Monday, May 28, 2012

Islam spread by the sword?

In a previous post I posed 10 questions to Allah. The second of these questions was this:  If Islam truly is the one true glorious faith, why did your Prophet and his followers need to spread it by the sword?  
A Muslim reader, Kat, said in response to the post that my question was based upon misinformation. Here I try to explain why I posed the question and why I believe it is a fair point to raise with Muslims.
I know that many Muslims share the opinion expressed, for example, by The way To Truth website ( “Islam’s rapid expansion, unequaled (sic) by any other religion, was due to its religious content and values… Many have sought to answer the questions of why the triumph of Islam was so speedy and complete? Why have so many millions embraced the religion of Islam and scarcely a hundred ever recanted?...Islam […] spread rapidly because of its tolerance.”
Now I don’t dispute that many of those who were conquered by the Muslims may have found Islam to be an inspiring faith and thought its followers cultured, spiritual and hence to be a good advert for this new faith. They may have thus converted willingly, I don’t know. But to suggest that Islam spread because it was a tolerant faith and that its amazingly speedy conquest was due purely to its religious content is surely nonsense. Are not these apologists forgetting the word "conquered"?  Do such apologists claim that the following eighty or so battles and wars were fought for nothing then, or that they were all purely defensive in nature?
·     623 - Battle of Waddan.623 - Battle of Safwan.623 - Battle of Dul-'Ashir.624 - Muhammad and converts begin raids on caravans to fund the movement.(624 - Zakat becomes mandatory).624 - Battle of Badr.624 - Battle of Bani Salim.624 - Battle of Eid-ul-Fitr and Zakat-ul-Fitr.624 - Battle of Bani Qainuqa'.624 - Battle of Sawiq.624 - Battle of Ghatfan.624 - Battle of Bahran.625 - Battle of Uhud; .625 - Battle of Humra-ul-Asad.625 - Battle of Banu Nudair.625 - Battle of Dhatur-Riqa.626 - Battle of Badru-Ukhra.626 - Battle of Dumatul-Jandal.626 - Battle of Banu Mustalaq Nikah.627 - Battle of the Trench.627 - Battle of Ahzab.627 - Battle of Bani uraiza.627 - Battle of Bani Lahyan.627 - Battle of Ghaiba.627 - Battle of Khaibar..630 - Muhammad conquers Mecca.630 - Battle of Hunsin.630 - Battle of Tabuk.(632 - Muhammad dies).632 - Abu-Bakr, Muhammad's father-in-law, along with Umar, begin a military move to enforce Islam in Arabia.633 - Battle at Oman.633 - Battle at Hadramaut.633 - Battle of Kazima.633 - Battle of Walaja.633 - Battle of Ulleis.633 - Battle of Anbar.634 - Battle of Basra.634 - Battle of Damascus.634 - Battle of Ajnadin.(634 - Death of Hadrat Abu Bakr. Hadrat Umar Farooq becomes the Caliph).634 - Battle of Namaraq.634 - Battle of Saqatia.635 - Battle of Bridge.635 - Battle of Buwaib.635 - Conquest of Damascus.635 - Battle of Fahl.636 - Battle of Yermuk.636 - Battle of Qadsiyia.636 - Conquest of Madain.637 - Battle of Jalula.638 - Battle of Yarmouk.638 - The Muslims defeat the Romans and enter Jerusalem.638 - Conquest of Jazirah.639 - Conquest of Khuizistan and movement into Egypt.641 - Battle of Nihawand.642 - Battle of Rayy in Persia.643 - Conquest of Azarbaijan.644 - Conquest of Fars.644 - Conquest of Kharan.(644 - Umar is murdered.  Othman becomes the Caliph).647 - Conquest of the island of Cypress.(644 - Uman dies and is succeeded by Caliph Uthman).648 - Campaign against the Byzantines.651 - Naval battle against the Byzantines.654 - Islam spreads into North Africa.(656 - Uthman is murdered.  Ali become Caliph).658 - Battle of Nahrawan.659 - Conquest of Egypt.661 –( Ali is murdered).662 - Egypt falls to Islam rule.666 - Sicily is attacked by Muslims.677 - Siege of Constantinople.687 - Battle of Kufa.691 - Battle of Deir ul Jaliq..700 - Military campaigns in North Africa.702 - Battle of Deir ul Jamira.711 - Muslims invade Gibraltar.711 - Conquest of Spain.713 - Conquest of Multan.716 - Invasion of Constantinople.732 - Battle of Tours in France.740 - Battle of the Nobles.741 - Battle of Bagdoura in North Africa.744 - Battle of Ain al Jurr.746 - Battle of Rupar Thutha.748 - Battle of Rayy.749 - Battle of lsfahan.749 - Battle of Nihawand.750 - Battle of Zab.772 - Battle of Janbi in North Africa. 777 - Battle of Saragossa in Spain. 

