Did Islam Spread by the Sword? (Part-1)

Historians have widely discredited the narrative that the prevalence of Islam in the world today can be explained as a result of forced conversions. Without denying that there may have been some exceptional cases of forced conversion―in blatant violation of clear Islamic directives―this article describes some of the prominent factors in the Islamization of different regions of the world in history, including daʿwah, trade, intermarriage, migration, influencers, Islam’s emphasis on justice and unity, and the universality of Islam. The examples used in this article are not exhaustive, but they help us develop an appreciation of the complex nature of the spread of Islam, a process which certainly cannot be oversimplified into a slogan such as ‘Islam was spread by the sword.’



In 1993, the historian Richard Eaton claimed that “Islam was history’s first truly global civilization.” While the present status of the Muslim Ummah (community) as a functional “civilization” is up for discussion, the scope referenced by Eaton is more accurate today than ever: Islam­­­­ today is undeniably a global dīn (way of life), professed by an estimated 1.8 billion people as of 2015. For some, the prevalence of one of the world’s youngest religions can only be explained by the ‘fact’ that, historically, Islam ‘spread by the sword’―that is, through systematic forced conversion. […] This is a very shallow assertion. However, [it is one which] does raise another important question: if Islam was not spread by the sword, what are the factors that have led to its prevalence across the world today?

The current article discusses these factors and their role in Islam’s historical trajectory in different regions of the world. This analysis is organized in the following way. The first section covers five prominent factors that explain how non-Muslims were exposed to the message of Islam: daʿwah, trade, intermarriage, migration and influencers. The second section covers three prominent factors which primarily explain why non-Muslims embraced this message after they were exposed to it: Islam’s emphasis on justice and unity, and the universality of Islam.

It is important to note that this is not an exhaustive list―in fact, every individual convert had his, or her, own particular experiences that led them to embrace the faith. However, to discuss each case would be redundant, even if it were possible. It is, therefore, necessary to generalize the discussion on the spread of Islam for the sake of meaningful analysis, but not in such a way as to lose sight of the reality: there have been virtually countless different means used to deliver the message of Islam, and countless different reasons for accepting it.

I: The Spread of the Message


Daʿwah, or the act of inviting others to engage with the message of Islam, follows naturally from the Muslim’s obligatory concern for humanity’s success and salvation. “Invite (udʿū) all to the Way of your Lord with wisdom and kind advice” (16:125) is a clear Qurʾānic directive to Muslims. Allāh(swt) also informs Prophet Muhammad (saws) of his mission in the Qurʾān (33:45-6): “O Prophet! We have sent you as a witness, and a deliverer of good news, and a warner, and a caller (dāʿī) to [the Way of] Allāh by His command, and a beacon of light.” After the Prophet (saws), every member of the Muslim Ummah shares in the responsibility of daʿwah to the extent they are able.

An early dāʿī was Muʿādh ibn Jabal, sent by the Prophet (saws) to give daʿwah in Yemen and Hadramawt. The importance of this task is indicated in a letter sent by the Prophet to his contacts in Yemen after dispatching Muʿādh, in which he said, “I have sent you my best man.” According to the historian, Ibn Ishāq, the Prophet (saws) also instructed Muʿādh on the manner of daʿwah before he left, including the following: “Be tolerant, not harsh; spread the word, and do not alienate them.” Bukhārī and Muslim also recorded a version of this narration.

Muʿādh was constantly on the move throughout the region, not settling in one place for too long, so as to maximize the reach of his daʿwah. It is noteworthy that this same region soon became the point of departure for traveling scholars and merchants who introduced Islam to many parts of the world, such as Madagascar, parts of Southeast Asia (as discussed below), and elsewhere. As one scholar has noted, “there exists archeological evidence pointing to a Yemeni mosque—what exactly that means is open to debate—in Quangzhou from the eleventh century, and to a tombstone from Mogadishu dated 1358.”

The role of the daʿwah efforts of Sufi Muslims in the spread of Islam is widely recognized. An archeological study of the oldest surviving Islamic monuments in present-day western Kazakhstan concluded that these were “built under the influence of the Sufi strand of Islam, which retained its influence in the Kazakh steppes until the early fifteenth century,” indicating that Sufism played an important role in the initial spread of Islam in this region. This reinforces earlier suggestions of the influence of traveling Sufis such as Abū’l-Hasan al-Kalamātī and Abū’l-Hasan al-Usbānīkathī (both fl. 10th century) in the spread of Islam in Central Asia, particularly during the period of Sāmānid rule (819-999).

