The question of how Islam started from a small desert city in the Arabian Peninsula to eventually reach Spain and China is sometimes reduced to the faith being “spread by the sword.”
In this episode, host Mohamad Zaoud talks to Hassam Munir, author of the Yaqeen Institute paper “Did Islam Spread by the Sword? A Critical Look at Forced Conversions,” to deconstruct this narrative.
so apparently some people think that you and i and many other muslims are only muslims because our ancestors were forced into islam that is that islam was spread by the sword or was it welcome to double take a podcast by yakrin institute where the only thing we're gonna force you to do is to subscribe now i'm just joking double take is a podcast about questions and issues in islam that give us pause and today on the show we have the self-proclaimed professor in islamic history brother hassan munir who wrote an article did islam spread by the sword brother hassam is a fellow at the institute and i'm really really excited to have him on the on the show today brother hassan salam alaikum and welcome to the show salaam for having me i'm really looking forward to this conversation thank you so much so um go back to the beginning what made you go and write an article about islam being spread by the sort what was that point where you had to put pen to paper so i was an undergraduate student at a university here in canada and i was studying media studies and history and i had a friend who was studying economics now my friend's professor who was a senior professor in the department of economics one day says to him as they're having an after-class discussion about islam and history and these kinds of things but the professor basically says that the reason that most people the implication being him as well my friend are muslim today is because their ancestors at some point were forced to convert to islam and this causes sort of some doubt in my friend's mind as well because of course we want to be able to respond to that and our inclination is that of all no right it must have been a choice that's what we want to say but um ultimately what he needed to do was present sort of an academic argument to respond to this high-ranking professor so he came to me he knew i had an interest in history and um the question sparked my curiosity as well that's something that we need to address so i started researching it a little bit and ultimately came up with this academic article which we presented to the professor and he was actually very engaging with it he actually read it and he did say that it did shift his perspective it did question make him question himself and ultimately we don't know to what extent his views of islam changed but certainly he acknowledged that it did have an impact on him and that's why i realized like the value of this kind of work and ultimately i was able to contribute that research to eugene institute as well no mashallah alex so did you invite him to islam i'm just joking no like if i was if i was the professor i and i attended um the uh the msa hotbus for example uh i'd hear most weeks uh or many weeks uh the talking about the battle of bader and the battle we hear in islam that you know the prophet sallallahu for example would would say whoever prepares man
you know they there's a direct correlation between he who you know prepares a uh and the islamic army or the muslim army and jannah for example so war battles the battle of buddha it's very much entrenched in our religion so how did you kind of present it to to this professor because you know you and i know that in our religion there were battles especially early on um well what i certainly wasn't trying to express to the professor or what i think muslims shouldn't be trying to express is to kind of downplay the role that battles wars violent conflicts have played in islamic history including in early islamic history which is sort of the model during the life of the prophet sallallahu alaihi wasallam that all muslims turned to um there were certainly battles there were certain the acts of violence right and in every society um in every world view in every deen there is a sort of set of uh criteria of what is justified war what is justified violence um for the greater good of society right for the establishment of justice these kinds of things have to be um uh done and and practiced so in islam there was certainly conflict there are limitations on conflict there are very specific reasons why conflict can occur and the battles of you know and brother did occur but um you know i think um the way to think about this is for example in a modern crime scene right let's take that as an example even if it's you know very very abundantly clear that one person has for example murdered another person there's still a recognition that for the sake of just you know justice for the sake of getting the complete picture for the sake of understanding for the purpose of ultimately making sure that we prevent such things from happening again if that's at all possible or helpful we want to try to make sure all relevant details are considered which is why you know people commit horrific crimes and then trials will go on for years all the evidence is being considered acknowledged all the contexts are being discussed etc if you take an example like the crusades right which is again a clear-cut example or is often presented as a clear-cut example while this is clearly a clash of civilizations you have muslims you have christians there are conflicts going on and on the muslim side this is i guess uh the rules are kind of reversed here oftentimes our descriptions focused very narrowly on um the fall of jerusalem to the crusaders in the first crusade how horrifically they were murdering people in masjid al-aqsa in the dome of the rock etc not saying all of those things didn't happen all of those things certainly happened and they played an important role in the picture but it's not the full picture you had