What factors account for the rapid spread of Islam in the seventh and eighth centuries?

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Islam began in the Arabian Peninsula, but it spread all the way to Spain and India, touching many places in between, within just a few hundred years. Much of this was due to the political instability of this area. European rulers had grabbed land across this area but had not effectively organized the people they supposedly ruled, and many of these people felt no real sense of loyalty to their supposed rulers. In the seventh century, Arab Muslims began to conquer these territories in the Sasanian and Byzantine empires, quickly extending their influence across three continents. Because these areas had been long exasperated with their political instabilities, they didn't have any strong oppositions to their new Muslim rulers, who did not rule purely from a religious standpoint.

Once political and cultural stability was a bit more certain, the Umayyad Dynasty (which came a bit later) had a foundation from which to spread Arabic and Islamic culture, including religion. The Umayyads did not seek to convert its subjects outright, but non-Muslims did have to pay a special tax, which then did finance the efforts of further spreading their political (and, indirectly, religious) expansion efforts.

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When we are trying to account for phenomena that have to do with religion, we have to be careful in our answers.  To people who believe in a religion, the answers may be different than for those who do not believe.  For example, a Muslim might argue that Islam spread rapidly because its teachings were clearly true and therefore touched the hearts of those who heard them.  Historians, by contrast, do not accept the truth of any given religion and do not accept arguments based on the idea of a true religion.

Historians would say that one reason that Islam could spread was that it had done a very good job of uniting all of the Arabs.  The Arabs had previously expended a great deal of energy fighting one another.  Now, they directed the energy outward.  They were also inspired and motivated by the idea that they were spreading the true faith to other people.  Some historians argue that they were also helped by the fact that the Byzantines and Persians had been at war with one another.  This weakened them both and left them vulnerable to the Arabs.  As Arab armies conquered, they brought their new faith with them.

A second factor that helps to account for the spread of Islam is trade.  Arabia was connected to many other places through trade routes.  This allowed the ideas of Islam to spread rapidly to other places.  This process was also bolstered by the practice of having Muslims come on pilgrimage to Mecca.  There, Muslims from various areas made contact with one another and spread their trade networks even more widely.

Thus, we can say that Islam spread because of the military might of the Arabs and their widespread trading networks.

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