It’s a common accusation made against Muslims and Islam in general: “The only reason Islam is a world religion is because it spread by the sword.” It’s a favorite remark of Islamophobes who parade as analysts and historians fear-mongering about the threat Islam supposedly poses to the Western World. With it being such a hot topic that causes so much debate, it is appropriate to analyze and study this topic to better understand whether it is valid or not.
Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Persia – The First Conquests
After the life of Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him), Islamic expansion truly began in the early 630s, AD. Campaigns against the Byzantine and Sassanid (Persian) Empires were initiated which pitted this new religion of Islam, with its desert Arabian warriors against the established and ancient empires centered in Constantinople and Ctesiphon.
Abu Bakr, the first caliph of Islam, gave these armies rules which would seem very constricting by today’s standards of warfare:
“Stop, O people, that I may give you ten rules for your guidance in the battlefield. Do not commit treachery or deviate from the right path. You must not mutilate dead bodies. Neither kill a child, nor a woman, nor an aged man. Bring no harm to the trees, nor burn them with fire, especially those which are fruitful. Slay not any of the enemy’s flock, save for your food. You are likely to pass by people who have devoted their lives to monastic services; leave them alone.”¹
These rules were very unique and innovative for the time. Just before this Muslim expansion, the Persians and Byzantines had fought a decades-long war that left lands from Syria to Iraq in ruins. Abu Bakr made it clear that Muslim armies do not operate by the same principles and restrict their fights to the armies and governments of the enemy, not the general populace. Islamic Shari’ah law, based on the example of Abu Bakr, clearly forbids the use of force against anyone except in legitimate cases of war against a clearly defined enemy.*
The purpose of this article is not to delve into the tactics and individual battles of this conquest of Egypt, Syria and Iraq. It is enough for our purposes here to state that Syria was under Muslim control by 638, Egypt by 642, and Iraq/Persia by 644. The Byzantine Empire, having lost its religious base in Syria, as well as its commercial base in Egypt was greatly weakened. The Sassanid Empire, on the other hand, completely ceased to exist after the Muslim conquest. Politically, it was a disaster for these two giant empires. But, going back to the main idea of this article, how did Islam as a religion spread in the conquered areas?
Unequivocally, the general populace was not forced or induced to convert to Islam. If anything, they were encouraged to continue living their lives as they had for centuries before. In the example of the conquest of Jerusalem, the caliph at the time, Umar ibn al-Khattab, wrote in the surrender treaty with the patriarchs of city:
He [Umar] has given them an assurance of safety for themselves, for their property, their churches, their crosses, the sick and healthy of the city…Their churches will not be inhabited by Muslims and will not be destroyed…They will not be forcibly converted.²
No other empire or state at the time had such ideas about religious tolerance. Umar, being a companion of the Prophet, sets a precedent in this treaty about the treatment of conquered peoples in Islamic law. The rest of the conquered lands, in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Persia had similar treaties. Whether the citizens of the conquered lands were Christian, Jew, Sabians, or Zoroastrians, they were allowed to keep their religious traditions. There exists not one example of forced conversion in these early conquests.
Proof of the lack of forced conversion in these areas is the remaining Christian communities in these countries. For the first few centuries after the Muslim conquest, the majority of the population of these areas remained Christian. Slowly, they began to take on Islam as their religion and Arabic as their language. Today, large percentages of Christians remain in Egypt (9%), Syria (10%), Lebanon (39%), and Iraq (3%). If those early Muslim conquests (or even later Muslim rulers) forced conversion on anyone, there would be no Christian communities in those countries. Their existence is proof of Islam not spreading by the sword in these areas.
North Africa and Spain
The soldiers and leaders of these early conquests in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Persia were from the first generation of Muslims. Many of them were even companions of the Prophet. What would happen as Muslim expansion continued in later generations, as Muslim armies fought the Byzantines further West, in North Africa and later, in Spain?
The majority of the population of the North African coast in the 600s were Berbers. While the Byzantine Empire controlled most of the coast from Egypt to Algeria, the people of those areas were generally not loyal to the Byzantines who had great trouble trying to subdue the region. Political and social upheaval in the century before Islam led to a devastated region, which was probably just a shell of its former glory as a Roman province.
The first Umayyad caliph, Muawiya, appointed a general, Uqba bin Nafi, to conquer the North African coast from the Byzantines in the 660s. Again, without getting into the details of the tactics and battles, within the course of a few decades, Muslim control over North Africa was solidified.
The same pattern we saw in Southwest Asia continued in North Africa. Conversions were not forced on any of the local populations. No accounts, by either Muslim or non-Muslim sources, mention forced conversion of the Berbers. Indeed, many Berbers did convert to Islam quite quickly. That strengthened the Muslim armies, as huge numbers of newly-converted Berbers would join the armies sweeping across the continent. Had these Berbers been forced to convert, they certainly would not have had the zeal and enthusiasm for Islam that would cause them to join the armies and spread Islamic political control even further against the Byzantines.
After the Muslim conquest of North Africa, came a proposal that would prove to change world history forever. In the early 700s, the Iberian Peninsula (present-day Spain and Portugal) was under the control of the Visigothic King Roderic. A nobleman from Iberia sent to the Muslim governor of North Africa, complaining about the oppressive and tyranical rule of Roderic. The nobleman promised to support a Muslim invasion against Roderic with his own troops if they intervened.
