The spread of Islam began in the early seventh century, during the life of the Prophet Muhammad, and continued after his death in 632. There is no simple explanation for its expansion, but some historians suggest that Muslim conquest and forced conversion are a large part of its success. Others argue that Islam spread rapidly across Asia and Europe because it offered a welcome alternative to polytheism and encouraged development in trade and the arts.
Conquests After Muhammad's Death
Early military conquests were an important factor in the initial spread of Islamic culture. Immediately after Muhammad's death, Muslims established the first caliphates, or communities ruled by Islamic leaders. Between 632 and 740, the Rashidun and Umayyad Caliphates expanded both east and west from the Arabian Peninsula, eventually encompassing Spain, the north coast of Africa and the present day Middle East, as far as Afghanistan.
One simple reason for the spread of Islamic culture is that it offered a vibrant spiritual alternative to the pagan polytheism common to inhabitants of the Arabian Peninsula. Ira Lapidus suggests that Islam allowed the nomadic herdsmen of North Africa to envision a more stable and cohesive society, which in turn made them more prosperous. Jews and Christians who came into contact with early Muslims, however, viewed Islam with hostility.
Art and Architecture
Art is also an important factor in the spread of Islamic culture. Recent controversies about representations of the Prophet Muhammad tend to obscure the importance visual art has played in the history of Islam. Islamic artists produced innovative paintings, calligraphic works, pottery and carpets, just to name a few. Art historians also credit Muslim architects with many architectural innovations, especially with the use of domes and arabesques.
Islamic advances in education also help to explain the spread of Islamic culture. Muslims established the first madrasas, or Islamic schools, during the Umayyad Caliphate of 661-750. Students in the madrasas learned to read and write Arabic and received instruction in Islamic theology. Early modern Europeans owed their knowledge of Aristotle to Muslim philosophers who preserved his texts. Islamic thinkers in Persia contributed to the development of mathematics, especially algebra. In addition, Muslim scientists pioneered various advances in astronomy and geography.
Trade and Finance
A final reason for the spread of Islamic culture is trade. Trade flourished immediately upon the establishment of the first caliphates, and continued to flourish for hundreds of years. As Muslim land holdings expanded, people from disparate regions gained the ability to exchange goods using the dinar coin. Muslims also pioneered various banking practices, including bills of exchange, promissory notes and partnerships.