Islam is the second largest religion in the world. It also remains the fastest-growing in terms of the number of membership and geographical scope. The spread of Islam from the Arabian Peninsula, particularly from Mecca and Medina to the other parts of the Near East and the Middle East, as well as to Europe and South and Southeast Asia was phenomenal. It was quick and effective.
Numerous factors or reasons can explain how and why Islam spread quickly beyond the Arabian Peninsula. Common to these reasons were the encouraging social conditions and political circumstances that made the religion not only an instrument for promoting faith and spirituality but also for encouraging social order through unity.
How and why did Islam spread quickly from the Arabian Peninsula: The Factors of Early Islamization
1. Alienation or Seclusion of the Middle East and Near East from Europe or the Western World
Europe or the Western World was already controlling several territories in the Middle East and the Near East even before the emergence of Islam. However, during that time, these two regions remained socially and politically distant.
The book “Muslim-Christian Relations” by theology professor Dr. Ovey N. Mohammed provided an account of the social and political relationship between Europe and the Middle East before the emergence of Islam. Accordingly, the sociopolitical association began when the Greek Kingdom of Macedon, under the leadership of Alexander the Great, successfully seized several areas in the Middle East from the Persian Empire in 324 B.C.E. These areas were subsequently assimilated in the Roman Empire when it emerged in 26 B.C.E.
Both the Kingdom of Macedon and the Roman Empire attempted to implement the Alexandrian policy of promoting the Hellenistic political and cultural influence over the Middle East. However, there was no strong leadership in the Middle Eastern territories due to immediate problems in the West. For example, there were political unrest and periodic wars that lasted for two centuries following the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C.E. The Roman Empire also failed to establish firm control over the Middle East despite having a substantial presence in the Near East regions of Anatolia and Levant.
The failure of the early European kingdoms to provided proper governance in the Middle East alienated the people in the region. Also, the internal social and political problems of these kingdoms, especially the political instability, contributed to failed governance. Dr. Mohammed stressed that these factors were part of the reasons Islam spread within and beyond the Arabian Peninsula.
2. Emergence and expansion of Islam within the Arabian Peninsula under the Prophet Mohammad
The Prophet Mohammad remains one of the primary reasons Islam spread within the Arabian Peninsula. His leadership was not only based on spreading his religious belief but also on his political agenda. In addition, his social and political impact also remains a critical factor in the expansion of the religion in other parts of the world.
Mohammad introduced Islam in Mecca from 622 B.C.E. until his death in 632 B.C.E. The religion already gained enough following for it to survive even after he died. For example, the Rashidun Caliphate and the Umayyad Caliphate were government and political entities based on Islam. Hence, their expansion from the seventh and eighth centuries also corresponded to the expansion of the religion. Note that these caliphates had an influence stretching from the Middle East, Near East, and Central Asia, to North Africa and numerous territories in Europe such as Southern Italy and the Iberian Peninsula.
To understand further the role of Mohammad in the spread of Islam, it is important to mention that conflicts and divisions characterized the Arabian Peninsula before the emergence of the religion. Even when under the control of Europe, no strong governance promoted social order. Mohammad overcame this hurdle through the introduction of Islam, coupled with his charismatic and steadfast leadership.
Islam essentially served as a force for social cohesion that united different tribes or factions in the Arabian Peninsula. Some of the cohesive qualities of the religion include the introduction and development of cultural identity through religious traditions, and a framework for social organization and governance through policies based on Islamic teachings. Take note that this cohesive or unifying effect is another reason why Islam spread quickly from Mecca and Medina, and beyond within the Arabian Peninsula.
3. Exhaustion of the Opposing Byzantine Empire and Sassanid Empire as a Factor for Early Muslim Conquest
The Arabian Peninsula was in the middle of two large empires. In the north and northwest was the Eastern Roman Empire or the Byzantine Empire while in the northeast was the Sassanid Empire of Persia. These two empires were locked in a longstanding armed conflict. However, this served as an opportunity for the initial phase of Islamic expansion, particularly in areas in the Near East and the Middle East, North Africa, South and Central Asia, and parts of Europe.
