Was Islam Spread By The Sword? A Brief Analysis and Responses to Critics

Professor Thomas W. Arnold was a polyglot and a scholar of massive erudition. His magnum opus1 offers an unbiased and authoritative history of the expansion of Islam. It exposes the deliberate hamperings of some historians and goes directly to the records early sources to examine numerous claims. It also seeks to explain why some persecutions took place in the Muslim world and cogitates the root cause of such incidents.

On the very Introduction page, he writes:

Moreover it is not in the cruelties of the persecutor or the fury of the fanatic that we should look for evidences of the missionary spirit of Islam, any more than in the exploits of that mythical personage – the Muslim warrior with sword in one hand and Qur’an in the other, but in the quiet unobtrusive labours of the preacher and the trader who have carried their faith into every quarter of the globe. (p. 5)

Thus begins his thorough and exhaustive research into the propagation methods adopted by the Muslims to spread Islam. The fact that Prof. Arnold likes to investigate matters from its very root is evident from the fact that the very second chapter of his book is wholly devoted to examining the life of Prophet Muhammad(P). He also quotes numerous Qur’anic verses to support his contentions. One such example is given on p. 43, where he says:

To the heathen Arab, friendship and hostility were as a loan which he sought to repay with interest, and he prided himself on returning evil for evil, and looked down on any who acted otherwise as a weak nidering.

He is the perfect man who late and early plotteth still
To do a kindness to his friends and work his foes and some ill

To such men the Prophet said, “Recompense evil with that which is better” (xxiii:98 ); as they desired the forgiveness of God, they were to pass over and pardon offences (xxiv: 22), and a Paradise, vast as the heavens and the earth, was prepared for those who mastered their anger and forgave others (iiii: 128).

The rest of the chapters focus mainly on the expansion of Islam throughout the globe, as aimed by the book. He debunks many misconceptions and rumours attributed to various Caliphs, especially the so-called “Pact of Umar” as cited by many anti-Muslim missionaries. On p. 57, he writes:

It is in harmony with the same spirit of kindly consideration for his subjects of another faith, that ‘Umar is recorded to have ordered an allowance of money and food to be made to soem Christian lepers, apparently out of the public funds [1]. Even in his last testament, in which he enjoins on his successor the duties of his high office, he remembers the dhimmis (or protected persons of other faiths): “I comment to his care the dhimmis, who enjoy the protection of God and of the Prophet; let him see to it that the covenant with them is kept, and that no greater burdens than they can bear are laid upon them.” [2]

A later generation attributed to ‘Umar a number of restrictive regulations which hampered the Christians in the free exercise of their religion, but De Goeje [3] and Caetani [4] have proved without doubt that they are the invention of a later age; as, however, Muslim theologians of less tolerant periods accepted these ordinaces as genuine, they are of the importance for forming a judgement as to the condition of the Christian Churches under Muslim rule. This so-called ordinace of ‘Umar runs as follows: “In the name of God………. you are at liberty to treat us as enemies and rebels”. [5]

    [1] Baladhuri, p. 129 [Liber Expugnationis Regionum]
    [2] Ibn S’ad, Vol. III, p. 246 [Al-Tabaqat]
    [3]Memoire sur la conquete de la Syrie, p. 143
    [4] Annali dell’ Islam, Vol. III, p. 957.
    [5] Gottheil pp. 382-4 [Dhimmis and Moslems in Egypt]

Tackling the issue of Jizyah so often raised by anti-Muslim missionaries, Prof. Arnold writes:

There is abundant evidence to show that the Christians in the early days of the Muhammadan conquest had little to complain of in the way of religious disabilities. It is true that adherence to their ancient faith rendered them obnoxious to the payment of Jizyah – a word originally denoted tribute of any kind paid by the non-Muslim subjects of the Arab empire, but came later on to be used for the capitation-tax as the fiscal system of the new rulers became fixed [2]; but this Jizyah was too moderate to constitute a burden, seeing that it released them from the compulsory military service that was incumbent on their Muslim fellow-subjects. Conversion to Islam was certainly attended by a certain pecuniary advantage, but his former religion could have had but little hold on a convert who abandoned it merely to gain exemption from the jizyah; and now instead of jizyah, the convert has to pay the legal alms, zakat, annually levied on most kinds of movable and immovable property. [3]

