Answering Jihad: A Better Way Forward Question #6 – Was Islam Spread by the Sword?

answering jihad

This is the sixth in a 17-week series from Answering Jihad: A Better Way Forward by Nabeel Qureshi, author of Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus. Weeks one through sixteen will cover sixteen questions people most commonly ask Qureshi about jihad and Islam. These questions explore the origins of jihad, the nature of jihad today, and the phenomenon of jihad in Judeo-Christian context. After answering these questions, Qureshi will conclude by proposing a response to jihad, in his view the best way forward. His concluding remarks will be presented in week seventeen.

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THE SHORT ANSWER: technically no, but indirectly yes. As Qureshi mentioned before, different jurists began to develop codes of conduct with myriads of rules, but an overarching understanding of jihad came to be shared in broad strokes. First, the world was to be seen as divided into two sections, one including those lands that were part of the Islamic empire and one that included everywhere else. The former is called Dar al-Islam, the “house of Islam,” and the latter is called Dar al-Harb, the “house of war.” A third division is also discussed at times, Dar al-Sulh, the house of treaty, where a treaty prohibited Muslims from conquering a land.

31 Islamic Scimitar

Second, in Dar al-Harb, fighting was not incumbent upon Muslims but it was permissible should they want the land for themselves. If they wished to conquer it, they were to first invite its people to Islam. If the people agreed, they were safe and the house of Islam was spread without the sword.

Third, if people refused to convert to Islam, they were then offered the option of paying jizya, the ransom tax. If they agreed, they were considered a conquered people whose lands now belonged to Muslims and they received the rights of second-class citizens, dhimmis. This option was given even to polytheists despite Surah 9 of the Qur’an.

maxresdefault.jpgFourth, if the people refused to accept Islam or pay the jizya, then Muslims could fight them. If the Muslims won, it was because they either killed their enemies in battle or because their enemies surrendered. In the case of victory through surrender, Muslims could do whatever they wished with their vanquished foes (Sunan Abu Daub 2612).

There may have been occasions in history when Muslims gave an ultimatum of conversion under the threat of death, but that was not the norm. A much more common outcome, for example, was the systematized enslavement of captives that Muslims then trained and enlisted as slave soldiers, or mamluks. Given this process of waging jihad, it can be seen that the primary goal of jihad was not to convert people at the point of the sword but rather to expand Muslim territory. Conversion was one of the outcomes of jihad, but not its main purpose.


Yet if it had not been for campaigns of the sword, Islam would not have spread as widely as it did. As David Cook summarizes in Understanding Jihad, “Islam was not in fact ‘spread by the sword’ – conversion was not forced on the occupants of conquered territories – but the conquests created the necessary preconditions for the spread of Islam. With only a few exceptions… Islam has become the majority faith only in territories that were conquered by force. Thus, the conquests and the doctrine that motivated these conquests – jihad – were crucial to the development of Islam.

Although the object of jihad was not conversion, once lands had been conquered, people were more prone to converting. This is unsurprising, as second-class dhimmi status was at times harsh. Also, the jizya was not a set amount, and records indicate that it was prone to change over time. Conquered Christians record that Amr Ibn al-As, one of Muhammad’s companions, is recorded to have tripled their taxes, and elsewhere he raised the jizya until the conquered Christians were unable to pay.


It was through the injunctions toward Dar al-Harb that the Islamic empire expanded rapidly. Whatever the reality of that era and its warfare, many modern Muslims remember it with nostalgia as the Golden Age of Islam. Nostalgia is perhaps too mild a term; “longing” or “yearning” may more accurately convey the wistful sentiments of many Muslims. In their eyes, Allah rained his blessings upon the land because of the devotion of early Muslims, teaching them insights through the Qur’an that advanced them scientifically and intellectually beyond the rest of mankind. The world was as Allah intended it to be during this era when Muslims obeyed Allah and Islam reigned supreme.


This basic notion of supremacy through the practice of Islam appears in the Qur’anic concept of jahiliyya. The Qur’an teaches that, before the advent of Islam, mankind was in a state of ignorance and barbarism, jahiliyya. Obedience to Allah results in lifting mankind out of their base condition and into “enlightenment.” The hadith build on this framework, coupling the proper practice of Islam with the generation of Islamic conquests.

In a well-known hadith from Sahih al-Bukhari, Muhammad says, “The best of you are my generation, and the second best will be those who will follow them, and then those who will follow the second generation… Then will come some people who will make vows but will not fulfill them; and they will be dishonest and will not be trustworthy, and they will give their witness without being asked to give their witness, and fatness will appear among them. (Sahih al-Bukhari 8.78.686)

The premise of this hadith undergirds the common Muslim conception of the Islamic Golden Age: after Muhammad will come the best era of Islamic history, and gradually through selfishness and lack of integrity, Muslims will fall away from the proper practice of Islam. Classically, Muslims and scholars have considered the Golden Age to span 500 years, starting at about the middle of the eighth century, but radical Muslims today are given to envisioning the era of the Golden Age as far back as the first generations of Muslims.


It is easy to see why people would think Islam was spread by the sword. Muhammad said, “I have been ordered to fight against the people until they testify that none has the right to be worshipped but Allah. [O]nly then will they save their lives and property from me” (Sahih Bukhari 1.2.25). Though this may sound like Muhammad wanted to convert non-Muslims at sword-point, early Muslims did not interpret it that way. Rather, it was understood that Islamic territory was to expand, but the fighting would desist if the vanquished converted to Islam.

This distinction between conquering for conversion or conquering them for their territory unless they convert is a subtle one, and in the long run the outcome was the same. With a few exceptions, Islam is the majority religion only in those lands that were captured through jihad. Muslims believe that because of the obedience of early Muslims, the Islamic empire expanded beyond all estimation. The obedience of the earliest Muslims laid the foundation for the Golden Era of Islam, and it is remembered with yearning in the Muslim heart as a time when people obeyed Allah and Allah blessed the land. Mankind was at its pinnacle. Political, intellectual, scientific, and moral progress has never been sustained in such purity since that time. Muslims can thank the earliest Muslims, the salaf, for their devotion, and if they model their example in obeying Allah and following Muhammad with integrity, Allah will bless mankind again.

With these final pieces of the puzzle, the expectation of Islamic dominance and the nostalgic notion of an Islamic Golden Age, the foundations of radical Islam were laid.

Thanks for reading.

Please join me next Friday for Qureshi’s Question #7 – What is Radical Islam? It is important for me to state that I do not support the religion of Islam ideologically or theologically. I am a Christian, who is a novice scholar of comparative religious study and an apologist. Indeed, Nabeel Qureshi is no longer a Muslim, having converted to Christianity after his exhausting study on the question of violence and jihad in Islam.

One thought on “Answering Jihad: A Better Way Forward Question #6 – Was Islam Spread by the Sword?

  1. Pingback: Answering Jihad: A Better Way Forward Question #1 – What is Islam? | The Accidental Poet

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