Arguments, of course, can be used to diminish the surprise and make it easier to understand the growth of both Islam and Christianity. The rise of Christianity has been explained by the economic and social fears of the late Romans, by the decay of institutions, by the lack of social cohesion for men and women who longed for it, by the need for heavenly expectations in the decaying world of the later Roman Empire. Indeed, by so many causes that the rise of Christianity becomes an inevitable consequence of Rome’s decay. And, of course, it was not.
Islam certainly gripped a warlike people because it called for a holy war, and certainly, as it swept forward, gave purpose and hope to the communities that lacked them. All this may be said, and much more, but such statements not only bury the historic shock and surprise in the triumphs of those religions, but also tend to obliterate the traumatic experiences of men and women and, indeed, of entire social groups. But how can people recapture the sensational and sudden change in age-old ways of life that conversion to Christianity or Islam brought to communities or to families- old gods, old life styles, suddenly and bleakly rejected?
Historians know that at times the change was fuzzier, less immediate, and they tend to seize on the transitional and thereby obscure the cataclysmic – obliterate the surprise. This is partly because, for the last two centuries or more, the dramatic changes in belief have not come except through political revolution. And so we tend to think that historical change of a dramatic and surprising kind can only come through political action- as in the revolution in Russia. This can make us blind, dull our thoughts and feelings, and intensify any surprise that history may have in store for us in the very near future.
One of the reasons the human story possesses, at times, such dramatic and swift changes of course, or appears to as we look back, is that historians, expert in political, military, or diplomatic history,are most at sea with the history of ideas- or rather, with explaining how ideas become social attitudes. Take two situations: the rise of science, and the abolition of slavery. Both are astonishing and totally at variance with what at the time appeared to be the natural course of history.
If we go back to the ancients, the Greeks, despite their philosophy of science, had almost no impact on society as a whole. No one thought the scientific attitude could explain the physical universe or the nature of the individual. Science, was, even in seventeenth century Europe, only a minor aspect of intellectual life. And yet, within one hundred years of 1650, a scientific attitude had become a social attitude: scores of men of quite simple education, like Josiah Wedgewood, believed with utmost conviction that all things in the physical universe would yield to experiment and be understood in material terms- an attitude that within the next hundred years luxuriated like a weed- with, of course, monumental social consequences in culture and belief. And yet, how the ideas and attitudes of a handful of intellectuals became, quite suddenly, a powerful social force remains as mysterious as the oracles at Delphi. And we should be astonished by what happened.