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Inadvertently, there is no doubt that Islam is one of the widely spread religion in the world, with followers spanning across the globe. There are more Christians converting to Islam than there are Muslims converting to Christianity. The pattern and the rapidity with which Islam spread over time has been a point of interest to most scholars with all manner of theories being in the fore to explain this phenomenon. Looking at how Islam is mapped out indicates that in addition to other factors, environmental determinism and communication played a major role.
The spread of Islam can be traced back to the death of Prophet Muhammad. His death prompted the rise of the Arab empire and later the creation of Muslim dynasties spanning over the Middle East, North and West Africa. Indeed a study of the initial spread of Islam is compounded by the lack of proper objective documentation and also the divergent theories being fronted by scholars. However, many recognize that the spread of this religion took place in phases.
The first phase was during the fist century of Islam as spread by Muhammad.
This was an era characterized by Muslim conquests of the existing empires which were reoriented towards Islam. History has it that the initial spread of Muslim ideals was not emphasized on conversion but rather on subordination of the polytheistic societies; “at the outset, they were hostile to conversions because new Muslims diluted the economic status advantages of the Arabs. ” (Ira, 2002, 200) However, Islam became instantly popular as it was offering a new societal order; it was providing an alternative to the existing political and religious identity.
The formation of the Arab empire in addition made Islam an attractive venture to the “elements of the former Byzantine and Sasanian aristocracies, including soldiers, officials, landlords, and others” (Ira, 2002, 200). With time though, the notion that Islam was an exclusive Arab affair would be diminished by the formation of a religious doctrine, this opened the doors to mass conversions. Mosques and schools were built popularizing the religion and building a competitive front to the Christians and the Jews. The second phase was characterized by the formation of Islamic disciplines, establishing a body of Islamic philosophy and law.
It is this era that would witness the spread of Islam to Africa and also in central Asia. From here, Islam would spread gradually to the rest of the world. Theories abound over the rapid spread of Islam across the globe. The most prominent theory and which has been largely discredited forceful conversion. This theory was informed by the early days of the spread of Islam which were characterized by Mohammed forming an army of Muslims to conquer medina. It is also formed by images and stories of an Arab horseman wielding a sword and a Quran.
Indeed, the conquest of North Africa was a result of militarization. Due to its proximity to the Middle East, North Africa had been mapped out as a possible territory where Islam could be spread barely a few decades after the death pf Mohammad. Before its conquest, North Africa was largely under the Christian Byzantines. The Arabs made their inroads by establishing military bases in Tunisia (then referred to as Qayrawan). Islam from here was spread to the native Berbers. The conversion of the Berbers meant that the Arab forces were strengthened and used to conquer Spain as well as some parts of France.
The existing institutions of the Byzantine Empire were removed after the conquest of the Constantinople. From here, the Arab forces progressed to Iran and Asia conquering the existing empires and although they did not establish permanent residents, they instated societal changes that were conducive to the survival of Islam. It is important to observe that these early campaigns were carried out by the Umayyads, under Umar, the second caliph having taken over from Abu Bakr who was the immediate successor of Mohammad.
The Umayyads are seen as having played a major role in the early expansion of Islam through what is referred to as jihad. Their main aim was to conquer, plunder and establish as system of taxation that would benefit the Arabs. It is these incidences that have continued to fuel criticism against Muslims especially by western scholars who maintain that the spread of Islam has been as a result of violence (Frances, 2009, 37). It is important to point out that the theory of forced conversion has largely been discredited. This is not to mean that history is not rife with other incidences of forced conversions.
Christianity and Islam are two religions that have been recognized as at one moment in their history propagated the use of violence to spread and defend the faith, this has remained a controversy and also a contradiction as the two religions are deeply anchored in the ideals of peace and condemnation of violence. The spread of Islam in Bengal has aroused much interest with most leaning towards forced conversion as the reason behind it. The spread of Islam across north and West Africa is also seen as having been fuelled by violence meted out against the locals in the bid to establish a new political order.
Razia (1992, 2) has critically examined this observing that “the ‘sword theory” can only be a partial explanation of an extremely complex process that has resulted in the spread of Islam. ” The initial process of the spread of Islam lay on the “breakdown of the social and religious structures of non-Muslim communities in the tenth to the twelfth centuries. ” (Ira, 2002, 200). This was created animosity and hostility between the Muslims and the non Muslims, leading to the destruction of the existing social and communal organizations.
The resultant collapse of order in the society would see Muslims leaders initiate reconstruction schemes that would see the rise of a new societal beliefs and identities. Major aspects of the spread of Islam are environmental determinism and communication. Environmental determinism is a theory propagating the idea that culture is determined by the physical conditions and not by social conditions as had priory been believed. This was a conclusion that was reached by a cross examination of different cultures, the behaviors and attitudes of those people in relation to physical factors such as climate and topography.
It is a similar line of thinking that has been used to analyze the spread of Islam globally, as Holt et al (1977, 443) observes; “there is a closer relationship between Islam and its geographical setting, than that of any other of the great monotheistic religions. ” A critical analysis of the spread and expansion of Islam reveals one succinct feature; it has largely been laid out in the arid zones and along the major sea routes. As scholars have observed, the rapid spread of Islam can be seen to have occurred along trade routes. The spread of Islam to major parts of Africa has been closely looked into.