muslims serving in christian armies you had christians serving in muslim armies you had christians being treated crusaders being treated for ptsd that they got by killing muslims but they were being treated in muslim mental health hospitals you had christians and muslims falling in love crusaders and local muslims you had them having lunch with each other these are very complex events very complex processes so yes there's a battle of mother there's the battle of uh there is a very very long list of battles that muslims have bought but the important thing that i was trying to get across to the professor and to the general public is that we have to look at the bigger picture we have to get the full picture because that is more likely to be closer to a fair representation than very narrowly focusing on what may be the most shocking elements to our sensitivities now fair enough so um we're going to look at the full picture in a few moments like we'll talk about the other ways that islam spread um but there's there's a certain thing that you said earlier um to me that i really think uh is important to kind of clarify you often make a distinction between uh islam as a religion and the spread of islam as a religion and the muslim empire can you just talk to that and and explain why you've separated the two and and how both spread um yes absolutely so uh you know you'll often see in these digital animated maps and things like that that go around on the internet um you'll see like this religion at a certain point of time islam suddenly appears on the map in arabia like a small little blip and then all of a sudden boom it's everywhere it's in spain it's in india it's in west africa it's just moving very very rapidly right and people often interpret that as well this must be showing that everyone in these regions was becoming muslim and uh the only way that could have happened so quickly is if there's some kind of force or coercion or some kind of violence involved right um and and that's the misleading part because this is showing the spread of the muslim empire not the spread of the faith itself such as the fact that you know ideologies can spread right so you know a a certain uh country for example today in the modern day to go modern day example might have like a a democratic government that does not mean that every person in that country uh agrees to democracy or it has accepted democracy as their personal way that they believe that society should be organized right as an example as a sort of parallel um so if you take many historical examples another famous example that you'll often hear about um and i think it's very clear-cut is um the battle of manzakurt or malazilan of the seljuk empire in 1071. now this battle is always said the first thing you hear is the name of the battle the next thing you'll hear is that it opened anatolia what is modern-day turkey to the turkish people that became the battle was the turning point after which turkish turkic people began to settle in what is now turkey and today turkey is of course a muslim state right but again it can be very misleading that was one particular battle with one particular context there were reasons why it was fought by both sides a very complicated situation yes it had a certain effect yes it did facilitate to some extent the mobilization of turkic tribes into anatolia but the process of anatolia becoming the muslim land that we know it as today was so complex you have traveling scholars a playing role like jalaluddin rumi like ibn batuta right you have uh poets like eunice emery playing a role you have organizations like the ahi societies like if you actually go into this turkish history this is such a complicated and long drawn-out process it's just very unfair to kind of imply that oh yes there was a battle after which the battle enabled the spread of islam in that region which means that that entire spread of islam must now be reduced back to that battle which is something that people might use as justification well there's a clear example right islam spread by the sword but this is a very misleading slogan for that reason so muslim empire spreading for a variety of reasons whether they were justified or not that is a separate question in my opinion what i try to focus on is making that distinction muslim empire spreading is not the acceptance of islam by the people in those regions you know um thank you thank you for making the distinction in 2019 uh you know i live in australia and in 2019 there's uh there's a huge event in new zealand just uh in our neighboring country uh which is the christchurch massacres um and there was so much hate you know towards uh islam from from the shooter and uh you know i i often say that you know the christchurch massacre there was life before it and after and even kind of some of the staunchiest enemies towards the muslim community in australia for example uh really changed their tone um they outreached to to the muslim community so it was a huge a huge pivotal moment for for the two countries but um if you kind of go deeper into the some of the the motivations of the shooter um and people who commit crimes against muslims uh these days there there's fear there's fear on of the spread of islam um and when i read your paper and i looked into the topic a little bit more um i realized there were moments in our history where muslims forced people to become muslim there were specific instances i read about the the um system in in the ottoman empire where the ottomans or the sultan had had taken young boys christian boys from eastern europe from the balkans forced them to become muslim and then they became kind of his you know inner inner circle there were moments in our history and that was kind of like a you know a serious realization for me so do you mind talking to that and you know is this just an exception to the rule or did it happen often in our history um i think the first thing to keep in mind there is um in the quran