A History of the Propagation of the Muslim Faith

T.W. Arnold Ma. C.I.F

Professor Of Arabic, University Of London, University College. Written in 1896, revised in 1913

Rearranged by Dr. A.S. Hashim

After the death of Muhammad, the army he had intended for Syria was dispatched thither by Abu Bakr, in spite of the protestations made by certain Muslims in view of the then disturbed state of Arabia.

He silenced their expostulations with the words:

“I will not revoke any order given by the Prophet. Medina may become the prey of wild beasts, but the army must carry out the wishes of Muhammad.”

This was the first of that wonderful series of campaigns in which the Arabs overran Syria, Persia and Northern Africa—overturning the ancient kingdom of Persia and despoiling the Roman Empire of some of its fairest provinces.

It does not fall within the scope of this work to follow the history of these different campaigns, but, in view of the expansion of the Muslim faith that followed the Arab conquests, it is of importance to discover what were the circumstances that made such an expansion possible.

A great historian[1] has well put the problem that meets us here, in the following words: “Was it genuine religious enthusiasm, the new strength of a faith now for the first time blossoming forth in all its purity, that gave the victory in every battle to the arms of the Arabs and in so incredibly short a time founded the greatest empire the world had ever seen? But evidence is wanting to prove that this was the case. The number was far too small of those who had given their allegiance to the Prophet and his teaching with a free and heartfelt conviction, while on the other hand all the greater was the number of those who had been brought into the ranks of the Muslims only through pressure from without or by the hope of worldly gain.

Khalid, exhibited in a very striking manner that mixture of force and persuasion whereby he and many of the Quraish had been converted, when he said that God had seized them by the hearts and by the hair and compelled them to follow the Prophet.

The proud feeling too of a common nationality had much influence—a feeling which was more alive among the Arabs of that time than (perhaps) among any other people, and which alone determined many thousands to give the preference to their countryman and his religion before foreign teachers. Still more powerful was the attraction offered by the sure prospect of gaining booty in abundance, in fighting for the new religion and of exchanging their bare, stony deserts, which offered them only a miserable subsistence, for the fruitful and luxuriant countries of “Persia, Syria and Egypt.”

These stupendous conquests which laid the foundations of the Arab empire, were certainly not the outcome of a holy war, waged for the propagation of Islam, but they were followed by such a vast defection from the Christian faith that this result has often been supposed to have been their aim.

Thus the sword came to be looked upon by Christian historians as the instrument of Muslim propaganda, and in the light of the success attributed to it the evidences of the genuine missionary activity of Islam were obscured. But the spirit which animated the invading hosts of Arabs who poured over the confines of the Byzantine and Persian empires, was no proselytizing zeal for the conversion of souls. On the contrary, religious interests appear to have entered but little into the consciousness of the protagonists of the Arab armies.[2]

This expansion of the Arab race is more rightly envisaged as the migration of a vigorous and energetic people driven by hunger and want, to leave their inhospitable deserts and overrun the richer lands of their more fortunate neighbors.[3]

Still the unifying principle of the movement was the theocracy established in Medina, and the organization of the new state proceeded from the devoted companions of Muhammad, the faithful depositaries of his teaching, whose moral weight and enthusiasm kept Islam alive as the official religion, despite the indifference of those Arabs who gave to it a mere nominal adherence.[4]

It is not, therefore, in the annals of the conquering armies that we must look for the reasons which lead to the so rapid spread of the Muslim faith, but rather in the conditions prevailing among the conquered peoples.

The national character of this ethnic movement of migration naturally attracted to the invading Arab hosts the outlying representatives of the Arab race through whom the path of the conquering armies lay. Accordingly it is not surprising to find that many of the Christian Bedouins were swept into the rushing tide of this great movement and that Arab tribes, who for centuries had professed the Christian religion, now abandoned it to embrace the Muslim faith.

