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.