Misconceptions About Islam: Was Islam spread by the sword? (2019/12/28)

In the 21st century, Islam has become the second largest religion in the world yet it still faces a lot of unfair assessments by people of other faiths, the media, and many political leaders. The misconception that Islam has spread largely through conquests and forced conversions is historically wrong and needs to be addressed. The idea of spreading Islam by the sword through forced conversion contradicts the Quran and many Islamic principles. This misconception feeds on false narratives that have been propagated by many western writers over centuries but have recently seen an increase in attention due to the fear of terrorist attacks and the rampant misinformation on the internet. The fear of Islam and violent terrorist groups like ISIS has grown exponentially over the past few decades and has only been aided by many news outlets and politicians. The scapegoating of Islam as well as Muslim immigrants by politicians and the media attracts many eyes and has fueled prejudice, hate, and Islamophobia across the world. Muslims are forbidden to compel and pressure non-Muslims to convert to Islam against their will. Although one of the primary goals of Islamic conquests was to spread tawhid (which is the belief in one god), it did in no way lead to the forced conversion of people to Islam. In other words, islamic conquests in a time of imperial statehood served to spread the message of Islam and allow for its protection under an imperial state. With that being said, Islamic conquests have clear and definitive laws when it comes to war and bloodshed that forbid forced conversion.

Many people who say that Islam spread by the sword fail to look at Indonesia. Indonesia has the largest population of Muslims in the world, yet it lies 8,628 km away from Mecca, the birthplace of Islam and the Prophet Muhammad SAW. No Muslim army has ever marched on Indonesia and forcibly converted the people to Islam. Instead, Islam was introduced to Indonesia through Muslim traders who traveled to southeast Asia using the Indian ocean trade route. As these traders interacted with the inhabitants of the islands, they shared their religion with Indonesians and Islam spread throughout the region.

When the world was still in a period of imperial statehood, Muslims did conquer many empires and regions in the name of Islam and tawhid. But the fact remains that the conquerors did not force the people to convert and did not unprovokingly initiate conflict. Rather there was another reason why they invaded or started conflict. These reasons include fighting in self-defense, to free people from their oppressors, and fighting against enemies which posed a threat to the safety and security of the Muslim state. Muslims are forbidden to go to war or fight for worldly gain, if they do then they will have no rewards in the afterlife for it as shown in the hadith by the prophet SAW:“Whoever joins a campaign in the way of Allah with no intention but to acquire some spoils, he will only have what he intended.”(Sunan al-Nasā’ī 3138)

Many of the non-Muslim people’s in newly conquered empires did not convert to Islam until two centuries after they came under Muslim rule. In the case of many Muslim conquests, they occurred as a result of an oppressed people pleading for help from a Muslim general or caliph to free them from their oppressors. Take the Muslim conquest of Spain, referred to as “Al-Andalus”, which lasted for 800 years. The Visigoths conquered Spain after the fall of the Roman empire and were famous for their persecution of the Jews and Catholic Canaanites who resided in the Iberian Peninsula. The king of the Visigoths: Roderic, brutally imposed his Trinitarian Christian beliefs on the Unitarian Christian and Jewish population. This officially made Spain a land under occupation and persecution because it was not under the rule of its indigenous inhabitants. Sheikh Muhammad Abu Zahrah said in his book al-‘Alaaqaat al-Duwaliyyah fi’l-Islam: “Islam looks at the people who are being ruled unjustly and whose freedoms are being restricted with compassion and kindness, and it supports them if they ask for support, and relieves them of the harshness of the tyrants if they ask them for help.” During the rule of the Umayyad caliphate, General Moosa ibn Nusayr received a message from the Jews of Spain asking for help against the oppressive Visigoths. Moosa ibn Nusayr and his commander Tarik ibn Ziyad invaded the Iberian Peninsula to liberate the people from the Visigoths. In many accounts the Jews and Christians aided the Muslims in their fight against the Visigoths and welcomed them into their cities as saviors. Various Spanish historians have tried to defend the oppressive Visigoths out of resentment to the Islamic presence in that area, yet the consensus of many historians says that the persecution of the Jews in the Iberian Peninsula would have left no trace of them if not for Muslim interference. Many of the people of the Iberian Peninsula converted to Islam after their liberation from the Visigoths and preferred the rule of the Muslims over their previous rulers.

There is no denying that there weren’t instances of forced conversion to Islam throughout history, but these instances weren’t common,glorified, or permitted in Islam. Some Muslims in the past have disregarded the teachings of Islam and treated non-Muslims cruelly and brutally. But how do these evil acts differ from the Crusades or the Spanish inquisition which both stand in stark conflict with the teachings of Christianity. What sometimes could be considered forced conversions of people to Islam, quickly become virtuous under closer examination. An example of this would be Prophet Muhammad SAW conquest of Mecca. After the bloodless conquest of Mecca, Prophet Muhammad gave the polytheist disbelievers a choice: to learn about Islam and convert in the next few months or be asked to leave Mecca. The Quran clearly states in Surat al-Baqara: “There shall be no compulsion in [acceptance of] the religion. The right course has become clear from the wrong.” (2:256). The prophet Muhammad SAW gave the polytheists a choice to leave mecca if they wished to reject Islam. This happened following a conquest in which there were less than a handful of casualties.

The Islamic laws around war and bloodshed forbid the killing of innocents and the destruction of crops or property. These laws differentiate Islamic conquests from other religious conquests. Take for example the first crusade which violated the principles of modern just war ethics through the brutalizing and slaughtering of innocent people. Although Christianity doesn’t necessarily support incidents like the crusades they did happen on a major scale and were commanded by the highest Catholic authority of the time: Pope Urban the Second. The crusades targeted Jews and Muslims without mercy during the crusades and according to historic accounts, the blood of the Muslims and Jews in Jerusalem filled the streets and reached the shoulders of the crusader’s horses. The mass slaughter that occurred during the first crusade is forbidden during Muslim conquests as shown by Salahuddin when he retook Jerusalem from the crusaders after 100 years of Christian control. Salahuddin pardoned all the Christian inhabitants in Jerusalem and allowed them to leave the city in peace. Salahuddin’s actions were absolutely unheard of in the 12th century and stand as evidence for the ethics that Islam instructs Muslims to conduct on the battlefield.

The misconception that Islam spread by the sword is historically wrong and goes against the ethics and virtues that Muslims conducted during war throughout history. The expansion of Islamic empires required just treatment of non Muslims and the freedom of choice to convert to Islam. The majority of historians agree that forced conversions to Islam were rare and exceptional because of Islam’s prohibition of forced conversion. This ancient prejudice against Islam has been used for centuries by Western kings and writers who have portrayed Islam as a violent and barbaric religion. This prejudice has arisen again recently due to Islamophobia and the efforts of politicians to justify the war on terror or to undermine Islam’s message of justice and coexistence.

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