which is the ultimate source of guidance for muslims it's very explicitly stated it's very clear that there is no compulsion in religion right that religion is not something that you should be um compelling people to whether it's through violence or force or any form of coercion religion is something that um if somebody truly wants to ascribe to they should be accepting it wholeheartedly out of their own will right because that's the only way they would really fully ascribe to it um now certainly in islamic history there are exceptional cases of forced conversion to islam certainly and i think it's very important for us as muslims to acknowledge those kinds of instances those kinds of tragic situations which have had lasting consequences right so one of the examples that you just mentioned the day of share my system in the ottoman empire was certainly such a case right and um the young christian boys like you said would be taken from their families from the villages in the balkans in eastern europe on a regular basis they would be essentially converted to islam in istanbul in the capital or one of the other imperial cities raised up as muslims so they could serve the purpose being so they could serve in the sultan's personal card so even when you just discuss that much of the purpose um you get some relevant detail that the actual purpose of the system was not just to try to force conversion on people who are muslim but they were actually there was a there was a specific goal for which um the con their conversion to islam was thought to be uh like a part of the process still a horrible thing still not something that is actually um allowed in islam but when you look at it from a historical lens when you look at it from all of those in context political motivation and there was you know serious context that led to that you know fair enough were there other instances uh yes absolutely you have cases um such as the orphans decree in yemen just in the previous century in the 20th century which uh involved in theory uh in in law and writing i should say the forced conversion of jewish orphans to islam although it was not something that was very rigorously implemented right so this is this is uh the kind of thing that you have to keep in mind that um reality is very complex always right we know this we live on this planet we live in this world we live in societies there's all kinds of things happen but there it's not just a pushover all the times as things happen they're also being challenged things are being changed a lot is happening society is constantly in flux so that was the case in the orphan's decree as well again something that is not allowed in islam but something that was was tried to be implemented and you find other cases in the indian subcontinent um you find other cases in in different like you know isolated pockets here and there but again instead of going into the details of each particular case the point i'm trying to emphasize is that there are details to each particular case like that's the point i want to get across when you hear something that there was forced conversion especially when you see it being politically manipulated so you know if a government official somewhere in a country is reminding you hey remember these people came and they tried to force us to convert like you know you know however many centuries ago and that's why we must now not let them in even if they're refugees they are muslims they are the same people who tried to do this and that to us like especially if it's being used and abused that narrative is clearly being used to oppress people in the present day whether they are muslim or not muslim whether muslims are being projected that way or non-muslims are we should challenge that there's more complex reality and the only way we're going to avoid further conflicts further divisions and the only way we're going to learn to understand each other is if we start to pay attention to the details the details do matter very much you know um i had a colleague in al jazeera a few years ago every time he felt the conversation was getting you know really dense and heavy he would always say to me cat got and just um summarize what i what i took away from from what you're saying now uh was islam spread by the sword it's important to separate the muslim empire which grew you know within within a century grew from east to west mashallah and the is the islam as a religion and islam as a religion was was never spread by the sword as i understood and there were specific instances where people were forced into uh islam uh that is you know the ottoman sharma system there was the the orphan decree in yemen but islam as a religion was never forced onto a nation or forced onto a people and the proof of that is that as the muslim empire grew islam as a religion didn't penetrate those those uh nations and countries until way later and in some instances it just didn't you know reach uh or or people just didn't take it on you know i'm i'm lebanese and there are uh many non-muslims in uh in lebanon even though uh the whole region was uh in the control of the ottoman empire so um that that's what i've taken so far and correct me if i've uh if you have misunderstood you um if you were to write a book and
