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The spread of Islam

Overview of the spread of Islam from the time of Muhammed to the Rashidun, Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphates. Discussion of Muslim conquest and conversion.

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Video transcript

- [Instructor] Other videos we have talked about the early history of Islam, which really revolves around the life of Mohammed. Mohammed, as we talked about, was born roughly in 570 and dies in 632. On this timeline here, the white period is before, according to Muslim traditions, that he started having the revelations from God, and the brown period is when he's having these revelations and he's starting to be the leader of this nascent Muslim community. Now what we see here in this dark brown is what was in control of this Muslim community at the time of Mohammed's death. You see even by that period they had control of a good chunk of the Arabian Peninsula. What's particularly surprising is how fast Islam spread shortly after that. The next period, after Mohammed dies, the leadership of the community, of the ummah, goes to the kalifs, and this actually becomes a contentious issue that we'll talk about in other videos. It's the seed of the eventual schism between the Sunis and the Shias. But this next period, the Rashidun, or the Rightly Guided Kalifs, kalif means successors, essentially successors to Mohammed, under these four kalifs, you see Islam spread from as far west as Tunesia and Egypt, all the way through Persia. Keep in mind, this is spreading, overtaking, conquering, what used to be controlled by very powerful empires, the Byzantine Empire, or Eastern Roman Empire, taking territory from them here, and then Sasanid Persia, taking territory from them. This is less than 30 years. Then it spreads even more. During the next caliphate, which is now dynastic, the Umayyad Caliphate, by the end of that at 750 CE, you see Islam has now spread or conquered from modern-day Spain and Portugal, all the way to modern-day India and Pakistan. We could continue this narrative, and we will continue to talk about it in future videos. But what's really interesting is to think about how and why it was able to spread this rapidly. There's few instances in history where we see this type of an empire form this quickly. To get some context on that, we have this text here from the American historian Ira Lapidus' book Islamic Societies to the Nineteenth Century. Ira Lapidus writes, "The expansion of Islam "involved different factors in different regions. "In North Africa, Anatolia, the Balkans, and India," so these are regions that we aren't showing on this map, those happened later on outside of the period depicted in this map, "it was carried out by nomadic Arab or Turkish conquerors." That is a similar form, method that we're talking about though in this map. "In the Indian Ocean and West Africa, "it spread by peaceful contacts among merchants "or through the preaching of missionaries. "In some cases, the diffusion of Islam "depended on its adoption by local ruling families. "In others, it appealed to urban classes of the population, "or tribal communities. "The question of why people convert to Islam "has always generated intense feeling. "Earlier generations of European scholars "believed that conversion to Islam "were made by the point of the sword, "and that conquered people's were given the choice "of conversion or death." So according to Ira Lapidus, these early European scholars viewed it analogous to things like the Spanish Inquisition, or some aspects of the Crusades, or some of what we saw in the New World with the conquistadors, where it really was convert or die. But according to Lapidus, "It is now apparent that conversion by force, "while not unknown in Muslim countries," so there was some forced conversion, but according to Lapidus was, in fact, rare, "Muslim conquerors ordinarily wished to dominate "rather than convert, and most conversions "to Islam were voluntary. "In most cases, worldly and spiritual motives "for conversion blended together." Other sources I've looked at do hint at these early caliphates weren't that interested in conversion. They were clearly Muslim, and they were also Arab dominated, and they liked having this elite Arab Muslim ruling class and they weren't that interested in spreading their religion. Only when we get into the Abbasid Caliphate, where it becomes more multicultural and more Muslim and less Arab focused, that you start to have more and more conversions. The sources I've seen have, by the end of the Omayyad dynasty, only about 10%-30% of the conquered people convert to Islam, but much more convert during what's often referred to as the Golden Age of Islam, when Islam is collecting the works of the ancient Greeks, and the Chinese, and the Hindus, and getting scholars from all around the world under the Abbasid dynasty. Now, when Lapidus talks about in most cases worldly and spiritual motives for conversion blended together, he's referring to these ideas that maybe for some people it just appealed to them. You have to remember, people weren't going from being independent to being subjugated in most cases. Even before the conquest of Islam, they were probably subjugated by a king or part of an empire like the Byzantine Empire or the Persian Empire. So they're really switching from one conqueror to another, and oftentimes people are hopeful that the new conqueror might be better than the last. Oftentimes they're proven wrong. Sometimes it might actually be the case. There might have been some support that allowed it to spread this quickly. There's also worldly motives. If there's a Muslim ruling class, and if you want to be associated with that ruling class, that might be