Early Muslim Arabs moved simultaneously to the west and the east to expand their territorial scope by taking control of areas beyond the Arabian Peninsula. Note that part of this territorial expansion was the need to spread Islam. This marked the early Muslim conquest. As mentioned in his book, Dr. Mohammad explained that the Muslim Arabs were able to subject areas outside Arabia under Islam because of the loosening political grip of the Byzantine Empire and the Sassanid Empire.
Furthermore, as mentioned in the book “Islam vs. West: Fact or Fiction” by Abubakr Asadulla, the Byzantine Empire and the Sassanid Empire were already exhausted because of their longstanding conflict. They did not have the resource needed to maintain control across their territories, thus leaving several areas vulnerable to outside invasion. This was a critical factor for the success of the early Muslim Conquests and one of the main reason Islam spread beyond the Arabian Peninsula.
The callousness of the Byzantine Empire also contributed to the emerging appeal of Islam in the Near East and the Middle East. To be specific, the empire promoted its authority along with Christianity through force and political intimidation. This ruthlessness fueled separatism within the Middle Eastern communities. Note that even before these communities converted to Islam, they were willing to form alliances with non-Christian factions to free themselves from authority and religion they deemed outlandish.
4. Appeal of Islam Rule Due to a More Fluid Cultural and Ethnic Integration than the Christian Rule
The early Muslims initially had a hard time establishing authority over non-Muslim and non-Arab communities and territories. However, these Muslim conquerors introduced a brand of leadership that was more tolerant, notably by promoting a liberal stance toward cultural plurality. This made Islam appealing to non-Muslims.
Numerous scholars, including Dr. Mohammad and Asadulla, have argued that when compared to their Christian counterparts, Muslims were more tolerant toward non-Muslims. For instance, they provided Christians and Jews protections without forcing conversion in exchange for tax. Over the course of time, Muslim rule and Islam became very appealing to non-Muslim communities.
A high degree of discipline and respect also characterized Muslim soldiers. Muslim leaders prohibited these soldiers from ransacking their conquered communities. They were barred from settlement or to take any possession. In addition, once communities were brought under control, the Muslims did not impose stringent reorganization of the social order. They essentially allowed established leaderships to continue in exchange for paying tax or rent.
It is important to stress the fact that the Byzantine Empire had a strict approach to governance and promoting adherence to the Christian faith. The empire outlawed local customs and traditions that contradicted the teachings from Christianity. Paganism and worship of ancient gods were punishable offenses. Adding to this is the fact that in areas with no strong Byzantine leadership, the communities felt alienated from the empire. Nonetheless, the inviting attitude of the Muslims was a key factor why Islam spread quickly outside the Arabian Peninsula.
Summary: Reasons Islam spread quickly from Mecca and Medina, and Beyond the Arabian Peninsula
There are four factors or reasons explaining how and why Islam spread quickly beyond the Arabian Peninsula. These are poor governance of European empires in pre-Islamic communities in the Middle East and the Near East, the successful leadership of the Prophet Mohammad that left a lasting legacy, the vulnerabilities of the Byzantine Empire and the Sassanid Empire, and the mass appeal of Islam compared to Christianity due to the more tolerant Muslim rule.
Mohammad and his successors, especially the caliphates and the leaders of the early Muslim conquests provided the framework and direction needed to unite the Middle East and the Near East under a form of governance based largely on Islam. The religion served as a tool for unification because of its cohesive characteristics.
Nevertheless, due to other existing social conditions and political situations, the Muslims were able to seize territories from the exhausted Byzantine Empire and Sassanid Empire, as well as other areas beyond the scope of these two established empires. While doing so, they also presented themselves as capable leaders, particularly by making leadership under the banner of Islam appealing to the masses.
FURTHER READINGS AND REFERENCES:
- Asadulla, A. 2009. Islam vs. West: Fact or Fiction?: A Brief Historical, Political, Theological, Philosophical, and Psychological Perspective. Bloomington, IN: iUniverse. ISBN: 978-0-595-50330-8
- Mohammed, O. N. 2008. Muslim-Christian Relations: Past, Present, Future. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers. ISBN: 978-1-59244-917-0