Question: Was Islam Really "Spread by the Sword"?
This is a common question that is asked, and is perhaps one of the most widespread myths about Islam - that it's a religion that was spread by the sword, which basically means that Muslim armies conquered nations and forced people to convert to Islam.
This myth can be easily proven to be false in three different ways. First, by studying the history of Muslim nations and how Islam was spread throughout the world. Secondly, by looking at the religious diversity that exists in the Muslim world today. And thirdly, by examining the teachings of the Islamic faith itself.
Of course, this is not to say that there has never been any incidents of people being forced to convert to Islam. Surely, when studying the more than 1400 year history of the Islamic faith, spanning across most of the known world and under many different kingdoms and empires, you will certianly find cases of Muslim armies that have committed various kinds of atrocities in war. And Muslims must be the first to condemn such atrocities, because Islam teaches us to speak the truth even if it's against our own people, and Islam teaches us to uphold our values in all circumstances.
However, a fair and objective person, when looking at the facts, would come to the conclusion that Islam does not teach that the Muslim faith must be spread by force, and that Muslim kingdoms and empires that have at times spanned most of the known world over the past 1400 years never had a policy of forcing people who lived in Muslim lands to convert to Islam, and that it was never a common or accepted practice.
If Islam was truly spread by the sword and if Muslims conquered nations and forced the inhabitants to convert to Islam, then logically it follows that any nation that was conquered and ruled by Muslims should have a majority Muslim population. So let us consider some examples. Egypt came under Muslim rule early during the expansion of the Muslim nation, almost 1400 years ago. Although it is a majority Muslim nation today, at least 10% of the people of Egypt (8 million out of a total of 80 million) are still practicing coptic Christians, which is the religion that existed in Egypt before Islam. If Muslims had forced Egyptians to convert to Islam, then how come one out of every ten Egyptians is still a coptic Christian? In fact there are sizable Christian minorities in many Muslim nations, most notably Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Palestine and Iraq. Muslims ruled Eastern Europe for centuries, yet Muslims today are a small minority in Eastern Europe. Muslims also ruled India for almost one thousand years. Only 15% of Indians today are Muslims.
Another interesting piece of information is that the country with the largest Muslim population today is Indonesia. It is a well known fact that no Muslim army ever crossed the ocean and invaded Indonesia. Islam was spread in Indonesia and the surrounding countries simply through contact with Muslim merchants and traders.
The fact is that Islam forbids the forcing of people to change their religion:
"Let there be no compulsion in religion: Truth stands out clear from error" (Holy Quran, Chapter 2, Verse 256).
Islam also has clear instructions for Muslims on how to spread the word about this religion:
"Invite (all) to the way of thy Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching; and argue with them in ways that are best and most gracious" (Holy Quran, Chapter 16, Verse 125).
Finally, it is interesting to hear what the well known British historian De Lacy O'Leary says about this topic in his book "Islam at the Cross Roads" (London, 1923, page 8):
"History makes it clear however, 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."