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Did Islam Spread by the Sword?

When speaking on Islam or introducing Islam at various venues it is very common to face the question: Did Islam spread by the sword? 

Sometimes it is phrased as a question and sometimes as the more familiar embedded accusation in the middle of another question or comment, “but Islam spread by the sword…” 

There are different ways to answer this question. One way, which is the typical Muslim response, which is correct, is to say, “No. Islam did not spread by the sword.” Usually this is followed up by the example of Southeast Asia where Islam spread largely through commerce and regular interactions. This answer focuses on the question of the adoption of the faith itself by individuals.

Another way, which is typical for those who look negatively towards Islam, is to say, “Yes. It did spread by the sword. They are commanded by their faith to forcibly convert people to their faith and have done so throughout history.” This answer focuses on the empire that was inspired by Islam rather than individuals themselves.

The full answer lies in between these two approaches. In this approach Islam did spread by the sword, but it also did not, and it depends what we mean by Islam. 

It is well-known that the state that was governed by the teachings of Islam (starting in the 7th century a.d.) spread very quickly after the death of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). In the span of a century the empire had spread from Arabia to parts of North Africa, the Mediterranean, Central Asia, and even Spain. This spread is why we can say that Islam spread by the sword in one way. This, however, does not represent the spread of the faith itself though, rather it represents the spread of the empire that was inspired by the faith.

In the map above the dark red represents the expansion during the life of Muhammad from 622-632. The red color represents the expansion under the Rightly Guided Caliphs from 632-661. The yellow color represents the expansion under the Umayyad Dynasty from 661-750.

The spread of the empire, however, did not necessarily represent the faith of the individuals who lived under its rule. The faith itself categorically did not spread by the sword. A great evidence of this is to look at the spread of the faith itself in the region of Iraq. Starting from around 25 years after the death of Muhammad (pbuh) and lasting for several centuries, the capital of Islam was in the Greater Iraq region. Richard Bulliet of Columbia University discusses this in his book “Conversion to Islam in the Medieval Period.” He argues that in a place like Greater Iraq, Muslims were not the majority until some 250-300 years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). Dr. Sherman Jackson says about this in his article, “Muslims as a Marginal Minority in America”:

“By the year 150/767, for example, Muslims in greater Iraq numbered roughly 15-20 percent. By 250/864, they had reached 35 to 40 percent. Only after the passage of almost 300 years would Iraq be well over 50 percent Muslim. And it was not until roughly the year 350/961 that the Muslim population reached upwards of 75 percent.”

This is a truly staggering statistic, that I would guess most Muslims have no awareness about, which proves without a doubt that Islam did not spread by the sword. If this was the way that non-Muslims were dealt with in the heart of the Islamic Empire it is indicative of the way they were dealt with in other areas as well, at least as a general policy.

So based on the above we can say to the question that the empire that was inspired by Islam did spread by the sword, as was customary in world politics at that time, but the actual faith itself did not.


4 replies on “Did Islam Spread by the Sword?”

Christianity, too, spread with an empire. Prior to the conversion of Constantine, Christianity grew “from the bottom up.” After his conversion, Constantine dictated that Christianity would be the state religion of the Roman Empire and the faith “grew” from the top down.
The Christian Reformation made distinctions between the early church and the Roman Catholic Church that was established after Constantine’s conversion. Reformers constantly called for a return to the practices of the original Apostles. Finally, no major religious faith has turned more plowshares into swords than Christianity. Hundreds of millions of people have been killed in wars conducted on behalf of Christina nations.

assalamu alaykum

Jazakallahu khayr for this information. I don’t understand whats the difference between saying “the empire which was inspired by the faith(Islaam) spread by the sword but not the faith itself.” I mean if we look at the seerah of the prophet (sala allahu alayhi wa sallam), towards the end of his life he did intend to conquer Shaam from the Romans (Byzantine rule) [proof of this is the Battle of Mu’tah ] and also before his illness (alyhis salatu wa salaam) he was about to send out an army under the command of Usama bin Zayd to fight the Romans. Abu Bakr (ra) sent out this army and it was Abu Bakr who consulted the sahabah on starting an offensive against the Romans and Persians. The conquests (futoohaat) expanded during the khilaafa of Al Faarooq Umar (ra) and onwards.

These conquests were inspired MAINLY because of the religious belief of the sahaba. They implemented the hadeeth, “I have been ordered to fight against the people until they testify that there is none worthy of worship except Allah and that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah, and until they establish the salah and pay the zakat. And if they do that then they will have gained protection from me for their lives and property, unless [they commit acts that are punishable] in Islam, and their reckoning will be with Allah.” [Bukhari & Muslim]

So the first reason for these conquests was to spread Tawheed and eradicate shirk and disbelief on Earth like Allah says, “And fight them until there is no more Fitnah (disbelief and polytheism: i.e. worshipping others besides Allah) and the religion (worship) will all be for Allah Alone [in the whole of the world ]. But if they cease (worshipping others besides Allah), then certainly, Allah is All-Seer of what they do.” [Surah al Anfaal ayah 39]

The second main reason was to spread the land of the Muslims and other reasons (economic, political,etc) but the main reason behind the futoohaat was to spread Islaam.

The sahabah didn’t ask the Romans and Persians if they can enter their land for ghazw. No. The sahabah sent messengers to these rulers first calling them to islaam (proof that these futoohaat were islaamic not just inspired) then if they refused they were given the option to give jizya or fight. They entered their lands either way.

I would like to know if these futoohaat were not islam based (not just inspired), how then did the sahaba interpret the above hadeeth and how do you also interpret it. Shukran.

salam alaykum.

So, basically the article was to refute the argument that you have just put forth. Those verses and hadith should be understood in context. The command was to fight those who were rejecting Islam AND threatening the community of believers until a position of security and stability had been reached or until they stopped fighting and threatening the Muslim community/polity. The evidence that that the goal of the battles was not conversion is that those places that were conquered were not forced to accept Islam, as shown in the post. They paid a tax for protection by the Muslim polity and no longer posed a threat to the polity’s security. Those rulers that were sent letters were given then ultimatum that they were given because they did pose threats to the security of the Muslim polity. Had they accepted Islam they would no longer pose such a threat, but since they did not they had to be fought in battle to establish the security of the Muslim polity. That is a political move and not an attempt at mass conversion or war.

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