The Expansion of Islam in Various World Regions

  January 01, 2024   Read time 5 min
The Expansion of Islam in Various World Regions
Islam began in western Arabia with the preaching of the prophet Muhammad (ca. 570–632 C.E.). Under the caliphs, or successors to Muhammad as temporal leaders of the Muslims, the community he had founded in Medina and Mecca expanded quickly to control all of the Arabian peninsula, Iraq, Syria-Palestine, Iran, and Egypt.

Most of these areas were seized through military action from the two great powers of the day, the Byzantine and Sassanian Persian empires. While the early Islamic conquests remain difficult to explain in full as a historical phenomenon, they are probably best seen as an example of state-formation followed by rapid state expansion. Once firmly established, the Islamic state, led by the Umayyad caliphs (660–750 C.E.), established major garrison towns in newly conquered areas (Kufa and Basra in Iraq; Hims in Syria; Fustat in Egypt; Qayrawan in Tunisia; Qom, Marv, and others in Iran). These became important urban centers where Islamic literary culture developed, particularly under the Abbasid caliphs (750–1258 C.E.). From these garrison towns the caliphs launched further campaigns of conquest that brought ever-wider areas under their sway. North Africa was conquered in a series of campaigns sent from Egypt in the middle and later decades of the seventh century, and Muslim armies crossed the Straits of Gibraltar in 711 C.E. and quickly seized most of the Iberian peninsula, followed in subsequent decades by raids deep into Gaul and occupation of significant areas of what is now southern France.

All these areas have ever since remained part of the Islamic world, with the exception of southern France and Iberia, from which Muslims were expelled in 1492 by a resurgent Spanish monarchy, and some islands in the Mediterranean, notably Sicily, where Muslims established themselves during the ninth and tenth centuries C.E. In the east, Muslim forces defeated the last armies of the Sassanian Great Kings in western Iran already in the middle of the sixth century, and within several more decades Muslim forces had seized areas far to the east, particularly Khurasan, although some areas of Iran (Sistan, Gilan) resisted Muslim encroachment stubbornly for many more years. From Khurasan, the caliphs dispatched armies into other parts of eastern Iran, Afghanistan, and areas beyond the Oxus River in Central Asia.

The caliphs not only organized and maintained the conquering armies that carried out this remarkable expansion of the first Islamic state, they also benefited from the conquests in the form of a share of booty and captives and subsequently in the form of regular taxes imposed on the conquered areas. But it is important to note that for at least two centuries, Muslims constituted a minority (at first, indeed, a very small minority) of the population of the vast area controlled by the early Islamic empire between Spain and Afghanistan; it is estimated that the population of the caliphal domains only became 50 percent Muslim around the middle or end of the ninth century. The conversion of the population of the Middle East, then, even in lands like Syria, Egypt, and Iran, was clearly something that happened very gradually.

It was also during the early Islamic centuries that certain peoples living adjacent to the caliphal empire, but outside its borders, embraced Islam. The Bulgars, who lived along the Volga, had embraced Islam by the ninth century, probably under the influence of Muslim merchants coming from the south. The pastoral nomadic Turkish peoples of the Central Asian steppes were also increasingly converted to Islam during the ninth and tenth centuries; some may have embraced Islam on the advice of itinerant preachers or Muslim merchants to avoid being preyed upon by slave-raiders coming from the fringes of the caliphal empire in Khurasan. Their conversion was to prove of great importance, for in the eleventh century the Turks began their epic migration westward through northern Iran and into Azerbaijan, the Caucasus region, and Anatolia; this folk migration, which their political leaders the Seljuks partly orchestrated and partly followed, brought both the Turkish language and Islam for the first time to many parts of Anatolia. Under the aegis of various rival Turkish-Islamic states, much of the formerly Christian population of what we today call Turkey gradually embraced Islam between the eleventh and the fifteenth centuries C.E.—in this case, a process in which both merchants and syncretistic Sufi fraternities played a significant part.

Eventually, this Turkish-Islamic matrix gave rise to the Ottoman state, which in the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries conquered vast new territories for Islam in the Balkans and created the conditions under which the faith spread there, particularly in Albania and Bosnia. The first Muslim presence in South Asia was established already in the early eighth century C.E. in the Indus river valley (Sind and Punjab) by the conquest of key towns in the region, but although this community survived for many centuries little is known about it. The real beginning of the extensive spread of Islam in South Asia came in the late tenth and the eleventh centuries C.E., when the Ghaznavid dynasty began to launch raids from its main base in Afghanistan into the Indus valley and beyond, in order to secure the rich plunder the area offered. Eventually, some of these raids resulted in the establishment of permanent Ghaznavid outposts in Sind, especially as the Ghaznavids’s control of their original base in Afghanistan was challenged and then taken away by others; their Indian possessions thus became a refuge for the Ghaznavids.

The Ghaznavids were succeeded by the Ghurids, who in the later twelfth century held not only Sind and Punjab but also came to control most of northern India as far east as western Bengal. With the fall of the Ghurids in Afghanistan in the thirteenth century under pressure of the Khwarizmshahs and Mongols, some Ghurid commanders in India established the first Delhi Sultanate, which engaged in constant campaigning to spread its control against local Hindu and rival Muslim princes. By the fourteenth century, the Delhi sultans had brought an intermittent patchwork of areas under their control, extending all the way to south India and to Orissa in the southeast, and continued battling other Muslim and Hindu principalities. The degree of Islamization resulting from this political control varied, however, from region to region in South Asia; in general, Islamization was (and remains) much more extensive in the regions of Sind, Punjab, Bengal, and, by the fourteenth century, Kashmir in the north and Deccan in the south, than it was in other areas of India, including the Ganges plain.

Write your comment