  • Among these was the tribe of the Banu Ghassan, who held sway over the desert east of Palestine and southern Syria, of whom it was said that they were “Lords in the days of the ignorance and stars in Islam.”[5]
  • After the battle of Qadisiya (A.H. 14) in which the Persian army under Rustam had been utterly discomfited, many Christians belonging to the Bedouin tribes on both sides of the Euphrates came to the Muslim general and said: “The tribes that at the first embraced Islam were wiser than we. Now that Rustam hath been slain, we will accept the new belief.”[6]
  • Similarly, after the conquest of northern Syria, most of the Bedouin tribes, after hesitating a little, joined themselves to the followers of the Prophet.[7]

That force was not the determining factor in these conversions may be judged from the amicable relations that existed between the Christian and the Muslim Arabs. Muhammad himself had entered into treaty with several Christian tribes, promising them his protection and guaranteeing them the free exercise of their religion and to their clergy undisturbed enjoyment of their old rights and authority.[8]

A similar bond of friendship united his followers with their fellow-countrymen of the older faith, many of whom voluntarily came forward to assist the Muslims in their military expeditions in the same spirit of loyalty to the new government as had caused them to hold aloof from the great apostasy that raised the standard of revolt throughout Arabia immediately after the death of the Prophet.[9] It has been suggested that the Christian Arabs who guarded the frontier of the Byzantine empire bordering on the desert threw in their lot with the invading Muslim army, when Heracleus refused any longer to pay them their accustomed subsidy for military service as wardens of the marches.[10]

In the battle of the Bridge (a.h. 13) when a disastrous defeat was imminent and the panic-stricken Arabs were hemmed in between the Euphrates and the Persian host, a Christian chief of the Banu Tayy sprang forward like another Spurious Lartius to the side of an Arab Horatius, to assist Muthanna (the Muslim general) in defending the bridge of boats which could alone afford the means of an orderly retreat.

When fresh levies were raised to retrieve this disgrace, among the reinforcements that came pouring in from every direction was a Christian tribe of the Banu Namir, who dwelt within the limits of the Byzantine empire, and in the ensuing battle of Buwayb (a.h. 13), just before the final charge of the Arabs that turned the fortune of battle in their favor, Muthanna rode up to the Christian chief and said : “Ye are of one blood with us; come now, and as I charge, charge ye with me.” The Persians fell back before their furious onslaught, and another great victory was added to the glorious roll of Muslim triumphs.

One of the most gallant exploits of the day was performed by a youth belonging to another Christian tribe of the desert, who with his companions, a company of Bedouin horse-dealers, had come up just as the Arab army was being drawn up in battle array. They threw themselves into the fight on the side of their compatriots; and while the conflict was raging most fiercely, this youth, rushing into the center of the Persians, slew their leader, and leaping on his richly-caparisoned horse, galloped back amidst the plaudits of the Muslim line, crying as he passed in triumph: “I am of the Banu Taghlib. I am he that hath slain the chief.”[11]

The tribe to which this young man boasted that he belonged was one of those that elected to remain Christian, while other tribes of Mesopotamia, such as the Banu Namir and the Banu Qudha’ah, became Muslim.

The Banu Taghlib had sent an embassy to the Prophet as early as the year a.h. 9. The heathen members of the deputation embraced Islam and he made a treaty with the Christians according to which they were to retain their old faith but were not to baptize their children. A condition so entirely at variance with the usual tolerant attitude of Muhammad towards the Christian Arabs, who were allowed to choose between conversion to Islam and the payment of jizyah and never compelled to abandon their faith, has given rise to the conjecture that this condition was suggested by the Christian families of the Banu Taghlib themselves, out of motives of economy.[12]

