The Spread of Islam: Conversion not Conquest

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.



  1. #1 by ambrosia on October 2, 2009 - 8:26 pm

    I mean that with all respect about the Nun Professor, BTW.

  2. #3 by ambrosia on October 3, 2009 - 12:32 am

    My professor is a Nun, actually, she is Dr. Sister Sharon Slear, Dean of Something or Other (Dean of Education, I believe) at College of Notre Dame of Maryland (no football team, no gipper, and no Ronald Reagan). So, we call her Sister Sharon. So, she is my Nun Professor.

    • #4 by Christian Beyer on October 3, 2009 - 6:48 am

      Sure. Notre Dame is right next to Loyola, on North Charles, near Towson. Not too far from where your bosses work at the Baltimore County Board of Ed.

  3. #5 by ambrosia on October 3, 2009 - 11:28 pm

    Yeah, you know your Charm City, doanja?

    Anyway, when you see the light of the Holy See, like I have, you will know that all of those things were necessary evils to prove the church militant.

    You would know that Augustine, along with Abelard and Aquinas, the makers of the faith.

    By the way, have you been to The Cathedral, and seen his Emminence, the Cardinal?

    Nah, I’m just kidding–but I think you would do well to see things on more of a black and white, A is Not Non A, kind of mindset.


    Pretty Please with Romans on top?

    Actually, I want to be more accepting of other faiths, and I see the contributions of Islam to medicine, science, and mathematics. I also think what the Spanish did to the Moors was reprehensible. However, this modern push for Jihad does not reflect well on the history of their faith. I think this was all born during the time of the Ottoman Empire, and the occupation of their world by us infidels (such as the so-called British Mandate, which controlled most of the Middle East) as well as the Crusades. On the other hand, it doesn’t give Hamas a pass when it comes to bombing Israeli busses, or O. B. L. (Osama Bin Laden) the right to send suicide bombers into airports–so, I have to look at the whole picture, and not just look for an irenic solution to the what appear to be historical facts.

    • #6 by Christian Beyer on October 4, 2009 - 8:25 am

      They may have the ‘appearance’ of facts but you will be surprised how un-factual many of these preconceptions about Islam are. Check them out more thoroughly but don’t forget to look into the ‘back stories’ that are usually left out of popular historical accounts. (Like for example, read a little bit about the North African battles that occurred among white “Christian” nations during WWII. Though they had no stake in dispute, the Arab lands were laid waste, entire families were destroyed and their holy cities devastated. The current wave of violence is not entirely or even mostly motivated by religion – they just happen to be Muslim.)

      There is never any justification for terrorism and most Muslims will say that the Quran specifically speaks against it (many Muslims will insist that the Quran not be read literally anyway, that it be interpreted through an Islamic history of tradition and scholarship, much in the same way Reformed Jews and progressive Christians see their scriptures)

      Once you meet more Muslims and read more of their writings and perhaps even visit a mosque or two you will realize that these terrorist and even those extremists that support them are still in a very small minority of Islam. Even when you take in Saudi Arabia. There are more moderate Muslims living in America who are thoroughly entrenched in our economy and culture than there are in many Muslim countries.

  4. #7 by ambrosia on October 4, 2009 - 1:30 pm


    Okay Chris, you’ve broken my resolve, I assent to your views.

    Not really.

  5. #8 by Christian Beyer on October 5, 2009 - 5:47 pm

    Sorry Alex. Your question got stuck in the spam

    In the early 5th century, Augustine essentiålly caved into Roman authority completely and seeing where the power lay, compelled the African church to essentially bow down to Rome. This was extremely unpopular with the majority of the African Christians and even resulted in the disappearance of entire Christian faith traditions (which suited Augustine just fine). He became a power tool for Rome. All this did little to build fidelity between people on the ground and with the Church and the situation became even worse. In two hundred years they were ready for an alternative and Islam offered it.

    See: “Augustine: a new biography” By James Joseph O’Donnell)

    • #9 by ambrosia on October 5, 2009 - 11:11 pm

      Blah-Blah, Blather-Blather

      Figures, you would put down a notable African theologian as an attack on the Holy See.


    • #10 by Alex on October 5, 2009 - 11:12 pm

      Can you give some more info here? All this is very vague. From the information I have at my disposal I understand St. Augustine’s attitude toward Rome to be in line with the rest of the African Church of his time – which is to say that obviously Rome had a certain authority in matters of faith, but not a superior teaching office of any sort. It had auctoritas, but not potestas over the Church in N. Africa.

  6. #11 by khany on December 17, 2009 - 6:26 pm

    hello christian,

    thank you for sharing.

    ‘islam was spread by the sword’ is definitely one of the most off-putting stereotypes. it confirms in the minds of muslims that non-muslims desire to engage with a straw-man construction of islam that is easily ridiculed and rejected rather than interacting with an islam that is lived and understood by the vast majority and muslims.

    it is true that the muslim state expanded chiefly through military conquest. however, islam, as opposed to the state, spread largely through willing conversion. for example, in indonesia, the country with the largest muslim population of more than 200 million, islam was introduced through trade and commerce and no muslim army was ever sent; in the indian subcontinent region with a muslim population ~450 million, islam was spread largely at the hands of holy men, mystics and saints; china which is home to tens of millions of muslims from the earliest days did not see muslim armies. the mongols conquered central asia and destroyed much of the islamic empire during the thirteenth century later adopted the religion of the vanquished.

    moreover, if you look across the globe at regions where muslims have ruled you will see, almost without exception, that there are sizable minorities that continue to live there through tens of centuries of muslim rule… a century of muslim rule in southern italy, half a dozen centuries of muslim rule in indonesia, eight centuries of muslim rule in andalucia (spain) and the indian subcontinent, and over a dozen centuries of rule in north africa and arab lands: all of these places, to this day, have religious communities adhering uninterrupted to their ancestral faith.

    the religious minorities have, generally speaking, lived in relative peace with muslims. so that when jews along with muslims were expelled from spain in the fifteenth century they chose to resettle largely in muslim lands in the ottoman empire. the subcontinent is home to a billion non-muslims, indonesia to over 30 million, malaysia is 40% non-muslim, egypt is home to 10 million christians, lebanon is 40% christian, syria is 20% non-muslim, …

    the point i am trying to make is not that muslims have ‘always’ been tolerant and non-coercive. but given the evidence it is untenable and completely disingenuous to claim that ‘islam was spread by the sword’. singling out muslims for criticism is specially bewildering when one compares the fate of minorities (muslim, christian and jewish) when these lands were reconquered from the muslims, e.g. spain, italy and palestine. so that in the regions that muslims lost and were unable to reconquer one cannot find now any continuity of muslim minorities.

    islam being spread by the sword is the exception, not the rule. as the qur’an instructed the prophet:
    If it had been thy Lord’s will, they would all have believed,- all who are on earth! wilt thou then compel mankind, against their will, to believe!


  7. #12 by Anonymous on March 18, 2010 - 9:20 pm

    this is so good and nice work for me i learn alot of things about islam


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