The 18th-century British historian Edward Gibbon had no doubt that the victory of French leader Charles The Hammer Martel over Muslim armies in France in 732 A.D. had changed the course of world history.
In his The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Gibbon wrote that an Islamic victory would have meant the interpretation of the Koran would now be taught at the schools at Oxford and her pulpits might demonstrate the sanctity and truth of the revelation of Mohammed.
Gibbons view of Muslims trying to convert the world by the sword did not exist in a vacuum. It is a traditional one, begun by Christian monks in the Middle Ages and shared by many historians to this day.
And when Osama bin Laden and his followers proclaim their goal is the end of the divisions of the Muslim world and the creation of a pure Islamic regime that unites all followers of the Prophet against the infidels, they harken back to the world of the 7th century.
This is not the only view of the events of 732. The Arabs felt no compulsion - religious or otherwise to conquer western Christendom in the name of Islam, writes historian and religious scholar Karen Armstrong in Islam: A Short History.
The Muslim community was expanding, and the Muslim armies were in France in 732. Islam, like all of the worlds major religions from time to time, has used the political sword with religious implications.
In the Middle Ages, Christian religious leaders, when not warriors themselves, backed armies of Christian Crusaders attempting to take the Holy Land of Palestine back from the Muslims. In conquering Jerusalem, 30,000 Jews and Muslims were slain.
And religious wars between Europeans, Christians killing other Christians, as well as the persecution of Christians and non-Christians in the colonial world, were common up to the 18th century.
But democratization, industrialization and modernization would create a secular culture in the 19th and 20th centuries that would lessen the traditional role of religion in Europe and the United States, something one group of scholars argues has not happened in Islam.
Some feel it is not within the nature of Islam to modernize, that the religion itself, with its emphasis on a community doing Gods will rather than the individual, is too rigid to adapt to a modern world. Although Islamic countries can use modern technology, they say, they cannot modernize into a secular society.
Others claim that Islam has little to do with the lack of modernization. They point out that the Muslim world pioneered many breakthroughs in literature and science at a time when Europe was a backwater. The real issue in the underdeveloped Middle East they say is the constant exploitation by European colonial powers and the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries on a region of the world that lacked the technological knowledge to defend itself.
Mohamed M. Bugaighis, retired professor of statistics from Moravian College, a native of Libya and head of the Islamic Center of the Lehigh Valley, believes strongly that Islam is not to blame for difficult conditions in much of the Muslim world.
I feel that Islam actually promotes knowledge, and to think otherwise is totally false, Bugaighis says. I think attempts by the West to colonize and to monopolize resources of the Muslim world is the major reason it has remained backward. The West is always willing to proclaim support for democracy for everybody else but the Middle East.
There is no doubt that the founding days of Islam were filled with warfare. To survive in the harsh conditions of Arabia, Mohammed and his followers adopted the practice of the ghauz, or raid on caravans, a common practice among Arabs of that era.
Mohammed also found himself surrounded by hostile forces that threatened to kill him and his followers. Fighting back was self-defense.
Although the concept of jihad, or holy war, was an early one in Islam, most scholars claim that at first it had nothing to do with war. As it is used in the Quran, they point out, it meant struggle or an effort to reform bad habits in the Islamic community or within an individual Muslim. Only later was it applied to warfare.
And after warfare, Islam spread. A large part of the conquered Middle East accepted the faith, including Syria, Persia and Egypt.
At the same time, Islam was under terrific internal stress. The older, more egalitarian system that worked well when Mohammed and a few followers lived in the desert seemed ill-suited to ruling ancient peoples who traditionally had been led by absolute monarchs who thought of themselves as demigods.
Despite internal conflicts, the growth of Islam from the 660s to the 800s was a phenomenon like none the world had ever seen. From Spain to India, there were few parts of the known world without some followers of Mohammed. Culture and science flourished under Islam. Islamic scholars saved and enhanced many of the works of classical Greece and Rome.
But there remained the constant tension between the religious ideals of Islam, particularly its call for a just society, and the practices of some of its rulers, who, though Islamic in name, were often corrupt and despotic.
Starting in 900 a number of smaller Muslim dynasties began to arise in various parts of the Islamic world. What are today Spain, Central Asia, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Iran were among the regions of the Islamic world that flourished in the 900s and 1000s.
Mongol conquerors from northern Asia overwhelmed parts of the Islamic world in 1200s and 1300s. Cities were destroyed and populations killed. But eventually most of the Mongol leaders became Muslims.
By the 1400s the Islamic world was again changing. In 1492 Muslim rule in Spain came to an end with the fall of the kingdom of Granada to the Catholic rulers Ferdinand and Isabella.
