This was originally intended as a comment for this blog which was about the letter-ultimatum from the Islamic khalif Omar to the at-the-time-teenage King of Iran, Yazdgird III. That particular letter is a historial forgery, but the discussion on the blog quickly descended to one of the most favorite topic of some Arab-obsessed Iranians: the so-called “forced Islamicization” of Iran.
I thank Avaznia and Farid for their excellent points. It is of course a myth that Islam, or any religion for that matter could be spread by the sword en-mass as is always claimed by those who are short on facts, short on fuse, but long on self-righteous fantasies.
I have made the same points regarding Islam’s spread to other locations many times. To begin with majority of Muslims in the world live in lands that no Arab army ever set foot in. The spread into Egypt and North Africa was hardly “Islamification by sword” of Africa. These Arab armies were at best confined to Egypt and coastal mediterranian. The idea that they could have converted half the continent and sub-saharan parts like Nigeria, Kenya, Zanzibar and Tanzania “by force” is ridiculous. By contrast most of Spain and Portugal was occupied for hundreds of years and there was hardly a mass conversion there. As with China, India, Indonesia, Thailand, Phillipines and Bangladesh, the spread through peaceful trade and dialogue is the most likely explanation.
The problem here is that some people just can’t accept reality because the sense of rage and victimhood instilled in them (by mostly Western, or West-worshipping sources) is designed to perpetuate continual division and self-hatred in the region. This combined with a need to blame someone else for their problems has made these people completely delusional.
We can’t accept their nominal excuses that they are simply “concerned” about bloodshed and violence against Iranians 1400 years ago because they are never concerned about other historical events where Iranians have suffered. Alexander the Great, Ganges Khan, Taimur Lang, Turks, Afghans, Brits and Russians have all defeated and occupied Iran at some point. Many of these invasions were much more violent and bloody. However these incidents don’t seem to matter. Mongols alone nearly destroyed all of Iran, burning entire cities and libraries and Iran suffered genocidal massacres. The Mongol invasion is discussed today in neutral terms, even positive terms as a historical event subject to academic discussions. The Arab invasions, on the other hand are treated like they happened last week! All historical perspective and dispassionate objectivity goes out the window. Instead an ugly and at-times-racist attitude is angrily applied to the situation, overwhelming all common sense and scientific facts.
These people spend 95% of their energy demonizing Arabs and Islam and trying to blame everything on what happened 1400 years ago in Iran, all in the name of righteously “correcting” some kind of “historical injustice” to Iranians. They don’t seem too bothered by the much-more-bloody historical events before and after which have caused much suffering to Iranians.
Where’s the outrage for Mongols destroying much of Iran, including entire towns in the land of Attar and Ferdowsi? Where’s the outrage for Russian occupation of half of Iran and forcible taking of Iranian territory only 200 years ago? It’s not there because it’s all fake!
Iranians themselves often engaged in just-as-cruel wars and occupations of other countries. Only a few short years before the rise of Islam, the Sassanids controlled almost all Arab lands and subjected their populations to taxes and allegiance. Iranians themselves ended a great and ancient civilizations by basically killing the last Pharaos in Egypt, basically subjecting that proud land to 2000 years of foreign rule. Why does that never enter the discussion? Don’t these other people matter?
Of course they don’t! The entire position is not only self-centered and hypocritical but also disingenuous.
It’s not about the violence, or the suffering, or the occupation. That’s just the excuse to hide the underlying bigotry. Unable to accept the reality that Iranians converted to Islam, much the same way as anybody else has converted to any other religion, these people have to construct fantasies and rewrite history in an attempt to give themselves license for bigoted, racist and islamophobic hate speech.
Arab defeat and occupation of Iran was nothing specially more bloody or cruel than all the other occupations before and after. In fact, in many respects, it was more benevolent and tolerant than the others.
This is besides the point, however, the explanation of “Islam by the sword” has been debunked by most objective scholars.
