Archive | Top Ten

Top Ten Theologians: #1 – Augustine

People living within the Roman Empire during the 4th and 5th centuries embraced some ideas which would largely seem foreign to us today.  These ideas are relatively unknown to us in the 21st century, but they played a large role in the life of our Top Theologian: Augustine.  In order to appreciate Augustine, we need to appreciate his world.

Augustine’s World


Cicero (106-43BC) was one of the greatest of the Roman orators.  Many of his works are today lost to history.  We know one of his books named Hortensius was popular during the time of Augustine.  Cicero offered to the Romans a worldview.

Cicero wrote about happiness.  He said everyone seeks happiness.  In the life-long quest for happiness he observed most people tried to find pleasure through food, drink and sex.

Happiness, however, is not found in a self-indulgent life of pleasure, which merely destroys both self-respect and true friendships.1  He observed people seeking happiness through indulgent pleasures ended up with a miserable life. Most people in his world, he observed, ended up with a miserable life. Cicero thought this misery possibly came from some sort of divine judgment.

Cicero, through refreshingly plain language, advocated a different way to seek happiness.  To find happiness one should live a highly principled and aesthetically pleasing life.  Happiness will come through a rigorous program of self-discipline and self-improvement.  The wise man was someone who trained his head to rule his heart and physical passions in order to live a humble and objective life.2

Humility, discipline and selflessness replaced the Roman dream of self indulgence. The thoughts of Cicero would rock Augustine’s world.


Along with the thoughts of Cicero, a new flavor of Christianity spread through the Roman world during the time of Augustine. Its founder, Mani, also offered the Romans a worldview.

Mani was born around 216AD in the area of modern-day Iran.  He called himself an “Apostle of Jesus Christ.”  He claimed to have unique secret information about the nature of God, humanity and the universe.  In actuality, Manichaeism was a Persian adaptation of Christianity, which added in Gnosticism, Zoroastrianism, speculative philosophy and superstition.3

According to Mani, the human predicament is the presence in each of us of two principles. One, which he calls “light,” is spiritual. The other, “darkness,” is matter.4 The kingdom of darkness has been fighting to defeat the light. In every human being these two principles have mixed together. Every human is so mixed with these principles that everything from the waist down is considered part of the kingdom of darkness.  Everything from the waist up is the kingdom of light.  Sex is not allowed for a Mani. It only contributes to the furthering of the kingdom of darkness.

Salvation consists in separating the two elements, and in preparing our spirit for its return to the realm of pure light, in which it will be absorbed.5  According to Mani, this doctrine had been revealed in various fashions to a long series of prophets, including Buddha, Zoroaster, Jesus and Mani himself.6

A great deal of Romans jumped on board with the ideas of Mani. Followers of Mani lived lives of extreme self-denial. Mani would have an extreme influence in the life and world of Augustine.


A third popular person of the day offering the Romans a worldview was a man named Plotinus.  Plotinus (205-270AD) started a school of philosophy in Rome which became a hub of intellectual activity. Knowles talks about this fascinating man:

Plotinus lived an ascetic life with very little food or sleep. He ate only vegetables and never took a bath. His own body and person seem to have been of little interest to him, as though he were living as independently of them as possible.7

Plotinus rediscovered the teachings of Plato. Many actually believed him to be a reincarnation of Plato. He is known as the father of a movement of ideas called Neo-Platonism. Neoplatonism was very popular at the time of Augustine.
Neoplatonism disagreed with the worldview of Mani. It taught there was only one principle in the universe. There is not a kingdom of light and a kingdom of darkness.  There is, so to speak, only one kingdom. This kingdom is ruled by the One, the source of all things.

Reality is like the concentric circles that appear on the surface of the water when hit by a pebble. The realities of life that are closer to the One, the center, are superior. Evil then does not originate from a different source, but consists simply in moving away from the One.8  The miserable life described by Cicero is seen by the Neo-Platonists as people living in the outer circles away from the One.

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Top Ten Theologians: #2 – Martin Luther

To have an understanding of Martin Luther it’s important to have a working knowledge of his multi-faceted world.

Luther’s World

Gutenberg Printing Press

It’s hard for us to imagine life without mass produced books.  Throughout most of humankind, however, every single book was hand copied.  I’ll say it again just in case it didn’t stick: before 1440, every book on the planet was hand produced.

