The rapid and extensive spread of Islam is among the facts about this religion that was, and still is, a subject of distortion by both Muslims and non-Muslims. One of the widely circulated myths in the media, especially now-a-days, is the myth that Islam was spread by the sword! In the global cultural and political atmosphere, after the events of September 11, Islam was portrayed to the world as a religion of terrorism and that it had spread through its campaign of “holy jihad”; in other words “holy terrorism”! These allegations are religiously and historically groundless.
Religiously, one of the explicit concepts in Islam is that there is no compulsion in religion:
Let there be no compulsion in religion: Truth stands out clear from Error: whoever rejects evil and believes in God hath grasped the most trustworthy hand-hold, that never breaks. And God heareth and knoweth all things.
Surah 2 Verse 256
The other fact is that Islam never declared the concept of converting others into the faith as part of the Muslims’ duties. On the contrary, Islam limited the Muslims’ duties in this respect to the balagh (conveyance):
If then they turn away, We have not sent thee as a guard over them. Thy duty is but to convey (the Message). …
Surah 42 Verse 48
In addition, Islam does not hold Muslims responsible for the deeds of the other nations:
Say: “Ye shall not be questioned as to our sins, nor shall we be questioned as to what ye do.”
Surah 34 Verse 25
Thus, religiously there is no need for Muslims to force others to embrace Islam!
Historically, there is no evidence to sustain the allegation that Islam was spread by the sword. On the contrary, countless evidence shows the opposite. Rationally, it was evident that the expansion of Islam was neither due to the power nor the number of Muslims. Within the first hundred years of Islam, it covered the largest area of the then-known world, whereas the other two powers failed in spreading their religions into the same areas – the Romans (Christianity) and the Persians (Zoroastrianism).
History shows that non-Muslim minorities lived peacefully in the Muslim world under Muslim rulers. Their rights were preserved and they had full freedom to practice their religion. In many regions they also played an active political,economic and cultural/intellectual role within the Islamic civilization. These religious minorities existed with their churches and synagogues in the Muslim world throughout 1400 years of Islam being the ruling doctrine, and they still exist up until today. In contrast, the Christians in Spain abolished all the rights of Muslims during the period of the Inquisition. Muslims as well as Jews at that time were expelled out of Spain, forced to convert into Christianity, or physically eliminated!
Furthermore, there was the Mongol phenomenon, in which the conqueror, who destroyed many parts of the Muslim world, later embraced the religion of the conquered, Islam.
Also, there is the impact of Muslim traders. Through their individual social interactions and their role in commercial dealings, their moral example led to the conversion of many people the far East and West Africa. This was conversion without a single army approaching these areas. Islam was embraced in Indonesia and its neighbors in the absence of the Muslim State, while the rulers of the region were Christians. The traders, not the soldiers, were the ones who introduced Islam there. Indonesia is now the largest Muslim country in population.
In addition, after the collapse of the Muslim civilization and the abolishment of the central Islamic Caliphate, many parts of the Muslim world became subject to non-Muslim rulers. Yet, the Muslim population increased rather than decreased.
Above all, in spite of the political and military weakness of the Muslim world now, and in spite of the hostile media that is dedicated to discredit Islam in many aspects, statistics show that Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world!
In addition, Islam spread into many parts of the world and replaced the existing well-established religions of the area, for example Christianity in North Africa, Zoroastrianism in Persia, Hinduism and Buddhism in the subcontinent. In contrast, when the Muslim world was weakened and colonized by the West, western religions could not replace Islam, in spite of rigorous missionary efforts.
These facts put us face to face with your question; how Islam spread in the world. However, this is not the most important issue, because there are many ways by which Islam spread; commerce, travel, military confrontation, scholarly interaction, social interactions, and more significantly, the effects of the glorious Islamic civilization on the world. The central question should be why Islam spread quickly and distantly?
The answer to the latter question lies in the nature of the message of Islam itself. The message of Islam is simple, straight forward, and suitable to the innate nature of mankind. It has a clear concept of the oneness of God in contrast to the ambiguity of God’s nature in other religions. The oneness of God in Islam also declared the unity of mankind in their origin, value, and destiny. This revolutionary concept made Islam appeal to many people. Islam also attracted others by its simple five pillars, which make the act of worship easier and clear to the average person. Islam also gave the existence of man a full meaning by declaring the concept of accountability for one’s deeds. Finally, the tolerance of Islam towards non-Muslims, along with the system of ethics in Islam, were virtues that drew people’s attention to Islam.
Mahatma Gandhi wrote in Young India – 1920:
‘I became more than ever convinced that it was not the sword that won a place in Islam in those days in the scheme of life. It was the rigid simplicity, the utter self-effacement of the Prophet, the scrupulous regard for his pledges, his intense devotion to his friends and followers, his intrepidity, his fearlessness, his absolute trust in God and his own mission. These and not the sword carried everything before them and surmounted every trouble.’
Allah knows best – wa salaam.
You may also find the following link useful:
How did Islam spread? http://islamonline.net/askaboutislam/display.asp?hquestionID=2722