    [2] There is evidence to show that the Arab conquerors left unchanged the fiscal system that they found prevailing in the lands they conquered from the Byzantines, and that the explanation of jizyah as a capitation-tax is an invention of later jusrists, ignorant of the true condition of affairs in the early days of Islam. (Caetani, Vol. IV, p. 610 and Vol. V, p. 449)
    [3] Goldziher, Vol. I, pp. 50-7.

The brilliance of this book lies in its vivacious narration of incidents and to investigate its root causes. It inadvertently answers arguments raised by many anti-Muslim missionaries.

The Answering Islam team has an article authored by Mark Hartwig entitled Islam: Spread by the Sword? where Mr. Hartwig clutches at straws. He gives absolutely no instances where it can be shown that Islam, by and large, has spread through the sword. Rather, Mr. Hartwig wastes his time and ours by reiterating inane concepts which were dealt several times by not only today’s Muslims but Muslims 1000 years prior. Audaciously, he makes the following comment:

    No matter how you cut it, Muhammad was not only a religious leader, but a military leader who waged war against his enemies as soon as he had the means.

This claim is diametrically baseless. Among the numerous incidents, the incident of Tufayl b. Amr is sufficient to refute this. He was a member of the Banu Daws tribe and after he approached Prophet Muhammad(P) who expounded him of the Islamic doctrines, he became a Muslim forthwith. He went back to convince his fellow tribesmen to invite them to this new religion but in vain. Discouraged at this ill-success, he besought Prophet Muhammad(P) to curse the tribe of Banu Daws and wage war against it. The Prophet(P), then, had all the means to do so, yet he refrained. This is what he advised Tufayl, instead:

Return to thy people and summon them to the faith, but deal gently with them.2

Prof. Arnold commenting on the issue of campaigns, refutes Hartwig’s claim:

To give any account of these campaigns is beyond the scope of the present work, but it is important to show that Muhammad, when he found himself at the head of a band of armed followers, was not transformed at once, as some would have us believe, from a peaceful preacher into a fanatic, sword in hand, forcing his religion on whomsoever he could. (p. 34)

“Ali Sina” — the famous anti-Islamic marauder — also makes a similar claim in his forum but regarding the forced conversions in India. He gives us the following Indian site as proof for his claim. The site lists some Muslim invasions and the some massacres of Hindus that followed. Prof. Arnold makes the following comment about information about India as the one cited by Sina:

The history of proselytising movements and the social influences that brought about their attention, and most of the commonly accessible histories of the Muhammadans in Indian, whether written by Europeans or by native authors, are mere chronicles of wars, campaigns and the achievements of princes, in which little mention of the religious life of the time finds a place, unless it has taken the form of fanaticism or intolerance. (p. 255)

The pseudo-Muslims who conquered and plundered did not do such as a result of a religious zeal (they were spiritually dead!) but out of desire for power and dominion. Sir Alfred C. Lyall puts it right when he says:

The military adventurers, who founded dynasties in Northern India and carved out kingdoms in the Dekhan, care little for things spiritual; most of them had indeed no time for proselytism, being continually engaged in conquest or in civil war. They were usually rough Tartars or Moghals; themselves ill-grounded in the faith of Mahomet, and untouched by the true Semitic enthusiasm which inspired the first Arab standard bearers of Islam. The empire they set up was pure military, and it was kept in that state by the half success of their conquests and the comparative failure of their spiritual invasion. They were strong enough to prevent anything like religious amalgamation among the Hindus, and to check the gathering of tribes into nations; but so far were they from converting India, that among the Mahommedans themselves their own faith never acquired an entire and exclusive monopoly of the high offices of administration.3