So my question remains. If Islam is so self-evidently the way of God, why should it have required so much bloodshed to spread? Is this the way for a religion of peace to establish itself? 
I'm not a Christian, but the very early spread of Christianity is surely an interesting comparator.


  1. Are not these apologists forgetting the word "conquered"?

    definition---1. To defeat or subdue by force, especially by force of arms.
    2. To gain or secure control of by or as if by force of arms
    3. To overcome or surmount by physical, mental, or moral force: I finally conquered my fear of heights.

    The Quran says there is no compulsion in religion---while territory can be conquered by force---hearts cannot. (And this is a lesson well learnt in the recent military adventures of the U.S.). Non-defensive battles are fought for political reasons--whatever they may be---but ideas---whether they are of "spreading democracy" or of religion can only be "forced" on an unwilling people temporarily---as soon as the force weakens---the ideas will be rejected---UNLESS---those ideas have merits/benefits on their which case, people will willingly embrace them.....

    Today, in former communist countries, religion is comming back---many people whose ancestors were Muslim, are rediscovering their religion and learning how to practice it. There is no force involved.

    Bloodshed---This is a somewhat incorrect assumption---At the time of the early terretorial expansion there was a power vaccum because of the decline of the Byzantine and Persian empires and so these conquests weren't as bloody as they could have been....many areas simply surrendered...some even welcomed.

    Christianity---from what little I understand...early Christianity is dominated by doctrinal battles?.....there were many different ideas about the nature of God, Christ, man, salvation....etc....?......and some say that Roman/Western Christianity came about because of political manuevering....?....
    Even today, the variety of "Christianities" is fascinating........(but also very confusing).....

    1. You are quite right, Kat, to highlight the difference between conquering territory and conquering minds. That is why I was careful in my post to accept that many of those conquered MAY have accepted the new religion willingly. (Although how willing a convert is when the alternative is death or a special tax I don't know...) However, in order to afford those possible willing converts the chance to accept Islam, the battles needed to be fought and blood spilled.
      Maybe some of the battles were not as bloody as we might imagine because of the "power vacuum" you mention. However, there is plenty of evidence of the early Muslims fighting ferociously and fearlessly. Indeed some, as you know, even questioned the Prophet about putting the lives of women and children in danger, so frantic was the hand-to-hand combat.(The prophet famously answered that their women were "from them" and therefore legitimate targets)
      As regard to Muslims walking into territory without the need for fighting, one has to wonder then why the Qur'an has so many verses giving explicit instructions for waging war and exhorting the unwilling to fight.

  2. In many ways, Islam can be seen today as a gigantic attempt to whitewash, in 1984 Orwellian ways, a most horrible history of violence and coercion, intrinsic to Islam and the teachings of Islam.

  3. Throughout history military empires enforce their culture on conquered peoples. Was it not through conquest that Alexander the Great brought Hellenism and Greek language, art and science to the Middle East, where it flourished for a thousand years? Did not the Romans bring the Latin language and Roman institutions to Western Europe through military conquests? What about the Spanish, through their conquests of America they brought Catholicism, and Spanish language and culture to a whole continent. The Arab conquests are no different, an ideology imposed on conquered territories through a process of both domination and assimilation, slavery and concubinage. The Arabs assimilated with their conquered subjects, but on their terms. In order to make it in these new Arab societies, the conquered peoples had to adopt the culture, religion, and language of their Arab masters. But once they did do that they were usually treated as equals and could advance all the way to the top of the social ladder. So it is no wonder that they did decide to assimilate.

