The Spread of Islam

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The Spread of Islam


A Gradual Process . It is often wrongly imagined that as soon as any country came under the political rule of Muslims or a Muslim state, a majority, or even all, of its population started professing Islam as their personal religion, whether from choice or compulsion. In actuality, the spread of Islam as a religion in a particular country has always been a gradual, slow process that has taken decades or, most often, centuries. In fact, this process is still ongoing in most Muslim-majority countries, where there exist religious minorities whose numbers have slowly dwindled over the centuries, often from a point at which their faith was the majority religion.

No Compulsion in Religion . The Qur’an specifies, “There is no compulsion in religion” (2: 256), a statement recognizing that no one can ever be forced to believe anything and commanding Muslims never to try to compel belief. Muslims felt that anyone embracing Islam under duress would be only feigning belief and therefore not be sincere in his or her profession of faith. Even when Muslim rule came to places through conquest, the new rulers rarely required the native populations to embrace Islam. In those rare cases when, contrary to the Qur’anic verse, Islam was required of a non-Muslim, such a conversion could only at best be a verbal assent to something not properly understood and thus not an immediate and complete adherence to a new personal religion. Unlike Christianity, Islam was usually not preached by missionaries to non-Muslims. Rather, throughout history, adherence to Islam has generally been voluntary, and the diverse peoples who have become Muslims have sought out the religion for themselves.

Assimilation . Even after an individual has embraced Islam, he or she may take a long time to learn and apply its rituals and rules, going through many different stages or levels of understanding and practice over time. When such individual processes of religious assimilation are multiplied across a whole population, different people or even whole social classes have different understandings of Islam at the same time. Thus, it is usually not possible to single out a particular historical period as representing the essence of normative Islam. Also, many local nuances and differences remain even after a society has been Islamized for a long time, further guaranteeing the continued existence of diversity within Islam.

The Process of Conversion . The Prophet Mohammad preached Islam at Makkah and Madinah in Arabia for about twenty-three years. Early on, from about 612 to 622, he preached in public at Makkah, but after the migration to Madinah he appears to have preached only in his own house, which became the first masjid, and only to those people who chose to come to him. Preaching in one’s house or in the masjid became the pattern in Islam. Under the first two khalifahs, Islam was required of most of the inhabitants of Arabia who had been pagans, but Christian and Jewish communities were allowed to exist there, particularly in Yemen, where there are still Jews. Outside Arabia, however, the khilafah did not compel non-Arab inhabitants to become Muslims; indeed, it did not even encourage them to do so, fearing a decrease in the state’s revenues from its taxes on non-Muslims, a major source of income. Only Khalifah ‘mar ibn ‘Abd al-Aziz (ruled 717–720) made an effort to encourage adherence to Islam, sending out missionaries to North Africa and other areas. Despite this brief attempt during the early khilafah (632–750), non-Arabs became Muslims mainly of their own volition, sometimes migrating to Muslim military-camp cities, where they were normally not supposed to reside, in order to embrace Islam. Such converts may often have been seeking economic or social advantages rather than individual spiritual fulfillment, but their actions nevertheless spread and eventually deepened popular adherence to Islam. Non-Arab Muslims, called mawali, were sometimes mistreated by their patrons and rulers, and many threw themselves into learning about their new religion as a means of self-defense and resistance against oppression—themes that appear frequently in the Qur’an and hadiths. More literate than the early rulers, these mawali, along with a few of the Arabs, began to produce the enormous body of scholarship on Islamic law and creed. Each group of mawali also sought to spread Islam among their relatives and other members of their ethnic group. Thus, Islam spread in spite of political rulers, not because of them. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that during the years 661–750, apart from the Arabs, the overwhelming majority of the inhabitants of the Umayyad khilafah—which stretched from Morocco to China—were not Muslims. Only toward the end of that period, in about 710, did the first major spread of Islam to non-Arabs take place, among the Berber (or Amazigh) population of North Africa. The Berbers embraced Islam rapidly, but their process of Islamization, which is not well documented, took a long time. Within a few centuries, however, the process was well along, and Christianity disappeared completely from North Africa—as it did from no other place in the Muslim world—while Judaism

persisted there as a small minority. The second major spread of Islam to non-Arabs also began under the Umayy-ads, to the Iranians of Central Asia, beginning in about 720. It is interesting that each of these centers of conversion is far from Arabia and produced immediate political problems for the Umayyad rulers. In North Africa, a Berber movement set up a counter khilafah, breaking the political unity of Islam, while in Central Asia, a revolutionary movement arose that replaced the Umayyads with the Abbasids. Islam was no longer the religion of a single ethnic group or ruling elite.