Similarly, Sufism played a leading role in the Islamization of Kashmir, a disputed territory in the foothills of the Himalayas with a population that is currently upwards of 95% Muslim. It is difficult to pinpoint the beginning of the Islamization of Kashmir, but there are records of a Syrian Muslim military general arriving there, possibly as a prisoner of war, as early as 711. There are also records of Kashmir’s Hindu kings requesting Islamic scholars to be sent to their courts, ordering the Qur’an to be translated into the Kashmiri language, and employing Muslims in their court administration and army.

However, the more precisely traceable history of Islam in Kashmir dates to 1323, when the Buddhist ruler of Kashmir, Lha (also known as Rinchen), “subjected himself to the teachings of the religion of Mustafa [i.e., the Prophet (saws)], and the right principles of the truthful path of Murtaza [i.e., ʿAlī ibn AbīTālib], and embraced the Islamic religion with sincerity and conviction.” Lha (after conversion, Mālik Sadr al-Dīn) was an “inquisitive and alert” young man, “fond of the company of learned men,” and he had been inspired during a meeting with a travelling Sufi scholar known as Bulbul Shah (d. 1327), reportedly because he found that Islam was “simple, free from useless ceremonies, caste and priesthood.”

Mālik died shortly after his conversion, but not before he helped Bulbul Shah establish a khanqah (a Sufi school) and a langarkhāna (community kitchen) that fed the poor of all backgrounds twice a day. Many Kashmiris converted at the hands of Bulbul Shah. One of his students, Ahmad, later became the chief Islamic scholar of Kashmir under Shah Mīr, Mālik’s former chief minister and also a Muslim, who came to power in 1339. Thus began the Shah Mīrī (or Swati) dynasty; his descendants ruled Kashmir for the next two centuries. It was during this time that another Sufi scholar, MīrSayyidʿAlī al-Hamdānī (d. 1385), came to the region to teach Islam, ushering in the second wave of da‘wah to Islam in Kashmir. In addition to Kashmir, the widely-traveling Hamdānī is known for his da‘wah in parts of Syria, Iraq, Khawarzm, Central Asia, India, and possibly even Sarandīp (Sri Lanka).

A prominent example of Sufi daʿwah is that of the Ba ʿAlawi tarīqah (order) started by Muhammad ibn ʿAlī al-Faqīh al-Muqaddam (d. 1255) of Hadramawt in Yemen; hence the Ba ʿAlawis are also referred to as Hadramīs. Due in large part to a shift in trade routes due to the Mongol conquest of Baghdad in 1258 (discussed in detail below), starting in the 14th century, members of the Ba ʿAlawi tarīqah increasingly traveled to the Malay-Indonesian Archipelago via India for trade, migration, and daʿwah. As Ulrike Freitag has noted in her study of Islam in this region, “the emergence of Sufism, and from the twelfth century onwards the Sufi orders, offered religious practices which were attractive to non-Muslims as well. Charismatic Sufis who knew how to read and write, who practiced medicine […] drew Muslims and non-Muslims alike into their circles.”

Other reasons for why the Sufi daʿwah of the Ba ʿAlawi was so effective in this region―given that some 250 million Muslims live in Southeast Asia today―are outlined elsewhere in this article, though more research on their impact is needed. As Syed Farid Alatas has noted, discussion of their daʿwah has been “conspicuously absent in the literature on the history of Islam in Southeast Asia.”

Some indicators of the effectiveness of daʿwah in the spread of Islam are seen in the frantic measures taken by some authorities to try to prevent Muslims from carrying out daʿwah work. The enslaved Muslims brought by early Spanish colonizers to the “New World,” for example, often escaped and ran away, finding refuge in Native American settlements. The Spanish authorities feared both the spread of Islam in their colonies and the prospect of joint African–Native American rebellions. The depth of their anxiety was reflected in the severity of punishments; one runaway slave who was plausibly Muslim was recaptured and boiled to death in Costa Rica in 1540, and two Muslims were condemned (one to death, one to life in prison) in 1560 for “having practiced and spread Islam in Cuzco, Peru.” On five different occasions in the 16th century, Spanish authorities passed legislation in efforts to limit the influx of Muslim slaves into the colonies; they were described as an “inconvenience,” at least partially due to their daʿwah activity.

