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Expansion of Islam

William E. Shepard
The Oxford Encyclopedia of Islam and Politics What is This? Provides in-depth coverage of the political dimensions of Islam and the Muslim world through thematic examination of the major topic areas of political science as they relate to the Muslim world.

Expansion of Islam

This article understands the “expansion of Islam” to mean primarily the geographical expansion of the Muslim ummah and its correlate, Dār al-Islām. According to the Qurʾān and Muslim tradition there were many prophets and ummahs thoughout history, but these ummahs either did not survive or survived with essential corruptions, as in the case of Jews and Christians.

The Beginnings.

The continuing Muslim ummah began when the Prophet Muḥammad (c. 570–632) about the year 610 received the first of a series of revelations that continued until his death and gathered a small group of followers, including his wife, Khadījah; his cousin ʿAlī; and a close friend, Abū Bakr. He soon encountered opposition from the leaders of the dominant tribe in Mecca, where he lived, since his revelations called for a strict monotheism that impugned the gods they worshipped and challenged various injustices of their society. Persecution led him to send some of his followers to Ethiopia, where they were favorably received. Soon after this Muḥammad's clan was boycotted for two years.

Muḥammad then began to seek support outside of Mecca. After some failures he was approached by representatives from Yathrib, a farming oasis some 230 miles (370 kilometers) to the north of Mecca, to come as a mediator in tribal conflicts there. In 622 he and most of his followers moved to Yathrib, which became known as Madīnat al-Nabī (city of the prophet), or Medina for short. This significant event is known as the hijrah (emigration), and it marks the beginning of the ummah as a polity. From being a mediator Muḥammad gradually became the effective ruler, though facing internal opposition from three Jewish tribes, eventually eliminated, and less than fully loyal Muslims referred to as “hypocrites.”

External opposition came primarily from the Meccans, who saw in the nascent ummah a threat to their position. There were a number of skirmishes and battles, of which the three most important were Badr (624), where the Muslims defeated a larger Meccan force; Uḥud (625), where the Meccans defeated the Muslims but failed to follow up; and the Trench (627), where new technology staved off the Meccans. In 628 a truce was made between the Muslims and the Meccans, and in the following two years Muḥammad was able to gain the allegiance of a number of the surrounding tribes and strengthen his position so that the Meccans capitulated in 630, on generous terms, and accepted Islam. There followed expeditions against opposing tribes and a couple of expeditions in the direction of Syria, while deputations came from many tribes to affirm their allegiance. The ummah was now established as a new kind of community, transcending tribal allegiances in the name of God, and raids for booty and tribal honor were superseded by jihād, which involved booty but was done in the name of God and his rule.

First Wave of Expansion.

When Muḥammad died in 632 many but not all of the Arabian tribes had accepted Islam. Under Abū Bakr, Muḥammad's successor as ruler, or caliph, the remaining tribes were brought into the fold and some “copycat” prophetic movements were defeated. In the Riddah (Apostasy) wars some tribes were compelled to pay the zakāt tax after they had refused to pay on the grounds that their allegiance had been only to Muḥammad, a position that threatened the unity of the ummah.

Under the second caliph, ʿUmar, Muslim armies began to conquer, or “open” (fatḥ, the Arabic word for these conquests), lands beyond Arabia. Syria and Palestine fell after decisive battles in 634–636 over the Byzantines, with the caliph himself negotiating the surrender of Jerusalem in 638. Egypt was taken from the Byzantines between 639 and 646 and Tripoli about 647. The battle of Qādisīyah in 637 opened Sassanian Iraq to the Muslims and after the battle of Nihawand in 641 or 642 they advanced through Iran, reaching Khorāsān by 654. During this period key precedents were set for settling and taxing these lands, including the establishment of amṣār (garrison towns, sing. miṣr), garrison towns where the Arab troops were expected to live.

Conquests continued under the Umayyads (661–750). To the west, Qayrawān (Tunisia) was founded in 670, and in 711 Muslim Arabs and Berbers (converted early) entered the Iberian Peninsula (to be known as al-Andalus). They conquered most of it and advanced into France until they were stopped at Poitiers in 732. Between 827 and 896 Sicily was occupied. To the east the Muslims reached Sind (now in Pakistan) in 712 and to the northeast they captured the main cities of Central Asia in 712 and 713 and fought a Chinese army in 751. To the north, three expeditions against Constantinople, in 660, 668, and 717, failed, and the border with the Byzantines remained more or less stable for several centuries.