After a few preliminary raids to gauge the local populations’ support for such an intervention, the Muslim general Tariq ibn Ziyad (who may possibly have been Berber himself), ferried an army across from Morocco to Iberia in 711. Within months, Tariq’s army had defeated King Roderic and opened up the country to Muslim control. Within 3 years, the entire Iberian Peninsula was under Muslim control. Many cities, hearing of the justice of Muslim rule, voluntarily opened their doors and welcomed Muslim armies, who ended what they saw as the oppressive rule of the Visigoths.
More documentary evidence survives from this conquest proving that the conquest did not mean forced conversion. In April 713, a Muslim governor in the region negotiated a treaty with a Visigothic noble, which included the provision that the local people “will not be killed or taken prisoner. Nor will they be separated from their women and children. They will not be coerced in matters of religion, their churches will not be burned.”³
We see again in the example of Muslim Spain (which would later be called al-Andalus) that the locals (mostly Christians, although a sizable Jewish population also existed) were not forced to convert to Islam. In fact, in later centuries, an almost utopian society of religious tolerance existed in al-Andalus, in which Muslims, Jews, and Christians all experienced a golden age of knowledge, culture, and philosophy. This enlightened land of religious tolerance would end centuries later with the Christian Reconquista which effectively ethnically cleansed Muslims and Jews from the entire peninsula.
The Indian Subcontinent
Today, two of the most populous Muslim countries in the world, Pakistan (2rd most Muslims), and India (3rd most Muslims), occupy the Indian subcontinent. Islam has had an incredible and lasting impact on the region in all aspects of life. However, even through centuries of Muslim rule by different empires and dynasties, Hinduism and other religions remain as important aspects of the subcontinent.
The reasons for Muslim invasion into the subcontinent were justified by the time period’s rules of warfare. A ship filled with daughters of Muslim traders who were trading in Sri Lanka was attacked by pirates from Sindh (what is now Pakistan) who captured and enslaved the women. Seeking to liberate the women and punish the pirates, an expedition was sent out in 710, led by Muhammad bin Qasim, an Arab from the city of Ta’if.
Bin Qasim’s military expedition into this distant and remote land was made successful by very important social issues in India. The caste system, which originated from Hindu belief, divided society up into very strictly controlled social classes. Those on top led wealthy, comfortable lives, while those on the bottom (particularly untouchables) were seen as the scourge of society. Added to this were the Buddhists, who were generally oppressed by the Hindu princes throughout the country. With the entrance of Muslim armies, which carried with them the promise of an equal society, many Buddhists and lower castes welcomed the Muslim armies. In fact, the first Muslims of Indian origin were probably from the lower castes, as Islam offered them an escape from the oppressive social system they were accustomed to.
With the conquest of Sindh, Muhammad bin Qasim showed that Islamic law’s protection of religious minorities was not just for Christians and Jews. Buddhists and Hindus in the subcontinent were given religious freedom and were not forced to convert. In one case, a Buddhist community complained to bin Qasim of their fear that the Muslim armies would force Islam upon them and they would have to leave the practices of their ancestors. Bin Qasim held a meeting with the Buddhist and Hindu leaders of the town, and promised them religious freedom and asked them to continue leading their lives as they had previously.
We now come back to the question posed at the beginning of the article: did Islam spread by the sword? While numerous people with political and religious agendas make their case otherwise, it is seen as a clear and indisputable fact that the religion of Islam was not spread through violence, coercion, fear, or bloodshed. There exist no accounts of people being forced to convert to Islam under any circumstances. While the political and military control of Muslim leaders did in fact spread through defensive warfare, Muslim leaders and generals in fact went out of their way to protect the rights of other religious groups. The warfare was always carried out only against the governments and armies that the Muslims were at war with. The local citizens were left alone. Although this article only gives specific examples of a few regions, this trend continued throughout Islamic history, following the precedent of the early Muslims.
It is important to note that these are some of the first examples in history of religious tolerance. While religious tolerance and freedom are first seen in “Western” civilization in the Enlightenment of the 1600s and 1700s, Muslims have practiced religious freedom since the 600s AD. The arguments made by some political and historical “pundits” about Islamic belief spreading violently and through warfare clearly have no historical basis. In fact, Muslim religious toleration has influenced the historical tradition of such ideas in lands as diverse as Europe, the Americans and India.
* By extension, modern day terrorism clearly goes against Islamic law.
1- Aboul-Enein, H. Yousuf and Zuhur, Sherifa, Islamic Rulings on Warfare, p. 22, Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College, Diane Publishing Co., Darby PA
2- Kennedy, H. (2007). The Great Arab Conquests: How the Spread of Islam Changed the World We Live In. Philadelphia: Da Capo Press. pg.91
3- Kennedy, H. (2007). The Great Arab Conquests: How the Spread of Islam Changed the World We Live In. Philadelphia: Da Capo Press. pg.315
Aboul-Enein, H. Yousuf and Zuhur, Sherifa, Islamic Rulings on Warfare, p. 22, Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College, Diane Publishing Co., Darby PA
CIA World Factbook
Kennedy, H. (2007). The Great Arab Conquests: How the Spread of Islam Changed the World We Live In. Philadelphia: Da Capo Press.
Ochsenwald, W., & Fisher, S. (2003). The Middle East: A History. (6th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.