a worldly motivation in order to actually convert. Now the other thing that we do know about these early Muslim empires, and many of the Muslim empires, is they did have this notion of dhimmi status. Dhimmi is referring to the idea of protected persons. It's often referred to as people of the book, but it included Jews, Christians, that Islam, according to Islamic tradition follows in the same tradition of. But then when you eventually have Muslim conquest of India included Hindus and Buddists as well, and it also included Zoroastrians, who the early Muslims considered to be monotheistic. The idea of dhimmi status is that they would have protected rights, they would have the same property contract rights, but different political rights. The Muslim ruling class definitely had better political rights. They would pay a different tax than what the Muslims actually paid. Now in order to get context from a religious point of view, you can look at some of the religious texts of Islam, especially the Koran, and even the Hadith, which are the secondhand accounts of the life and practices of Mohammed. There you get an interesting perspective. On the side of religious tolerance, you have excerpts like this. "There shall be no compulsion "in acceptance of the religion." "Unto you your religion and unto my religion." From and ethnic point of view, there also seems to be a sense of nonsuperiority of one ethnicity over another. "Indeed, there is no superiority "of an Arab over a non-Arab, nor of a non-Arab over an Arab, "nor or a white over a black, nor a black over a white, "except by piety towards God." This is from Mohammed's farewell sermon. This is given by the Hadith, The Life and Sayings of Mohammed. Now on the other hand, there definitely are more militant portions of the Koran. One of the most quoted excerpts is this one. "And fight in the way of God those who fight you, "but transgress not the limits. "Truly God likes not the transgressors. "And kill them wherever you overtake them "and expel them from wherever they have expelled you, "and persecution is worse than killing. "And do not fight them at the sacred mosque "until they fight you there. "But if they fight you, then kill them. "Such is the recompense of the disbelievers. "And if they cease, then indeed "God is forgiving and merciful. "Fight them until there is no persecution "and until worship is acknowledged to be for God. "But if they cease, then there is to be "no aggression except against the oppressors." So a critical view of this is saying, look, this is clearly advocating to kill other people, and fight those who are considered to be disbelievers. That's clearly a critical view of this. You will not see this type of language, for example, in more pacifist notions of, say, the Gospels. It's definitely not the modern notion that we have of passive resistance, or peaceful resistance, and the notion of a Gandhi or a Martin Luther King. Now those who would defend or see a little bit more nuance here, would say, look, you've got to, this is not talking about killing disbelievers arbitrarily. This is talking about killing those who are persecuting you. They would say, look, this revelation is believed, according to Islamic tradition, to have come down when the Muslims were actively being persecuted by Mohammed's tribe, the Quraysh. They were in Medina. They were essentially in exile. They were in fear for their lives, Mohammed's own life. The Quraysh had attempted to kill him. They were torturing and killing that early Muslim community. In that context they're saying, "And fight the way of God those who fight you." So it's really out of defense, trying not to be persecuted. "But transgress not the limits." Even there there are rules of law here, or rules of engagement. "And kill them wherever you overtake them "and expel them from wherever they have expelled you, "and persecution is worse than killing." So this is creating a moral hierarchy that is very debatable, especially in modern times. Is persecution worse than killing? "And do not fight them at the sacred mosque." This really seems to be referring to the Quraysh, because remember they're fighting over this notion of what even should happen at the sacred mosque. "Until they fight you there. "But if they fight you, then kill them. "Such is the recompense for the disbelievers. "And if they cease, then indeed God "is forgiving and merciful." So to some degree, those who would see the nuance in this passage, they say, hey look, this is talking about killing those who persecute you, but it actually seems to be a little bit more conciliatory. Remember, the Koran is, according to Islamic tradition, built on the traditions of the Old Testament and on Christian traditions. Especially relative to the Old Testament, which tends to be much more absolute when someone is disliked by God, whole cities or peoples are destroyed or killed, or God might command his prophets and the leadership to kill other people just because they disbelieve God in the Old Testament. People who would defend this passage or see nuance here says, look, this is about being persecuted and fighting persecution, and if those persecutors stop then don't seek revenge. "And if they cease then indeed God "is forgiving and merciful. "And there is to be no aggression "except against the oppressors." I'll leave it to you to decide. I encourage you to look up your own primary resources. Look up different translations. One of the tricky things of not just the Koran, but including the Bible, which is believed to first be written in Aramaic, or the Old Testament, the Torah, written in Hebrew, is that the translation itself can also give you various nuance. But make your own decisions about what you think is, or your own judgments of what we've talked about in this video.