Spread of Islam

As a religion that was relatively late to the party compared to Christianity and Judaism, Islam has gone on to become the second-most followed faith in the world. What was it, and how did it the Spread of Islam happen so quickly? Find out here!

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Table of contents

    The Rise and Spread of Islam

    The birth of Islam is traceable back to the Prophet Muhammad, who rose to prominence during the seventh century. Before him, the dominant religion in Arabia was polytheism - the belief in many different gods/deities - which was practised by many tribes. The Quaraysh in the city of Mecca were one of these tribes, and it was in this tribe that Muhammad was born.

    People worshipped god or 'Allah' before Muhammad but many Arabs in the Middle East believed that he was just one of many deities.

    As the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad, Mecca was, and remains, the centre of Islam. It played an integral role in forming the Islam faith. When Muhammad returned from his exile to Medina, he unified Mecca and changed the role of the holy site of pilgrimage, known as the Kaaba to worship the single deity, 'Allah'. Today it remains a focal point, just as before. For Muslims, their religion dictates that each follower should attempt to visit the holy city at least once in their lifetime.

    The Prophet Muhammad

    By casting himself as a prophet, Muhammad was able to crystallise many of the ideas associated with Islam into one faith.

    As there were many distinct groups living in Mecca at the time, there was an opportunity to unite them through one faith and one god.


    A messenger who is in direct conversation with God

    Muhammad was instrumental in changing the worship at the Kaaba, the sacred Meccan pilgrimage site, to focus on a single deity. When Muhammad declared that the Angel Gabriel spoke to him in 610 CE, he gained traction and set out a new religious practice with prayer as the cornerstone, replacing offerings and idols.

    The Kaaba or 'cube' made Mecca such a unique city, even before Islam. It was primarily a place of peace where warriors put down their arms and traded. As a result, Mecca was a melting pot of cultures and a sanctuary in an otherwise turbulent region where different tribes and religions collided. It is said that the Kaaba was built by Abraham, an important figure in Judaism.

    Spread of Islam Kaaba StudySmarterFig. 2 - The Kaaba remains the centre of Mecca in modern times

    Whilst Jews and Christians, examples of monotheism, worshipped their single deity at the Kaaba, the Arabs worshipped idols, objects that represented gods, there. Pre-Islamic Arabs derived many idols from nature such as the moon-god Habul. Hisham ibn al-Kalbi described and criticised these deities in 'The Book of Idols', written after Muhammad's death.

    Muhammad destroyed the statues of the idols at the Kaaba. He wanted a monotheist religious movement, akin to Judaism and Christianity. Allah would be the only object of worship and adulation.


    The belief that there is only one God

    The Qu'ran

    The basis of Muhammad's teachings came from the Qu'ran.


    The holy text of Islam that followers believe was recited to Muhammad by the Angel Gabriel

    When he was meditating on Mount Hira in 610, he claimed to see the Angel Gabriel, a messenger of Allah. Muhammad relayed the message sent by the deity to his followers and continued to do so for 23 years. As a prophet, who mediated between Allah and the people, Muhammad gained huge respect. Important messages such as monotheism, the Pillars of Islam and the use of the Kaaba became cornerstones of the faith.

    After Muhammad died, the first caliph Abu Bakr commanded that the sacred text be written down. Such is the esteem that the text is held in, it cannot be placed on the ground and ritual washing is performed before touching it.

    The Early Spread of Islam

    The Quraysh, who oversaw Mecca, shamed Muhammad and his followers for their ideas. They even reacted violently at times. This meant that the prophet had to look elsewhere in order to spread his message.

    The first attempt came in the form of sending 15 followers across the Red Sea to Abyssinia in 615 with the notion that they may be more accepting as the Abyssinians also did not see eye to eye with the Quraysh. However, after three months they missed their homeland and returned to Mecca.

