During the tenth century, Islam was the predominant religion of an area covering more than half of the then-known world. Its adherents inhabited three continents: from the Pyrenees and Siberia up to China and New Guinea, and from Morocco to the southern tip of Africa.
One of history’s most striking facts is that Islam spread over such a vast area within 3 centuries. Most striking of all, within 50 years after the Hijra, all of North Africa (from Egypt to Morocco) and the Middle East (from Yemen to Caucasia, and from Egypt to the lands beyond Transoxiana) had come under the sway of Islam. During ‘Uthman’s reign (644-56), Muslim envoys reached the Chinese royal court and were welcomed enthusiastically. According to historians, this important event marks the beginning of Islam’s presence in China.
How Islam spread
Peoples of all eras have been ready to embrace Islam for a wide variety of reasons. But perhaps the foremost one, as pointed out by Muhammad Asad, a Jewish convert to Islam, is that:
Islam appears to me like a perfect work of architecture. All its parts 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 postulate of Islam is in its proper place.1
Most Western writers continue to accuse Islam of spreading by the sword. One major cause of this prejudice is that Islam often spread at the expense of Christianity. For hundreds of years Christians have converted to Islam without much effort or organized missionary activity. Muslims, however, almost never convert to Christianity despite sophisticated means and well-organized missionary activities. Furthermore, Christianity has always been at a disadvantage when competing with Islam. This has caused its missionaries and most Orientalists to present Islam as a regressive and vulgar religion of uncivilized peoples.2 Such negative attitudes also color their accounts of the Prophet. Some unbiased Western writers have admitted this:
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 unfortunately misinterpreted and not for the purpose he claims, as will be explained in the next chapter]; 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 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.3
Islam spread so rapidly
Islam’s rapid expansion, unequaled by any other religion, was due to its religious content and values, as many unbiased Western intellectuals state:
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?.. 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 paradise 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 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.4
A. J. Arberry holds the same view:
The rapidity of the spread of Islam 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”. (M. Pickthall, The Meaning of the Glorious Qur’an, p.vii) ...
This, and the urgency of the simple message carried, holds the key to the mystery of one of the greatest cataclysms 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.”5
Brockelman, usually very unsympathetic and partial, also recognizes Islam’s religious values as the main factor for its spread.6 Rosenthal writes: “The more important factor for the spread of Islam is religious law of Islam (Sharia which is an inclusive, all-embracing, all-comprehensive way of thinking and living) which was designed to cover all manifestations of life.”7
Along with many other reasons, Islam spread because of its followers’ exemplary lifestyle and unceasing efforts to transmit its message throughout the world. These lie at the root of Islam’s conquest of hearts. Islamic universalism is closely associated with the principle of amr bi al-ma‘ruf (enjoining the good), for this is how Muslims are to spread Islam. This principle seeks to convey Islam’s message to everyone, without exception, and to establish a model community that displays Islam to the world: Thus 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).
Muslims, both as individuals and as a community, therefore have certain goals to achieve: communicating Islam to others, conveying the truth to everyone, striving to prevent oppression and tyranny, and establishing justice. To do this, they must live an exemplary life. Thus Islam’s moral and ethical values usually have played an important part in its spread.
One nineteenth-century European writer recorded his impressions on how Islamic ethics influenced black Africans as follows:
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 commentaries on the Qur’an.8
Islam also spread rapidly because of its tolerance. Toynbee praises the Muslims’ tolerance toward the Peoples of the Book after comparing it with the Christians’ attitude toward Muslims in their lands.9 Link attributes Islam’s spread to its credible principles and tolerance, persuasion, and other attractions.10 Makarios, a seventeenth-century Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch, compared the Poles’ harsh treatment of the Russian Orthodox to the Ottomans’ tolerant attitude toward Orthodox Christians and prayed for the sultans.11
This is not the only example of non-Muslims’ preference for Muslim rule over that of their own coreligionists. Byzantium’s Orthodox Christians openly expressed their preference for the Ottoman turban in Istanbul to the hats of the Catholic cardinals. Elisee Reclus, a nineteenth-century French traveler, wrote that the Muslim Turks allowed all non-Muslims to observe their religious duties and rituals, and that the sultan’s Christian subjects were freer to live their own lives than those Christians whose lands were ruled by a member of a rival Christian sect.12 Popescu Ciocanel pays tribute to the Muslim Turks by stating that the Romanians were lucky to have Turkish, instead of Russian and Austrian, rulers. Otherwise, he points out, “no trace of the Romanian nation would have remained.”13
The Muslims’ attitude toward the people they conquered is quite clear in the instructions given by the Rightly-Guided Caliphs:14
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 or 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 honor 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 everyone of you at some time or other, even if you are thousands of miles away from a battlefield; therefore be always ready to face death.15
An historical episode, recorded by the famous Muslim historian Baladhuri in his Futuh al-Buldan, tells how pleased the indigenous peoples were with their Muslim conquerors and is of great significance:
When Heraclius, Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire (610-41), massed his troops against the Muslims, and the Muslims heard that they were coming to meet them, they refunded the tribute they had taken from the inhabitants of Hims, 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 our former state of oppression and tyranny. We shall indeed, with your help, repulse Heraclius’ army from the city.” The Jews rose and said: “We swear by the Torah, no governor of Heraclius shall enter Hims unless we are first vanquished and exhausted.” Saying this, they closed and guarded the city gates. The Christians and Jews of cities that had capitulated did the same. When, by God’s help, Heraclius’ army was defeated and the Muslims won, they opened the gates of their cities, went out with singers and musicians, and paid the tribute.
1. Muhammad Asad, Islam at the Crossroads (New Era Pubs.: 1982), 5.2. John Cogley, Religion in a Secular Age (New York: Praeger, 1968); Muhammad Asad, The Road to Makka, 4th. ed. (Gibraltar: Dar Al-Andalus, 1980).3. P. Bayle, Dictionary, “Mahomed,” 1850.4. Stanley Lane-Poole, Studies in a Mosque (Beirut: Khayats, 1966), 86-89.5. J. Arberry, Aspects of Islamic Civilization (Westport, CN: Greenwood Press, 1977), 12.6. Carl Brockelman, History of the Islamic Peoples (London: Routledge & K. Paul, 1949), 37.7. Franz Rosenthal, Political Thought in Medieval Islam (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1958), 21.8. Quoted from Waitz by B. Smith, Muhammad and Muhammadanism, 42-43.9. Arnold Toynbee, A Historian’s Approach to Religion (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1956), 246.10. T. Link, A History of Religion.11. Ibid.12. Elisee Reclus, Nouvelle Geographie Universelle, vol. IX.13. Popescu Ciocanel, La Crise de l’Orient.14. This group consists of Abu Bakr, ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab, ‘Uthman ibn ‘Affan, and ‘Ali ibn Abu Talib, the first four rulers of the Islamic community after the Prophet’s death. They did not inherit the Prophet’s spiritual status or authority.15. Andrew Miller, Church History; ‘Ali Ibn Abi Talib, Nahj al-Balagha.
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