There are many maps and animations
circulating on the internet which purport to show the historical “spread of
Islam” under the leadership of Prophet Muhammad (ṣ, d. 632 CE)
and in subsequent generations of Muslims. But do these maps really show the
spread of Islam or just the conquests of the Arab-Muslim armies? There is an
important difference between these two interpretations because the first
implies that large non-Muslim populations in the conquered regions must have
been forced to convert to Islam, while the second implies that the Muslim
conquests weren’t necessarily accompanied by mass forced conversions to Islam.
The historical evidence we have lends its
weight to the second interpretation. The conquests began in around 632 CE,
immediately after Prophet Muhammad (ṣ) passed away. The early Muslims
then began to dismantle the Byzantine (Roman) and Sassanid (Persian) empires. A
century later (in 732) the Islamic empire, now ruled by the Umayyad dynasty,
extended from Spain in the west to India in the east; at the time, it was the
largest empire in world history.
But does this mean that all the non-Muslims
in that vast territory – Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, Buddhists, Hindus, and
others – had been forced to convert to Islam? The simple historical fact is
that no, they were not, and this is something that leading Muslim and
non-Muslim historians agree on. This article aims to present some of their
positions and arguments to provide food for thought to anyone who is genuinely
interested in historical facts and not simply trying to superimpose his/her
anti-Islam bigotry onto the past.
Generally, forced conversion is explicitly
forbidden in Islam. In the Qur’ān, Muslims are reminded that “[t]here shall be
no compulsion in [acceptance of] the religion [of Islam]” (2:256). Classical
commentators on the Qur’ān, such as the famous Ismā‘īl ibn Kathīr (d. 1373),
and more recent ones such as Sayyid Qutb (d. 1966) and Mawdūdī (d. 1979) are in
agreement that this passage forbids any form of coercing non-Muslims into
embracing Islam.  However, many (if not most) of the people who express
curiosity about whether Islam spread “by the sword” are interested in whether
this is a historical reality, and therefore I won’t delve any further into the
Qur’anic prohibition on forced conversion.
With that in mind, we can begin to explore
what historians say about forced conversions to Islam in history. In general,
they say that these forced conversions did occur, but rarely. Professor Ira M.
Lapidus, for example, writes that “[t]he question of why people convert to
Islam has always generated intense feeling. Earlier generations of European
scholars believed that conversions to Islam were made at the point of the sword
and that conquered peoples were given the choice of conversion or death. It is
now apparent that conversion by force, while not unknown in Muslim countries,
was, in fact, rare. Muslim conquerors ordinarily wished to dominate rather than
convert, and most conversions to Islam were voluntary.” 
Similarly, the late Marshall Hodgson wrote
in his ground-breaking work The Venture of Islam that “[t]here was no attempt
[by the Muslims] at converting the peoples of the [conquered] imperial
territories, who practically all adhered to some form of confessional religion
already… In the chiefly non-Arab agricultural lands, the object was not
conversion but rule… The superiority of Islam as religion, and therefore in
providing for social order, would justify Muslim rule; would justify the
simple, fair-dealing Muslims in replacing the privileged and oppressive
representatives of the older, corrupted allegiances…” 
It should be noted that both Lapidus and
Hodgson are considered leading authorities in the field of Islamic history. But
while they offer the general statements quoted above, we can turn to the work
of Hugh Kennedy, another prominent historian, for specific examples. Kennedy
quotes the treaty signed between Sophronius, the patriarch of recently-conquered
Jerusalem, and the second Muslim caliph, ‘Umar ibn al-Khattāb (d. 644):
“This is the assurance of safety [Amān]
which the servant of God, ‘Umar, the Commander of the Faithful, has given to
the people of Jerusalem. He has given them an assurance of safety for
themselves, for their property, their churches, their crosses, the sick and
healthy of the city and for all the rituals which belong to their religion.
Their churches will not be inhabited by the Muslims and will not be destroyed.
Neither they, nor the land on which they stand, nor their cross, not their
property will be damaged. They will not be forcibly converted…” 
‘Umar is generally regarded as having been
one of the more strict caliphs, and Jerusalem was a very symbolically important
city for the Muslims; therefore, we have reason to believe that if the Muslims
had been forcibly converting non-Muslims as they conquered their lands,
Jerusalem would not have been the exception.
