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Thematic Guide to the Expansion of Islam

Mushegh Asatryan, The Institute of Ismaili Studies, London

The expansion of Islam began after its emergence in the early seventh century, and continued on a massive scale until the nineteenth. Islam spread both through migrations of Muslims into new territories, and through conversions of non-Muslims. The chief methods of conversion included military conquest, rule by Muslim political elites, trade, and proselytizing by Muslim missionaries.

Middle East and North Africa

The region of the Middle East and North Africa was the first to come under Muslim rule. Islam emerged in the first decades of the seventh century in the Arabian Peninsula among nomadic Arab tribes. The political successors of its founder, the Prophet Muḥammad (d. 632), conquered and converted the Arabian Bedouin tribes to the new religion and founded the first Islamic state, referred to as the Caliphate. The successors continued the conquests north into Mesopotamia, and from there, east into Iran and Central Asia and west into North Africa and Spain. Iran, Egypt, and the rest of North Africa were all conquered during the seventh century. In 711 the Muslims set foot in the Iberian Peninsula, where their rule lasted until the fifteenth century.

Conversion of local populations to the new religion did not always go hand in hand with military conquest. In Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Egypt, large populations remained Christian, Jewish, and Zoroastrian, and it took until around the twelfth century for most of Iran and Egypt to convert to Islam. In the first century after their conquest, the Muslim Arabs remained a military caste who tried to remain isolated from the locals. Non-Arabs who did convert became clients of affiliated Arab tribes, and were known by the term mawālī (mawlā). Clientage of an Arab tribe, which placed a convert in a subordinate position, entailed protection by the tribe in return for service and loyalty. With time, however, non-Arabs became more and more integrated into Arab Muslim cultural, social, and political life.

Central Asia and China

Muslims made their first inroads into Central Asia after conquering Iran at the end of the eighth century. By the end of the ninth century Islam had made considerable advances among the Turkic-speaking peoples of the region, not only through conquest, but also through trade and the proselytizing activities of missionaries, notably including Sufis. The conversion to Islam in this region led in the eleventh century to the formation of the Great Seljuk Empire. Through Central Asia, Islam began to make its way into China, forming isolated communities connected with the Islamic world to the west through the Silk Road.

Asia Minor and the Balkans

The Islamization of Asia Minor and the Balkans was due to conquests by the Seljuk and Ottoman empires of the eleventh to the fourteenth centuries. In the eleventh century the Seljuks conquered Asia Minor, a predominantly Christian region of the Byzantine Empire, facilitating the influx of a large number of Turkic-speaking peoples. Due to these migrations and conversions of the local population, by the sixteenth century the population of this region—now part of the Ottoman Empire—was nearly 90 percent Muslim. Ottoman conquests carried Islam further west into the Balkans, where, from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries, the population had become close to 40 percent Muslim.

Indian Subcontinent

Muslims made their first incursions into India in the eighth century, but it was only in the late twelfth century that Muslim Turkish and Afghan conquerors secured the northeastern part of the subcontinent, thereafter establishing the Delhi Sultanate (1206–1526). Sufi missionaries and warriors played a crucial role in the spread of Islam throughout India. The monotheism of the Sufis and their ideals of renouncing the world were not alien to Hindus, which allowed for religious boundaries to be easily crossed and the creation, in some cases, of a blend of Islamic and Hindu popular cultures. Unlike other parts of the Islamic world, Islam never became the dominant religion in India. Due to the relatively small number of Muslim migrants and converts, the Muslim invaders never managed to change India's political order or abolish its Hindu caste system. Only in the northwestern part of the subcontinent did large populations convert to Islam.

Southeast Asia

In the Malay Peninsula and the Indonesian Archipelago Islam was introduced in the thirteenth century. Uniquely, the spread of Islam to these lands was not due to conquest or political domination, but to the activities of merchants and Sufi teachers, who came from India, southern Arabia, and probably China. The new religion spread through the Islamization of coastal trade ports and the patronage of the local elite, whose conversion to Islam facilitated access to larger markets. The Islamization of the region continued from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. In the nineteenth century, Islam became a consolidating power to withstand Dutch and Portuguese colonialism, and it was the Sufis who directed the anti-Dutch popular movements in the nineteenth century in Java. While the Islamization of Southeast Asia advanced on an enormous scale—ultimately, the majority of the populations of Indonesia and Malaysia became Muslim—it gave rise to a type of popular Islam that incorporated numerous elements from the local cultures.


The Islamization of sub-Saharan Africa followed a similar pattern to that of Southeast Asia: it was carried out mostly through trade and the proselytizing activities of missionaries. After the Arab conquest of North Africa, the indigenous population of that region, the Berbers, gradually converted to Islam. From there, Islam spread south into parts of West Africa. As a result of the activities of the Muslim merchants, a number of Sudanic states converted to Islam from the tenth to the eighteenth centuries. The Islamization of West Africa was in part also due to military campaigns aiming at the spread of the religion, which lasted from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century. On the East African coast Islam was introduced by merchants from Egypt, Arabia, and Iran. The Islamization of this region continued well into the nineteenth century. As in other regions of the world, the spread of Islam in Africa often resulted in syncretistic expressions of popular religiosity which combined Islamic and non-Islamic elements.

Contemporary World

Islam continues to spread to the present day in traditionally non-Muslim regions—including Europe and North America—through immigration from Muslim-majority countries and through conversions. While some of the old methods of expansion (such as military conquest) are no longer practiced, modern digital communication has facilitated the circulation of Islamic texts and ideas around the world, opening new possibilities for the spread of Islam in traditionally non-Islamic regions.

Further Reading

  • Berg, C. C. "The Islamization of Java." Studia Islamica 4 (1955): 111–142.
  • Bulliet, Richard. Conversion to Islam in the Medieval Period. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1979.
  • Donner, Fred. The Early Islamic Conquests. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1981.
  • Foltz, Richard C. Religions of the Silk Road: Overland Trade and Cultural Exchange from Antiquity to the Fifteenth Century. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 1999.
  • Inalcik, Halil. "Ottoman Methods of Conquest." Studia Islamica 2 (1954): 103–129.
  • Kennedy, Hugh. The Great Arab Conquests: How the Spread of Islam Changed the World We Live In. Da Capo Press, 2007.
  • Lapidus, Ira M. A History of Islamic Societies. 2nd ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
  • Levtzion, Nehemia, ed. Conversion to Islam. New York: Holmes and Meier, 1979.
  • Majul, Cesar Adib. "Theories of the Introduction and Expansion of Islam in Malaysia." Silliman Journal, 4th quarter (1964): 335–398.
  • Minkov, Anton. Conversion to Islam in the Balkans: Kisve Bahası Petitions and Ottoman Social Life, 1670–1730. Leiden: Brill, 2004.
  • Vryonis, Speros, Jr. "Nomadization and Islamization in Asia Minor." Dumbarton Oaks Papers 29 (1975): 41–71.

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