    A year later, as prosecution worsened, 101 followers went to Abyssinia, where Christian King Al-Najashi sheltered them from violence and granted them asylum, refusing the bribes of the Quraysh who wanted their return.

    In 622, immigration to Medina, which lay 200 km from Mecca, proved even more successful, when Muhammad acted as a mediator for quarrelling factions. He unified all the groups and became the leading political and religious force in the city.

    Muhammad had gained power through his clear doctrine (which was embodied in the Qu'ran), acceptance of other religions if they paid 'jizyah', and his tactical marriage to a Quraysh woman. This allowed him to become the dominant figure in Mecca too, with a Muslim 'hajj' and occupation taking place in 630, two years before the prophet's death.


    The taxation system that non-Muslims paid to Muslim rulers as a means of being allowed to continue following their faith


    The annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca - it is one of the pillars of Islam and all Muslims are expected to complete the pilgrimage at least once in their lifetime.

    Spread of Islam: Timeline

    We have seen how Islam began to show its influence in Mecca and the surrounding areas during the lifetime of Muhammad; now let's examine what happened after his death. The following periods can be divided into different caliphates. We will look at the important moments that defined each one.


    A political-religious state governing the Islamic community in the centuries following the death of the Prophet Muhammad


    The ruler of a caliphate; seen as a successor to the Prophet Muhammad as the religious and temporal leader of the Islamic people

    The Rashidun Caliphate (632 - 661)

    The first caliph after the death of Muhammad in 632 was Abu Bakr. He had a relatively limited two-year reign, but proved to be instrumental in the developing split between different factions within Islam.

    The factions which would become the Sunni and Shia Muslims respectively were divided in their opinion about Muhammad's successor. Those who support Abu Bakr's caliphate would become Sunnis and those who thought that Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law Ali should have become caliph instead would become Shias.


    A sect of Islam which believes that any faithful Muslim can be elected as leader


    A sect of Islam which believes that only those who are related to the Prophet should become leaders

    During a relatively short period, the first four caliphs managed to spread Islam to modern-day Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Iran, taking advantage of the weak Byzantine and Sassanid empires. However, the Rashidun caliphs did not master centralised control as Muhammad had, which caused a split within the faith and the First Fitna, ending the caliphate.


    The name for a period of unrest or rebellion in Islam

    The First Fitna came about when Egyptian rebels killed Rashidun caliph Uthman in 656 and replaced him with Ali, Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law. Syrian Mu'awiyah supplanted Ali in 661 after he was assassinated in a mosque, creating the Ummayad Caliphate and moving the Islam capital to Damascus, Syria.

    The Ummayad Caliphate (661 - 750)

    Although the Ummayad Caliphate had far greater success than the Rashidun Caliphate, this period was characterised by several fitnas, whereby opposition had to be silenced as caliphs wrestled for control.

    Period Explanation
    661 - 683The Second Fitna was partially motivated by the death of Ali, as well as the question of succession after Mu'awiyah - the question of who could be caliph divided Muslims into Sunnis and Shias. Eventually, this led to an uprising in Iraq, but pro-Syrian forces quashed it. There was also fighting to expand the Ummayad Caliphate to incorporate the Byzantine Empire in North Africa but this did not succeed.
    685 - 705Caliph Abd al-Malik had a successful reign. He built the Dome of the Rock in the Christian-dominated Jerusalem to gather support from non-believers in the caliphate. In addition, an Islamic identity began to grow with the introduction of Islamic coinage and the Pillars of Islam. Arabic also became the dominant language across the entire caliphate.
    709The Ummayad Caliphate captured the final strongholds of the Byzantine Empire in Northern Africa, giving them a pathway into Europe.
    744 - 750The following caliphs continued to build on the work of Abd al-Malik until the Abbasids from Iraq, aided by Shia forces, ousted caliph Marwin II during the Third Fitna. The Abbasids replaced him with their leader As Saffah after winning The Battle of the Great Zab River in 750.
    756After escaping Syria and narrowly surviving the purges that followed the Abbasid victory, Abd al-Rahman fled and established an Ummayad Caliphate in Iberia (modern-day Spain) with the capital in Córdoba.