Islamization . In the central lands of Islam, its gradual spread cannot be precisely documented. Nevertheless, some scholars such as Richard Bulliet have proposed that in Egypt only few Egyptians had become Muslims before the year 700 and that the 50-percent mark was only reached in the 900s, three hundred years after the introduction of Islam. By about 1200, Muslims were more than 90 percent of the population, and religious Islamization was moving apace, as expressed by the proliferation of Muslim religious writing in Egypt that began around that time. In geographical Syria, the process was even slower. The 50-percent mark was not reached until 1200, nearly six hundred years after the arrival of Islam. Iraq and Iran probably were closer to the pattern of Egypt than that of Syria, but Islamization was gradual there too. In large parts of Spain and Portugal, Islam was established between 711 and about 1250 and continued to exist until after 1600; it is not clear that a majority of the population there was ever Muslim, and the Spanish Christian reconquest eventually eliminated Islam completely from the Iberian peninsula. (Spain, Portugal, and the island of Sicily are the only places from which Islam has ever been driven out.) In the East, Muslim law treated Zoroastrians, Buddhists, and Hindus just as it treated Jews and Christians, offering them protection of life, property, and freedom of religious practice in exchange for the payment of a tax. In Sind, the largely Buddhist population appears to have embraced Islam rather rapidly, over about two centuries (712–900), a period during which Buddhism disappeared entirely from that region and for the most part from Afghanistan and Central Asia. Hinduism in Sind, however, declined much more slowly than Buddhism. All the lands discussed to this point were part of the khilafah, but after the decline of the khilafah Islam spread to lands outside its boundaries. Anatolia (or Asia Minor), which makes up most of modern Turkey, came under the rule of rather superficially Islamized Turkish tribesmen after 1071, and its population embraced Islam gradually for centuries thereafter. In Anatolia, the spread of Islam was probably facilitated by the alienation of the population from the Byzantine Empire that had ruled oppressively there in its last period. After the Ottoman Turks reached southeastern Europe in the mid fourteenth century, most Albanians and Bosnians and some Bulgarians became Muslims. Beginning in the fifteenth century, however, the spread of Islam in this area seems to have been impeded by the aversion of the populace to the centralized bureaucracy of the Ottoman Empire, a factor that had not had the same effect in Anatolia because most of the people there had already become Muslims.

Continuing Spread . Beginning in 1192 other Turkish tribesmen took Muslim rule to India, including the area of present-day Bangladesh, and the number of Muslims there gradually increased from that time. The people of Bangladesh were Buddhists, and, beginning about 1300, they—like the Buddhists of Sind—rapidly embraced Islam, leading to a Muslim majority in that region. Elsewhere in India, apart from most of Punjab and Kashmir in the northwest, Hinduism remained the religious system of the majority. In South India and Sri Lanka, Islam was spread by traders and charismatic Sufis, who also extended it to Southeast Asia by 1290, starting in Sumatra and going eastward from there to reach the Moluccas in eastern Indonesia after nearly two more centuries. Although Islam was present throughout the Malay archipelago after that time, it took centuries more for the Islamization process to establish a form of Islam similar to that of the Middle East, and this process is still ongoing. Northeast of the khilafah, Islam gradually extended into the original homelands of the Turks and Mongols, eventually becoming at least the nominal religion of nearly all Turkic-speaking peoples. Beyond those regions, Islam spread into China, where it was to some extent tolerated by the Chinese empire.

Africa . Before 1500, Islam spread widely in sub-Saharan Africa. The first place south of the Sahara documented as having embraced Islam is Gao on the Niger River in Mali, which was Muslim, at least in name, before 990, by a voluntary act of its ruler. By 1040 the Tucolor or Takarir of Senegal became Muslims, and from them Islam spread to the region of present-day Senegal, west Mali, and Guinea in the same century. After the Soninke of the Kingdom of Ghana became Muslims about 1076, Islam began to spread more widely along the Niger, and Muslims established the well-known kingdoms of Mali (thirteenth to fifteenth century) and Songhai (1465 – after 1600). Farther east, Kanem-Bornu around Lake Chad also became Muslim shortly after 1100. As in Turkestan, India, and Indonesia, traders usually introduced Islam at first, were followed a considerable time later by charismatic Sufis, and still later by scholars teaching a more text-oriented form of Islam with an emphasis on the law. This process led eventually to greater Islamization of practice. In Mali, the spread of classical Muslim scholarship seems to date from the early fourteenth century. By 1500, Islam was well established in West Africa throughout the Sahil belt and along the Niger River into modern Nigeria. In East Africa, traders had spread Islam down the coast by the tenth century, and it gradually developed further in the subsequent centuries. In the Sudan, south of Egypt, the population of Nubia gradually became Muslim during the fourteenth century, owing to some immigration of Muslim Arab tribesmen and the preaching of Islam, as well as to the weakening of the Christian kingdom there. Muslim control and presence, however, did not extend south of the confluence of the Blue and White Niles before 1500.

The State and Islamization . Islam has tended to spread best and fastest when the population of a region is not ruled as a powerful, centralized Muslim state. In such cases—as with the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans during the fifteenth century, or the Sultanate of Delhi and the Mogul empire in northern India—non-Muslim populations seem to have viewed their powerful Muslim rulers as an alien force, and thus resisted conversion to Islam. Whoever did embrace Islam in such circumstances, if not for material gain, usually did so because of the efforts of itinerant Sufi preachers, who were not under the control of the state. On the other hand, when Muslim political regimes were weak, decentralized, disunited, or completely absent, Islam as a religion flourished and often spread to non-Muslims.


Richard W. Bulliet, Conversion to Islam in the Medieval Period: An Essay in Quantitative History (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1979).

Bulliet, Islam: The View from the Edge (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994).

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The Spread of Islam

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