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The Main Factors in the Spread of Islam
Oct 1, 1993

Islam, in the tenth century, was the main religion, or at least, the religion of the majority of peoples in an area covering more than half of the civilized world stretching over three continents from the Pyrenees and Siberia in West and North Europe to the farthest end of Asia, up to China and New Guinea in the East; from Morocco in North Africa to the southern tip of Africa, covering two-thirds of the African continent. It is one of the most striking facts of human history that the spread of Islam over such a vast area took place within three centuries. Most striking of all, within half a century after the Hijra, Islam had already conquered the whole of North Africa from Egypt to Morocco, all the Middle Eastern lands from Yemen to Caucasia and from Egypt to the lands beyond Transoxiana. It was during the reign of the third Caliph Uthman, that the Muslim envoys reached the Chinese Palace where they were welcomed enthusiastically, an important event marking, according to the historians, the beginning of Islam’s entry into this country. There are many reasons why peoples have been, from past to the present, so ready to embrace Islam, those pointed out by Muhammad Asad, a Jewish convert to Islam, probably being the foremost:

‘Islam appears to me like a perfect work of architecture. All its arts are harmoniously conceived to complement and support each other, nothing lacking, with the result of an absolute balance and solid composure. Everything in the teaching and, postulates of Islam is in its proper place.’( Islam at the Crossroads, p.5)

Most Western writers, especially under the influence of the Church, have never failed to accuse Islam of spreading by force of the sword. The causes of this prejudice lie mainly in the fact that the spread of Islam has often occurred at the expense of Christianity. While Islam has for centuries obtained numerous conversions from Christianity without much effort or organized missionary activities, Christianity has almost never been able to achieve conversions from Islam in spite of sophisticated means and wellorganized missionary activities, and it has always been at a disadvantage in its competition with Islam for fourteen centuries. The defeat of Christianity in the face of Islam has caused its missionaries and most of the Orientalists to develop an inferiority complex within themselves by depicting Islam and introducing it as a regressive, vulgar religion of savage peoples. (John Cogley, Religion of Secular Age; Muhammad Asad, The Road to Mecca). The same attitude has unfortunately been maintained toward the Holy Prophet of Islam. This is clear in the confessions of some unbiased writers of the West: According to P. Bayle:

‘Muslims, according to the principles of their faith, are under an obligation to use force for the purpose of bringing other religions to ruin [probably he means Jihad which is not for the purpose he suggests.]; yet, in spite of that, they have been tolerating other religions for some centuries past. The Christians have not been given orders to do anything but preach and instruct, yet, despite this, from time immemorial they have been exterminating by fire and sword all those who are not of their religion. We may feel certain that if Western Christians, instead of the Saracens and the Turks, had won the dominion over Asia, there would be today not a trace left of the Greek Church, and that they would have never have tolerated Muhammadanism as the ‘infidels’ have tolerated Christianity there. We (Christians) enjoy the fine advantage of being far better versed than others in the art of killing, bombarding and exterminating the Human Race. ‘(Bayle P., Dictionary, article Mahomed, 1850)

Islam is indebted for its unequalled spread to its religious content and values, which is admitted by all objective Western intellectuals:

‘Many have sought to answer the questions of why the triumph of Islam was so speedy and complete? Why have so many millions embraced the religion of Islam and scarcely a hundred ever recanted? Why do a thousand Christians become Muslims to one Muslim who adopts Christianity? Some have attempted to explain the first overwhelming success of Islam by the argument of the sword. They forget Carlyle’s laconic reply. First get your sword. You must win men’s hearts before you can induce them to imperil their lives for you; and the first conquerors of Islam must have been made Muslims before they were made fighters on the Path of God. Others allege the low morality of the religion and the sensual paradises it promises as a sufficient cause for the zeal of its followers: but even were these admitted to the full, no religion has ever gained a lasting hold upon the souls of men by the force of its sensual permissions and fleshy promises...

‘In all these explanations the religion itself is left out of the question. Decidedly, Islam itself was the main cause for its triumph. Islam not only was at once accepted (by many peoples and races) by Arabia, Syria, Persia, Egypt, Northern Africa and Spain, at its first outburst; but, with the exception of Spain, it has never lost its vantage ground; it has been spreading ever since it came into being. Admitting the mixed causes that contributed to the rapidity of the first swift spread of Islam, they do not account for the duration of Islam. There must be something in the religion itself to explain its persistence and spread, and to account for its present hold over so large of a proportion of the dwellers on the earth... Islam has stirred an enthusiasm that has never been surpassed. Islam has had its martyrs, its self-tormentors, its recluses, who have renounced all that life offered and have accepted death with a smile for the sake of the faith that was in them.’ (Stanley Lane-Poole, Study In a Mosque, pp. 86-9).

