The Romans always regarded their Empire’s northern and eastern borders as two major points of vulnerability to their far-flung territories. They were not expecting the emergence of a mightier power from the south – a power that was not so much a military force as a moral one.
The extraordinarily rapid spread of Islam from its modest beginnings in Arabia has no parallel in history, even to this day. And while there are a variety of reasons why this phenomenal movement took hold, none of them include the use of the sword as a means of conversion: no individual, group, tribe, or nation was forced to convert to Islam under threat of death — absolutely none.
Instead, Islam brought an unprecedented wealth of human and spiritual values to the people with which it came into contact. Primary among these values was the knowledge and certainty that God Almighty bestows the gift of dignity upon every human being. It is an unqualified and unconditional gift, freely offered to the pious and sinful alike, irrespective of gender, religion, race, social status, age, power, etc. It is offered without restriction, in times of peace or war.
Even criminals are entitled to dignified treatment, for punishment is meant both as a deterrent and a means to reform offenders, not to humiliate them. Similarly, Islam teaches that prisoners of war are to be treated well and their human dignity is not to be compromised.
This universal assurance of human dignity is affirmed by the Qur’an (17:70) and was practiced by a vast majority of Muslims during the period following the death of Prophet Muhammad in 632 CE. The Prophet declared in a Hadith, reported in Mishkat al-Masabih, that "people are God’s children and those dearest to God are the ones who treat His children kindly." The Qur’an makes human dignity so intrinsic to every person that no regime, however powerful, can take it away.
To understand how deeply Islam engaged with the longing of indigenous peoples throughout Africa and Asia, we must examine the prevailing values of the late Roman Empire.
The Romans built impressive amphitheatres ("amphi" means round in Greek) for live shows, which often consisted of prisoners of war fighting one another to the death.
Special gladiatorial games ("gladi" means sword) were also popular public amusements. Men, women and children alike deserted their homes to enjoy the sensation of watching skilled fighters being slain by their more skilled opponents. On other occasions, more blood-sport entertainment was provided by setting lions, tigers, bears and other beasts loose in the arena to devour hapless slaves.
The Romans perfected their road-building skills over a vast network that allowed for the rapid deployment of troops to quash any rebellion in the more distant colonies.
Roman law also kept a tight rein on the empire’s diverse population, demanding that every loyal subject should worship Jupiter and Caesar. To refuse religious homage to Caesar was considered sedition, a crime against the state.
The emperor Trajan ordered that Christians should be treated as leniently as the law would allow, but decreed they must be punished if convicted. Under the more rigorous Diocletian, however, anyone who refused to worship the Roman gods was punished by death.
After the converted emperor Constantine made Christianity the state religion, the institutional Church was organized on the imperial government model; many church buildings even emulated the basilica design, used for Roman courts of justice. The early Christian Patriarchs (or Church Fathers) held positions of highest authority and vigorously persecuted their opponents and rivals; before long, the imperial Church became divided along continental lines. The patriarch of Constantinople was recognized as the head of the Church in the East, while in the West the bishops of Rome (later called Popes) increased their power and dictated laws and policies intended to regulate all of Christendom – an authority that was not seriously challenged until the Protestant Reformation.
When Islam first reached Egypt in 640 CE, it was still a Roman province of the waning empire. Although a great many of the Roman citizens, as well as the native Egyptian Copts, were Christian, it was the Copts who were most frequently oppressed and persecuted for their faith. Similarly, in Jerusalem the Jews were persecuted by their Roman overlords. No wonder the native peoples in Africa, the near East and Asia regarded the movement of Muslims into their regions as beneficial, for they lived among those of other faiths as brothers and sisters, treating them humanely, whether they converted or not. Not only are the oldest church buildings in the world found in Muslim countries such as Syria, but also the oldest synagogues, some of which are found in Egypt.
Islam was accepted and welcomed all around the Mediterranean basin because it countered the rigid conformity of Roman rule by introducing the value of respecting each person’s inherent human dignity and by implementing concrete precepts to make the achievement of universal human dignity a reality. Islamic human rights include: the right to live in peace, to have employment and a decent standard of living, to have a family, to worship, to have access to free education, to have free access to justice, to live free of oppression and debt, to have universal access to health care, etc.
Islam was so far ahead of its time that the West only codified some of these rights and principles during the past 50 years.