Decades after ‘Umar’s treaty with
Sophronius, the Muslim leader ‘Abd al-‘Azīz ibn Mūsa Ibn Nusayr signed a
similar treaty with a Visigothic noble (of south-eastern Spain) named Theodemir
in 713. One of the terms of the treaty was that “they [i.e. Theodemir’s
followers] will not be coerced in matters of religion, their churches will not
be burned, nor will their sacred objects be taken from them…” 
Of course, such agreements did come at a
price for the conquered non-Muslims, but that price did not include their
religious beliefs. They were obliged to pay the Jizyah, an annual tax which
guaranteed the safety of their lives, property, and freedom of religion,
exempted them from military service, and often left their pre-Islamic systems
of administration and justice intact. The amount of the Jizyah was flexible,
though it had to be kept affordable for those expected to pay it, namely, adult
non-Muslim men who were able to earn a living. Children under the age of
puberty, women, the elderly, and the physically and/or mentally impaired were
all exempt from paying the Jizyah. 
It’s important to mention these details
about the Jizyah because it is often described as an underhanded way of
pressuring non-Muslims into converting to Islam. However, anyone who is
familiar with world history can tell that considering the conditions of the
jizya, it was hardly a burden at all compared to what other imperial systems
(including many modern ones) demanded from the people they conquered. It is
also important to keep in mind Muslims also had to pay a comparable annual tax,
the Zakat, so embracing Islam was not necessarily a way out of the Jizyah that
non-Muslims could be forced to take.
It has even been argued that, far from
forcing disbelievers from converting to Islam, many Muslim rulers actually
preferred to rule over non-Muslims and collect the Jizyah from them. This is
because the Zakat collections were often redistributed locally in the provinces
and could only be used in certain ways, but the jizya was sent to the central
treasury in the capital, where the ruler could use it any way he wanted to.
This certainly is not something that historians agree on, but it nonetheless
shows that in reality forcing non-Muslims to embrace Islam was rarely, if ever,
a priority for Muslims when they were in power.
And so it makes sense that it was the institution
of the Jizyah, and not the dramatized “convert-or-die” choice that many people
imagine was put to non-Muslims, which ensured that Islam remained a minority
religion in the conquered territories for a long time after the conquest.
Historians suggest different figures, but generally, agree that “for at least
two centuries the majority of the inhabitants of the Islamic empire were
Other historians confirm that, in the
regions conquered in the first century of the Muslim conquests (i.e. 632-732),
Islam didn’t become a majority religion until 850-1050. Nearly all of Iran, for
example, had been conquered by 705; however, the empirical research of Richard
Bulliet has shown that it was only in the mid-9th century that the percentage
of Muslims in Iran’s population reached 50%, and it took nearly another century
after that for that figure to hit 75%.  Similarly, the region that makes up
today’s Albania was gradually conquered by the Ottomans over the course of the
15th century, but conversion to Islam only really took off in the second half
of the 17th century, nearly 200 years later.  As some historians have
pointed out, “if forced conversion to Islam had been the impetus behind the
conquests, they were a miserable failure.” 
Of course, there were some forced
conversions in Islamic history. The Ottomans, for example, tried their hand at
the forced conversion of Christians in the Balkans. This was done mostly
through the devshirme system, in which one in every 40 young Christian boys
from the Balkans were taken once a year and brought up as Muslims to serve in
the Ottoman sultan’s bureaucracy and army. However, this never amounted to
forced conversion on a mass scale and even today, Islam remains a minority
religion in the region.
So, if there were virtually no forced
conversions in Islamic history, what does an effort at forced conversion
actually look like? Incidentally, Muslims have been the victims of some of one
of the worst cases of forced conversion in history: the Reconquista (medieval
Christian conquest of Spain). Muslims ruled most of Spain for nearly 800 years,
by the end of which (in the late 15th century) they had lost power in most of
the region. As the Christian monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, jumped on the
opportunity to re-conquer Spain in the name of Christianity, they gave the
following options to the million (or so) Muslims and Jews who lived there:
convert to Christianity, leave Spain, or die.
Many chose to death over giving up their
faith and their homeland; many hundreds of thousands of others were forcibly
converted and were known as Moriscos (former Muslims) or Moranos (former Jews).
Between 1492 and 1609, even those who had been forced to convert were expelled,
virtually eliminating the Muslim and Jewish presence in Spain in just one
century.  Many of the refugees resettled in the Muslim-ruled regions of
Eastern Europe at the Ottomans’ invitation, where ― far from being forced to
convert to Islam ― most of them reverted back to their original faiths.
