|In the seventh century, nearly 1400 years ago, Muhammad, a respected businessman turned nomadic religious leader, started a new religion in Arabia. This new religion, Islam, claimed there was only one God and that Muhammad was his messenger. After the death of Muhammad, Islam, which in Arabic means "submission to God, peace, safety, purity," spread rapidly and today is the fastest growing religion in America and Europe. Of the varied reasons for the expansion of a religion, the most significant factors in the spread of Islam are: the life-long teachings of Muhammad, the expansion of the Arab empire and its sphere of influence, and the general tolerance of Islam of other religions rooted in the Bible.
Unlike Jesus, Muhammad was able to dedicate the last twenty-three years of his life to the proliferation of his religious beliefs. In this short time, Muhammad founded a state, built a nation, and established a powerful society through social and political reform and, in the process, revolutionized the world of human thought and action. Before his death at age sixty-three, Muhammad had converted most of the Arabian Peninsula from idol worshiping tribes into a monotheistic society. Rather than claiming to be the "Son of God" sent to establish a new "Kingdom," Muhammad simply claimed to be a messenger of God to mankind. His instructions were to teach his followers the proper ways to worship God, conduct prayer, and perform ablution, the often religious ritual act of washing or cleansing the body, or some part of it.
The lives and teachings of other great religious leaders are shrouded by time. There is so much speculation about the time and the place of their birth, the mode and style of their life, the nature and detail of their teachings and the degree and measure of their success or failure that it is difficult today to reconstruct accurately and precisely the lives and teachings of those men. This is not so with Muhammad. Not only was Muhammad born in a time of recorded history, but also details of his private and public life and his teachings were documented during his lifetime. Muhammad had many opportunities to explain his religious concepts and to personally direct his followers' efforts in spreading Islam.
An important factor in the spread of Islam is its character as an inclusive, all-comprehensive way of thinking and living, which covers all aspects of human life. Muslims characteristically identify themselves as a community of believers, not as a church or state. In this way Islam is frequently described as a way of life rather than as a religion separate from politics or other dimensions of society.
As the Islamic empire spread rapidly throughout the Middle East, North Africa, parts of Europe, Persia and as far as China, conquered people were given the choice of converting to Islam, or living as dhimmis, protected second class citizens practicing an officially accepted religion, i.e., a religion based on the Bible and believing in "the True God." Islamic teachings were frequently accepted voluntarily because they were simple and supportive of diverse culture and science. Islam was the equalizing factor that allowed non-Arabs to acquire the same social status as their Arab conquerors. Conquered people, through conversion to Islam, could become a part of the community and reap the benefits of belonging to a technologically and culturally advanced society.
Sufis, the mystical or psycho-spiritual dimension of Islam, and the Muslim traders can be credited with the expansion of Islam to regions not conquered, but falling under the sphere of Arab influence. The Islamic concept of the equality and brotherhood of man is probably the single most effective aspect of Islam. This absence of discrimination on the basis of color, race, and social status attracted the slaves, the untouchable lower castes of India, the oppressed, and other socially discarded individuals. For these same reasons of non-discrimination, and the fact that Islam places no stigma on attaining wealth, businessmen who hoped to expand their business by trading with an expanding empire, would convert to Islam.
Detractors of Islam claim that Islam was spread at the "point of the sword." While it is true that the spread of Islam throughout the Middle East can be attributed to the expansionism of the Arab people, there is little evidence to support the concept of forceful conversion of conquered people to Islam. In contrast to Christianity, with its history of four Inquisitions, the most notorious being the Spanish Inquisition conducted by Tomás de Torquemada under King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, Islam is tolerant of religions that are based on the Bible, i.e., Judaism and Christianity. To realize that Islam has spread through non-aggression, one has only to consider that Islam has spread rapidly on the East Coast of Africa and Indonesia, with ninety percent of its population practicing Islam, has the highest concentration of Muslims in the world, yet no Muslim army has ever set foot in either of these regions.