In 1440, Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press.  The invention was so earth shaking it led Time Magazine to rank it as the most important invention of the last 1,000 years.  Four hundred years before Gutenberg, a man from China named Bi Sheng came up with the concept of moveable type.  Bi Sheng’s clay letters were fragile and not able to handle widespread use.

Gutenberg came up with many improvements to make mass-produced books a reality. First, he came up with a process for making durable metallic moveable type.  Second, he used an ink easy enough to come by and economical enough for widespread usage. Third, he used a wooden printing press similar to agricultural screw presses of the day. Gutenberg engineered these elements together into a practical system for the mass production of printed books that were economically viable for printers and readers alike.1

The Gutenberg press allowed ideas to spread at a pace and a breadth previously unknown to humankind.  Living through the development of the Internet can help us appreciate the invention of Gutenberg’s Printing Press. What the Internet did to open up the spread of information in our day, the printing press did for the 15th century and beyond.

Without the printing press we may have never known Martin Luther.

St. Peters Basilica

In 1506, construction began on St. Peters Basilica. Construction of the immense church in Rome would end up costing the equivalent of more than $2 billion dollars.  The Basilica has the largest interior of any Christian church in the world.  Construction would be tricky. Why?

It was believed to be a desecration for a church to not continually stand in Rome. How can you build a new church on the exact same location without first tearing down the old building?  The solution was creative.

St. Peters is so colossal it was built surrounding the previous church.  The entire old church, still standing, fit inside the main sanctuary of the new St. Peters. Once St. Peters was finished the older church was dismantled and carried out the front door!

How does the church of the day afford such opulent spending?  The creative solution came from the selling of indulgences.  An indulgence was a certificate providing someone a speedy trip through Purgatory.  The sale of Indulgences would come from a conversation like this:

“Do you want your grandma to suffer less and make it to heaven?  The Pope can help you out if you pay up.  Haven’t you heard it said, “When a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from Purgatory springs”?  Giving us $100 will help your grandmother a little bit: $1,000 will more quickly ease her suffering.  Do you love your church?  Do you love your grandmother?  Help us help you. You are one Indulgence away from the Pope easing the burden of your loved one.”

The Pope sent priests like Johann Tetzel throughout the western world selling indulgences.  Was this a good way to finance the church of the day?  Martin Luther had a few things to say (95 to be precise) about the sale of Indulgences.

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Top Ten Theologians: #3 – John Calvin

Wow, we’ve now arrived to the top three in our Top Ten Theologians series.  Whether you consider yourself a 5-point Calvinist, 4-point Calvinist, Arminian or something else; John Calvin should be a hero in your life.  In order to appreciate Calvin we need to have a working knowledge of his world.

Calvin’s World

A Post-Reformation World

The world was forever changed on October 31st, 1517AD.  While John Calvin was only 8 years old, a 33 year old German priest posted 95 grievances he had with his church. No human being could have anticipated the actions stemming from one monk, Martin Luther, who wanted to reform his church.

All people will agree the 15th century church needed reformation.  The church of the day started to contradict itself in many areas.  A crack had been developing for quite some time.

Martin Luther was a brilliant troubled man.  He excelled scholastically but found no relief for his soul.  Much like Bunyan’s character “Christian” in Pilgrim’s Progress, Luther had a burden of sin he couldn’t unload.  Getting rid of his burden became the occupying passion of his life.

Luther tried over and over to attain righteousness.  There were many religious ways in the 15th century to supposedly attain righteousness from sin.  Luther tried them all to no avail.  He eventually discovered how to be righteous.  Only one way could remove his burden of sin.  Righteousness was not attained.  It could not be attained.  It only came as a gift through faith in Christ.  Luther was now a free man.

The institutionalized church made a drastic error one day when they sent a guy to raise money from Luther’s congregation.  They were told money given would quicken the time their dead relatives would spend in the pain of Purgatory.  Do you want your grandma in heaven?  Give me $1,000.  If you give me just $100 it will help, but if you want your grandma in heaven faster give me $1,000.  The sale of these indulgences absolutely infuriated Luther.  His congregation couldn’t afford what they gave.  Their hearts were in the right place, but they were simply led astray.  Luther knew their money made no difference.  Luther’s 95 theses on the door of the Wittenberg castle were 95 reasons why the sale of indulgences was an idiotic scheme from a church in dire need of reform.