The long survival of Christianity in this tribe shows that this condition was certainly not observed. The Khalifa Omar forbade any pressure to be put upon them, when they showed them­selves unwilling to abandon their old faith and ordered that they should be left undisturbed in the practice of it, but that they were not to oppose the conversion of any member of their tribe to Islam nor baptize the children of such as became Muslims.[13] They were called upon to pay the jizyah[14] or tax imposed on the non-Muslim subjects, but they felt it to be humiliating to their pride to pay a tax that was levied in return for protection of life and property, and petitioned the Khalifah to be allowed to make the same kind of contribution as the Muslims did. So in lieu of the jizyah they paid a double Sadaqah or alms,[15]—which was a poor tax levied on the fields and cattle, etc., of the Muslims.[16] It especially irked the Muslims that any of the Arabs should remain true to the Christian faith.

The majority of the Banu Tanukh had become Muslim in the year a.h. 12, when with other Christian Arab tribes they submitted to Khalid b. al-Walid,[17] but some of them appear to have remained true to their old faith for nearly a century and a half, since the Khalifa al-Mahdi (a.h. 158-169) is said to have seen a number of them who dwelt in the neighborhood of Aleppo, and learning that they were Christians, in anger ordered them to accept Islam— which they did to the number of 5000, and one of them suffered martyrdom rather than apostatize.[18]

But for the most part, details are lacking for any history of the disappearance of Christianity from among the Christian Arab tribes of Northern Arabia; they seem to have become absorbed in the surrounding Muslim community by an almost insensible process of “peaceful penetration”; had attempts been made to convert them by force when they first came under Muslim rule, it would not have been possible for Christians to have survived among them up to the times of the Abbasi Khalifas.[19]

The people of Hirah had likewise resisted all the efforts made by Khalid to induce them to accept the Muslim faith. This city was one of the most illustrious in the annals of Arabia, and to the mind of the impetuous hero of Islam it seemed that an appeal to their Arab blood would be enough to induce them to enroll themselves with the followers of the Prophet of Arabia.

When the besieged citizens sent an embassy to the Muslim general to arrange the terms of the capitulation of their city, Khalid asked them, “Who are you? are you Arabs or Persians?” Then Adi, the spokesman of the deputation, replied, “Nay, we are pure-blooded Arabs, while others among us are naturalized Arabs.”

Khalid asked “Had you been what you say you are, you would not have opposed us or hated our cause.” They answered “Our pure Arab speech is the proof of what I say.”

Khalid said ” You speak truly. Now choose you one of these three things: either (1) accept our faith, then your rights and obligations will be the same as ours, whether you choose to go into another country or stay in your own land; or (2) pay jizyah; or (3) war and battle. Verily, by God! I have come to you with a people who are more desirous of death than you are of life.”

They retorted “Nay, we will pay you jizyah.” Khalid then said “Ill-luck to you! Unbelief is a pathless desert and foolish is the Arab who, when two guides meet him wandering therein — the one an Arab and the other not — leaves the first and accepts the guidance of the foreigner.”[20]

Due provision was made for the instruction of the new converts, for while whole tribes were being converted to the faith with such rapidity, it was necessary to take precautions against errors, both in respect of creed and ritual, such as might naturally be feared in the case of ill-instructed converts.

Accordingly we find that the Khalifa Omar appointed teachers in every country, whose duty it was to instruct the people in the teachings of the Quran and the observances of their new faith.

The magistrates were also ordered to see that all, whether old or young, were regular in their attendance at public prayer, especially on Fridays and in the month of Ramadhan.

