Did Islam Spread by the Sword?

By Amina Inloes

One of the most common clichés about Islam is that it “spread by the sword”. After all – the reasoning goes – why would so many people have converted if not under threat of death? It is not difficult to speculate why European Christians would have favored this explanation: many of the early converts to Islam were Christians, and they must have been uncomfortable with so many of their brethren converting. However, some Muslims today also have adopted the idea that their ancestors became Muslim by force, not by choice.

Several factors do lend credibility to this myth. Unlike Christianity, Islam does have concrete teachings regarding jihad (in the sense of warfare) – clear in fiqh books and even du’as such as the fourth Imam’s (A) du’a for the people of the frontiers.[1] Battles, although typically not waged offensively, are an oft-remembered and (let’s admit it) oft-celebrated part of early Islamic history; who hasn’t heard a rousing story of Imam ‘Ali (A) cleaving his enemy in two? Of course, the geopolitical tension between Christian Europe and the Islamic empires fueled this stereotype – even though a fair share of the conflict, such as the Crusades, was not instigated by the Muslims.

It must also be openly acknowledged that while Islam as a faith (as opposed to a political entity) spread in many ways, many Muslim caliphs and military commanders did not adhere to Islamic principles. An obvious example is Khalid ibn al-Waleed, who, on the one hand, brought much of the modern Middle East under Muslim political control but, on the other, was severely censured even by ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab for his crimes.[2] Although many Muslims romantically view the Abbasid era as the “Golden Age”, during this era, “jihad” was often waged for financial or political gain – something completely unacceptable under Islamic principles.

Nevertheless, while the Muslim political entity was spread by the sword, Islam itself was not. Although, after the death of the Prophet (S), Muslim political control swept across the former Byzantine and Persian Empires at lightening speed, it took about three to four hundred years for these regions to become majority Muslim. Although there are accounts of forced conversion, it was not the norm. In fact, there are numerous accounts (oftentimes, pathetically humorous accounts) of Muslim rulers discouraging conversion. For instance, the governor of Egypt is said to have been told off by the caliph for refusing to allow adult males to convert unless they underwent circumcision – an understandable deterrent.[3] The main de-motivator was the jizyah, or a tax (outlined in the Qur’an) levied on non-Muslims in an Islamic state in exchange for protection and exemption from military service. More conversion meant less jizyah, and so the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphs – who generally lived in luxury at the people’s expense – had ample reason to dislike conversion.

Additionally, many of the non-Muslims living under Muslim political control had little contact with Muslims. ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab, for example, intentionally established Kufa and Basra as separate garrison cities to prevent his troops from mixing with the local populations. Persia, although technically under Muslim control, had even less of a Muslim presence, and initially there was only one major (and understaffed) garrison city in the region. Few Muslims also settled in the new territories. Since many parts of the Muslim empire, such as the mountainous regions of Persia, were difficult to access, there was little communication with the Muslim government, and sometimes the jizyah was not even paid. As a result, Muslim political control did not directly lead to the spread of Islam.

Of course, Muslim political rule did facilitate the spread of Islam. Islam seemed more attractive in an empire run by a Muslim elite than it does today, when Islamic culture is no longer seen as a culture of power or prestige. After the Umayyads passed an edict that all government business had to be conducted in Arabic, non-Arab non-Muslims lined up to learn Arabic in hopes of gaining government jobs. This, in turn, facilitated access to the Qur’anic text in its most powerful form – the original Arabic revelation. Nonetheless, state-sponsored da‘wah efforts were minimal and extended primarily to non-Muslim soldiers employed by the Muslim armies. Most real da‘wah efforts would come from people not affiliated with the state, such as traders, Sufis, and the Imams (A).[4]

The relationship between the non-Muslim subjects with their Muslim rulers should not be sugar-coated. Christian records from that time period indicate that local peoples saw the Muslims as an “other” and often as infidels. There are also examples of Muslims attacking and destroying cities. However, one of the lesser-known facts about the spread of Muslim political power is that many of the “conquered” territories actually welcomed Muslim political rule. Many cities are said to have surrendered to Muslim control with little or no fighting. There are also numerous accounts of Christians and Jews covertly assisting the Muslim conquerors by guiding them to secret tunnels or sabotaging their own cities’ defense efforts.

