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

The history of the spread of Islam in the countries of Central Asia to the north of Persia presents little in the way of missionary activity.

When Qutaybah b. Muslim went to Samarqand, he found many idols there, whose worshippers maintained that any man who dared outrage them would perish;

the Muslim conqueror, undeterred by such superstitious fears, set fire to the idols; whereupon a number of persons embraced Islam.[23]

There is, however, but scanty record of such conversions in the early history of the Muslim advance into Central Asia; moreover the people of this country seem often to have pretended to embrace Islam for a time and then to have thrown off the mask and renounced their allegiance to the Khalifa as soon as the conquering armies were withdrawn,[24] and it was not until Qutaybah had forcibly occupied Bukhara for the fourth time that he succeeded in compelling the inhabitants to conform to the faith of their conquerors.

In Bukhara and Samarqand the opposition to the new faith was so violent and obstinate that none but those who had embraced Islam were allowed to carry arms, and for many years the Muslims dared not appear unarmed in the mosques or other public places, while spies had to be set to keep a watch on the new converts.

The conquerors made various efforts to gain proselytes, and even tried to encourage attendance at the Friday prayers in the mosques by rewards of money, and allowed the Quran to be recited in Persian instead of in Arabic, in order that it might be intelligible to all.[25]

The progress of Islam in Transoxania was certainly very slow: some of the inhabitants accepted the invitation of Omar II (A.D. 717-720) to embrace Islam,[26] and large numbers were converted through the preaching of a certain Abu Sayda who commenced this mission in Samarqand in the reign of Hisham (724-743).[27]

But it was not until the reign of Al-Mu’tasim (A.D. 833-842) that Islam was generally adopted there,[28] one of the reason probably being the more intimate relations established at this time with the then capital of the Muslim world, Baghdad, through the enormous numbers of Turks that had flocked in thousands to join the army of the Khalifa.[29]

Islam having thus gained a footing among the Turkish tribes seems to have made but slow progress until the middle of the tenth century, when the conversion of some of their chieftains to Islam, (like that of Clovis and other barbarian kings of Northern Europe to Christianity), led their clansmen to follow their example in a body.

Pious legends have grown up to supply the lack of sober historical record of such conversions. The city of Khiva reveres as its national saint a Muslim wrestler—Pahlavan— who was in the service of a heathen king of Khwarizm.

The king of India, hearing of the fame of this Pahlavan, sent his own court wrestler with a challenge to the king of Khwarizm. A day was fixed for the trial of strength and the nobles and people of Khiva were summoned to view the spectacle; the vanquished man was to have his head cut off.

On the day before, the saintly Pahlavan was praying in the mosque when he overheard the prayer of an old woman : “O God, suffer not my son to be beaten by this invincible Pahlavan, for I have no other child.”

Touched with compassion for the mother, Pahlavan let the Indian wrestler win the day; the enraged king orders his head to be cut off, but at that very moment the horse on which the king is sitting, bolts, carrying his master straight towards a dangerous precipice.

Pahlavan springs forward, catches the horse and rescues the king from a horrible death. In gratitude the king embraces the true faith, and the saintly wrestler, full of joy, goes away into the desert and becomes a hermit.[30]

A strange legend is told of the conversion of Satuq Bughra Khan, the founder of the Muslim dynasty of the Ilik-Khans of Kashgar, about the middle of the tenth century.

A prince of the Samanid house, Khwajah Abul-Nasr Samani, a man of great piety and humility of character, finding no scope for the exercise of his talent for administration, resolved to become a merchant, with, the purpose of spreading the true faith in the lands of the unbelievers.

Instead of trying to acquire a fortune by his commercial enterprises, he devoted all his gains to the furtherance of his proselytizing efforts.

One night the Prophet appeared to him in a dream, saying: “Arise, and go into Turkistan where the prince Satuq Bughra Khan only awaits your coming to be converted to Islam.”

The young prince had in a similar manner been warned in a vision to expect the arrival of an instructor in the faith, and when some days later he met Abul-Nasr Samani he was prepared to accept his teaching and become a Muslim.

This legend would appear to have been based on the historic fact that Islam made its way from the Samanid kingdom into the neighbouring country of Turkistan, and the example of the ruler seems to have been followed by his subjects, for in A.D. 960 as many as 200,000 tents of the Turks, i.e. probably the greater part of the Turkish population of Bugkra Khans kingdom, professed the faith of Islam.[31]

Legend credits him with miraculous powers in his wars against the heathen, when a devouring flame would issue from his mouth and the sword that he brandished would become forty feet long. By the time he had reached the age of ninety-six, the terror of his sword is said to have converted the unbelievers from the banks of the Oxus in the south to Quraquram in the north, and just before his death he is said to have led his victorious army into China, and spread Islam as far as Turfan.[32]