A. J. Arberry has also pointed out that the reason for the spread of Islam is Islam itself and its religious values. (Aspects of Islamic Civilization, p.12)

He writes:

‘The rapidity of the spread of Islam, noticeably through extensive provinces which had long been Christian, is a crucial fact of history. The sublime rhetoric of the Qur’an, that inimitable symphony, the very sounds of which move men to tears and ecstasy…and the urgency of the simple message carried, holds the key to the mystery of one of the greatest catalysms in the history of religion. When all military, political and economic factors have been exhausted, the religious impulse must still be recognized as the most vital and enduring.’

Brockelman, who is usually very unsympathetic and partial, also recognizes the religious values of Islam as the main factor for the spread of Islam (History of the Islamic Peoples, p.37). Rosenthal makes his point as follows: ‘The more important factor for the spread of Islam is the religious Law of Islam (Shari‘a, which is an inclusive, all-embracing, all-comprehensive way of thinking and living) which was designed to cover all manifestations of life.’ (Political Thought in Medieval Islam, p.21).

Besides many other reasons which are responsible for the spread of Islam, it is the exemplary life-style and unceasing efforts of individual Muslims to transmit the message of Islam throughout the world which lie at the root of the conquest of hearts by Islam. Islamic universalism is closely associated with the principle of ‘amr bi’l-ma’ruf (enjoining the good) for Islam is to be spread by Muslims by means of ‘amr bi’l-ma’ruf. This principle seeks to convey the message of Islam to all human beings in the world and to establish a model Islamic community on a worldwide basis. The Islamic community is introduced by the Qur’an as a model community: We have made of you an Ummah justly balanced, that you might be witnesses (models) for the peoples, and the Messenger has been a witness for you (2.143). A Muslim or the Muslim community as a whole thus has a goal to achieve. This is the spread of Islam, conveying the truth to the remotest corner of the world, the eradication of oppression and tyranny and the establishment of justice all over the world. This requires the Muslim to live an exemplary life, and thus the moral and the ethical values of Islam have usually played an important part in the spread of Islam. Here follow the impressions of the influence of Islamic ethics on black Africans of a Western writer of the nineteenth century:

‘As to the effects of Islam when first embraced by a Negro tribe, can there, when viewed as a whole, be any reasonable doubt? Polytheism disappears almost instantaneously; sorcery, with its attendant evils, gradually dies away; human sacrifice becomes a thing of the past. The general moral elevation is most marked; the natives begin for the first time in their history to dress, and that neatly. Squalid filth is replaced by some approach to personal cleanliness; hospitality becomes a religious duty; drunkenness, instead of the rule becomes a comparatively rare exception chastity is looked upon as one of the highest, and becomes, in fact, one of the commoner virtues. It is idleness that henceforward degrades, and industry that elevates, instead of the reverse. Offences are henceforward measured by a written code instead of the arbitrary caprice of a chieftain–a step, as everyone will admit, of vast importance in the progress of a tribe. The Mosque gives an idea of architecture at all events higher than any the Negro has yet had. A thirst for literature is created and that for works of science and philosophy as well as for the commentaries on the Qur’an.’ (Quoted from Waitz by B. Smith, Muhammad and Muhammadanism, pp.42-43)

The tolerance of Islam is another factor in the spread of Islam. Toynbee praises this tolerance towards the People of the Book after comparing it with the attitude of the Christians towards Muslims and Jews in their lands. (A Historian’s Approach to Religion, p.246). T. Link attributes the spread of Islam to the credibility of its principles together with its tolerance, persuasion and other kinds of attractions (A History of Religion). Makarios, Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch in the seventeenth century, compared the harsh treatment received by the Russians of the Orthodox Church at the hands of the Roman Catholic Poles with the tolerant attitude towards Orthodox Christians shown by the Ottoman Government and prayed for the Sultans (T. Link, A History of Religion).

This is not the only example of preference by the followers of the religions for Muslim rule over that of their own co-religionist. The Orthodox Christians of Byzantium openly expressed their preference for the Ottoman turban in Istanbul to the hats of the Catholic cardinals. Elisee Reclus, the French traveller of the nineteenth century, wrote that the Muslim Turk allowed all the followers of different religions to perform their religious duties and rituals, and that the Christian subjects of the Ottoman Sultan were more free to live their own lives than the Christians who lived in the lands under the rule of any rival Christian sect (Nouvelle Geographie Universelle, vol. 9). Popescu Ciocanel pays tribute to the Muslim Turks by stating that it was luck for the Romanian people that they lived under the government of the Turks rather than the domination of the Russians and Austrians. Otherwise, he points out, ‘no trace of the Romanian nation would have remained,’ (La Crise de l’Orient).