Due to its geographic proximity to the Middle East, a few decades after the death of Muhammad, Islam had been expanded to the northern Africa; this would be followed by a push into Spain resulting to Islam spreading across three continents globally. This fast spread has been credited to trade and geographic positioning more than to anything else. The initial spread of Islam was done through military conquest but the later expansion was done through frontiers. A look at the medieval era indicates that the major sea and land routes were in the preserve of the Muslim merchants.
There is evidence that Islam was spread along those routes, as Michael has concurred, “at the time, the leading edges of this expansion were rapidly moving southward along both the east and west coasts of Africa, northeastward into central Asia, and southeastward through India into the Indonesian archipelago. ” (2004, 24) North African traders are credited for having spread Islam to West Africa and later to the south of Sahara. The spread of Islam to Africa took place in three phases. The first phase saw the growth of Muslim communities that lived along the trade routes.
Then, there was a clear correlation between Islam and distance trade. There were clear incentives given to the merchants that enabled them to carry out trade better than the non Muslims. The 12th century saw increased spread of Islam in Africa due to the increased contacts between the two. Merchant scholars were fast becoming advisors in some of the African kingdoms and integration between Africans and the Muslims was taken to a higher level. In the second phase, Islam would cease to be confined in the shores of the Indian oceans and along trade routes into the interior.
The early interactions of the Muslim scholars with the some of the African kings led to a fast spread of Islam. There is evidence of a number of empires that fully embraced Islam and lorded over their subjects. The Mali Empire is a distinct example of this. Initially, Islam, for it to be acceptable to the natives had to be blended with the local traditions. The third phase of the spread of Islam in Africa was through a holy war, a jihad initiated by the Muslims to conquer the waning influence of the pagans.
This led to the growth of communities that fully embraced Islam. The nineteenth century in West Africa was characterized with jihads; this was an era that would see the emergence of strong African Muslim leaders such as Samouri Toure. By the time colonialism was being instituted, Islam had already gained roots that not even the anti slavery campaigns could reduce the growing influence. One factor still remains in Africa; Islam remains the main religion in areas that acted as the major trade routes, which coincidentally were along the ocean shores.
In Africa, as well as in the Middle East, areas dominated by Islam are seen as containing similar geographic and climatic features. Communication is also a major factor that fuelled the rapid spread of Islam. This is in terms of the use of Arab as the main language of Islam thus enhancing interaction and integration of the various converted groups. A look at the history of Arabic reveals that before the onset of Islam, it was regarded as a minor group of the Semitic language. Currently, Arabic is the holy language through which Islamic message was delivered.
The use of Arabic has led to the fast spread of Islam as it has seen the converted being inculcated into the ways and culture of the Arabs. The power of communication can also be seen in the way that the initial Muslim frontiers carried the message across. Unlike the Christians who formed associations and movements to propagate their Christian beliefs, Islam relied on “informal processes such as the formation of business partnerships and political affiliations, as well as through intermarriage.
” (Michael, 2004, 24) This meant that the Muslim frontiers formed tighter ties with the locals enhancing the further spread of Islam. The power of the message passed across was also a major factor in the rapid spread of Islam. Before the coming of Islam, majority of the societies had loosely organized political systems with individuals being locked in their own tribal cocoons with no prospects of interaction with the outside world. Islam however sought to establish a new order; the growth of successful states in the Middle East was being used as a good enough reason to advocate for the spread of Islam civilization.
Islam hence was being seen holding the key to civilization and was soon being identified with leaders and the elites in the society. As Ira has mentioned, “Islam became the religion of tribal peoples and merchant group seeking economic integration, and state elites seeking consolidated political power. ” (2002, 205) Islam presented new ideals, a shift from the past and would see the quest for the formation of new states and the shift from animistic and polytheistic traditional religions to modernity which became characterized by modernism.
Islam was seen as bringing in a new social identity. Indeed, the rapid spread of Islam is a major a topic drawing various views from scholars and pundits. The traditional held view that it was through violence and coercion that the faith has been able to expand globally has been long disputed. Though there is evidence especially in the medieval era when the holy war was used as an instrument of conquest, there is more to this as Christianity also used crusaders in its expansionary mission. Environmental determinism and communication are seen as major factors.
A look at the spread of Islam indicates a certain pattern, though it is globally spread, it is mainly concentrated in middle east, some parts of Europe, central Asia, northern and western Africa. These are areas that border the Middle East and are situated along the major trade routes. The geographical factor of the spread of Islam has remained a key interest. The use of a common language and the propagation of Arabic as the holy language through which the holy message was delivered is also a major factor as it has eased communication and integration of Muslims worldwide.
Razia A. B. (1992) Islam in Bangladesh. BRILL. Michael F. (2004) Islam in world cultures: comparative perspectives. ABC-CLIO, Timothy I. (2003) The archaeology of Islam in sub-Saharan Africa. Cambridge University Press, Holt P. M et al. (1977) The Cambridge History of Islam. Cambridge University Press, Ira M. L. (2002) A history of Islamic societies. Cambridge University Press, Frances O. (2009) History of Islam. The Rosen Publishing Group,
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