On the other side of the Mediterranean Sea in 1453 the last remains of the Byzantine Greek Empire, its capital city of Constantinople, fell to the Turkish Muslim armies of the Ottoman Empire. In 1529 and 1683 the Turks besieged and nearly captured the Austrian capital of Vienna.
But by the 18th century, the focus of the world had shifted from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic. The trade routes across central Asia were no longer as important as they had been. The Islamic world power that had shaped the course of history for centuries suddenly did not matter as much to the West as it once had.
By the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire was known as the Sick Man of Europe. Russia launched several wars nibbling off pieces to add to its empire. Britain had gradually acquired control over India, then ruled by the Muslim Moghul empire.
From the 1880s to the 1940s, Britain played a major role in the Middle East. It virtually ran Egypt. Since the 1860s, France had a growing role in Syria, and Germans spoke of building a Berlin-to-Baghdad railroad.
In World War I the Ottoman Empire backed Germany. Britain promised freedom to the Turks subject peoples if they would help the Allies. But at wars end they broke up the empire, taking parts of it for themselves under League of Nations mandates. For nationalists, it seemed like a betrayal. And for some devout Muslims it represented a sacrilege, the end of a multi-national state where Islamic law was supreme.
How to deal with the dilemmas of its changing role preoccupied the Muslim world for most of the 20th century. Some of the regions rulers, such as Turkeys dictator Kemal Ataturk or Irans Reza Shah and his son, Muhammed Reza Pahlavi, tried to force modernization. Many were military men more used to running armies than countries. They ordered their people to wear Western dress, women to cease wearing veils and religious schools to close.
Although some welcomed the changes, they caused outrage among conservative Muslims who felt their way of life and religion was being changed without their consent. Modernization became associated with repression. Consent of the people was neglected in the rush to catch up with the West.
All this was against a backdrop of Western powers desire to have access to the Muslim worlds vast oil wealth. During the Cold War the region became a hotbed of conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union, each with their client states to whom they supplied arms.
The creation of the state of Israel in 1948, seen in the West as simple justice to the much-persecuted Jewish people, has been called al-Nakbah The Catastrophe in the Arab world. The flight and sometimes forced removal of the Palestinians from their land and the wars that followed between Israel and surrounding Arab states have unsettled the region like no other issue until the rise of Islamic fundamentalism.
Scholars differ on the origins of Islamic fundamentalism. Professor Bernard Haykel, who teaches Islamic law at New York University, finds its roots in medieval Islamic school of thought called Salafiyya, which yearned to bring Islam back to its roots from the corruption of idolatry. As an example, Haykel points to Wahhabism, a type of Islam that began in Saudi Arabia in the 18th century under reformer Abd al-Wahhab. Like most Saudis, Osama bin Laden was raised in the Wahhab tradition.
But many scholars looking for the roots of the modern Islamic fundamentalist movement turn to Egypt in the 1930s. Here a radical offshoot of a group known as the Muslim Brotherhood, fearful that Islam was about to be engulfed by the secular tides from the West, began to preach that it was important to struggle against the West using violence if necessary.
Egyptian writer activist Sayyid Qutb is often called the true spiritual father of Islamic fundamentalists. During a stay in the United States from 1948 to 1950, he attended a college dance in Greeley, Colo., sponsored by a church group. Seeing male-female couples dancing and talking to each other in casual ways shocked the culturally conservative man from the Middle East.
Qutbs books outline the corruptions of the West, based on his reading of Darwin, Marx, Freud and the Kinsey Report. It is the duty of Muslims, Qutb said, to overthrow even fellow Muslim rulers if they become corrupted by the West and its ideals.
Qutb said the rulers of the Muslim world today are no longer Muslim, Haykel notes. He basically declared them infidels. This point of view did not sit well with the secular government of Egypt, which had Qutb executed for plotting to overthrow the state in the mid-1960s.
Armstrong approaches Qutb differently. She does not deny his beliefs are radical and violent. But she feels he was driven to it by the repressive secular government of Egypt under Gamel Abdel Nasser that blocked all attempts at democratic reforms.
Several scholars point out that for bin Laden it was the admission of U.S. troops into Saudi Arabia, the holy land of Muhammad and Islam, during the Gulf War that made the Saudi rulers illegitimate and worthy of being overthrown. In his 1996 Declaration of War against America, bin Laden refers to those U.S. forces as crusaders, after the Christian warriors of the Middle Ages, that attacked Islam.
Some experts think the selection of Sept. 11 for the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon was not a coincidence. Eleven years earlier, Sept. 11, 1990, then-President George Bush went before a joint session of Congress seeking authority to take military action against Iraq after the invasion of Kuwait and suggested a new and larger role for the United States in the Persian Gulf.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times