    The Dome of the Rock mosque has immense significance for Muslims, as it is said to be constructed on the spot where Muhammad went up to heaven. It was one of the first examples of the distinct Islam style, derived from geometric shapes and with the word of god etched on the walls.

    Spread of Islam Dome of the Rock StudySmarterFig. 5 - Dome of the Rock mosque

    The mosque utilised elements such as the marble and mosaic-filled interior from the Byzantine tradition. The dome is accompanied by a 'minaret' (a tower with a balcony) where the call to prayer could take place five times a day.

    The Abbasid Caliphate (750 - 1258)

    The Abbasid Caliphate would significantly outlast the Ummayad Caliphate and usher in the 'Golden Age' for Islam. It would also result in the fragmentation of the Islamic state, from forces within and without, which allowed the religion to spread even further afield.

    During the period of the Abbasid Caliphate, there were long intervals of stability. This allowed the Arabic world to thrive and gave birth to Baghdad as a cultural hub. Under Caliph Harun al-Rashid (786 - 809), art, literature and science were all sponsored and given importance. Knowledge was also spread when important works from other languages were translated into Arabic. The Abbasid Caliphate made use of the stability that its predecessors had failed to create.

    It is important to consider that the style of leadership was far different from the Ummayad Caliphate. Rather than one central figure, each region was governed by a ruler or emir. This became abused as power was soon derived from a bloodline.

    With the dwindling influence of the caliph, Sharia Law became more significant during the eighth and ninth centuries. It was the moral coding, derived from the Qu'ran, that governed the caliphate. In this system, still employed by traditional Islamic states today, there are varying degrees of acceptance for different behaviours, ranging from mandatory to absolutely forbidden.

    762The capital of the caliphate was moved east to Baghdad in modern-day Iraq.
    793A group of Shia Muslims known as the Isidrids gained control of Fez in modern-day Morocco.
    870The Tulinid Dynasty added Palestine to parts of Egypt and Syria in the regions of the Caliphate that they controlled.
    909Another Shia group, the Fatimids, fed up with the empty promises of the Abbasid Caliphate, broke with them and controlled large portions of North Africa, known as the Maghreb.

    As time progressed, the size of the caliphate began to dwindle with the influence of foreign forces. Some adopted the Muslim faith, whilst others wanted to avenge the oppression of their religion in what became known as The Crusades. With the influence of the Abbasid Caliphate soon confined to Baghdad, it was difficult to mount a sturdy and unified defence.

    1085The Christians conquered Muslim Spain and captured Toledo.
    1099Christian Franks (from modern-day France) captured the holy city of Jerusalem.
    1187After the Battle of Hattin, Muslim forces commanded by Saladin reclaimed Jerusalem.
    1258 Following a long campaign that began in Iran in 1217, the Mongols, originally led by Genghis Khan, who died in 1227, burnt Baghdad to the ground and brought an end to the Abbasid Caliphate. However, Islam lived on as they adopted it as their own religion.

    Islam remained prominent thanks to the Mongols and the Turkish Ottomans who also had an empire and continued to spread, though the 'Golden Age' of the Caliphates was over. Now, most Muslims lived as a minority in states dominated by other religions.

    Spread of Islam Genghis Khan Portrait StudySmarterFig. 6 - Portrait of Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan

    Reasons for the Spread of Islam

    There are many factors that contributed to the spread of Islam before 1258. Let's look at some of the significant ones below.

    Aspects of the Culture

    At the very core of the Islamic faith was the principle of unity. The pilgrimage to Mecca and the ritual of prayer five times a day fostered a community feel and was able to bridge differences between cultures. Also, the cultural prominence of the Arabic world through immense architecture and scientific and medical breakthroughs brought a level of respect to Islam. Finally, the ability of the Qu'ran to be wielded in different ways could convince people to join the Islamic faith. These methods were evident in the Mongols and the Ottomans, who both conquered the Muslim world.