The Muslims’ attitude towards the people they conquered is quite clear in the instructions given by the rightly-guided Caliphs: ‘Always keep fear of God in your mind; remember that you cannot afford to do anything without His grace. Do not forget that Islam is a mission of peace and love. Keep the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) before you as a model of bravery and piety. Do not destroy fruit-trees nor fertile fields in your paths. Be just, and spare the feelings of the vanquished. Respect all religious persons who live in hermitages or convents and spare their edifices. Do not kill civilians. Do not outrage the chastity of women and the honour of the conquered. Do not harm old people and children. Do not accept any gifts from the civil population of any place. Do not billet your soldiers or officers in the houses of civilians. Do not forget to perform your daily prayers. Fear God. Remember that death will inevitably come to every one of you some time or other, even if you are thousands of miles away from a battlefield; therefore be always ready to face death.’ (Andrew Miller, Church History; Ali lbn Abi Talib, Nahj al-Balagha)

A historical episode which Balazouri, a famous Muslim historian, relates, tells about how pleased the native peoples were with their Muslim conquerors is of great significance:

When Heraclius massed his troops against the Muslims, and the Muslims heard that they were coming to meet them, they refunded the inhabitants of Hims the tribute they had taken from them, saying: ‘We are too busy to support and protect you. Take care of yourselves.’ But the people of Hims replied: ‘We like your rule and justice far better than the state of oppression and tyranny in which we were. The army of Heraclius we shall indeed, with your help, repulse from the city.’ The Jews rose and said: ‘We swear by the Torah, no governor of Heraclius shall enter the city of Hims unless we are first vanquished and exhausted.’ Saying this, they closed the gates of the city and guarded them. The inhabitants of other cities–Christians and Jews–that had capitulated did the same. When by God’s help the unbelievers were defeated and Muslims won, they opened the gates of their cities, went out with singers and players of music, and paid the tribute (Futuh al-Buldan).

To sum up, although most Western writers, under the instigation of biased Orientalists of the Church, have alleged that Islam spread by the force of the sword, the spread of Islam was because of its religious content and values, and ‘its power of appeal and ability to meet the spiritual and material needs of people adhering to cultures totally alien to their Muslim conquerors’, together with some other factors. Some of these factors are the tolerance which Islam showed to people of other religions, the absence of ecclesiastic orders and hierarchy in Islam, mental freedom and absolute justice which Islam envisages and has exercised throughout the centuries, the ethical values it propagates, and Islamic humanitarianism, universalism and brotherhood, and its inclusiveness. Sufi activities, the moral superiority of Muslim tradesmen, the principle of ‘enjoining the good’, and Islamic dynamism and the magnificence of the Islamic civilization contributed of their own to the spread of Islam.

The main religious qualities which attracted people to Islam were:

(i) the simplicity of the theological doctrines of Islam based on the Divine Unity;

(ii) rationalism of the Islamic teachings;

(iii) the complete harmony of the Islamic ideals and values with human conscience;

(iv) the inclusiveness and comprehensives of Islam, covering all aspects of physical, mental, and spiritual life of individuals and societies, hence the harmony of religion and life which it established;

(v) the lack of formalism and mediation;

(vi) the vividness, dynamism and resilience of the Islamic theology, and its creativity and universalism, and its compatibility with established scientific facts;

(vii) the cohesion and harmony of the Islamic principles, and

(viii) the shortcomings of other theological systems.

Further Reading

  • Abu’l-fazl Izzeti (1976) ‘As Introduction to the history of the Spread of Islam,’ London, is mostly quoted.
  • Ahmad, A. ‘Garbin Islam’dan Ogrendikleri’.(Turkish trans.) Istanbul.
  • Al-Mas’oudi, A. (1964) ‘Muruj adh-Dhahab’, Cairo.
  • AlguI. H. (1987) ‘Islam Tarihi’,Istanbul.
  • Al-Tabari, L. J (1955) ‘Milletler ve Hukumdarlar Tarihi’ (Turkish trans.), Istanbul.
  • Balazouri(1965) ‘Futuh al-Buldan’, Istanbul.
  • Dursun, D. (1989) ‘Osmanli Devletinde Siyaset ve Din’, Istanbul,
  • Fayda. M.(1989) ‘Hz, Omer Zamanında Gayr-i Muslimler’, Istanbul.
  • Imam Abu Yusuf (1973) ‘Kitab al-Kharac’, Istanbul.
  • Naumani, S. (1975) ‘Butun YonleriyIe Hz Omer ve Devlet Idaresi’ (Turkish trans.), Istanbul.
  • Qutb, S. (1980) ‘Islam’da Sosyal Adalet’, (Turkish trans.) Istanbul.
  • Said, E. (1983) ‘Oryantalizm’ (Turkish trans.) Istanbul.
  • Tuna, O. (1969) ‘Selçuklular Tarihi ve Turk-Islam Medeniyeti’, Istanbul.