During the 13th century, the Crusaders reached the Middle East where they were faced by strong and cruel resistance from the Muslim armies. The Crusaders lost many battles against the Muslim armies, which led Peter the Venerable to contemplate over what he called the “bestial cruelty” of Islam to reach the conclusion that Islam is a religion which established itself by the sword. This was the ignition “of one of the most fantastically absurd myths that historians have ever repeated” as orientalist De Lacy O’Leary said.
Later, in the late 19th century and early 20th century and during the British colonialism in India, this myth appeared for the second time when British colonial officials and active Christian missionaries sought to divide and conquer the Muslim community and the Hindu community by spreading the myth that the establishment of Islam in India was by the point of the sword and the coming of the Muslim conquerors marked the end of the golden ages of Hinduism.
Till this day, this myth is still alive and well. In the 11th of September of 2006, Pope Benedict XVI quoted the words of the 14th century Byzantine emperor Manuel II: “Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”
This myth is one of many myths that deeply planted the hatred of Islam in western culture. In this article, I’ll try to showcase the reality of Jihad and what makes Islam’s purposes, conditions and rules of war purer and more profound from those of other ideologies to show the incoherence of this centuries-old narrative.
The reality of the early Islamic conquests is a key point that once it is understood we can understand one key aspect of Jihad. To better comprehend the reality of the Islamic conquests, we need to know their purpose and condition. A military campaign against a state comes as the third option in spreading the message of Islam. The first option is sending preachers to the ruler of a state or a land calling him to accept Islam. Once he accepts, his kingdom, state or land becomes part of the Islamic empire. The second option is when the ruler refuses to accept Islam. If he refused, he must pay the Jizya and let the Muslim preachers freely preach the message to his people. When the ruler pays the Jizaya, he earns the right to be protected by the Islamic empire. The third option which is a military campaign is when the ruler refuses to accept Islam and refuses to pay the Jizya and forbid the Muslim preachers from preaching the religion to his people. So the military campaign here is only to conquer the obstacle that came between the peaceful preaching of the religion. After the land or the state is conquered, the message must be delivered by the preachers and the people have the free will and the free choice to accept the message or refuse it. This Military campaign is a form of Jihad. This form of Jihad was/is required, for history proves that kings and rulers never give up their sovereignty. And the message of Islam must reach the people no matter what the obstacles are. For mankind must have no argument against Allah the Almighty, “We sent messengers as bringers of good tidings and warners so that mankind will have no argument against Allah after the messengers”. (4:165)
Jihad has many forms and types, and the type of Jihad that is related to war and military campaigns and conquests is not a sacred war declared to forcibly convert the disbelieving communities like the crusades or the Spanish inquisitions. And it is not a war declared to establish sovereignty of a race over another race like it was the case in world war II. And it is not a war declared to take over lands and kingdoms in order to plunder their wealth and their natural resources like it was the case with the European colonialism in Asia and Africa.
Jihad as a war or military campaign is declared in three cases. The first case is when there is a military power that stands in the way of the message of Islam. The second case is when there is a colonialism and violation of freedom of believe or freedom of religion, like it was the case during the crusades and during the European colonialism in Africa and Asia and like it is the case in East Turkestan, where the Muslims are being imprisoned by the Chines government in “re-education camps” and being forced to denounce their religion and identity. The third case is when there is oppression in any part of the globe, Muslims should stand with the oppressed side even if the oppressor is a Muslim.
No one denies that there were few cases of forced conversion in the history of Islam. But, they were limited to specific contexts, and in violation of the teachings of the Quran and the instruction of Prophet Muhammad PBUH. Because the way of preaching Islam has been shown, “Invite to the way of your Lord with wisdom and good instruction, and argue with them in a way that is best”.
“There is no compulsion in the religion”, this Quranic verse represents a principle. A principle which not only governs the Islamic conquests but governs the way of life of the Muslim individual as a whole. Imam Ibn Kathir, a classical commentator of the Quran and one of the best commentators, said that this verse means: “ Do not force anyone to become Muslim, for Islam is plain and clear, and its proofs and evidence are plain and clear. Therefore, there is no need to force anyone to embrace Islam. This verse also represents a decree or a universal law decreed by Allah, that humans have the free will to either believe or disbelieve, “Whoever wills – let him believe; and whoever wills – let him disbelieve” (18:29).
The companions of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) were following his path and way after he passed away. When they enter a conquered land, they would declare: “we here to take people from worshipping the creation to worshipping the creator”. The famous treaty between Sophronius, the patriarch of Jerusalem, and Umar ibn al-Khattab, the second Muslim caliph, is a literal implementing of Prophet Muhammad’s teachings:
This is the assurance of safety [amān] which the servant of God, ʿUmar, the Commander of the Faithful, has given to the people of Jerusalem. He has given them an assurance of safety for themselves, for their property, their churches, their crosses, the sick and healthy of the city and for all the rituals which belong to their religion. Their churches will not be inhabited by the Muslims and will not be destroyed. Neither they, nor the land on which they stand, nor their cross, not their property will be damaged. They will not be forcibly converted…
A neutral and honest look at the Islamic conquests will provide a closer perspective to the reality of the Islamic conquests. Every corner the Muslims conquered, the Muslim armies were welcomed by the people, they were seen as saviours, and sometimes the disbelieving communities were asking the Muslims to come to their land and rule over them, especially if they were subjected to an oppressive regime like the case in Iberia (modern Spain), where the native people were ruled by the Goths who occupied the land and reign kings over it by force. The Muslim armies responded to the call of the native people who were Jews and Christian Catholics and managed a military campaign led by Tarik ibn Ziyad. after a great victory over the Goths, Muslims were greeted and welcomed by the people of what became known as Andalusia. Later, the people soon accepted Islam, and they, with the new Muslim arrivals, established what became known as the beacon of Europe, it was a hub for social and cultural exchange, while the arts, science, architecture, agriculture, medicine and mathematics flourished.
The Muslim conquerors taught people about their lord, Allah the Almighty, and they delivered his words and message to them, the Quran, which calls people to ponder over the heavens and the earth, by that, we can say that the Muslim conquerors brought with them the knowledge of the heavens and the knowledge of the earth. The sciences which were produced during the golden ages of Islam are the foundation of today’s sciences. And most of the Muslim scholars whether in the Islamic creed or interpretation of the Quran…etc are not Arabs, even most of the classical Muslims physicists, mathematicians or astronomers…etc are not Arabs. The non-Arab people who were exposed to the message of Islam embraced it as a way of life with its purpose and motive.
The people who accepted Islam during the Islamic conquests are still Muslims today. Islam still exists in every corner the Islamic conquests reached, even after the fall of the Islamic empire. Because Islam was not an invasion. And every Muslim in every part of the globe misses the Islamic unity and willing to work to restore it, willing to have one caliphate, one authority, one leader. In the other hand, any nation that was occupied by foreigners at any time in history, consider the period of the occupation as a dark age and most of the time nations fight against the occupiers no matter who they are. And here it is the United States of America, came from the womb of Great Britain, but as soon as the Americans somehow found national sovereignty, they fought Great Britain in a war of independence.
This is an attempt to show the incoherence of the narrative or the conviction that Islam is a religion which established itself by the sword. We can not afford to maintain these centuries-old prejudices, especially in this day and age.