What “Ali Sina” needs to know is that Islam flourished in India, not as a result of persecutions but of persuasions. This was the rule, not an exception. Sure there were some despots like Mahmud of Ghazna, Muhammad bin Qasim, etc. but there were also people Muhammad Ghori who was responsible for the conversion of the Ghakkars, a tribe of barbaric people4, Firuz Shah Tughlaq who used solely the methods of persuasion to convert a “great number of Hindus”5, and people whose tombs are venerated even today like Arab Muslim preacher Pir Mahabir Khamdayat, a celebrated saint of Gulbarga Sayyid Muhammad Gisudaraq, the highly influential Sayyid Abd al-Qadir Jilani of Baghdad, Shah Muhammad Sadiq Sarmast Husayni, Khwajah Khunmir Husayni and a host of other peaceful missionaries.

Prof. Arnold also makes the following point of conversions on the aftermath of a Muslim invasion by Muhammad b. Qasim:

That the conversion were in the main voluntary, may be judged from the toleration that the Arabs, after the first violence of their onslaught, showed towards their idolatrous subjects. The people of Brahmanabad, for example, whose city had been taken by storm, were allowed to repair their temple, which was a means of livelihood to the Brahmans, and nobody was to be forbidden or prevented from following his own religion, and generally, where submission was made, quarter was readily given, and the people were permitted the exercise of their own creeds and laws. (p. 272)

So it was not persecutions all along that actually got converts to the Muslim Ummah but the peaceful preaching of dozens of missionaries from the Arab world that is responsible for the considerable Muslim population of India tolday. “Ali Sina”, however, on the very main page of his site after quoting Abraham Lincoln, writes:

    Thereupon I concluded: As I would not be a dhimmi, so I would not be a Muslim.

This gives quite a false picture of who dhimmis really are and how they were treated during the Islamic regime. The site he provides is by the notorious critic Bat Ye’or, who coined the word dhimmitude. Dhimmis, as conceded by Ye’or himself, are “protected people” and not “second-class-citizens” as interpreted by some. Since they are the “protected people”, they are to be treated with the utmost respect and kindness. The Prophet Muhammad(P) is reported to have said:

Whosoever wrongs with one with whom a compact has been made (i.e – a dhimmi) and lays down on him a burden beyond his strength, I will be his accuser till the day of judgement.6

This teaching was also known by the Christians, as the Christian historian Al-Makin notes:

The Prophet of Islam has said: “Whoever torments the dhimmis, torments me.”7

What’s more is that many Christians themselves preferred living under the Musim rule rather than rule of the Church! Prof. Arnold notes:

…. the Turkish population and of the number of the renegades who were constantly entering the Sultan’s service – the treatment of their christian subjects by the Ottoman emperors – at least for two centuries after their conquest of Greece – exhibits a toleration such as was at that time quite unknown in the rest of Europe. The Calvinists of Hungary and Transylvania, and the Unitarians of the latter country, long preferred to submit to the Turks rather than fall into the hands of the fanatical house of Hapsburg; and the Protestants of Silesia looked with longing eyes towards Turkey, and would gladly have purchased religious freedom at the price of submission to the Muslim rule. It was to Turkey that the persecuted Spanish Jews fled for refuge in enormous numbers at the end of the fifteenth century, and the Cossacks who belonged to the sect of the Old Believers and were persecuted by the Russian State Church, found in the dominions of the Sultan the toleration which their Christian brethren denied them. (p. 156)

Now why would non-Muslims prefer to live as dhimmis thmselves, if what Bat Ye’or and “Ali Sina” consistently regurgitate as its supposed discriminatory feature is true? Quite odd, if you ask me. Bat Ye’or’s new book, “The Decline of Eastern Christianity Under Islam”, is quite the farce since history is the testimony that Christianity, in fact, spread under Islam!