A large empire having been conquered, the next step was to incorporate its population into the ummah. Initially all Muslims were Arabs, and these constituted a thin ruling layer (with Berbers in the Maghreb) over the much larger dhimmī population. There seems initially to have been little expectation that they would convert to Islam. As dhimmīs, they had to pay special taxes and recognize Muslim preeminence in other ways, provisions not unlike what previous empires had imposed on minorities, but otherwise they were self-governing in their own affairs, and life went on much as before. Conquest had involved little material destruction, and government administration continued largely in the hands of the same people as before and in the same languages. Coins even retained the Byzantine and Sassanian designs.

This changed under the Umayyad caliph ʿAbd al-Malik (685–705), who undertook major administrative reforms, such as making Arabic the language of administration and introducing distinctively Islamic coins. He also built the Dome of the Rock, signaling the self-view of Islam as a distinctive and permanent order replacing the previous empires.

At about this time dhimmīs began to convert to Islam in significant numbers. Reasons included an attraction to its doctrines, a feeling that God did indeed favor the Muslims, and greater opportunities for social and political advancement. Under the Umayyads the sense that Muslim meant Arab was still strong, and converts had to become mawālī (clients) of an Arab tribe in order to become Muslim, and they still suffered social disadvantages. By 750 the mawālī had become sufficiently numerous that their disaffection was a major factor in the overthrow of the Umayyad dynasty and its replacement by the ʿAbbāsids. Since then Islam has been the multiethnic religion that it is today. Conversions continued, and in the lands of the first wave of conquests it took about two centuries for the majority of the population to become Muslim and a few more centuries to reach the much larger proportions that have remained more or less stable since. Pre-Islamic symbols and practices were sometimes incorporated into the growing religion of Islam and were sometimes criticized and/or eliminated by reformers.

Some Reverses.

While the premodern history of Islam is mainly a story of expansion, there were a few significant reverses. In 1099 the western European Crusaders captured Jerusalem and established themselves along the Mediterranean coast of Syria. They held Jerusalem until they were forced out by Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn (Saladin) in 1187, regained it briefly from 1229 to 1244, and were finally driven out of the area in 1291. While the Crusades were significant events for Europeans, they were little more than ephemeral “barbarian” incursions from the overall Muslim point of view.

Much more serious was the challenge of the Mongols, who entered the Muslim world in the thirteenth century, extending their sway over central Asia, Iran, and Iraq and sacking Baghdad in 1258, terminating the caliphate there. Their devastation set back the conquered lands economically and culturally for some time. Their advance was stopped by the Mamlūks at Ain Jalut in Syria in 1260, but they ruled as non-Muslims over Muslim peoples until their leader converted to Islam in 1295, and his followers followed suit over the next decade. Later Mongol rulers patronized Islamic culture and contributed to its blossoming.

An important permanent loss took place with the Christian reconquista of al-Andalus, beginning with the capture of Toledo in 1085 and ending with the termination of the Kingdom of Granada in 1492. Practice of Islam was forbidden by 1526, and even Muslim converts to Christianity were expelled by 1611. Sicily was retaken by the Normans between 1061 and 1092, though a Muslim population remained for a time, among them the great geographer al-Idrīsī.

Second Wave of Expansion.

The long stalemate between the Muslims and the Byzantines ended in 1071 when the Seljuk Turks defeated the Byzantines at the battle of Manzikert and added much of Anatolia to their realm. The struggle against the Byzantines was taken up by the Ottomans after 1281. They conquered northwestern Anatolia and moved into the Balkans in a number of campaigns; finally, in 1453 they took Constantinople and brought an end to the Byzantine Empire. Dhimmīs often prospered under their millet system, and the Balkan population remained predominantly Christian. Anatolia become predominantly Muslim, thanks particularly to the efforts of Ṣūfīs, but had a significant Christian population in parts until the twentieth century.