    Various Agreements

    At the centre of the early success of Islam was its ability to tolerate other religions through a clever method of coercive conversion. Through jizyah, financial gains could be acquired for the Caliphate should members of other faiths decide not to join Islam. Collection of this payment often occurred in humiliating ways and Islamic supremacy was consistently preached. This, coupled with the financial hit, pressurised many non-believers to convert.

    Also, many inter-faith marriages resulted in conversion, following the example of the Prophet Muhammad. Trade deals from Muslim maritime merchants in search of rare spices resulted in the spread of Islam to Sumatra Island in Indonesia. The Silk Road trade route across Asia and the huge Mongolian Empire also allowed for this spread to the Far East.

    Military Effectiveness

    The Rashidun and Ummayad Caliphates in particular benefitted from being in the right place at the right time. Surrounding much of their territory was the Byzantine and Sassanid Empires that were reaching the end of their cycle. The Ummayad Empire was effective and able to dramatically increase the size of the Caliphate because of its focus on self-preservation.

    Once other empires rose and different factions developed within the Caliphate during the Abbasid epoch, it was always a matter of time before it began to dwindle and eventually reach the end of its own cycle.

    Facts about the Spread of Islam

    • Islam means 'surrender to god'. This single-minded approach to faith struck a chord and helped the religion gain many followers.
    • The Pillars of Islam are Faith, Prayer, Charity, Fasting and Pilgrimage.
    • The term 'jihad' means to struggle and is often given to conflicts involving Muslims so that they take on religious significance.
    • Sunni is the dominant sect of Islam with 85% of the 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide. Shia is the next largest with around 15%.1 There are other sects within the faith such as Sufism.
    • The first Ramadan (fasting month) took place in Medina during the life of Muhammad.

    Spread of Islam - Key takeaways

    • The Prophet Muhammad brought Islam to prominence in Mecca and Medina before his death in 632.
    • After his rule, Rushidan caliphs expanded the Islamic state, taking advantage of the weakening Byzantine and Sassanid Empires.
    • Expansion continued during the Ummayad Caliphate from 661 to 750 which was characterised by unrest, further conquests and the beginning of Islamic cultural identity, governed by Syria.
    • The Abbasid Caliphate replaced the Ummayad Caliphate and brought the 'Golden Age of Islam'. However, different kingdoms developed as loyalty to Baghdad waned.
    • Military setbacks began to pile up before the Abbasid Caliphate finally fell to the Mongols in 1258.
    • The spread of Islam was possible because of military successes, various agreements and aspects of the culture.


    1. Council on Foreign Relations, 'The Sunni-Shia Divide', cfr.org (2016) .
    Frequently Asked Questions about Spread of Islam

    What caused the spread of Islam?

    The spread of Islam was caused by a number of factors including aspects of the religion, trade deals and agreements and military conquests.

    How did the spread of Islam affect Christianity?

    The spread of Islam meant that different faiths such as Judaism and Christianity needed to pay a tax or "jizyah" to be permitted to live in a Muslim Caliphate.

    How did the spread of Islam affect civilisation?

    The spread of Islam led to many Arabic-speaking countries and the use of Sharia Law as a religious doctrine for governance.

    What stopped the spread of Islam to certain places?

    The failure of the Caliphates to conquer the Franks, the development of other dynasties and the fracturing of the original Caliphate dynasties into separate kingdoms stopped the spread of Islam to certain places.

    How did Islam spread so fast?

    The weaknesses of the Byzantine and Sassanid empires that surrounded Medina and Mecca allowed for fast military expansion during the Rashidun and Ummayad Caliphate. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What was the umma? 

    What military title did the Constitution of Medina give Muhammad? 

    When was the Hijra migration to Medina? 


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