The importance attached to this work of instructing the new converts may be judged from the fact that in the city of Kufa it was no less a personage than the state treasurer who was entrusted with this task.[21]

From the examples given above of the toleration extended towards the Christian Arabs by the victorious Muslims of the first century of the Hijrah and continued by succeeding generations, we may surely infer that those Christian tribes that did embrace Islam, did so of their own choice and free will.[22]

The Christian Arabs of the present day, dwelling in the midst of a Muslim population, are a living testimony of this toleration; Layard speaks of having come across an encampment of Christian Arabs at al-Karak, to the east of the Dead Sea, who differed in no way, either in dress or in manners, from the Muslim Arabs.[23] Burckhardt was told by the monks of Mount Sinai that in the last century there still remained several families of Christian Bedouins who had not embraced Islam, and that the last of them, an old woman, died in 1750, and was buried in the garden of the convent.[24]

Many of the Arabs of the renowned tribe of the Banu Ghassan, Arabs of the purest blood, who embraced Christianity towards the end of the fourth century, still retain the Christian faith, and since their submission to the Church of Rome, about two centuries ago, employ the Arabic language in their religious services.[25]

If we turn from the Bedouins to consider the attitude of the settled inhabitants of the towns and the non-Arab population towards the new religion, we do not find that the Arab conquest was so rapidly followed by conversions to Islam. The Christians of the great cities of the eastern provinces of the Byzantine empire seem for the most part to have remained faithful to their ancestral creed, to which indeed they still in large numbers cling.

In order that we may fully appreciate their condition under the Muslim rule, and estimate the influences that led to occasional conversions, it will be well briefly to sketch their situation under the Christian rule of the Byzantine empire which fell back before the Arab arms. In giving some show of unity to the Roman Empire, (but after his death it rapidly fell asunder), and at this time there was an entire want of common national feeling between the provinces and the seat of government.

Heracleus had made some partially successful efforts to attach Syria again to the central government, but unfortunately the general methods of reconciliation which he adopted had served only to increase dissension instead of allaying it.

Religious passions were the only existing substitute for national feeling, and he tried, by propounding an exposition of faith, that was intended to serve as an eirenicon, to stop all further disputes between the contending factions and unite the heretics to the Orthodox Church and to the central government. The controversy between the orthodox party and the Monophysites, who flourished particularly in Egypt and Syria and in countries outside the Byzantine empire, had been hotly contested for nearly two centuries, when Heracleus sought to effect a reconciliation by means of the doctrine of Monotheletism:

But Heracleus shared the fate of so many would-be peace-makers: for not only did the controversy blaze up again all the more fiercely, but he himself was stigmatized as a heretic and drew upon himself the wrath of both parties.

Indeed, so bitter was the feeling he aroused that there is strong reason to believe that even a majority of the orthodox subjects of the Roman Empire, in the provinces that were conquered during this emperors reign, were the well-wishers of the Arabs; they regarded the emperor with aversion as a heretic, and were afraid that he might commence a persecution in order to force upon them his Monotheistic opinions.[27] They therefore readily — and even eagerly — received the new masters who promised them religious toleration, and were willing to compromise their religious position and their national independence if only they could free themselves from the immediately impending danger.

Michael the Elder, Jacobite Patriarch of Antioch, writing in the latter half of the twelfth century, could approve the decision of his co-religionists and see the finger of God in the Arab conquests even after the Eastern churches had had experience of five centuries of Muslim rule. After recounting the persecutions of Heracleus, he writes:

“This is why the God of vengeance, who alone is all-powerful, and changes the empire of mortals as He will, giving it to whomsoever He will, and uplifting the humble —

beholding the wickedness of the Romans who, throughout their dominions, cruelly plundered our churches and our monasteries and condemned us without pity —

brought from the region of the south the sons of Ishmael, to deliver us through them from the hands of the Romans.