If the meagre forces of the Christian
city-states could use forced conversion and expulsion to complete eliminate
Muslims and Jews from Spain in just one century, then why haven’t Muslims, who
for most of history have had far more power over the disbelievers they ruled
over, been able to do the same? The answer, of course, is straightforward:
Muslims were not forcibly converting non-Muslims to Islam.
Finally, it is interesting to take note the
distribution of Muslims today. Islam remains the predominant religion in
regions that were conquered by the early Muslims, but many of the states in
this region continue to be home to significant non-Muslim (Christian, Jewish,
and other) populations. However, even larger populations of Muslims are to be
found in Southeast Asia (e.g. Indonesia), China, and West Africa (e.g.
Nigeria), where Islam spread through traders, scholars, and mystics, and where
there was no Muslim conquest at all!
Perhaps it is safe to consider the
possibility, then, that the Qur’ānic directive that “[t]here shall be no
compulsion in [acceptance of] the religion [of Islam]” is not just a command
for Muslims to follow, but also a matter-of-fact statement that Islam doesn’t
need any forced conversions or compulsion of any kind toward disbelievers to be
successful among them. And as the historical evidence indicates, the
overwhelming majority of Muslims throughout history have understood this.
 See, for example, Ismā‘īl ibn Kathīr, Tafsīr Ibn Kathīr (Vol. 2),
New York, NY: Darussalam Publishers, 2003, p. 30; and Sayyid Qutb, In the Shade
of the Qur’ān (Vol. 1), The Islamic Foundation, 2015, p. 348-353.
 Ira M. Lapidus, A History of Islamic Societies, New York, NY:
Cambridge University Press, 2014, p. 271.
 Marshall G. S. Hodgson, The Venture of Islam, Volume 1: The
Classical Age of Islam, Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, p. 199.
 Hugh Kennedy, The Great Arab Conquests: How the Spread of Islam
Changed the World We Live In. Philadelphia, PA: Da Capo Press, 2007, p. 91.
 Ibid., p. 315.
 For more details and a complete list of conditions, see: Cahen,
Cl., İnalcık, Halil and Hardy, P., “Ḏj̲izya”, in The Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition, Edited by
P. Bearman, Th. Bianquis, C.E. Bosworth, E. van Donzel, W.P. Heinrichs.http://dx.doi.org.ezproxy.library.yorku.ca/10.1163/1573-3912_islam_COM_0192
 William L. Cleveland and Martin Bunton, A History of the Modern
Middle East (4th ed.), Westview Press, 2009, p. 14.
 Richard W. Bulliet, “Conversion to Islam and the Emergence of a
Muslim Society in Iran,” in Nehemia Levtzion (Ed.), Conversion to Islam, New
York, NY: Holmes & Meier Publishers, 1979, p. 36.
 Krstic, Tijana. Contested Conversions to Islam: Narratives of
Religious Change in the Early Modern Ottoman Empire, Stanford, CA: Stanford
University Press, 2011, p. 21.
 Richard C. Martin, “Conversion to Islam by Invitation,” in John
Witte Jr. and Richard C. Martin (Eds.), Sharing the Book: Religious
Perspectives on the Rights and Wrongs of Proselytism, Eugene, OR: Wipf and
Stock Publishers, 2008, p. 103.
 H. Michael Tarver and Emily Slape (Eds.). The Spanish Empire: A
Historical Encyclopaedia, ABC-CLIO, 2016, p. 207.
Hats Off says: "only india has
successfully withstood the assault for nearly a thousand two hundred years. no
other country could. persia, syria, byzantium, the whole of north africa,
indonesia, and malaysia all were converted nearly one hundred percent."
How did India resist so successfully?
What about Greece? How many became Muslim there? How many became Muslim in
Spain? How many Jews and Christians in Jerusalem become Muslim? Why are there
large number of Christians in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria to this day? Why
couldn't Indonesia and Malaysia resist even though these countries were never
even attacked let alone being conquered? Why wasn’t the Islamic Caliphate a
Muslim majority area for several centuries? Why aren’t their martyr stories of
people in any of these countries who gave up their life resisting imposition of
Islam? Is there such a story in any commentator’s family of their forefather
having sacrificed his life resisting forced conversion?
Hats Off knows the truth but he cannot
help his personal hatred coloring his views. He is a sick man riven by his
hatred for his father’s religion.