Part of this may simply have been an acknowledgment of the superiority of Muslim political power and the desire to avoid bloodshed, as well as a loss of trust in the ability of the Byzantine and Persian Empires to provide security. However, another major factor – particularly among Christians – was religious. In the early 7th century CE, North Africa and much of the Middle East were under Byzantine (Eastern Roman) control – whose influence is attested to in Surat al-Rum. The Byzantine state religion was Christianity, and these regions were also largely Christian. Many of these Christians, however, did not adhered to the official Byzantine state views on the nature of Jesus or other theological questions, and thus they were deemed heretics. The Byzantines appear to have taken heresy very seriously; not only do they appear to have held genuine hatred, but they persecuted Christian heretics. For instance, a prominent Coptic leader known as “Samuel the Confessor” was tortured and blinded shortly before the Muslim conquest of Egypt. [5] Many of these Christians saw Muslim rule as a means to religious freedom since the Muslims did not interfere in their religious beliefs.

The treaties signed when Christian cities such as Jerusalem and Damascus came under Muslim rule also illustrate a remarkable level of co-existence between Muslims and Christians. Typically, these treaties included clauses for safety of life, property, and “crosses”; freedom of worship; and freedom to leave if one did not want to live under Muslim rule. These treaties also, of course, included clauses requiring payment of the jizyah; still, in many areas, the jizyah amounted to less than the tributes collected by the Byzantines or Persians. One of the most novel ideas, however, was church-sharing: in cities such as Damascus, the central church would become a common house of worship for both Muslims and Christians. It is hard to imagine this arrangement succeeding if the Muslims and Christians had borne serious mutual hostility.[6]

Many Jews are also said to have preferred Muslim rule. This, of course, does not include all Jews; one of the most famous rebellions against Muslim political control was led by a Berber Jewess. But despite the tension between Muslims and Jews today, for most of Islamic history, Jewish minorities flourished in many Islamic lands. While under Muslim control, Spain was renowned for its centers of learning where Muslims, Jews, and Christians researched side by side; Spain also became renowned for its persecution of Jews after it fell out of Muslim control. In fact, before the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem, the Byzantine Empire had forced the Jews out of Jerusalem. After the Muslims took control, they allowed the Jews to resettle.[7] It is a pity that this aspect of Islamic history is largely unknown, and that many people assume that the contemporary problems between Muslims and Jews are a result of age-old religious hatred instead of the real problem – the establishment of Israel and the displacement of the Palestinians.

Of course, it should not be forgotten that Muslim political rule was far from perfect, and that the Umayyad and Abbasid rulers committed atrocities, such as the massacre in Karbala. Nonetheless, a look at the history of this time suggests that Islam itself was not spread by the sword. It also suggests that the spread of Muslim political power – whether or not it was done according to Islamic principles – was not necessarily unwelcomed. But mostly, it suggests that the majority of our forebears who converted to Islam converted not because they were forced to, but because they wanted to.


[1] Al-Sahifah al-Sajjadiyyah, supplication #27.

[2] A Restatement of Islam and the History of Muslims, Ch. 57; also see Tarikh Tabari

[3] “Jihad and Shahadat”, Sayyid Mahmud Taleqani. < http://www.al-islam.org/beliefs/philosophy/jihadandshahadat.html>

[4] For the perspective of the Ahl al-Bayt (A) on da‘wah, see http://www.iqraonline.net/2010/11/should-we-be-silent-callers-to-islam/.

[5] “The Departure of St. Samuel the Abbot of El-Qualamon Monastery (Abba Samuel the Confessor)”, Coptic Church Network. <http://www.copticchurch.net/synaxarium/4_8.html#4>

[6] Hugh Kennedy, The Great Arab Conquests: How the Spread of Islam Changed the World We Live In (Philadelphia: Da Capo Press, 2007), p. 86.

[7] Moshe Gil, A History of Palestine, 634-1099 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), p. 69. The treaty signed with the Muslims suggests that some of the Christian inhabitants of Jerusalem were not happy with the return of the Jewish population, and thus different quarters of the city were established for adherents to different faiths.

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