    The reason why modern conquests do not cause assimilation into the culture of the conqueror has nothing to do with whether or not the conquered people want to assimilate as Kat suggests (given the choice no conquered people would ever want to take up the culture of a foreign occupier), but has everything to do with the fact that the goal of modern conquests like Iraq is not to force anybody to adopt an ideology, far from it. Whatever you believe was the true goal of the Iraq War: to gain oil wealth, to topple Saddam, to destroy weapons of mass destruction, to bring democracy and self-government to Iraq, etc. no one has ever claimed that the goal of the War was to bring American Culture to Iraq. The Americans never intended to stay in Iraq and they have not engaged in any policies to promote American culture, they have actually been very sensitive to insure that this does not happen.

  4. lets take the example of the Spanish---it is true that their ways were bloody---but if Christianity as an idea did not have merits/benefits on its own---it would not have withstood after voilence and bloodshed were over. Coersion can bring about artifical compliance---but an idea has to be better/beneficial to the previously held idea in order to supplant it. No one in their right minds is going to take up an idea that isn't better than the one they had previously---that is just common sense.

    "given the choice no conquered people would ever want to take up the culture of a foreign occupier"---this is true---but when it comes to ideas---things are not as black and white as we may want to imagine---for example, India adopted democracy after it overthrew the the marketplace for ideas---the better ideas win.

    What is "American culture"?----anyway, according to Americans---they seem to think the ideas of equality, liberty and the pursuit of happiness ARE American---am I wrong? ----and isn't that what Bush wanted to promote? (---whatever his real objectives may have been)..........


    "However, in order to afford those possible willing converts the chance to accept Islam, the battles needed to be fought and blood spilled."-----it is true that battles were fought and it is also true that propaganda was used to some degree that these battles were "to gain territory for God/Islam". From my understanding of History---the territorial expansion was a politcal descision in order to keep the army occupied. The "army" though "Muslim" was not all Arab---as territories expanded---the armies of those territories came into the "muslim" army--expanding it considerably---and perhaps keeping these armed professional fighters unoccupied would not have been the wisest strategy at that particular time. (Ofcourse they could have done what the Romans did---use the army as engineers and builders---would have been better---but they did not.)
    Even though propaganda may have been used about the reasons for expanding territory---it is my understanding that actual conversion to Islam was not encouraged in the early expansion period (---though actively preventing conversion would not have been possible considering the nature of the religion). Also the Quran talks about defensive war---which cannot---by any linguistic acrobatics--be understood as territorial expansion---even if it is for God/Islam. Every inch of land on the planet and everything on it, in it,or above it already belongs to God and human beings going about claiming territory "for God" isn't going to change for religion---if an idea brings benefit---one cannot prevent its adoption and if it is not beneficial---one cannot force its adoption except temporarily and superfically.

    History says that expansion of what is called "Islamic empire" was rapid---obviously several factors played into it...concentrating or prioritizing only one of many factors of a complex situation may perhaps limit our understanding of this period of history....?.....

    1. This talk of 'No compulsion in religion' is a mute point in arguing this case. Muhammad revealed this verse in the early years whilst in Mecca, when his movement was weak and he needed to convince the pagans to join Islam and also entice their friends and family. When he became powerful all that changed, those apostatising were to be killed. Those conquered 1) People of the book were to be converted or pay the jizya while being subdued, 2) Pagans though were to be converted or killed, they could not practice their idolatry even if the paid the tax.

      And conversion was not encouraged? When Muhammad died and the peoples of Arabia started reverting to their original religions, Abu Bakr commenced the Ridda Wars to being them back to Islam. That is forcible conversion.

      Muhammad said he was ordered by his god to fight until everyone worshipped Allah. See Sahih Bukhari: SB 1:24 Muhammad said: "I have been ordered by Allah to fight against the people until they testify that none has the right to be worshipped but Allah and that Muhammad is Allah's Apostle, and offer the prayers perfectly and give the obligatory charity, so if they perform that, then they save their lives and property from me..."

      This was the main criteria for expansion of Islam. The fringe benefits like obtaining booty and slaves from among the non-believers and of course power were of course great to have also.

      Apologists today are trying to distort history and play down the violent expansion of Islam. But the true history is still there mostly documented by the Muslims themselves.

      From the mouth of The Ayatollah Khomeini himself: "Whatever good there is exists thanks to the sword and in the shadow of the sword! People cannot be made obedient except with the sword! The sword is the key to Paradise, which can be opened only for Holy Warriors! There are hundreds of Qur’anic verses and Hadiths urging Muslims to value war and to fight. I spit upon those foolish souls who claim that Islam is a religion that prevents men from waging war?"

