Dr. Susmit Kumar

During the rule of the second caliph, Umar (634-644), Muslim forces captured Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Armenia, and North Africa from the Byzantines, and Mesopotamia and parts of Persia from the Sassanids. Most important of all, they captured Jerusalem, the third holiest city in Islam. During the rule of the next caliph, Uthman (644-656), they extended the regime to Morocco in the west, Pakistan in the east, and Azerbaijan in the north. Initially, they abstained from trying to convert the people in conquered areas since they considered Islam to be the religion of the Arabs; they also wanted to avoid granting privileges enjoyed by Muslims to others. Instead, they allowed Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians to practice their religions provided they paid tribute.

Conversions to Islam started to occur a century later in and around the Muslim garrison centers in conquered territories, and Islam was no longer an exclusively Arab religion. Outside the garrison centers, however, people still followed their own faiths. By the end of the Umayyad period (in the middle years of the 2nd Islamic and A.D. 8th centuries ), less than 10 percent of the populations of Iran, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Tunisia, and Spain was Muslim, although the proportion must have been much greater in the Arabian peninsula. Neither pressure nor positive incentive for others to convert was in evidence. Converts lived for the most part in or near the main urban centers of Arab population and power.[1]

In the first half of the 9th century, the caliph Ma’mun had to march an army from Iraq to Egypt to suppress an uprising of tribesmen and Copts. Instead of fighting non-Muslims in conquered lands, however, they opted to convert them to Islam. The first mass conversion to Islam took place in the eastern delta of the river Nile and parts of upper Egypt in the middle of the 9th century, though the people in the western delta region remained Christian.

By the end of the 4th Islamic century, or 10th century A.D., a large part of the population in the conquered territories, both urban and rural, had become Muslim because the distinction between Muslim and non-Muslim had become clearly defined. Now non-Muslims were second-class citizens: They paid a special tax; they were not supposed to wear certain colors; they could not marry Muslim women; their evidence was not accepted against that of Muslims in the courts; their houses and places of worship could not be ostentatious; and they were excluded from positions of power (although in various places Jews and Christians worked as secretaries or financial officials for Muslim rulers). How seriously such rules were applied depended on local conditions.[2]

The conversion of the Inner Asian Turkish peoples, including the Tatars, Uzbeks, and Kazaks, to Islam began in the 10th century through converted Turkish traders who had come in contact with Muslims via the caravan trade. This was followed by the conversion efforts of Sufi and Muslim missionaries. The conversion of people in Anatolia (modern Turkey) and the Balkans in southeast Europe occurred during the rule of the Saljuq and Ottoman empires, from the 11th to the 14th centuries. These latter conversions occurred because of the incentives to be Muslim, since, once again, non-Muslims were treated like second-class citizens. In addition, a substantial number of Turkish Muslims went to Anatolia to live and uprooted the local people, who were mostly Christians.

The introduction of Islam into India was similar to that into Anatolia and the Balkans. Afghan and Turkish Muslims established the Delhi Sultanate (1206-1526) and, later on, the Mughal Empire (1526-1857). Like the early Middle Eastern, Balkan, and Anatolian peoples, Indians converted to Islam because of the privileges gained by being Muslim. Most converts were from the lower Hindu castes and had been mistreated by the higher castes. Islam had no caste system, however, and everyone was equal, at least Muslims. Akbar (1556-1605), the third ruler of the Mughal Empire, made an attempt to integrate Islam into India by starting a new religion, Din-i-Ilahi, which was a mixture of Hinduism and Islam. His great-grandson, Aurangzeb, however, was an extremely conservative emperor. He destroyed hundreds of Hindu temples, replacing them with mosques, and imposed a poll tax on non-Muslims. This resulted in several wars and eventually the disintegration of the empire after his death.

Islam was introduced into Malaysia and Indonesia by traders and Sufis from Arabia and India in the 13th century. Traders also propagated Islam in several parts of East and West Africa.

1 Hourani, Albert, A History of the Arab Peoples, MJF Books, New York, 1991, pp. 46-47.

2 Ibid., p. 47.

Additional information