Did War Spread Islam?

by Anthon Jackson

The notion that Islam was spread by the sword is widely familiar in most non-Muslim countries. However, although foreign conquest and the expansion of Muslim empires did play a major role in extending the borders of Islam, conversion was rarely forced. On the contrary, in the vast majority of cases, foreign subjects converted willingly for a mix of social, economic and political reasons, not to mention the spiritual allure of the religion itself.

Military Conquest

Without a doubt, military conquest was key in Islam's rapid spread. By the time of the Prophet Muhammad's death in A.D. 632, the Muslims had already subdued and converted their pagan opponents within the Arabian peninsula through wars that Muslims fought largely in self-defense. However, the era that followed under the rule of the first four caliphs bore witness to Islam's most far-reaching and successful conquests. Galvanized after successful exploratory raids beyond Arabia, Arab armies expanded Muslim rule in all directions, taking much of the Middle East and North Africa, easily filling the power vacuum left by the war-weakened and politically unstable Byzantine and Persian empires. Muslim forces continued to advance into Spain, Central and South Asia, Eastern Europe and India, while repeatedly laying siege to the ancient Byzantine capital of Constantinople -- finally taken by a Muslim army in 1453.

Taxation and Social Status

Upon first striking out from the Arabian peninsula, Muslims were not intent on converting the peoples of conquered lands. In what was considered an Arab religion, conversion of foreign peoples was even discouraged under the Arab Umayyad Dynasty (661 to 750). In exchange for special taxes, non-Muslims were allowed to practice their own religions in relative peace; however, many soon found that conversion led to tax breaks and increased social status, especially during the Abbasid Dynasty (750 to 930), when conversion became widely acceptable. By the close of the Abbasid Dynasty, the last great Arab empire, almost all of its subjects were Muslims.

Trade and Missionary Work

Muslims brought word of the new religion far beyond the borders of Arab and Muslim empires. Along routes established long before the advent of Islam, merchants and missionaries traveled as far as China on the Great Silk Road, crossed the Sahara by caravan, and sailed down the East African coast and deep into the Indian Ocean as far as Indonesia. Of all the missionary efforts, Sufism was the most influential in the spread of Islam, its missionaries being highly successful across sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, India, and farther north and east into Central Asia.

The Allure of Islam

For centuries following the initial spread of Islam, its prosperity was the envy of non-Muslims both within and beyond Muslim lands. In the wake of the collapse of older religio-political orders, the expanding power of Islam was often deemed indicative of the religion's divine sanction. Meanwhile, Islam's beautiful art and architecture and its great centers of learning from Andalucia to Baghdad drew many to learn more about the message of Islam. Although plenty of other factors were involved, its message of spiritual equality before God was responsible for much of the spread of Islam from the time of Muhammad to the present day.

About the Author

Anthon Jackson is a writer and photographer. Since obtaining a Bachelor of Arts in Middle Eastern studies in 2008, he has authored travel guides for the likes of Rough Guides, A-Z World Travels and Adventure Journey while his work has also been featured by such publications as "GEOspecial," "Reader's Digest," Lonely Planet and National Geographic Traveler.

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