Even if we discard all the evidence and pretend somehow it is true, it would be a great insult to Iranians. Whoever really believes it must not have any respect for his/her own ancestors.
We know for a fact that millions of Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians did not convert to Islam because their population was still practicing their older faiths into the 20th century. These are populations that were also under Arab control. I’m talking about Lavantine Christians, Spanish Catholics, the Armenians, Georgians, Ethiopians, Copts in Egypt and Sudan, Hindus in present day Pakistan and Afghanistan, Zoroastrians in Iran, as well as Jews in Iran and all over the Arab world.
Are we supposed to think that these populations were more brave and cared about their religion more than Iranians did? Did their faith mean more to them? Was their morality at a higher level than the majority of Iranians who did convert? I thought “spread by the sword” means, you have to convert or die, so why do we have so many Arab Christians, Jews, Armenians and Copts? Where’s the evidence that these populations even suffered more than Iranians who after all DID convert?
The truth is you can’t really convert any sizable population by force. At best you would need 3 Arab soliders for every “convertee” to watch him for the rest of his life, just in case he’s really acting and just going through the motions. The entire population of Arabia was only a tiny fraction of the Persian empire. It’s just not possible.
And what stopped an anti-Islamic revivalism immediately after Arab rule ended? Why didn’t everybody convert back to Zoroastrianism?
Mass conversion by force is not unheard of. Of course it is possible and it has been done in history, but only by forcibly seperating children from their parents, keeping them seperate and raising them with new culture and values. This was done to native Americans and native Australians, enslaved Africans in the Western-controlled world, as well as to some extent enslaved Slavic Europeans in the Ottoman empire, itself resembling an older Greek system of forced assymilation. This, however certainly did not, and could not have happened to Sassanid Iran.
I’ve told the usual suspects on that blog and other people these facts many times. But what we must realize that most of these people don’t care about facts. They don’t want to listen to reason and evidence. They are consiously or sub-consiously looking for an excuse to express self-righteous anger and hostility toward people they want to scapegoat for Iran’s problems. It gives them a satisfying simplified explanation and a target to channel their anger, all while removing all responsibility from themselves.
Here’s a good explanation on the subject from a respected scholar:
Some other prominant scholars on the subject.
De Lacy O’Leary wrote:
“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.“ –De Lacy O’Leary, ISLAM AT THE CROSSROADS, London, 1923, p. 8.
With disturbing regularity, this medieval conviction surfaces every time there is trouble in the Middle East. Yet until the 20th century, Islam was a far more tolerant and peaceful faith than Christianity. The Qur’an strictly forbids any coercion in religion and regards all rightly guided religion as coming from God; and despite the western belief to the contrary, Muslims did not impose their faith by the sword.
The early conquests in Persia and Byzantium after the Prophet’s death were inspired by political rather than religious aspirations. Until the middle of the eighth century, Jews and Christians in the Muslim empire were actively discouraged from conversion to Islam, as, according to Qur’anic teaching, they had received authentic revelations of their own. The extremism and intolerance that have surfaced in the Muslim world in our own day are a response to intractable political problems – oil, Palestine, the occupation of Muslim lands, the prevelance of authoritarian regimes in the Middle East, and the west’s perceived “double standards” – and not to an ingrained religious imperative.
Even the neo-con sage and history professor Bernard Lewis from his new 2008 book:
“The fanatical warrior offering his victims the choice of the Koran or the sword is not only untrue, it is impossible.”
“Generally speaking, Muslim tolerance of unbelievers was far better than anything available in Christendom, until the rise of secularism in the 17th century.”
Opinion of Mahatma Gandhi on the matter:
“I become more than ever convinced that it was not the sword that won a place for Islam in those days. It was the rigid simplicity, the utter self-effacement of the Prophet, the scrupulous regard for pledges, his intense devotion to his friends and followers and his intrepidity, his fearlessness, his absolute trust in God and in his own mission. These and not the sword carried everything before them and surmounted every obstacle.” — Young India, 1924
See also Le Gall and McDonough.