Dr. George Khoury made the following point about Eastern Christianity in his article:

With its God-and-man doctrine of Christology (in contrast to the orthodox doctrine which held that while in Christ two natures existed, these were moulded into one person), its protest against the deification of the Virgin Mary and its unusual vitality and missionary zeal, this Church at the rise of Islam was the most potent factor in Syrian culture which had impressed itself upon the Near East from Egypt to Persia. Members of this community from the fourth century onward had studied and translated Greek philosophical works and spread them throughout Syria and Mesopotamia. From Edessa the Church extended eastward into Persia. Even under Islam this Church had an unparalleled record of missionary activity. And there was, on the other hand, the western branch of the Syrian Church with its God-man Christology and its exaltation of the Virgin to the celestial rank, and which was comparatively lacking in missionary endeavour. Its theology was monophysite, giving prominence to the unity of Christ at the expense of the human element. In Syria the Monophysite communion was called by hostile Greeks “Jacobites” after Jacob Baradacus, bishop of Edessa in the mid-sixth century.

Prof. Arnold himself has also devoted many pages in explaining the Christian missionary activity during Islamic rule. He mentions many churches (p. 66) being built in Islamic lands and how dhimmis were given high posts. Al-Muwaffaq, who was a virtual ruler of the empire during the reign of his brother al-Mu’tamid (870-892 A.D), entrusted the entire administration of the army to a Christian named Israel. In a later reign of al-Muqtadir (908-932 A.D), a Christian was again in charge of the war office.

Hilal al-Sabi’s brilliant book Ta’rikh al-Wuzara lists many more. The churches, too, were in full bloom during the Islamic rule. In the reign of Abd al-Malik (685-705 A.D), a wealthy Christian of Edessa, named Athanasius, erected in his native city a fine church dedicated to the so-called ‘Mother of God’, and a Baptistery in honour of the picture of Christ that was reputed to have been sent to King Abgar; he also built a number of churches and monasteries in various parts of Egypt, among them two magnificient churches in Fustat.8 In the first year of the reign of Yazid II (A.D 720), Mar Elias, the Jacobite Patriarch of Antioch, made a solemn entry into Antioch, accompanied by his clergy and monks, to consecrate a new church which he caused to built; and in the following year, he consecrated another church in the vaillage of Sarmada, in the district of Antioch, and the only opposition he met with was from the rival Christian sect that accepted the Council of Chalcedon!9

When al-Ma’mun (813-833) was in Egypt he gave permission to two of his chamberlains to erect a church on al-Muqattam, a hill near Cairo; and by the same Caliph’s leve, a wealthy Christian named Bukam, built several fine churches at Burah in Egypt.10 New churches and monasteries were also built in the reign of the Abbasid, al-Mustadi (1170-1180 A.D), according to Ishok of Romgla.11

In fact, Prof. Arnold states:

Indeed so far from the development of the Christian Church being hampered by the establishment of Muhammadan rule, the history of the Nestorians exhibits a remarkable outburst of religious life and energy from the time of their subject to the Muslims. Alternately petted and persecuted by the Persian kings, in whose dominions by far the majority of the members of this sect were found, it has passed a rather precarious existence and had been subjected to harsh treatment, when war between Persia and Byzantium exposed to it the suspeicion of sympathising with the Christian army. But, under the rule of the Caliphs, the security they enjoyed at home enabled them to vigorously push forward their missionary eneterprises aborad. Missionaries were sent into China and India, both of which were raised to the dignity of metropolitan seas in the eighth century; about the same period they gained a footing in Egypt, and later spread Christian faith right across Asia, and by the eleventh century had gained many converts from among the Tatars. (p. 68)

This is highly contrary to anything that can be remotely called a “decline of Eastern Christianity”. The evidence given by various historians, including Professor Arnold, who is the leading authority in these matters, shows how wrong Bat Ye’or, “Ali Sina” and their likes really are. The true spirit of Islam, that was vibrant during the medieval period, was the epitome of tolerance, equity and justice. This same spirit is now desperately in need during this 21st century where christian and muslim persecutions alike and their intolerance for each other is rampant; where wars take the shoulder of religion upon which they execute their missiles; where innocent beings and civilians are being killed ruthlessly in mid-eastern countries where once they all lived in peace and harmony. We need that spirit back. The only way to get it is to establish reason, as done by the early caliphs, and humanity. In order to do that, we need to establish the Qur’anic percepts and revive the real Islamic rule of tolerance and equality. We need to shun aside the worthless propaganda of people like Bat Ye’or, “Ali Sina”, Pat Robertson, Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell and their likes and focus ourselves in the revival of ijtihad.