Following in this tradition, Muslims have given daʿwah in different ways virtually everywhere they have gone, and it is therefore not far-fetched to claim that daʿwah has been the most important factor in the spread of Islam. Every example of conversion to Islam that is described in this article involves daʿwah in some form.


The Prophet Muhammad (saws) himself was a merchant at one stage of his life, and trade has historically been instrumental in the spread of his message. The lands that came under Muslim rule after the early conquests included some of the most important trade routes (e.g., large parts of the Silk Road), commercial centres (e.g., Damascus), and ports (e.g., Aden) of the pre-modern world. The Muslims also inherited the ever-lucrative spice trade flowing across the Indian Ocean. As Muslim merchants traveled, they inevitably―and, it may be assumed, often very deliberately―exposed non-Muslims to their beliefs, values, and way of life.

The early emergence of Muslim communities on the Malabar Coast in southwestern India is a fitting example of the role of trade in the spread of Islam. The pre-Islamic Arabs and Persians frequently visited the ports of the Malabar Coast to trade with merchants coming from further east. These connections were so strong that there is a mosque, called CheramanJāmiʿMasjid, that is widely believed to have been originally built by Muslim traders in 630―during the lifetime of Prophet Muhammad (saws).

The narrative of the origins of this mosque is unverifiable, but it does indicate the possibility of a very early Muslim presence on the Malabar Coast. The Muslim traders who settled in Malabar and intermixed with the local population came to form the Māppila Muslim community that is prevalent in the region today. By the 10th century, according to the ʿAbbāsid historian al-Masʿūdī, a settlement called Saymur (south of present-day Mumbai) was home to about 10,000 Muslims. Many of these are likely to have been indigenous converts, the “great majority” of them embracing Islam to escape their status as downtrodden, low-caste Hindus.

Looking further east, it is arguably no coincidence that China’s oldest and largest mosque―the Great Mosque of Xi’an, thought to have been built in 742 CE―stands in the city (then known as Chang’an) that marked the easternmost point of the Silk Road. In addition to Chang’an, early Persian and Arab Muslim merchants also traveled by sea to Guangzhou, Quanzhou, and Kaifeng; the ʿAbbāsid ruler al-Mansūr (d. 775) boasted that there were no obstacles for trade between his new capital, Baghdad, and these commercial centers. An estimated 120,000 “non-Chinese,” including Muslims, Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians, were killed in Guangzhou in 877 during a rebellion, providing us with a sense of how many Muslims (most of them merchants) traveled to and settled in Guangzhou alone. Trade took Muslims as far as “al-Shīla” (Korea), where many of them had settled by the late 800s.

In the case of Southeast Asia, there is evidence dating as far back as the 7th century that Arab traders were active in the region, especially in Sumatra (Indonesia). A shipwreck found off the coast of Java and dated to the year 960 included a stone mold to make medallions that read “al-mulklillāhi al-wāhid al-qahhār” (“All Sovereignty is Allāh’s, the One and Only, the Dominator”). By the 10th century, communities of Muslim traders had started to settle in Southeast Asia, the most prominent of them in Champa (Vietnam), from which the present-day Cham Muslims of Cambodia and Vietnam originate. By the 11th century they were active in present-day Brunei and the Philippines.

A key turning point in the Islamization of Southeast Asia was the Mongol conquest of Baghdad in 1258. Given the damage done to infrastructure and the breakdown of authority in Iraq, the Persian Gulf and the Tigris-Euphrates river system could no longer serve as the primary trade route for the spice trade from the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean, including rising European markets. The Red Sea route rose to prominence, including the ports of Alexandria, Cairo, Jeddah, Aden (from where Hadramīdāʿīs often embarked, headed east), Cambay (Gujarat and Mumbai), Calicut, and Pisai (Malacca and Aceh). Freitag has noted that “the presence of high status and economically successful [Muslim] merchants seems in itself to have provided an example which seemed well worth emulating. Conversion to the faith of the economic elite held advantages such as the promise of becoming part of an international commercial network.”

By the 14th century, the spread of Islam across Southeast Asia was well underway, peaking with the prosperity of the Sultanate of Malacca (1403-1511); notably, the rulers of Cambay and Aceh were also Muslim by the early 15th century. According to the Portuguese apothecary Tomé Pires, who visited Malacca in 1507, it was the most important city in the world, and whoever controlled it “shall have his hands on the throat of Venice”―a reference to Europe’s reliance on the spice trade that flowed through the city.