The twenty years following October 31st, 1517 were unexpected by all.  It was as if Luther’s 95 theses was a spark which set the world on fire. 

Luther’s fear of God and of unwarranted innovation were such that he had hesitated to take the concrete steps that would follow from his doctrine.1  With Luther hidden in a castle to prevent his death by the church, Luther’s thoughts were quickly taken to an extreme by others.  In 1524, a peasant rebellion broke out in Germany under the name of Luther and the Reformation.   The peasants wanted religious reform, but they equally sought economic reform.  The motives and actions of everyone involved cannot be known.  The aftermath is known.  More than 100,000 peasants were killed in Germany.

In 1527, right after these events, troops from Spain and Germany sacked the city of Rome.  Since many of these troops were part of the reformation the sack of Rome took on a heavily religious tone.  How would the church survive?  All over Europe reforms were taking place.  Some reforms took place inside of the church, many outside of the traditional church.  The Protestant church was being born.  What would the church look like?

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Top Ten Theologians: #4 – Athanasius

“If Christian theology had superheroes,” scholar Kevin VanHoozer writes, “Athanasius would perhaps lead the list.”1 Athanasius is relatively unknown to most Christians today. In order for us to begin appreciating the significance of his life, we need to understand the world from which this little man stood tall.

Athanasius’s World


In 302 A.D., when Athansius was only 6 years old, two men sought an audience with the god Apollo. These weren’t ordinary men, they were two of the most powerful people on the planet. Diocletian and Galerius were both Roman Emperors. They wanted Apollo to help settle an argument for them.

Christianity had been spreading like a virus. They knew the Roman gods weren’t happy with so many Romans becoming Christians. Dicoletian and Galerius wanted Rome, with help from the gods, to be greater than ever. How could they accomplish their wishes?

Diocletian thought the gods would be happy if Christians were prevented from positions of influence. Galerius, however, thought the gods wanted more. Galerius thought the gods would want Christians exterminated. The best way to settle the argument? Why don’t we just ask the head god and see what he wants? The two men asked their questions through the oracle of Apollo at Didyma (modern-day Didim, Turkey).2

The oracle told the two men the “impious” on the Earth were making it hard for Apollo to even provide advice. Diocletian and Galerius agreed; Christians needed to be exterminated. On February 23, 303AD Diocletian ordered the newly built church in his city to be leveled. Life was hell for many Christians. The horrendous ways Christians were persecuted and killed during this time period are only for the strongest of stomachs. The executions continued until at least April 24, 303AD when six people, including the lead pastor of a prominent city, were decapitated.3


While the Diocletian persecutions were still fresh in everyone’s mind, a man named Constantine became Emperor of Rome. The new emperor, shortly after taking office, faced a coup. Maxentius, a military leader, organized a huge force to defeat Constantine. The two forces met on October 28th, 312AD at Milvian Bridge, just north of Rome. Maxentius’s army was twice the size of Constantine’s. The night before, however, Constantine had a dream. He was advised in the dream to, “mark the heavenly sign of God on the shields of his soldiers…by means of a slanted letter X with the top of its head bent round.”4 Eusebius describes the sign as Chi (x) traversed by Rho (P), a symbol representing the first two letters of the Greek spelling of the word Christos or Christ.5

The battle was brief. Constantine’s cavalry and infantry decimated the larger force. The mob of fleeing soldiers pushed Maxentius into the Tiber river where he drowned. Constantine’s seemingly supernatural vision and victory would significantly change the way Christians were treated. Truth is stranger than fiction. No one who endured the Diocletian persecutions could have imagined such a drastic turn-around. Constantine credited his victory to the Christian God.

Just a few months after The Battle of Milvian Bridge, Constantine issued the Edict of Milan proclaiming religious tolerance of all religions throughout the empire. The edict had special benefits for Christians, it legalized the religion and granted restoration for all property seized during Diocletian’s persecution.

The newfound Christian freedom made it possible for everything Athanasius is famous for to transpire.

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Top Ten Theologians: #5 – Jonathan Edwards

In order to appreciate the contribution of Jonathan Edwards, #5 on our list of Top Ten Theologians, it’s important to place him within his world. A world which contains the possibility to change our world.

