“There is no compulsion in religion” (2:256) declares the Quran, a clear directive which upholds freedom and forbids forced conversion, and one that the Muslims carried with them as the community expanded out from the Arabian peninsula in modern day Saudi Arabia, while Islam spread from the Pyrenees to the Himalayas.
The Quran is categorically against acts of violence or aggression. It does not sanctify warfare, stating that the only acceptable war is a just war of self-defence. Prophet Muhammad said: “Faith is a restraint against all violence, let no believer commit violence”.
Through the conquest of Makkah, the Prophet had set a precedent for a mindset that was crucial to the spread of Islam.
The early Muslim community had suffered years of persecution and then exile by the pagan leaders of Makkah. When Prophet Muhammad finally took control of his home city, instead of revenge, he showed mercy to the people who had oppressed him for years. Impressed by his clemency and by Islamic principles, many of his enemies willingly converted to Islam.
After the Prophet’s death in 632, subsequent caliphs did not regard conquests as a divine mandate to spread Islam forcefully. The wars of expansion were political and pragmatic to ensure the Muslim community’s survival and unity.
Within a decade of the Prophet’s death, the Muslims had come to dominate Syria, Egypt, Palestine and Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq). In another ten years, they would successfully defeat two world powers: the Persian and the Byzantine empires.
With the establishment of the Islamic empire, the Muslims coexisted with people of other faiths. Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians were protected subjects. It was partly due to such freedoms, that for two centuries, the majority of the inhabitants of the Islamic empire were non-Muslim.
The Muslims had gained territory through diplomacy rather than fighting, with cities surrendering to them due to generous pacts. When the caliph Umar took Jerusalem in 632, he ordered that Christian shrines be protected and he reestablished order to the Jewish temple site that had been left in disrepair under the Byzantines.
The British Orientalist, De Lacy O’Leary wrote in 1923 that “the legend of fanatical Muslims sweeping through the world and forcing Islam at the point of the sword upon conquered races is one of the most fantastically absurd myths that historians have ever repeated.”