    2. Thanks, Azim. I hadn't come across that last quote. Can you provide a link or reference to it, for other readers?

    3. A quick google search of the first line will bring back many sites that refer to the quote.

    4. Dude Azim dont just make up crap or copy and paste from some illiterate historian who just makes up stuff to make people read his book

  5. I suppose we all prefer our own here are mine....

    Ridda---As I understand it, the instances where one is defending/defensive battle is when one is under attack, or when a declaration of war is announced or when a treaty of peace or allegiance has been broken. In the last case, the Quran advises a period of negotiation---upon its failure a battle can commence. A leader of a community has a duty/responsibility to protect that community and when peace treaties or treaties of allegiance are broken---action has to be taken.

    Apostacy---My stand is that any compulsion or coersion by voilent means, to remain in Islam by the state or other authority is wrong and against the God-given freedom of choice advocated in the Quran. It is my understanding that the initial "apostacy laws" that were formulated---were under the concept of treason (because only muslims could be soldiers) for use in the army.
    (But this also goes the other way---any obstruction to freely choose Islam is also wrong.)

    ideas cannot be forced---I suppose that the fact that after the death of the Prophet(pbuh) some tribes rebelled proves that ideas cannot be forced---acceptance happens only when the idea "wins over" the hearts of a people. Acceptance is a matter of intentions and no one else has control over one's intentions....only over outward compliance.

    Perhaps the fact that the Ethiopian, Coptic and perhaps other churches that existed at the time of the Prophet(pbuh) still exist today---may speak to the tolerance of Islam or that Islam as an idea was not attractive enough...?.....I understand the tax records of the ex-byzantine and persian territories also show a slow conversion rate.....however one wants to interpret it, rapid territorial expansion does not always equate to rapid religious/ideological conversion. Scholars look at various factors such as environment, geo-politics, economics, and also religion to understand this period. Those who may want to hear other opinions----see Prof Khalid Blankenship, Prof Richard Bulliet, Prof Freedman....I myself do not agree with all of their opinions....but their perspectives are interesting.......

    By the way...Surah 2 is said to be a Medinian revelation(later revelation)...verse 256 says "let there be no compulsion in religion: truth stands out clear from error...."etc. ---It is best to understand the Quran as a whole and not --cut it up for profit--- as the Quran itself advises.

  6. One of the most widespread myths about Islam is that it is a religion that was spread by the sword. This myth is propagated by certain groups with vested interests for political, religious and economic reasons. So is this really just a myth? The answer is clearly yes, and the evidence is clear for everyone to see.

    If Islam was truly spread by the sword and if Muslims conquered nations and forced the inhabitants to either convert to Islam or die, then logically it follows that any nation that was conquered and ruled by Muslims should have a majority Muslim population. So let us consider some examples. Egypt came under Muslim rule early during the expansion of the Muslim nation, almost 1400 years ago. Although it is a majority Muslim nation today, at least 10% of the people of Egypt (8 million out of a total of 80 million) are still practicing coptic Christians, which is the religion that existed in Egypt before Islam. If Muslims had forced Egyptians to convert to Islam or die, then how come one out of every ten Egyptians is still a coptic Christian? In fact there are sizable Christian minorities in many Muslim nations, most notably Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Palestine and Iraq. Muslims ruled Eastern Europe for centuries, yet Muslims today are a small minority in Eastern Europe living mostly in Bosnia, Albania and Kosovo. Muslims also ruled India for almost one thousand years. Only 15% of Indians today are Muslims. So how can any logical person who knows of all these examples still believe that Muslims forced people under their rule to convert? Does this sound like a religion that was spread by the sword?

    Another interesting piece of information is that the country with the largest Muslim population today is Indonesia. It is a well known fact that no Muslim army ever crossed the ocean and invaded Indonesia. Islam was spread in Indonesia and the surrounding countries simply through contact with Muslim merchants and traders.

    The fact is that Islam forbids the forcing of people to change their religion: "Let there be no compulsion in religion: Truth stands out clear from error" (Holy Qur'an, Chapter 2, Verse 256). Islam has clear instructions for Muslims on how to spread the word about this religion: "Invite (all) to the way of thy Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching; and argue with them in ways that are best and most gracious" (Holy Qur'an, Chapter 16, Verse 125).