Edwards’s World


In the early 1560’s a term was coined to explain some “hypocrites”. The name “Puritan” was used to speak of some prudish, conceited, “holier than thou”, odd and ugly people trying to “purify” the Church of England. These Puritans lived in both England and the new American colonies. Unlike the Mayflower riding Pilgrims who had left the Anglican church, the Puritans sought to make reforms by remaining inside the Church of England.

Puritans have been demonized during much of the last 300 years. Over the last 50 years, however, scholars have started to show the true heart of the Puritans. Puritans were not wild men, fierce and freaky, religious fanatics and social extremists, but sober, conscientious, and cultured citizens: persons of principle, devoted, determined and disciplined.1

These Puritans, encapsulated by men like John Owen, believed the Church of England stopped short of allowing the Reformation to fully purify the church. The Puritans at first, however, were not that successful. J.I. Packer writes:

The Puritans lost, more or less, every public battle that they fought. Those who stayed in England did not change the Church of England as they hoped to do, nor did they revive more than a minority of its adherents, and eventually they were driven out of Anglicanism (the Church of England) by calculated pressure on their consciences. Those who crossed the Atlantic failed to establish new Jerusalem in New England; for the first fifty years their little colonies barely survived. They hung on by the skin of their teeth. But the moral and spiritual victories that the Puritans won by keeping sweet, peaceful, patient, obedient, and hopeful under sustained and seemingly intolerable pressures and frustrations give them a place of high honour in the believer’s hall of fame, where Hebrews 11 is the first gallery. It was out of this constant furnace-experience that their maturity was wrought and their wisdom concerning discipleship was refined.2

A Puritan man like John Bunyan lived under the “sustained and seemingly intolerable pressures” of which Packer speaks. Bunyan was put in prison more than once for preaching. His blind daughter had to move into his prison cell so she would have someone to care for her life.

During his 12-year term in prison Bunyan wrote one of the greatest Christian books of all time. His Pilgrim’s Progress has been in print for over 300 years. It has been translated into 200 languages.

It was their lack of apparent success, however, that fueled their unforeseen influence. George Whitefield, the famous evangelist, writes of the Puritans:

Ministers never write or preach so well as when under the cross; the Spirit of Christ and of glory then rests upon them. It was this, no doubt, that made the Puritans…such burning and shining lights. When cast out by the black Bartholomew-act [the 1662 Act of Uniformity] and driven from their respective charges to preach in barns and fields, in the highways and hedges, they in an especial manner wrote and preached as men having authority. Though dead, by their writings they yet speak; a peculiar unction attends them to this very hour.3

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Top Ten Theologians: #6 – Thomas Aquinas

In order to appreciate the contribution of Thomas Aquinas, #6 on our list of Top Ten Theologians, it’s important to place him within his world.

Aquinas’s World


In the 1100’s AD a great threat arrived at the doorstep of Christianity. Islam was spreading throughout the known world. The tide of Islam brought with it many new ideas (read more about the spread of Islam in the Introduction to Anselm). A Muslim man named Averroes threatened to crumble Christianity.

Averroes rocked the western world beginning at the University of Paris. He did not wield a sword, instead he brought a new way of thinking that would challenge the way Christians had been thinking for a thousand years.

Have you ever heard a Christian use the terms “secular” and “sacred”? Did you know those concepts did not exactly come from the Bible? Thinking of the world in terms of dividing between what is spiritual and physical came mainly from the philosopher Plato. This view is known as dualism. There are two parts of the world. The seen and the unseen. The perfect and the imperfect. The holy and the ordinary. Creator and Creation. Faith and Reason.

From the very beginning of Christianity, most theologians, especially those living in the West, had grown accustomed to what was essentially a Platonic philosophy.1 Plato’s philosophy seemed to fit well with the Bible. The flesh is evil while the spirit is good. The earth is not as it should be, heaven is as it should be. Anselm, our #8 theologian, was so influential because he ultimately paved the way for Christians to fully embrace faith and reason. The two do not war against each other, we can fully believe and understand to the glory of God.