The spread of Islam in Eastern Europe offers another example of the central role of trade in this process. In the late 1930s, an Arabic silver coin dating from the time of the Umayyad ruler Marwān II (r. 744-50) was found in the village of Potoci in Herzegovina. In nearby Hungary, Muslims had served as minters and money-changers for the court, had been heavily involved in the customs system, and had controlled the production and sale of salt, all before the Golden Bull of 1222 declared that no Muslim or Jew could serve in the administration. Much earlier, King Ladislas I (r. 1077-95) had referred to certain merchants in Hungary, called “Ishmaelites” who had nominally converted to Christianity but continued to profess and practice Islam. And in 2013, excavations at a cemetery in Orosháza revealed that the bodies had been buried with their heads facing south (i.e., in the direction of the Kaʿbah, as per Islamic practice). The village also showed an unusual “lack of pig bones” and the presence of measuring devices, strongly suggesting that its inhabitants were Muslim merchants.

Another case of trade serving as the avenue for the spread of Islam is that of East, Central, and West Africa. Due to their proximity, Arabia and East Africa had a long pre-Islamic history of close political and trade relations. Soon after the advent of Islam, merchants took the lead in introducing the faith to this region. The East Africans developed and maintained close ties with Muslim outposts in the Indian Ocean, especially the ports of Yemen, the Persian Gulf, and India; this brought with it so much cultural exchange that Ibn Battūtah, traveling in the 1300s, noticed that the same food he had enjoyed in Mogadishu (Somalia), Mombasa (Kenya) and Kilwa (Tanzania) was offered to him in Sarandīp (Sri Lanka). The merchants’ “delivery” of Islam was bolstered by a steady stream of refugees coming from Arabia in the 7th-10th centuries, many of them fleeing civil wars or natural disasters. One of them, ʿAlī ibn al-Hasan Shirāzī, later established the Kilwa Sultanate, which at its peak covered the entire Swahili Coast. Despite all of this trade and settlement, it was not until the 13th century that the Islamization of East Africa started to accelerate.

The baqt in Sudan played a key role in the spread of Islam in East-Central Africa. In 652, having completed the conquest of Egypt, Muslim forces moved south and met Nubian forces at Dongola (Sudan). Rather than press for a fight, the two sides agreed to a baqt, or peace agreement, which was remarkably honored for six centuries. Thebaqt enabled Muslim scholars and traders to travel freely in the region, thereby introducing Islam to the Nubians. During the early 9th century, large deposits of gold and emeralds were discovered in the desert south of Aswan. This prompted Egypt’s Arab Bedouin tribes, many of whom had firmly embraced Islam by this point, to migrate into this region, and, over time, to penetrate deep into present-day Sudan and settle down. It is clear that the spread of Islam in this region took centuries, and Islam could be said to have supplanted Christianity in the area of Nubia only by the 14th century at the earliest.

In the Central-West African region, too, Islam was introduced by Muslim merchants from North Africa. It is no coincidence that some of the first towns to develop a significant Muslim population in this region were Awdaghust (Mauritania) and Tadmekka (Mali), two of the southern termini of the famous Trans-Saharan trade route. The geographer Ibn Hawqal (d. c. 988) recorded that Kumbi Saleh, the capital of the Ghana Empire, had a neighborhood of Muslim merchants. Around the years 1009 and 1040, respectively, the kings of Takrur (Senegal) and Gao (Mali) had embraced Islam. By 1085, Islam was spreading quickly in Kanem (Chad-Nigeria). These developments, virtually all initiated by Muslim merchants, paved the way for powerful Afro-Muslim empires such as that of Mansa Musa, which, in turn, facilitated the further spread of Islam in the region, as described above. And, as was the case in many places, Islamization here was a very long process, and was still observably underway when the German explorer Heinrich Barth traveled through the region in the 1850s.

(To be continued)

The author, Hassam Munir, lives in Toronto, Canada, and has a BA in History and Communication Studies (2017). He has experience in the fields of public history and journalism and was recognized as an Emerging Historian at the 2017 Heritage Toronto Awards. Hassam is currently considering an offer of admission to the MA program in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern History at the University of Toronto.
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