The spread of Islam from Mecca and the Arabian Peninsula to the rest of the Middle East and other parts of the world such as Europe and Southeast Asia was phenomenal. It was rapid and effective. Note that this religion is the second largest and the fastest-growing major religion in the world.
Several factors played a role in the quick expansion of Islam. Common to these factors are favourable social and political conditions that made Islam not only an ideal religion but also a socio-political institution capable of promoting unity.
Socio-political conditions in the Near East and the Middle East before the emergence of Islam
Numerous territories in the Near East and the Middle East were under the control of European Empires before the arrival and spread of Islam. In his book “Muslim-Christian Relations,” theology scholar and professor Dr. Ovey N. Mohammed discussed the historical socio-political relations between Europe and the Middle East.
This relationship started when Alexander the Great successfully snatched several territories in the Middle East from the Persian Empire in 324 BCE. The Roman Empire acquired most of these territories when it emerged in 26 BCE. Both empires strived to implement the Alexandrian policy of extending the Hellenistic or Greek cultural and political influence over the Middle East.
However, despite the fact that there were established governments to lord over the Middle Eastern territories, true leadership was inexistent. The death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE resulted in political anarchy and intermittent wars across the dying empire. This lasted for two centuries. The Roman Empire also failed at completely controlling the Middle East despite having strongholds in Near East regions of Anatolia and the Levant.
Political instability and governance problems in Europe alienated the people of the Middle East. According to Dr. Mohammad, this collective factor contributed significantly to the rapid rise and spread of Islam within and outside the Arabian Peninsula.
Prophet Muhammad and the rapid rise and spread of Islam within the Arabian Peninsula
Prophet Muhammad introduced Islam in the Arabian Peninsula from 622 to 632 CE. The religion expanded further throughout the seventh and eight centuries under the Rashidun Caliphate and the Ummayad Caliphate. This marked the emergence of the Arab power and Islamic influence that stretched from the Middle East and Central Asia, including the Holy Land of Jerusalem, to North Africa and several European territories such as the Iberian Peninsula and Southern Italy.
It is important to highlight the fact that conflicts and divisions characterised the pre-Islamic Arabian Peninsula. There were no true leadership and governance. The empires from Europe failed to provide the component needed to create social and political stability.
However, the Prophet Muhammad successfully established a polity through the introduction of Islam and his charismatic albeit staunch leadership. This polity was instrumental in uniting the different factions in the Arabian Peninsula because Islam provided the necessary cohesive forces. These forces included the creation of ethnic and cultural identities through religious traditions and customs, and a model for social and political organisation through creeds and policies based on religious teachings.
Based from the aforementioned, the primary reason why Islam spread quickly within the Arabian Peninsula is that Muhammad used Islam as a tool to make sense out of a chaotic picture. He provided a compelling but strong leadership and direction through his religious teachings that were both timely and practical. In other words, Islam was the missing component needed to stabilise the society and politics in the region.
Exploiting the exhausted and vulnerable Byzantine Empire and Sassanid Empire
A united Arab front enabled early Muslims to organise and mobilise the resources needed to spread Islam beyond the Arabia. Remember that Islam started in Mecca and Medina. These areas within the Arabian Peninsula were in the middle of different states and empires—most notably the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire and the Sassanid Empire. They were also key trade areas in the region. These two cities were inherently strategic for geographic expansion.
Placed in the middle of two warring empires, the Arab Muslims simultaneously moved westward and eastward. This earlier phase of Islamic expansion marked the early Muslim conquests. Dr. Mohammad noted that the Muslims successfully subjected communities outside Arabia under the Islam because they were able to exploit the weakness of the Byzantine and Sassanid empires.
In his book “Islam vs. West: Fact or Fiction,” author Abubakr Asadulla mentioned that prolonged armed conflict between the Byzantine Empire and the Sassanid Empire left the two exhausted. The two empires were out of resources needed to maintain their strongholds. This was critical to the success of the early Muslim conquests of the Near East and Middle East and this is another reason why Islam spread quickly in the region.
Furthermore, another factor Islam became popular in the Middle East was the ruthlessness of the Byzantine Empire in pressing its authority and in imposing Christianity. This stirred nationalism and separatism among the Middle Eastern people. Even before the emergence of Islam, these people were willing to form alliance with non-Christian factions to liberate themselves from a government and religion that were alien to them.
The vulnerabilities of the Byzantine and Sassanid empires essentially became another factor for the quick rise and spread of Islam in the Middle East, as well as in Central Asia, Near East, North Africa, and parts of Europe.
More fluid cultural and ethnic integration under Islam rule than Christian rule
Of course, the Muslim conquerors initially had a hard time establishing control over non-Muslim and non-Arab territories in the Middle East. However, Muslim rule was relatively more appealing than any other leadership that time. A liberal stance toward cultural plurality and rulership was another factor why Islam became popular and another reason why it rapidly spread in outside the Arabian Peninsula.
Several historians and authors, including Dr. Mohammad and Asadulla, mentioned that Muslims promoted a high degree of tolerance for non-Muslims. For example, they were able to struck deals with these people by giving them protection. Christians and Jews, for example, received protection in exchange for tax payments. These people preferred the Muslims over the authoritative Byzantine or Sassanid rule.
The Byzantine Empire and the Christians had a hard line approach to leadership and religious indoctrination. They did not tolerate local customs and traditions. Paganism and worship of ancient gods were unlawful acts as well. Adding to this is the fact that the people from the Middle East and Near East felt alienated from the shortcomings of their supposed governments.
It is also worth noting that Muslim leaders prohibited their Muslim soldiers from exploiting their conquered settlements. They were not allowed to settle or take any possession. Moreover, the Arabs distanced themselves from established communities. They essentially left the conquered lands to existing communities in exchange for paying a reasonable tax or rent.
From the aforementioned, accepting Islam seemed easier than embracing Christianity or following the disastrous leadership of the Byzantine and Sassanid empires. In other words, another reason why Islam spread quickly across and beyond the Middle East is that Muslim conquerors promoted a more fluid and liberal cultural and ethnic integration that allowed coexistence.
Conclusion: How and why did Islam spread quickly across and beyond the Middle East?
The discussion above enumerates the factors and reasons explaining how and why Islam spread quickly within the Arabian Peninsula and across and beyond the Middle East. These factors and reasons collectively speak of the fact that the lack of true and strong governance in the region created an opening for a more established entity to overtake.
Nonetheless, Muhammad and his successors provided the leadership and direction needed to unite the Middle East and Near East under the banner of Islam. The religion provided the necessary social and political cohesion based on shared religious identities. It also provided an established governance based on religious teachings and cultural plurality.
The Muslims were able to exploit the vulnerabilities of the existing social and political conditions. They were able to snatch territories and people from the exhausted Byzantine and Sassanid empires. In addition, they were able to present Islam as a more tolerant and liberal religion than Christianity. These Muslims did not force conversions nor did they pillage the territories they conquered. Instead, they were able to present the possibility of a peaceful coexistence with non-Muslims. Islam rule essentially became more favourable than previous empires and local authorities.