Averroes introduced to the West a competing view of reality which had been lost to all but those in the far East. His major bomb-shell on western Christianity was making Aristotle available to the Latin-speaking world. Aristotle was a student of Plato but did not agree with his mentor. Averroes, along with others, brought Aristotle to a new and hungry audience. Several professors in the Arts Faculty of Paris embraced the new philosophical ideas with enthusiasm.2

Theologians encountering Aristotle for the first time found his thoughts disturbing. Aristotle insisted on the independence between reason/philosophy and theology. Aristotle believed philosophy always trumped theology. If reason ever came into conflict with theology, reason would win. Theology has to accommodate reason.

Here’s a silly example. I am able to discover, through reason, that touching an oven is hurtful every time. I run an experiment where touching an oven ten times results in 10 wounds. Philosophically it is clear ovens and humans do not mix together. When I read the Bible, however, Daniel’s three friends are able to walk around in a super-heated oven. Does the Bible correct my reasoning? Are ovens now safe? Aristotle would say no. Reason wins every time.

Aristotle’s followers, for example, used reason to determine matter must be eternal. Since there is something there must have always been something. Something cannot come from nothing. The Bible, however, contradicts reason by saying God created everything ex nihilo (from nothing). Theologians, not Philosophers, have some explaining to do.

Thomas Aquinas became one of the greatest philosophers AND theologians to ever live. He stepped up to offer an amazing solution between Aristotelian philosophy and theology.
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Top Ten Theologians: #7 – C.S. Lewis

Our count down of Top Ten Theologians continues with #7: C.S. Lewis.  His inclusion on this list will be an obvious choice for some and a surprise for others.  Yes, I completely agree it is risky and potentially short-sighted to have two 20th century people (Lewis and Barth) on the list.  Time has not vetted these men as much as someone like Irenaeus or Anselm.  Generations to come may downgrade the influence from any 20th century theologian.  I am excited, nonetheless, to offer you C.S. Lewis.

Lewis’s World

Michel Foucault

Michel Foucault (pronounced foo-ko) may be one of the most influential 20th century thinkers you’ve never heard of. He was interested in studying the development of ideas.  How and why do we know what we know?  He held a chair at Collège de France with the title, “History of Systems of Thought.”  He wrote several books on diverse subjects such as:  psychiatry; medicine; the human sciences; prison systems; as well as the history of human sexuality.

Foucault’s observations and skepticism challenged many long-standing ideas.  His first book wondered why some people are considered crazy?  What if these “crazy” people lived at a different time in a completely different culture? Would they still be considered crazy? 

How about, for example, John the Baptist?  His clothes were nasty.  He lived out in the desert eating bugs.  He yelled at people to repent.  They responded by letting John hold them under water.  In first century Israel John was viewed as one of the greatest prophets who ever lived.  Transfer John the Baptist to New York City and he’d be locked up in a mental hospital.  Craziness is relative.

In Foucault’s studies on sex he wondered why people seemed to possess differing ideas of sexual appropriateness.  Why do women in certain developing countries walk around topless?  Every person at that particular time and place believes topless women are normal.  It is unimaginable to consider the same women walking around Victorian England.  The sexual customs of these two cultures are worlds apart.  Sexual morals appear to be relative.

Foucault believes periods of history have possessed specific underlying conditions of truth that constituted what he expresses as discourse (for example art, science, culture, etc.). Foucault argues that these conditions of discourse have changed over time, in major and relatively sudden shifts, from one period’s knowledge to another.1

Different cultures have different ways of discussing and knowing reality.  What is crazy?  What is immoral? What is joy?  Who is God?  What is beautiful?  Foucault shows how people answer these questions for themselves.  There are no objective answers, knowing is relative.

Foucault’s thoughts are very popular.  Even though he died in 1984, he is currently the most cited author in the humanities.2  For books published in 2007, for example, he was cited 2,521 times.  During the same period, in comparison, Friedrich Nietzsche was only cited 501 times.3

Foucault is skeptical of ideas or realities which claim to exist for all people at all times.  Christianity, however, claims a Savior who exists for all people at all times.  C.S. Lewis will become known as the “Apostle to the Skeptics.”

Lewis’s Life

Clive Staples Lewis was born in Belfast, Ireland on November 29, 1898.  At the age of four, after the death of the beloved neighborhood dog “Jacksie,” Lewis announced his new name would be “Jacksie.”  He eventually permitted friends and family to call him the shortened “Jack.”

