The Prophet (s) did not impose Islam on people, and there is evidence to support this. Firstly, the Qur’an itself states that the Prophet’s mission was not to force people to believe, but to only warn them of God’s message. In chapter 88, verses 21-22 it says: “Therefore, you remind (them), for you are only a reminder; you are not a watcher over them.” Furthermore, there are examples in the Qur’an where the Prophet dealt with people who refused to accept Islam, and the Prophet was instructed to leave these people be, replying with, “For you is your religion, and for me is my religion (109:6).” There is also a famous verse in the Qur’an that states that “There is no compulsion in religion; verily the guidance has become clear from the error… (2:256)” meaning that no one should be forced to accept the religion. Instead, the Qur’an clearly describes how to bring someone towards Islam: “Invite all to the Way of your Lord with wisdom and kind advice, and only debate with them in the best manner” (16:125). If the Prophet followed his own preaching, then based on these Qur’anic examples alone, he could not have imposed Islam on people without contradicting it himself.
During the first thirteen years of his prophethood in Makka, the Prophet was just starting to preach Islam and there was heavy persecution against new Muslims. There was no way to force Islam on people – there were only a few followers and social pressure was in the direction of rejecting Islam (Rizvi, 2019). In the last eleven years of the Prophet’s life, the Prophet was invited to Madina by the settlers there, who had already heard and accepted the message of Islam. They did not need the Prophet’s convincing to join Islam, as they were already Muslim and were the ones reaching out to the Prophet themselves in the first place. Notably, when the Prophet accepted their invitation and moved to Madina, not all the settlers wanted to embrace Islam. There was a minority Jewish community in Madina that was content with its own religion and did not want to convert. Records show that rather than force these people to abandon their religion, the Prophet made a pact with this community allowing it to practise its religion freely and outlined an agreement of each other’s rights in the new regime (Rizvi, 2019). This agreement is recorded in history as the Charter of Madina.
The majority of the expansion of the Muslim state took place after the Prophet’s death, and this occurred under the rule of Abu Bakr, Umar ibn al-Khattab, and Uthman bin Affan between 630-700 CE (Rizvi, 2019). During this time, the lands of Iraq, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and parts of Persia were conquered by the Arabs, and many historians argue that military force was used to impose Islam upon the citizens of these lands. The truth is that though force was used to claim territorial and political leadership, force was never used to impose Islam on the inhabitants of the newly claimed lands. There is a distinction between the expansion of the Muslim/Arab empire and the expansion of the religion of Islam, that historians confuse as one and the same (Rizvi, 2019). Islam was both a faith and a political order. It had a total framework for state and society. The spread of Islam and the spread of state institutions became intertwined. Hence the confusion regarding what was being spread.
The success and threat of Islam’s spread surprised other religions, and a narrative emerged of the brutality of Muslims. Though this narrative is not entirely unfounded – there were documented instances of forced conversions and instances where some Muslims disregarded their faith by behaving cruelly – it must have been convenient for Europeans to explain the rapid success of the Muslim/Arab empire using this narrative (Munir, 2018).
Muslim conquerors were effective rulers, building rather than destroying societies. In many places, local communities found Muslim rulers more tolerant than the Byzantian and Persian empires they had lived under. (Esposito, 1988). Treaties were common in outlining the rights of citizens in the conquered lands, allowing them to practise their religion freely in return for paying a tax to the caliph’s treasury (Rizvi, 2019). Those who paid the tax were known as the ‘protected ones’ (dhimmi). It can be argued that the payment of a tax was more preferable to Islamic rulers than conversion of its people to Islam. These taxes, unlike the collection of Islamic Zakat and Khums payments, could be used by the government at their discretion. Thus, there was a possibility of motivation for co-operation with people of other religions rather than getting them to convert.
As Islam penetrated new areas, people were offered three options: (1) conversion, that is, to become a full member of the Muslim community with its rights and duties; (2) acceptance of Muslim rule as protected people and payment of a poll tax (jizya); (3) battle if neither the first nor the second option was accepted. The astonishing expansion of Islam resulted not only from armed conquest but also from the first two peaceful options. (Esposito, 1988).
There are many variables that played a role in the spread of Islam as a religion. As Muslims conquered more territory, it is natural that exposure to, and awareness of, Islam grew. As Ira M. Lapidus writes: “most conversions to Islam were voluntary” (Lapidus, 1988, 243-244). Traders and missionaries, as well as ordinary members of the Muslim society helped people appreciate the value of Islamic teachings, sometimes just through their own example.
There have been countries where Muslims ruled for hundreds of years yet the population remained significantly non-Muslim, such as India and Greece (Rizvi, 2019). Likewise, there are countries now, like the United States, where Islam is one of the fastest-spreading religions though Muslims never had a political or imposing presence (Rizvi, 2019). Hence, it is too simplistic to say that Islam spread by force, and equate the dominance of Arab territory with the dominance of Islam.
Lapidus, I. M. (1988). A History of Islamic Societies. Cambridge: CUP.
Munir, H. (2018, May 12). Did Islam Spread by the Sword? A Critical Look at Forced Conversions. Yaqeen Institute. https://yaqeeninstitute.org/hassam-munir/did-islam-spread-by-the-sword-a-critical-look-at-forced-conversions/#ftnt1
Rizvi, S. M. (2019). How did Islam spread? – By sword or by conversion? Al-Ma’arif Publications. https://www.al-islam.org/articles/how-did-islam-spread-sword-or-conversion-sayyid-muhammad-rizvi
Esposito, John L. (1988) Islam the Straight Path. Oxford University Presshttp://www-personal.umich.edu/~vika/TeachPort/islam00/esposito/chapt2.html