, purgatory.
There is an afterlife (75:12) experienced as either an ideal life of Paradise (29:64), for faithful Muslims or Hell for those who are not. Until Judgement, the dead are in an intermediate state, barzakh.
Bodily resurrection of all people: Christians to eternal life in heaven, non-Christians to hell (1 Cor. 15:50-58).
Bodily resurrection, faithful Muslims to heaven, others to hell (3:77, 15:25, 75:36-40, 22:6).
Made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26). This does not mean that God has a body, but that man is made like God in abilities (reason, faith, love, etc.).
Not made in the image of God (42:11). Man is made out of the dust of the earth (23:12) and Allah breathed life into man (32:9; 15:29).
The term used to describe the effect of Adam’s sin on his descendants, i.e., all humans (Rom. 5:12-23). The sinful nature that originated with Adam is passed down from parent to child. All humans are by nature children of wrath (Eph. 2:3).
There is no original sin. All people are sinless until they rebel against God. They do not have sinful natures. People have an equal ability to do good or evil.
A free gift of God (Eph. 2:8-9) to the person who trusts in Christ and His sacrifice on the cross. He is our mediator (1 Tim. 2:5). No works are sufficient in any way to merit salvation (Isaiah 64:6).
Forgiveness of sins is obtained by Allah’s grace without a mediator. The Muslim must believe Allah exists, believe in the fundamental doctrines of Islam, believe that Muhammad is his prophet, and follow the commands of Allah given in the Koran.
Central to Christian faith. More than 50 verses about it. God forgives any and all when asked, but humans must also forgive.
Allah does not forgive except infrequently as an arbitrary act. (4:48, 35:7)
The Crusades (1096-1291) were a reaction to Islamic jihad and an attempt (unsuccessful) to reopen the Holy Land to Christian pilgrims and worshipers.
Muslims are required to go to war with non-Muslims to conquer them and add their territory to the “House of Islam.” (2:191, 9:5, 9:29)
Europe, North & South America
Middle East, Southeast Asia
2 billion worldwide
1.3 billion worldwide
Place of Worship
Church, chapel, cathedral, basilica, meeting hall, store front, etc.
View of the other religion
Islam is respected as a fellow monotheistic religion, but with major differences about the Trinity, Jesus, salvation, and forgiveness. Muhammad is not seen as a true prophet.
Christians are respected as “People of the Book,” but they have mistaken beliefs and only partial revelation. Islam is the only religion acceptable to God. (3:85)
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