And, if in truth, we have suffered some loss, because the catholic churches, that had been taken away from us and given to the Chalcedonians, remained in their possession;

for when the cities submitted to the Arabs, they assigned to each denomination the churches which they found it to be in possession of (and at that time the great church of Emessa and that of Harran had been taken away from us);

nevertheless it was no slight advantage for us to be delivered from the cruelty of the Romans, their wickedness, their wrath and cruel zeal against us, and to find ourselves at peace.”[28]

[1] Döllinger, pp. 5-6.
[2] Caetani, Studi di Storia Oriental, I, p. 365 sqq. (Milano, 1911.)
[3] This interpretation of the Arab conquests as the last of the great Semitic migrations has been worked out in a masterly manner by Caetani, vol. ii. pp. 831-61.
[4] Caetani, vol. ii. p. 455; vol. v. p. 521. (” In Madīnah si formò un considerevole nucleo religiose, composto d’elementi eterogenei, ma forse in maggioranza madinesi, i quali presero 1’Islām molto sul serio e cercarono sinceramente di osservare la nuova dottrina, per la convinzione che, così agendo facevan bene, ed in devoto omaggio alla volontà del Profeta.”)
[5] Mas’ūdī, tome iv. p. 238.
[6] Muir’s Khalifaate, pp. 121-2
[7] Caetani, vol. iii. p. 814 (§ 323).
[8] Caetani, vol. ii. pp. 260, 299, 351.
[9] Id. pp. 792-3; vol. iii. p. 253 (§ 8).
[10] Id. pp. 1112-15.
[11] Muir : Khalifaate, pp. 90-4.
[12] Caetani, vol. ii. p. 299. Wellhausen, iv. p. 156 (n. 5).
[13] Ṭabarī, Prima Series, p. 2482.
[14] For an exhaustive study of the jizyah, with a masterly array and critical examination of all the available historical materials, see Caetani, vol. v. p. 319 sqq.; for Egypt during the first century of Muslim rule, see Bell, p. 167 sqq., and Becker, Beiträge zur Geschichte Aegyptens unter dem Islam, p. 81 sqq.
[15] Caetani (vol. iv. P. 227) believes that this story is the invention of a later epoch, to explain the fiscal anomaly of a Christian tribe being treated as if it were Muslim.
[16] The few meagre notices of this tribe in the works of Arabic historians have been admirably summarised by Lammens: Le Chantre des Omiades. (J. A., ix. sér., tome iv. pp. 97-9, 438-59.) See also Caetani, vol. iv. p. 227 sqq.
[17] Caetani, vol. ii. p. 1180.
[18] Barhebræus (3), pp. 134-5.
[19] Caetani, vol. ii. p. 828.
[20] Tabarī, i. p. 2041.
[21] Mas’ūdī, tome iv. p. 256.
[22] ” Gli Arabi nei primi anni non perseguitarono invece alcuno per ragioni di fede, non si diedero pena alcuna per convertire chicchessia, sicchè sotto l’Islām, dopo le prime conquiste, i cristiani Semiti goderno d’una tolleranza religiosa quale non si era mai vista da varie generazioni.” (Caetani, vol. v. p. 4.)
[23] Sir Henry Layard: Early Adventures in Persia, Susiana and Baby­lonia, vol. i. p. 100. (London, 1887); R. Hartmann : Die Herrschaft von al-Karak. (Der Islam, vol. ii. p. 137.)
[24] Burckhardt (2), p. 564.
[25] W.G. Palgrave: Essays on Eastern Questions, pp. 206-8. (London, 1872.)
[26] I. A. Dorner: A System of Christian Doctrine, vol. iii. pp. 215-16. (London, 1885.) J. C. Robertson: History of the Christian Church, vol. ii. p. 226. (London, 1875.)
[27] That such fears were not wholly groundless may be judged from the emperor’s intolerant behaviour towards many of the Monophysite party in his progress through Syria after the defeat of the Persians in 627. (See Michael the Elder, vol. ii. p. 412, and Caetani, vol. ii. p. 1049.) For the outrages committed by the Byzantine soldiers on their co­religionists in the reign of Constans II (642-668), see Michael the Elder, vol. ii. p. 443.
[28] Michael the Elder, vol. ii. pp. 412-13. Barhebræus, about a century later, wrote in a similar strain. (Chronicon Ecclesiasticum, ed. J. B. Abbeloos et Lamy, p. 474.)

To be Continued