In 1905, at the age of seven, the family moved into a new home.  Lewis writes:

The New House is almost a major character in my story.  I am a product of long corridors, empty sunlit rooms, upstairs indoor silences, attics unexplored in solitude, distant noises of gurgling cisterns and pipes, and the noise of wind under the tiles.  Also, of endless books. 4

The “endless books” certainly shaped Lewis; he writes:

My father bought all the books he read and never got rid of any of them.  There were books in the study, books in the drawing room, books in the cloakroom, books (two deep) in the great bookcase on the landing, books in a bedroom, books piled as high as my shoulder in the cistern attic, books of all kinds reflecting every transient stage of my parents’ interest, books readable and unreadable, books suitable for a child and books most emphatically not. Nothing was forbidden me.  In the seemingly endless rainy afternoons I took volume after volume from the shelves.  I had always the same certainty of finding a book that was new to me as a man who walks into a field has of finding a new blade of grass.5

C.S. Lewis was well-read by the age of eight.6  A complete list of the books he had read by the age of nine would be very long.7  His diary entry of March 5, 1908: “I read Paradise Lost, reflections thereon.”8  The epic, Paradise Lost, contains over 10,000 individual lines of poetic verse!

Lewis gravitated to not only reading but writing at an early age, due to a hereditary condition with his thumbs known as Symphalangism.  He explains the condition:

What drove me to write was the extreme manual clumsiness from which I have always suffered.  I attribute it to a physical defect which my brother and I both inherit from our father; we have only one joint in the thumb.  The upper joint (that furthest from the nail) is visible, but it is a mere sham; we cannot bend it.  But whatever the cause, nature laid on me from birth an utter incapacity to make anything.  With pencil and pen I was handy enough, and I can still tie as good a bow as ever lay on a man’s collar; but with a tool or a bat or a gun, a sleeve link or a corkscrew, I have always been unteachable.  It was this that forced me to write.  I longed to make things, ships, houses, engines.  Many sheets of cardboard and pairs of scissors I spoiled, only to turn from my hopeless failures in tears.  As a last resource, as a pis aller, I was driven to write stories instead.9

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Top Ten Theologians: #8 – Anselm

In order to appreciate Anselm, #8 on our list of Top Ten Theologians, we must have a working knowledge of Anselm’s world.  Let’s take a look at two events which need to be in our minds to appreciate him.

Anselm’s World

Crowning of Charlemagne

If you were a citizen of Rome in 450AD life stunk.  Most parents kissed their kids good-night thinking they all would be dead soon.  One of the most feared men on the planet, Attila the Hun, is on his way to be your nightmare.  His army, consisting of more than 300,000 soldiers, seeks to destroy everything you love.  As Attila nears Rome an interesting strategy develops.  Instead of sending out our army, let’s do something different.  Let’s send out our head pastor, Leo, and see if he can get Attila to forget about destroying Rome.  As Rome held its breath, Leo met Attila the Hun.  Attila, remarkably, turned back from attacking Rome.  Leo returned to Rome a hero.  People started to see how powerful the church could be in preserving the state.

In 800AD the power of the church in relation to the state reached its zenith.  In order for Charlemagne to become the Emperor of Rome he was crowned on Christmas day, 800AD by Pope Leo III.  Church leaders actually approved the leadership of nations.  Imagine today if someone like Billy Graham needed to approve of any presidential candidate before they were sworn into office.   Many of these church leaders did not seek such power.  Understanding Leo’s influence on Attila and Leo III’s crowning of Charlemagne will allow you to see how Anselm could reluctantly become one of the most powerful men on the planet.

Rise of Islam

The spread of Islam started shortly after the death of Muhammad in 632AD.  Muslims do not see Muhammad as the creator of Islam, but instead regard him as the last messenger of God.  Muhammad is seen as following in the footsteps of Adam, Abraham, Moses and Jesus.  The Qur’an is believed to be the final revelation from God.
Increasing conversion to Islam paralleled the rapid military expansion of the Arab Empire.  Muslim dynasties were soon established in North Africa, West Africa, throughout the Middle East and in Iran.  The Crusades were carried out as military responses from predominately Christian nations to the military expansion of Islam.
Islam carried something interesting into their conquered lands: learning.  In the 10th and 11th century a great wave of intellectual sophistication swept through the Islamic world.  There are several reasons for such intellectualism: 1

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