This picturesque account of a dynastic struggle with the Buddhist kingdom of Khotan credits the hero with a measure of success which was not really achieved until the fourteenth century. How limited the success of Satuq Bughra Khan really was, may be judged from the fact that when his successors among the Ilik-Khans sought in 1026 to contract matrimonial alliances with princesses of the house of Mahmud of Ghazna, Mahmud replied that he was a Muslim, while they were unbelievers, and that it was not the custom to give the sisters and daughters of Muslims in marriage to unbelievers, but that, if they would embrace Islam, the matter would be considered.[33]

A few years later, in 1041-1042, a number of Turks who were still heathen and living in Tibetan territory sought permission from Arslan Khan b. Qadr Khan to settle in his dominions, having heard of the justice and mildness of his rule; when they arrived in the neighbourhood of Balasaghun[34] he sent a message to them urging them to accept Islam; but they refused, and as he found them to be peaceable and obedient subjects, he left them alone.

There is no record of their conversion, which probably ensued in course of time; but they can hardly be identified with the group of ten thousand tents of infidel Turks who embraced Islam in the following year, as these latter are expressly stated to have harried and plundered the Muslims before their conversion.[35]

The invasion of the Qara Khitay into Turkistan[36] dealt a severe blow to the power of Islam, and as late as the thirteenth century the reports of European travellers show that there were still important groups of Buddhists, Manichæans and Christians in these parts.[37]

Of supreme importance to Islam was the conversion of the Saljuq Turks, but no record of their conversion remains beyond the statement that in A.D. 956 Saljuq migrated from Turkistan with his clan to the province of BuKhara, where he and his people enthusiastically embraced Islam.[38]

  • This was the origin of the famous Saljuq Turks, whose wars and conquests revived the fading glory of the Muslim arms and united into one empire the Muslim kingdoms of Western Asia.
  • When at the close of the twelfth century, the Saljuq empire had lost all power except in Asia Minor, and when Muhammad Ghuri was extending his empire from Khurasan eastward across the north of India, there was a great revival of the Muslim faith among the Afghans and their country was overrun by Arab preachers and converts from India, who set about the task of proselytizing with remarkable energy and boldness.[39]
  • The traditions of the Afghans represent Islam as having been peaceably introduced among them. They say that in the first century of the Hijrah they occupied the Ghur country to the east of Herat, and that Khalid b. Walid came to them there with the tidings of Islam and invited them to join the standard of the Prophet; he returned to Muhammad accompanied by a deputation of six or seven representative men of the Afghan people, with their followers, and these, when they went back to their own country, set to work to convert their fellow-tribesmen.[40]

This tradition is, however, devoid of any historical foundation, and the earliest authentic record of conversion to Islam from among the Afghans seems to be that of a king of Kabul in the reign of al-Mamun.[41] His successors, however, seem to have relapsed to Buddhism, for when Yaqub b. Layth, the founder of the Saffarid dynasty, extended his conquests as far as Kabul in 871, he found the ruler of the land to be an ” idolater,” and Kabul now became really Muslim for the first time, the Afghans probably being quite willing to take service in the army of so redoubtable a conqueror as Yaqub b. Layth,[42] but it was not until after the conquests of Sabaktigin and Mahmud of Ghazna that Islam became established throughout Afghanistan.

Of the further history of Islam in Persia and Central Asia some details will be found in the following chapter.

[23] Balādhurī, p. 421.
[24] Narshakhi, p. 46.
[25] Id. p. 47.
[26] Balādhurī, p. 426.
[27] Ṭabarī, ii. pp. 1507 sqq.
[28] Balādhurī, p. 431.
[29] August Müller, vol. i. p. 520.
[30] Cahun, p. 150.
[31] Ibn al-Athīr, vol. viii. p. 396 (11. 19-20.) Grenard, pp. 7 sq., 42-3.
[32] Grenard, pp. 9-10. “D’une guerre d’ambition [la tradition] fait une guerre sainte, elle attribue à Satoḳ Boghra Khân une conquête qui a été accomplie réellement par son douzième successeur; par une confusion absurde, elle donne le nom de ce dernier à l’oncle infidèle de Satoḳ. Non contente de réduire deux personnages en un seul, elle prête au même prince une marche sur Tourfân, c’est- à -dire contre les Ouigour, qui est en effet l’œuvre d’un troisième.” (Id. p. 50.)
[33] Raverty, p. 905.
[34] This was the capital of the Khāns of Turkistan during the tenth and eleventh centuries, but the exact site is uncertain.
[35] Narshakhī, pp. 234-5.
[36] Raverty, pp. 925-7.
[37] Grenard, p. 76.
[38] Raverty, p. 117.
[39] Bellew, p. 96.
[40] Id. pp. 15-16.
[41] Balādhurī, p. 402.
[42] August Müller, vol. ii. p. 29.