Islamic symbol on top of mosque.
Islamic symbol on top of mosque.

Since the beginning of the seventh century, Islam has grown from being the religion of one man to that of 1.6 billion people. Many reasons account for Islam’s rapid expansion.

Divine Revelations

Islam began in 610 when Muhammad ibn Abdallah, a 40-year-old Arab merchant, received the first of many visions that declared there was no deity but Allah, and he had created the world and would judge all humans in the Last Days. The visions also revealed that those who obeyed Allah by doing such things as regularly donating a portion of their income to the poor and praying five times each day would join him in paradise while those who disobeyed him would be sent to hell.

For two years, Muhammad told no one about these visions except his wife, Khadija, and her cousin, Waraqa ibn Nawfal, but then he began preaching this new faith to others in Mecca. He met harsh resistance from the rulers of that commercial city who viewed him as a threat to their power and pagan beliefs.

Converts Attracted

In 622, he and a small band of followers moved 250 miles north from Mecca to Medina, where they won more converts and became known as Muslims, meaning those who submitted themselves to God. Few people were forced to become Muslims. In fact, Islam’s holiest book, the Quran, explicitly prohibits this by stating: “There shall be no compulsion in [acceptance of] the religion.” Instead, what drew people was Islam’s emphasis on social justice and the fair distribution of wealth.

Spread of Islamic Rule

Muhammad soon had an army of 3,000 willing to accompany him on his return to Mecca and overtake it. Though they were outnumbered by a Meccan army of 10,000, they easily captured the city in 627, and by doing so, won the admiration and loyalty of various nomadic tribes.

Islam was firmly rooted in Arabia when Muhammad died in 632, and it spread even more rapidly under the direction of his first four successors who were referred to as caliphs. They took advantage of the power vacuum resulting from the weakened Byzantine and Persian empires to introduce the religion into Iraq, Iran and Syria. By the end of the seventh century, Islam had become the major religion throughout the Arab world and had taken root in northern Africa and Spain.

Worldwide Expansion

As Muslims gained control of more countries during the following centuries, people often converted to Islam to avoid taxes imposed on non-Muslims, and those who had enjoyed elite social status prior to Islamic rule converted to maintain their high status. Many Africans adopted the faith not only because of its principle of equality amongst people regardless of race, but also because it protected them from being sold into slavery as the Quran was commonly interpreted to prohibit Muslims from enslaving fellow Muslims. Multitudes of Asians became Muslims as a way to build relationships with successful Islamic merchants who traded along the Silk Road between Asia and the Middle East.

Islam is now practiced globally by 1.6 billion followers and is the second largest religion in the world.