Muslim expansion into India had begun with the conquest of Sind in 712–713. The Ghaznavids (961–1186), initially based in Afghanistan, took Lahore in 1030 and controlled much of northwest India. Their successors, the Ghūrīds, extended their control as far as Delhi, and in 1209 one of their generals founded what became known as the Sultanate of Delhi, which extended Muslim rule to cover almost all of India. The existing social system was left largely intact and Hindus were treated as dhimmīs, their chiefs often cooperating with the Muslim rulers, who functioned as a ruling caste in a society organized by caste. Ṣūfī ṭarīqahs played a major role in converting about 25 percent of population of the subcontinent as a whole, a majority in much of the north. This was probably facilitated by at least apparent similarities between Sufism and the Bhakti devotional movement. The greatest of the Muslim dynasties in India, both politically and culturally, was the Mughal dynasty, beginning in 1526. Its greatest ruler, Akbar (r. 1556–1605), was both a warrior and a reformer and was known for his tolerance in religious matters. He abolished the jizyah tax for non-Muslims and sponsored debates among scholars of different religions. The empire remained strong for about a century but lost strength quickly after the death of Akbar's third successor, Awrangzīb, in 1707. The eighteenth century saw a significant revival of Hindu and Sikh power, as well as the beginning of British intervention.

Islam penetrated China through merchants and Ṣūfīs via Central Asia, where a confederation of Uzbeks ruled from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century, and through merchants in Chinese seaports. The descendants of the latter group along with others are called the Hui and are Chinese in language and culture. The Uighurs and other Muslims of Xinjiang were brought under Chinese rule in the eighteenth century but have maintained their ethnic identities and have been less happy to accept Chinese rule.

Islam appears to have been brought to Southeast Asia by traders and Ṣūfīs from both India and the Arabian Peninsula sometime before 1300. It spread south along the coasts of Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula, and thence to Java, where the last Hindu kingdom was replaced by a Muslim state by 1550 and at least superficial conversion was nearly complete two and a half centuries later. Meanwhile, the Europeans were beginning to make their presence felt. The Portuguese took Malacca in 1511 and were replaced about a century later by the Dutch, who began to extend their control. This stimulated the spread of Islam as a form of cultural and political resistance. Jihād became a form of anti-imperialist struggle, as would happen elsewhere. Islam spread as far as the southern Philippines in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

Traders brought Islam to the East African coast and Somalia beginning in the ninth century, while between the twelfth and early sixteenth centuries Muslims pushed south from Egypt and north from the Blue Nile region to conquer Christian kingdoms in what is now the Sudan. Ethiopia resisted and remains a Christian state today, though much of its population is Muslim. Elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa Islam was usually brought first by merchants and Ṣūfīs and later accepted by the rulers. In the central and western parts the elites of several kingdoms, including Ghana, Mali, Songhay, and Kano, became Muslim between the eleventh and the sixteenth centuries. From the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries jihād movements sought to reform pagan practices and spread the faith and practice of Islam.

The Impact of the West.

Modernity, coming on the back of Western imperialism, has been a major challenge to the ummah. Beginning in the eighteenth century but with full force in the nineteenth century, the descendants of the “barbaric” Franks of earlier times spread their power over Muslim lands until, by 1920, almost all of the ummah was under their direct or indirect control. After 1920 this control began to loosen, and by 1970, or in 1991 for those under Soviet rule, most of the ummah had gained formal independence. Even though the Western armies had left, however, they were prepared to return if they felt it necessary, as they did in Iraq in 1991 and 2003 and Afghanistan in 2001.

No less important is the form in which independence came, the nation-state. Invented in the West and for Western conditions, the nation-state probably divides the ummah more deeply than any previous political system has. Moreover, it demands a level of loyalty that many Muslims believe should be given only to God, that is, nationalism is seen by these Muslims as a form of shirk (polytheism).

Western influence goes much deeper than politics, moreover. In the nineteenth century the ummah was incorporated into the worldwide capitalist system, also made in the West, usually to its disadvantage, although in the twentieth century oil has permitted some Muslim states to play the capitalist game successfully. Western technology of various sorts has usually been welcomed, as has Western education, though with greater reservation. The same is true of much Western pop culture. The so-called resurgence of Islam since about 1970 and the political Islamism connected with it has modified this but not reversed it.

Postcolonial Advance.

Western imperialism has affected the nature and quality of Muslim life, but has not meant a major geographical retreat of the ummah. Ottoman control over Greece and the Balkans was lost between 1830 and 1918, and the loss of Palestine since 1948 has been deeply felt. There have also been two major population exchanges, both connected with the creation of nation states, between Turkey and Greece in 1923 and between Pakistan and India in 1947.