History, thus, is the testimony that Islam did not spread by the sword but by the peaceful preaching carried out throughout the globe of the blessed Muslim missionaries. It is only under their rule that Eastern Christianity flourished.

In light of the above, it might be noteworthy to conclude in the words of Professor Edward Montet:

Islam is a religion that is essentially rationalistic in the widest sense of this term considered etymologically and historically. The definition of rationalism as a system that bases religious beliefs on principles flourished by the reason applies to it exactly. It is true that Muhammad, who was an enthusiast and possessed, too, the ardour of faith and the fire of conviction, that precious quality he transmitted to so many of his disciples, brought forward his reform as a revelation; but this kind of revelation is only one form of exposition and his religion has all the marks of a collection doctrines founded on the data of reason. To believers, the Muhammadan creed is summed up in belief in the unity of God and in the mission of His Prophet, and to ourselves who coldly analyse his doctrines, to belief in God and a future life; these two dogmas, the minimum of religious belief, statements that to the religious man rest on the firm basis of reason, sum up the whole doctrinal teaching of the Qur’an. The simplicity and the clearness of this teaching are certainly among the most obvious forces at work in the religion and the missionary activity of Islam. It cannot be denied that many doctrines and systems of theology and also many superstitions, from the worship of saints to the use rosaries and aumlets, have become grafted on to the main trunk of the Muslim creed. But in spite of the rich development, in every sense of the term, of the teachings of the Prophet, the Qur’an has invariably kept its place as the fundamental starting-point, and the dogma of the unity of God has always been proclaimed therein with a grandeur, a mjesty, an invariable purity with a note of sure conviction, which it is hard to find it surpassed outside the pale of Islam. The fidelity to the fundamental dogma of the religion, the elemental simplicity of the formula in which it is enunciated, the proof that it gains from the fervid conviction of the missionaries who propagate it, are so many causes to explain the Muhammadan missionary efforts. A so accessible to the ordinary understanding might be expected to pcreed, so precise, so stripped of all theological complexities and consequently possess and does, indeed, possess a marvellous power of winning its way into the consciences of men.12

And only God knows best!

Cite this article as: Mohd Anisul Karim, "Was Islam Spread By The Sword? A Brief Analysis and Responses to Critics," in Bismika Allahuma, October 4, 2005, last accessed March 20, 2018, https://www.bismikaallahuma.org/history/islam-spread-sword/


  1. T.W. Arnold, The Spread of Islam in the World []
  2. Ibn Ishaq’s biography, pp. 252-4 []
  3. Alfred C. Lyall, Asiatic Studies, p. 289 []
  4. Mahomed Kasim Ferishta, History of the Rise of the Mahomedan Power in India (transl. by John Briggs), Vol. I, p. 184 []
  5. Sir H.M. Elliot, The History of India As Told by Its Historians, Vol. III, p. 386 []
  6. Yahya b. Adam, Le Livre de I’Impot Foncier, p. 54 []
  7. Historia Saracenica, p. 11 []
  8. Michael the Elder’s Chronique de Michael le Syrien, Vol. II, p. 476 []
  9. ibid., Vol. II, pp. 490-491 []
  10. Eutychius’ Eutchii Patriarchae Alexandrini Annales, ed. by Louis Cheikho, Vol. II, p. 58 []
  11. Chronique de Michel le Grand, p. 333 []
  12. La propagande chretienne et ses adversaires musulmans (Paris, 1890), pp. 17-18 []

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