    Finally, it is interesting to hear what the well known British historian De Lacy O’Leary says about this topic in his book "Islam at the Crossroads" (London, 1923, page 8): "History makes it clear however, that the legend of fanatical Muslims sweeping through the world and forcing Islam at the point of the sword upon conquered races is one of the most fantastically absurd myth that historians have ever repeated."

  7. For a guy who call himself Spinoza, you are asking dumb questions. Islam lived in the real world, not some fantasy utopian world where humans love each other under rainbows. It started in a polytheist society making money out of their religion, and then faced two major empires not really happy about some tribes gaining momentum on their borders. War was inevitable, initially to defend themselves. Once they establish themself as a power, (in the case of Islam, it is a religious and political power) then they were in the position to engage in pre-emptive strikes, opportunity strikes, someone calls you up and you take it as a reason to strike...It doesn t matter the reason. But all these reasons shared one motive. This motive is in the word used in arabic for this period of time, it is not conquest, but Foutouhat, which means Openings. This roughly translates as having a territory open to muslim faith, ie if sbdy wants to become muslim in a place, he should be able to do so and he shouldnt be subjected to torture/murder...etc. Taking this into account, if, lets imagine, the prophet came at our modern age where freedom of belief and faith is a given, there wouldn{t be any Foutouhat, so no war!

  8. Ditto to the last comment!

  9. There are three prerequisites for the founding of an empire: an expanding population, an accumulation of wealth, and a military advantage (a new, superior weapon or tactic). Finding themselves with all three, and energized by a new spirit or philosophy, people have, throughout history, embarked on conquest. Why would one expect the Arabs of the 7th and 8th centuries to have behaved any differently? Where the Arabs (as Muslims) DID differ, in my opinion, was in being relatively benign conquerors. It is a historical fact that they were welcomed by many of the inhabitants of the lands they entered, who went on to embrace much of the culture of their conquerors. Though the Muslims were not perfect (who is?), they created a civilization that remains unsurpassed.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Alan.
      In what way does the civilisation of Islam remain "unsurpassed"?
      Culturally? Where is the great literature, music and theatre? Where is the art saving the the very specific Islamic, non-representational sort?
      Scientifically? In the last 1000 years nothing to equal the science of western secular scientific endeavour has emerged from any Islamic nation.
      Socially? Gay rights, anyone? Women's rights? ...Human rights?
      Economically? er....

    2. Literature recycled >Treasure Island / "Lost"
      Music > Andalusian guitar, troubadour romance, Allah Rakha Rahman (Bollywood / Elizabeth, Lord of War, People like us, Michael Jackson, Lord of the Rings, Vanessa Mae's Ragas dance, Michael Bolton, London Olympics etc.), Morocco world music festivals, Y. Ndour Neneh Cherry's 7 seconds,

      Which other civilisation, let alone Islam has matched the "West"? Recently sanctions-bound modern Iran's non-military scientific advances will astonish the prejudiced & the ignorant
      e.g. 2nd in Asia to S.Korea in nano-tech.

      The Ottoman legal concepts of multiculturalism has much to teach even the modern "West".

      Economically, the rise of Malaysia-Indonesia, Turkey & Pakistan in such a short space of time & under the burdens of great challenges is coming to fruition. The US PNAC Great Game plan to grab resources & dominate this strategically located global central region is not helping stability.
      After casino capitalism Islamic finance (e.g. London) is shoring up the western nations, excluding petro-dollars.
      After the BRICs, Goldman Sachs report on the Next 11.

  10. If you seriously interested in the truth, then it is rather embarrassing that the ideology of Islam is being treated differently, held to a unique threshold by you in comparison to all other major ideologies!
    Even today, the spread of "Freedom & Democracy" is accompanied by a vast enterprise of arms. Numerous lists of battles can be enumerated to give a more balanced approach.

    More rationality in your approach Islam is required ;-)

  11. which other ideologies are you thinking of? Religious or political? Islam claims for itself the moniker "religion of peace" and yet we are, it seems, forbidden to judge it on its own terms. To suggest that I am being unfair because other "ideologies" are not held to account is illogical because no other belief system, whether secular or religious, has adopted such double-think whereby it spreads by violence and threatens those who criticize and at the same time claims to be peaceful.