Apart from these the ummah still occupies most of the territories that it did in 1800, and its people still identify as Muslims and perform the pillars of Islam probably at least as faithfully as in 1800. Although at least one nineteenth-century leader asserted that Muslims lands under non-Muslim rule were no longer Dār al-Islām, most rejected this assertion on the grounds that Muslims were still free to practice their religious rites, most of their customs, and much of their law. Moreover, the ummah has continued to spread geographically in the last two centuries in sub-Saharan Africa, although at present it confronts vigorous Christian churches originally planted by Western missionaries.

Another form of advance of the ummah is a product of imperialism and modernity. Under the British Empire, for example, South Asian Muslims emigrated to places such as South Africa and Fiji and formed permanent communities there. Since the 1950s considerable numbers of Muslims have emigrated to Western countries, primarily for economic reasons. Others have gone as students, some remaining and some returning to their home countries. In many cases they have moved to the lands of their former rulers, such as South Asians to the United Kingdom and Maghribīs to France. Most European countries have Muslim communities of some significance. There is also a considerable population of Muslims in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and other countries. (We should also note the existence of a homegrown American Muslim movement deriving from the Nation of Islam movement of Elijah Muhammad.) While many of the first generation of immigrants expected to return to their home countries, most, along with their descendants, have remained and form permanent diaspora communities and are often citizens of their host countries.

These communities raise a number of issues for themselves, for their host communities, and for the ummah as a whole. For themselves there is the issue of identity. Can they be Muslims and Europeans (etc.) at the same time, and if so on what terms? How should they deal with prejudice and discrimination from the host country? Can/should there be a distinctive European or American (etc.) Islam? For the host country questions include: To what extent can distinctively Muslim practices, for example, in clothing, be tolerated (or encouraged)? Can there be a place for the Sharīʿah? What should be done about the popular fear of Muslims generally labeled Islamophobia? For the ummah as a whole, does their intimate connection with the West make them traitors or enable them to make distinctive contributions? Does the freedom of expression generally provided in the West allow them to present innovative ideas and practices that will benefit the whole ummah? Are they part of Dār al-Islām? An interesting suggestion is that they are dār al-daʿwah or dār al-shahādah, the abode of witness, a new category for a new situation.

Thus, while the general geographic configuration of Dār al-Islām, if understood as Muslim-majority areas, has not changed much since the eighteenth century, the situation and character of the ummah has changed considerably and will undoubtedly continue to do so.


  • Balādhurī, Ahmad ibn Jabir. The Origins of the Islamic State. Translated by Philip Khûri Hitti. Beirut: Khayats, 1966. Translation of one of the early Arabic sources for the conquests; reprint of the 1916 edition.
  • Bonner, Michael. Jihad in Islamic History: Doctrines and Practice. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2006. A good study of the topic.
  • Donner, Fred McGraw. The Early Islamic Conquests. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1981. Detailed study of the earliest conquests, including Syria and Iraq; stresses social, political, and ideological factors.
  • Gervers, Michael, and Ramzi Jibran Bikhazi, eds. Conversion and Continuity: Indigenous Christian Communities in Islamic Lands, Eighth to Eighteenth Centuries. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1990. Good collection of articles.
  • Haddad, Yvonne Yazbeck, and Jane I. Smith, eds. Muslim Minorities in the West: Visible and Invisible. Walnut Creek, Calif.: AltaMira, 2002. Articles on a number of countries and situations, with particular attention to America.
  • Hodgson, Marshall G. S. The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization. 3 vols. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974. Detailed and innovative study that has more than stood the test of time.
  • Ikram, S. M. Muslim Civilization in India. Edited by Ainslie T. Embree. New York: Columbia University Press, 1964. Detailed account of the Muslim period from 712 to 1857.
  • Kennedy, Hugh. The Great Arab Conquests: How the Spread of Islam Changed the World We Live In. Philadelphia: Da Capo, 2007. Detailed but accessible and attractively written account of the conquests to 750 CE with attention to the sources. Forward has a good discussion of the historical value of the sources.
  • Lapidus, Ira M. A History of Islamic Societies. 2d ed. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2002. The most recent detailed and authoritative study of Muslim history.
  • Lewis, Bernard. The Arabs in History. Rev. ed. New York: Harper & Row, 1958. Older work; still useful; very readable.
  • Ramadan, Tariq. To Be a European Muslim: A Study of Islamic Sources in the European Context. Leicester, U.K.: Islamic Foundation, 1999. By a leading participant in the debate about Islam in Europe.
  • Robinson, Francis, ed. The Cambridge Illustrated History of the Islamic World. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
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