Myth: Islam Was Spread by the Sword
October 25, 2011
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There’s a stereotypical image of Islam being spread by an Arab riding in on a camel from the desert with a Quran in one hand and a scimitar (a curved sword) in the other, offering a choice of either accepting Islam or losing one’s head. Many Hollywood movies since the 1940s have created this image in people’s minds, as has European propaganda since before the Middle Ages. Even Popes have brought up such false claims in speeches, only later to retract them. Also, many people falsely assume that this is the primary motivation of any terrorist claiming to be Muslim.
- Forcible conversion is prohibited in Islam. The Quran says “Let there be no compulsion in religion” (2:256) and another surah says “And neither I am going to worship that which you have worshipped, nor will you worship the One whom I worship. For you is your faith, and for me, my faith” (109:4-6).
- The religion did not “spread by the sword.” Initially, there were military confrontations between the Muslim state and the existing world powers of Rome and Persia. However, the areas conquered were put under Muslim administration and the populations were free to maintain their own beliefs. Muslims ruled Egypt, Palestine and Lebanon from the 8th century and sizeable Christian communities continued to exist over the past 13 centuries through this day. Muslims ruled India for 1000 years without the vast majority of the population converting to Islam (India is 85% Hindu today). For 700 years the Muslims ruled Moorish Spain; they allowed freedom of religion and trade and education. Historians consider the era to be the “Golden Age of Judaism” because Jewish people flourished under that rule while elsewhere throughout Europe they were victims of anti-Semitism. Jewish art and scholarship is said to have peaked in this age. Maimonides, the eminent Talmud scholar, was born and wrote while the Moors ruled. The prosperity ended after the reconquista, when the Spanish Inquisition descended and both Jews and Muslims were persecuted.
- The largest Muslim country in the world today is Indonesia, having over 200 million citizens. It never saw a Muslim soldier. Islam spread there and in Malaysia and the Philippines by trade. That was also the case of Islam’s spread in West African countries like Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal, Chad and Niger. China has double the Muslim population of Saudi Arabia and yet there was no army or invaders that made them convert. Also, Islam is the fastest growing religion in America today with one estimate of anywhere between 300 and 500 converts daily. This is taking place without any soldiers or even missionaries.
- Ahmed Rehab, an American Muslim civil rights activist, further debunked the notion in an opinion piece:
In other words, for a Muslim to be a Muslim, he or she must accept Islam free of force or coercion. God wishes for us to choose him because we want him, and for no other reason but that. This is a key point that is often misunderstood. Since faith is a matter of the heart, it can never be forced. It is technically impossible that Islam could ever be spread by the sword or by coercion, as some suggest, since even if at gun point (or at the sword blade), one could just as well proclaim to be a Muslim to avoid death, but reject Islam in their heart.
That is not to say that an “empire,” whether Islamic or otherwise, cannot be spread by the sword. But faith cannot. Just as no physical force can coerce you to love someone you do not love, none can coerce you to believe something you do not believe.
God understands this; in fact, He ordained that it be so. Since He is a judge of hearts first and foremost, it is logically necessary that He makes faith a matter of free choice, a matter of the heart and mind. Islam can only be spread by invitation (Da’wah) and persuasion (Hujjah), not coercion (Ikrah). The Qur’an explicitly states: “La Ikrah fel Deen” or “Let there be no compulsion in matters of faith.” (Ultimately, Muslims believe that faith is decreed by divine guidance.)
- Middle East and Islamic history Professor Juan Cole wrote:
In fact, the Qur’an at no point urges that religious faith be imposed on anyone by force. This is what it says about the religions:
‘ [2:62] Those who believe (in the Qur’an), and those who follow the Jewish (scriptures), and the Christians and the Sabians– any who believe in God and the Last Day, and work righteousness, shall have their reward with their Lord; on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve. ‘
…In fact, in early Islam it was hard to join, and Christians who asked to become Muslim were routinely turned away. The tyrannical governor of Iraq, al-Hajjaj, was notorious for this rejection of applicants, because he got higher taxes on non-Muslims. Arab Muslims had conquered Iraq, which was then largely pagan, Zoroastrian, Christian and Jewish. But they weren’t seeking converts and certainly weren’t imposing their religion.