Bryan Caplan  

How Islam Spread: Veeery Slooowly

As I Was Saying... Pricing the Internet...

I am engrossed by Daniel Brown's A New Introduction to Islam. It's packed with juicy scholarship. A standard history will tell you that Islam swept the Middle East in the space of thirty years. What it won't tell you is that for a long time this was only a military and political - not an ideological - victory:

No systematic sacking of cities took place, and no destruction of agricultural land occurred. The conquests brought little immediate change to the patterns of religious or communal life. There were no mass or forced conversions. Christian, Jewish, or Zoroastrian communities in Syria and Iraq may have felt threatened, but they continued to thrive. New synagogues, churches, and monasteries were still being built into the eighth century, and churches or synagogues were not converted to mosques on any noticeable scale. The first urban mosques were not built until after 690... [According to tradition, Muhammad died in 632. -B.C.]

I would have expected at least some token changes in economic policy, but Brown counters that:

[P]roduction of wine (forbidden by Islamic law) continued unchanged, and pigs (considered unclean by Muslims) continued to be raised and slaughtered in increasing numbers...

So what was the point of all these wars between Muslims and non-Muslims?

What did change was the ruling class. The new rulers spoke Arabic, represented a different ethnicity, and kept aloof from their conquered subjects... The new rulers continued to use Greek and Persian in adminstrative documents. They continued to mint Byzantine-style coins complete with the image of the emperor holding a cross, and Sasanian-style coins bearing Zoroastrian symbols and Sasanian dates...

Furthermore, many of the changes historians attribute to Islam - especially the spread of Arabs and Arabic - were already well-underway before the conquests:

Inscriptions show that substantial populations of Arabs lived in Syria, that settled Arabs had become well-integrated in Syrian-Byzantine society, and that the Arab population and influence in some towns grew rapidly in the century preceding the conquests...

Historians often remark that during the Middle Ages, the Muslim world's relatively tolerant policies put Europe to shame. If Brown's account is right, Muslim tolerance has earlier roots than I would ever have guessed.

COMMENTS (12 to date)
Daveg writes:

Is this simply tolerance out of necessity rather than the character of the religion itself?

Does this book discuss the Dhimmi "tax" placed on non-Muslims in places such as Spain and I imagine other places as well?

If true, however, I am so glad to hear this. We would then know that Israel is indeed paranoid about needing to preserve its Jewish character and that we no longer need to send over billions of dollars of aid each year.

Neil Skaggs writes:

Before passing judgment on the relative tolerance of Islam and Christianity, one should read Rodney Stark's works. E.g., One True God presents a thorough study of the factors affecting the toleration of Jews by Christians and Muslims. The bottom line (tossing aside all details) is that when either religion wasn't under duress, Jews fared relatively well; when either was under duress, Jews were hit with "collateral damage." Also, the Moorish record in Spain wasn't much different than the Catholic record (although conventional wisdom says it was).

Roger M writes:

Readers should take Brown's book with a huge chaser of skepticism. Before you buy his "tolerant Islam" thesis, read something, anything, by Bat Y'eor, the French scholar and anthropologist. She tells a completely different story, based on original documents written during the conquest.

Anony writes:

Muhammad died in 632 CE (fka AD) not BC

Roger M writes:

Also, for a take on how safely Jews could live among Muslims, and how Christians are currently suffering, visit

BT writes:

Islam tries to project an image of tolerance but is in fact a cruel and sadistic set of beliefs, which glamorize the killing of other human beings. This fact is clearly demonstrated by Darfur and Afghanistan. Just before the invasion, the Taliban uncovered and destroyed large Buddhist statues. Before Islam, Buddhism was definitely present in Afghanistan and most probably in the current Middle East as well. The Koran clearly describes Buddhist “idols" which were destroyed in Mecca by Islamic soldiers. In Darfur, the Islamic Arab militias are currently committing genocide to the infidel Christians. This is confirmed openly by the EU and privately by the US.

Many point out that Islam prohibits suicide. Yet suicide bombers rage throughout the Middle East, UK and even here in the US. Not a single mullah has proclaimed fatwa against these bombers or the African genocide. Salman Rushdie "insulted" Mohammed and was issued a fatwa immediately. Osama Bin Ladin has killed thousands yet there is no fatwa condemning him. Islam attempts to project an image of tolerance but is in fact a cruel and sadistic set of beliefs, which glorify the killing of human beings. And to think, I have not even touched on how women are treated by Islam.

daveg writes:

And, one look at Israel show that any Jewish claim to a "tolerant" history is, at least partially, out of necessity as well.

(You can tell I am not a big fan of religion.)

Robert Speirs writes:

I think the "BC" is for the author, not the time period. And why is it "formerly known as" B.C.? The Common Era is only common because it is numbered from the imputed date of the birth of Christ. That's an historic fact, no matter what one's religion. So why change "Anno Domini" to "Common Era"? PC nonsense.

dearieme writes:

You could read that piece as a warning about immigration: the Arab immigrants proved to be a fifth column when the jihadists turned up. Or is that perverse?

Barkley Rosser writes:

The currently accepted usages are B.C.E. and C.E., for "Before Common Era" and "Common Era," respectively.

An irony of the spread of Islam is that it was only after the unitary Abbasid caliphate broke apart and the height of the political power of the Islamic empires was passed (although there was a later revival under the Ottomans) that Islam finally became the majority religion within the regions that had long been ruled by Muslim leaders.

Roger M writes:

Bat Ye'or shows that terrorism played an important role in the Arab conquest from the beginning. In northern Spain and eastern Europe, the Muslim armies were stopped. So they would use irregulars to conduct raids on Christian villages along the borders. They would wait for the men to go to the fields, then they would swoop down and kidnap the women and children, then loot and burn the village. They would sell the women and children as slaves. Neighboring villages would begin to depopulate as people moved to safer villages further from the border. The Muslims would then move into the abandoned villages.

The Ottomans maintained a tax on the Christians of eastern Europe in which they had to give the state 10% of their children every year. These kids were raised to be servants to officials and warriors to attack their own people.

Anam writes:

well this is in reply to the judgements BT is trying to pass here saying that islam is a sadistic set of beleifs and islam glorifies human killing but stop here and think for a second what american and israel (christians and jews) are doing not only thesedays but from the last couple of centuries....... KILLING MUSLIMS.killing them in palestine,in Iraq in afganistan don't u think that in reality this is glorifying human killing by saying that it is for our religion or the safety of america.6000 people died on 11th sep i do not think it was right but inreturn america killed and is still killling billions of people in Iraq,Afghanistan n pakistan and will be killing more people in Iran aswell. wat do u call that neccesary killings to stop more killings doesn't really make sence does it!

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