Cultural diffusion is the spread of ideas through interactions with other cultures. As a result of these interactions, religions, technology, and traditional practices can be founds throughout many different cultural regions. One such example of this spread of beliefs and ideas is Islam. According to the Association of International Educators, approximately 20% of the world practices Islam. The success of this religion has its roots in ancient times and has since branched out to encompass many regions of the world. The rapid success of Islam can be mainly attributed to an increase in trade, warfare and expansion, and the many appealing factors of being Muslim.
Islam spread from Muslim controlled domains to other regions via a growing trade industry. As Europe remained stagnant and Mediterranean Sea trading waned, new trading powers rose in and around the Indian Ocean . By the second century, Muslims controlled major trading centers such as Constantinople. African cities, such as Djenne soon became centers of trade as well as Islam. Inhabitants of these cities, as well as the merchants that frequented them would be exposed to rich Islamic culture.
Many Muslims were traders, as Muhammad himself had grown up in the trade based city and became a successful trader. Foreign merchants who conducted business with these Muslim tradesmen carried pieces of Islamic culture back to their homes, planting seeds of Islam overseas. These small pieces of Islamic belief could then grow and flourish into a strong Muslim community, as the case was in Indonesia.
Indonesia was connected via the Indian Ocean to Islamic domains in India, Africa, and the Middle East. Islam spread faster near large trade centers, such as Melaka. Melaka was a wealthy city that controlled the majority of Indonesian trade. By 1400, the rich city became a center of Islam as a result of trade with Islamic domains. With a strong foundation in Melaka, Islam continued to spread throughout Indonesia. Today, Indonesia has the densest population of Muslims with 90% of inhabitants practicing Islam. Islam’s spread to Indonesia is just one of many results of increased trade in Muslim controlled domains.
The immense wealth created by the increase in trade allowed Muslims to establish and fund large, successful militaries. The first major Islamic military success was in the 600’s, when Muslim armies were able to recapture Mecca and subsequently conquer and unite most of Arabia, Persia, and Byzantium. By 800, Islamic forces had invaded regions of the Middle East, North Africa, Spain, Central Asia and Pakistan. The concept of Jihad, and thus the ability to fight, was an integral part of Islam. Jihad, or just war, was a defensive battle used as a last resort to fight against injustice and oppression.
Islam also provided additional motivation for Muslims to fight, since it was believed that one who died defending the faith would get immediate entrance into Heaven. By the beginning of the sixteenth century, Turkey (including Constantinople), and regions of India were also conquered by Muslims. Regions controlled by Muslims were inevitably exposed to Islam. The leaders of these regions built mosques and monuments throughout the vast Islamic Empire, allowing many people to come in contact with Islam and Islamic culture. As in major trading centers, these small portions of culture grew into large Muslim communities. Pakistan and India were both under Islamic control by the middle of the second millennium. Today, these countries have two of the highest Muslim populations in the world.
The combination of wealth, military power and protection, and other benefits made Islam a very appealing religion to merchants and newly conquered subjects. These benefits were the most important factor in converting foreigners to Islam, even in regions conquered by Muslim soldiers or surrounded by Muslim merchants. Despite most Islamic rulers being tolerant of other religions, practicing Islam in a Muslim ruled domain gave one many benefits that non-Muslims lacked. As Muslims continued to become wealthy from Indian Ocean trade, the religion appealed to the poor looking for wealth in addition to merchants looking for profitable trade connections. The success, organization, and power of Islamic military forces attracted people from regions stricken with civil war or previously controlled by weak leaders. By converting to Islam, these people felt they were joining the winning side, and providing themselves and their families with financial and physical security.
Another benefit of converting to Islam was the opportunity to gain an education and become literate. In many regions of the world, education was reserved for the wealthy. However, being able to read Arabic was an integral part of Islam, which depended heavily on the Quran. Because of this, mosque often contained schools, providing an education to those who would normally not have the opportunity to learn. As a result of this need for education, Islamic centers such as Timbuktu would often become centers of knowledge as well. Since all Muslims had the opportunity to learn and many had a chance of gaining wealth or a powerful position, there was no clear dominant class. All Muslims, from the sultan to the lowliest camel caravan, were virtually equal . This was desirable to people who were considered inferior in their current social structure.
A large number of people who converted to Islam formally practiced complex, polytheistic religions. Islam was an uncomplicated and straightforward alternative. In Islam, there is no single omnipotent mortal authority, nor is there a complex hierarchy of religious officials or deities. One must simply follow the Quran and adhere to the Five Pillars of Islam. The Quran can also be interpreted in many different ways, leaving Islam open to change and adaptation to better fit traditional beliefs. For many, following the simple rules of Islam was a small price to pay for the economic, political, and social benefits.
In conclusion, there were several factors that contributed to the rapid spread of Islam. From its humble beginnings in a trader from Mecca, Islam became a worldwide phenomenon. Due to cultural diffusion via trade, travel, and warfare, there are now over a billion Muslims throughout the world. Despite conflict and opposition, Muslims continue to defend and practice the faith that appealed to and accepts people from all walks of life. Whether they are rich and powerful or poor and weak, all Muslims have one thing in common; they share a common faith that still continues to flourish after hundreds of years.
Sandy Soohoo-Refaei, “NAFSA – Islam: Some Basic Facts”, NASFA
“Islam, The Spread of Islam”, World History Project