The Relationship Between Trade & the Spread of Islam

The Relationship Between Trade & the Spread of Islam

Trade has played a role in the spread of Islam since the beginning of the religion. As an important trading post with vibrant economic activity, the city of Mecca, in the Arabian Peninsula, was a valuable setting for Islam, providing important context for Islam's relationship to trade. Expansion through trade, in tandem with conquest and missionary work, led to the development and spread of Islam throughout all of Africa, parts of Europe, Asia and beyond. Whether small minorities or entire regions converted to Islam, the relationship between trade, missionary movements and conquest are integral in understanding Islam's worldwide presence.

1 Early Trade Connections

Since the time of Muhammad, trade has been closely associated with Islam and its growth. In the city of Mecca, the Quraysh tribe were leaders in commerce with their influence and connections extending to Abyssania and Syria. According to stories about the Prophet, Muhammad himself was a member of the Quraysh and a merchant before preaching the revelations he received from God. After overcoming the Quraysh's opposition to Muhammad's revelations and subsequently conquering the Arabian peninsula, Muhammad's community used its influence and power to develop networks of trade and support throughout the Arabian Peninsula and beyond. Slowly, Islam spread through economic, diplomatic and other empire-building activities.

2 Incentive to Convert

As Muslim dynasties expanded and began ruling territories with non-Muslim populations, laws were established to create a hierarchy with Muslims at the top. Non-Muslims were ordered to pay the jizya, a poll tax that allowed non-Muslims to practice their religion and receive protection from the Muslim ruler. However, converts to Islam would reap even more benefits than those simply paying the jizya. The tax became an incentive for elite non-Muslims to rejoin the ruling group and transcend limits imposed on non-Muslim communities and traders . Conversions to Islam by communities along the Silk Road can be attributed to the desire of non-Muslims seeking better trade contacts and contracts.

3 Southeast Asian Expansion

As active conquerors and traders, Islam spread far beyond its origins in the Arabian peninsula over time. With sea travel and technology, Muslim traders were some of the first to reach and establish strong trade with Southeast Asia. As early as 1120, Muslim traders were interacting with Malaysian traders and by the 16th century, ruled Indonesian islands and established strong communities of Muslims in the Malay Peninsula and the southern Philippine Islands.

4 Conquest and Missionary Activity

Trade was not the only means by which Islam spread throughout the world. Conquest and the establishment of long-lasting Muslim dynasties in other regions was also a major factor. Missionary activity helped the spread of Islam through important trade routes leading to the East. In the 10th century, the rise of Sufism -- a mystical Islamic belief and practice -- generated much of the early missionary activity, as Sufis spread their beliefs on Islam while traveling along trade routes and through conquered lands. They made inroads in villages and towns by peaching their faith and setting up schools that drew the attention of lower class peoples. They were influential in spreading Islam in Sub-Saharan Africa, Eastern Europe and the Anatolia, China, and the South Asia.

Dianne Laguerta is a graduate of Mount Holyoke College with a bachelor's degree in history and Middle Eastern studies. She studied and conducted research in Cairo, Egypt during the 2012 Egyptian elections, and has traveled throughout the Middle East.