dial up the other ways that islam as a religion grew and even the muslim empire how it grew what would you shine light on uh you know what is it that you feel uh is missing when we talk about islamic history being spread uh that's a really good question i think um the first uh you know thing i would try to address actually is why is this question being asked right which is something that is important to interrogate i think when this question is being asked when this narrative is being circulated why um the second or i guess after that what i would discuss is a series of factors that i believe based on the historical research that i've done and also based on the historical research of many other historians is are the key factors that have helped islam spread to different regions of the world these would include inter-marriage these would include trade these would include the the role of social influencers these would include migration right and certainly these would include tawa itself this kind of beautiful part of the islamic tradition of inviting non-muslims and muslims as well to engage with the message of islam and to try to choose it for themselves to accept it for themselves as something that will bring the benefit in this life and the next so muslims have always been encouraged to do that it's considered a very meritorious deed and in many different roles in many different ways like almost as a way to say countless different ways they've tried to do that within their own lives so i'm a muslim in indonesia say and i'm listening to this uh vodcast and you know i'm asking myself how did my ancestor ancestors become muslim so what's your answer to that like i know the arab peninsula you know in the first hundred years after the prophet sallam you know was was spread very very quickly there were battles and whatnot habba outside of the arab peninsula um in indonesia for example what would you say to that young person in indonesia trying to you know recall from their ancestors who how they became muslim i would certainly point out to them the importance of trade uh muslim merchants going to indonesia the spice trade you know the indian ocean especially is often been called by historians as the muslim lake for much of history because it was it was sort of bordered on all sides by muslim uh majority societies and something that was dominated by muslim merchants seafaring was the merchants so certainly trade i think more than any other factor also that was itself in the form of traveling scholars and traveling uh sort of sufi mystics and other sort of people who were very attached to the religion and really keen on spreading it they would actually travel with merchants and settle in these areas often intermarry with the locals often try to address the local social influencers the local social influencer so that played a role as well when leading members of society in some of the islands of the the indomalaya kind of you know context when they were converting to islam that became a form of encouragement for many of the followers or people who looked up to them so i would say it's a very complex process but trade um definitely traveling scholars and sufi mystics as well as uh the role of local social influencers um were some of the primary um factors and that's where you start looking right it just helps for that person it's like i'm not giving you the answer i'm giving you sort of a guidance on how you might look for the answer so now maybe you want to look into the history of trade between india and sri lanka and the people of indonesia and see how that connection came etc right outside of the the arabian peninsula when islam spread it didn't really change the culture of the people that it um that is spread to you is there a story or two that comes to mind when you when you think of islam spreading beyond the arab peninsula uh yeah certainly islam has this concept of within it which which sort of indicates that we are uh you know cultural beings human beings always have a culture we never operate outside of culture and of course there's many diverse and beautiful cultures within the world so when islam spread to the people of those cultures anything that was sort of permissible that you know was part of that culture was allowed to remain right um and in many cases there was a very interesting fusion between islamic teachings and local cultures and so some of the stories that come to mind in terms of what that enables right so you have your own distinct identity but then you have your islamic identity which you share with people in all the different parts of the world where islam has spread to so when muslim spain was in decline there was a scholar there his name was
and he was from the city of valencia and when you know there was a decline happening there what he decided to do is move with his family all the way from muslim spain into china so he goes you know and this is we are talking about you know the the 12th century basically 13th century this is many many hundred years ago that would be a big move for somebody to make today in today's world right but they're moving from spain all the way to china and there's you know and and what's the implication they have the same um kind of cultural roots that they share with the muslims in china in the sense that they can easily walk over into a mosque or into a muslim community in china say assalamu alaikum and the other people who are there who've never met them before uh may have nothing else in common but at the very least they know walikum they right so you have that cultural familiarity so now this scholar he moved to kashgar which is now in the uyghur lands which are occupied by china right and his daughter was born there her name is fatima bin saad she is fatima the daughter of and she became a scholar in her own right so she's raised in kashgar she's from spanish-era background she's raised in kashgar among the uyghur muslims then she moves to persia in isfahan for her higher studies and eventually she gets married she moves to baghdad and then from there she and her husband are both in the service of salahuddin right in the levant basically and she spends the final years of her life in a yubit cairo and she passes away in cairo and that's where she's buried right so this is kind of like the the global interconnection that the spread of islam created you have so many other stories how did ibn matuta who was a lawyer a jurisdicti trained in morocco easily as soon as he walked into india basically right he just gets a job for like the next seven years he's just a lawyer it's it's basically the same law that he is applying right and there's so many other stories um