In a lecture I attended last night, the teacher, who is an Episcopalian priest and a history professor, stated that, in contrast to the growth of the Christian empire, the Islamic expansion was relatively peaceful. That it was mostly a matter of common Christians of the Byzantine empire being attracted to Islam. I had not heard this before and I don’t think many other Christians or Americans have either.
I did some searching on the web and found this lecture by Lynn Harry Nelson, Emeritus Professor of Medieval History at the University of Kansas. What follows is an excerpt addressing this specific question:
The Mediterranean World in 732
By 732, Islam had spread from Spain to Sumatra, and Muslim ships dominated both the Mediterranean Sea and Indian Ocean. The reasons for this rapid expansion were numerous.
a. The Persian and Byzantine empires were exhausted and could not resist Muslim attacks.
b. Many people in the lands of both the Byzantine and Persian empires favored monotheism and found the Byzantine trinity and Persian dualism distasteful. Islam was more to their liking, and they not only converted to Islam, but helped to spread it further.
c. The Muslims swept away the burdensome taxation and top-heavy government in those lands that accepted them.
d. Islam was simple to understand, and its observances were clear and unequivocal. It did not call for asceticism and condemned excesses of all kinds.
e. Conversion was a simple and straightforward matter.
f. The Muslims practiced at least a limited religious toleration, and the social and economic doctrines of Islam were far more humane than those of the other peoples of the time. Islam was a liberal force. Religious toleration in Islam consists of the recognition of the revelations given by God to the Jews, whom the Muslims call "The People of the Law," and to the Christians, who are called "The People of the Book." Muslims recognize the Jewish prophets and the Christian Jesus as having been inspired by God but accord the highest position to Muhammad as "The Seal of the Prophets," to whom God revealed his final and complete message. One should note, however, that the Qu’ran does not suggest that those who worship Idols should be tolerated. In fact, it states that they are either to be converted to Islam or face war.
g. Arabic gave the peoples of Islam a common language, and the Qu’ran gave them a common set of laws and values.
It is useful to think a moment about the nature of the Muslim expansion. Some people regard it as amazing that the relatively small and primitive – if one can use such a word in such circumstances – people as the Arabs were able to defeat powerful empires and gain control of such vast expanses of territory in so short a time. One must remember that we are talking about the Muslim expansion, not Arab conquests. The expansion of Islam was as much, or perhaps much more, a matter of religious conversion than it was of military conquest.
Interesting. This certainly runs counter to the prevailing Western concept of Islam being spread by the sword (which at times it may have been – just like Christianity). I think it puts things in different perspective.