of what the spread of islam has enabled which is part of i think the story that we need to tell when we say the bigger picture yes it's important to focus on the conflicts and the violence but as islam spread there were fruits that were spreading with it right there were people that were spreading with it there were places like makkah and medina that were becoming the marketplace of ideas and one personal story i'd like to share related to that is i remember when i was very young and i would go to pakistan which is where i'm originally from i remember my grandmother who's very elderly now but she would be cooking cornbread basically and in in punjabi in our language it's called makki di roti right so it's like roti that that's i didn't understand at the time i didn't understand until very recently it literally means roti from makkah right which is the name for cornbread in the punjabi language used not only by muslims but also by sikhs and hindus all punjabis call it the same thing right and the reason for that is where did corn actually originate corn actually originates in mexico right and when the uh inter-colombian exchange happened right after the europeans arrival they brought corn to europe it went to the ottoman empire it went to makkah and somebody learned of it from makkah and brought it back to india and all over south asia is still referred to as the roti from makkah right so coffee is another example coffee would not have spread to anywhere across the world if it wasn't brought from ethiopia to yemen and then to makkah and if it wasn't approved sort of by the um the law that the muslim jurors in mecca right so there's all of these different governments
right but but the point being that when we talk about these things i mean what are the aspects of modern life that we enjoy today i mean your cup of coffee the tulips is something that the spread of islam gave to the europeans right especially if you focus on the movement of knowledge and ideas and products from the muslim lands into europe and from there into what we refer to now as our modern lives so much of it is also tied to the spread of islam so you know when we talk about the spread of islam why is it always only about the sword and we're not talking about coffee or tulips or oranges or corn or or you know medical knowledge or all of these different kinds of things you know um random random story right but if you don't mind me sharing it i was in kuwait um just on a visit to a few friends and we were walking in the old um old town and then i saw a masjid called masjid al hindi the indian mosque and so i asked my kuwaiti friend you know what what's the story behind this mosque he said early in the in the 20th century some indian traders came to kuwait and they were giving dawa to the kuwaitis and they funded this mosque and he said the way i found that was i was i was with my grandfather in hospital and he was on his deathbed and he saw the way i was talking to um to one of the i think it was a nurse or or one of the um the helpers and uh and he didn't like my tone towards and that that guy was from from india he said don't you dare talk to them like that i said why he said when when they came in the 40s to kuwait and i met them they they came to my home and they brought me uh bananas and i was eating the banana it's the first time i ever saw a banana and i was eating the banana with with its actual uh skin on and the guy taught me how to eat a banana he said don't ever look down they came and gave dawa to us and they built al mosque you know subhanallah so like i i agree with you that um you need to kind of look at the full picture look at the ways islam was spread and trade played a very very big role dawa played a very big role um the you know the social influences the the the high kind of um net worth individuals who donated they they played a big role so it wasn't uh islam as a as a religion was not spread by the sword there were so many some instances where you know there were forced conversions and we've explained those but islam as a religion spread by so many different factors and i think it's it's time we turn up the volume on on those factors which which led to people becoming muslim i have uh one last question before we wrap up if uh sure you were if you were to speak to my niece for example who asked me this question you know was islam spread by the sword she's only nine years old okay and you've got probably you know 30 seconds to a minute before she kind of uh she she gets uninterested what is it that you will say to my niece when someone asks you was islam spread by the sword i would tell her that it's important to never rush to make a judgment right we say don't judge a book by its cover because you might get a certain indication from the cover but the story itself might be more complicated and very different so especially if somebody is saying that other people have done very evil things very bad things we should stop for a second and make sure that we don't jump to the conclusion that those people are evil and bad they may have done some bad things they may have done some good things it's good to look at everything in its own kind of perspective look at the full picture and get a good fair sense uh conclusion about the story itself and never just um jump to a conclusion okay brother hassan thank you so much and for me looking at history in a in a truly honest way and looking at the ways islam was spread and the muslim empire spread i think it's important to kind of look at the nuances so thank you for bringing that new ones today and um those who are interested can read brother hassan's paper on yakeen institute.org did islam spread by the sword thank you so much and inshallah we'll speak soon on your other paper jazakallah jazakallahu really appreciate it thank you so much for joining us we'll see you next week for another hot topic on double take don't forget to rate us on your favorite podcast app and make sure you subscribe