Did Islam Spread By the Sword?: Q&A with Hassam Munir

We were given the opportunity to interview Hassam Munir, author of the Yaqeen Institute article, “Did Islam Spread by the Sword? A Critical Look at Forced Conversions.” He is currently pursuing an MA in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern History from the University of Toronto. He is the Public Relations Manager and a fellow at Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research, where his research work focuses on dismantling Islamophobic narratives related to Islamicate history. He is the founder of iHistory, a blog and digital history project aiming to re-engage Muslims with their rich, diverse and inspiring history. In 2017, he was recognized as one of Toronto’s ‘Emerging Historians’.

  1. By the sword refers to the narrative that Islam could only spread, and only did so, through forced conversions, and in spite of evidence to the contrary, this idea continues to be perpetuated today. You briefly mention the British in India building on this narrative to convince non-Muslims of their supposed relative benevolence compared to previous rulers. How does this “mythistory” persist in relation to the continued oppression of Muslims around the globe?

Oppression is made to seem justified to unwitting audiences by dehumanizing the oppressed. However, this dehumanization is not as effective if it only makes reference to a present “reality” which a “viewer” may be experiencing differently. For example, a teenager might be constantly exposed to the “Muslims are terrorists” trope in movies, jokes, in politicians’ speeches, and in the news, but that image is challenged by the fact that she has Muslim classmates at school who are undeniably just like other fun-loving teenagers, only with a different but harmless set of beliefs and values (which may actually make them more fun and interesting to be around). This is why “mythistory” plays the important role of deepening the dehumanization. The past is easier for the oppressors to curate and present as “fact”, and more difficult for non-historians to challenge using their own lived experiences. It further dehumanizes the oppressed by stripping their situation of its context (i.e. instead of “this is what they are doing” the narrative becomes “this is who they are and have always been”). They are portrayed as a persistent problem, thus justifying a permanent solution. You can really read about the oppression of Muslims – or, it is important to note, oppression by Muslims – anywhere today and you will find that some form of mythistory is, more often than not, a core component of the narrative being used to try to justify that oppression. 

2. Could you expand on what is meant by historian Hugh Kennedy’s statement, “Islam was not spread by the sword but without the sword it would not have spread,” mentioned in one of your footnotes?

Professor Hugh Kennedy (or “Huge Kennedy”, as historians jokingly call him due to his prolific contributions to Islamicate history) is pointing to the fact that the spread of Islam historically has been due to multiple factors and that to reduce this very long and complex process to only one factor for the purpose of sloganeering is disingenuous. He is saying that yes, there may have been certain instances of Islam directly spreading by “the sword” (i.e. through force or coercion) or the of the spread being indirectly facilitated, in part, by conflict. So, for example, was the spread of Islam in India facilitated by Muslims’ conquests in India? Yes, undeniably. But it was also facilitated (to a much greater extent, I’d argue) by da‘wah, trade, migration, intermarriage, social influencers, and a range of other factors, in a range of situations, over many centuries. The complexity of history makes “Islam spread by the sword” an invalid statement, but this does not mean that violent conflict absolutely never played a role in any chain of events. The responsibility is on us to learn history diligently to make sense of the “hows” and “whys” of instances of conflict instead of ignorantly pouncing to hateful, dangerous conclusions.    

3. A critique of religion is that it has historically been the primary driving force behind violence and war. As a historian, how do you approach this, especially in light of violence today perpetuated by certain ideologies?

As a Muslim, I believe that the first act of violence committed by humanity was the murder of Hābīl by his brother Qābīl due to the desire for selfish materialistic gain and the spiritual disease of jealousy. One may argue that “religion” was one of the factors coursing through the story and thus ultimately playing a role in the act of violence – but even with that view, it was only one of the factors. To quote William Cavanaugh from his book The Myth of Religious Violence: “People kill for all sorts of things.” This religion-and-violence narrative is another example of the pitfalls of “big history” as opposed to appreciating the complexities and contexts of specific historical events. As Cavanaugh argues, this narrative is designed not to reconstruct history in any kind of enlightened way but rather to justify “secular” violence by juxtaposing them against unjustified “religious” violence. Which understanding of which religion? Which war in which circumstances? And why are we so eager to assign blame squarely on religion because a diligent look at the historical record compels us to do so, or have we pre-assigned blame to serve our own ends and are now hoping that history can support our claim?

My approach, as a historian, is to try to unpack and closely examine the broad spectrum of religion-people-violence relationships in history. Violence is ultimately organized and carried out by humans, who rely on a range of motivating and guiding factors and complex worldviews to justify it to themselves and others. I wouldn’t believe, just because the First and Second World Wars were fought between secular European powers, that secularism or Europeanness should be deterministically linked to the worst violence in human history. Nor would I believe that the Mongol invasions in the 13th century – which were not driven by religious motivations, and which claimed the lives of tens of millions of my fellow Muslims – were so notoriously violent because of some barbarity that’s intrinsic to Mongol culture. As a historian, I see it as my role to defy simplified explanations of history. In 2021, a single trial for the murder of one person by another takes a long, complex investigation and discussion of the many factors involved before a justifiable verdict can be reached. How then can we loosely and summarily pass judgement on a phenomenon as vast as religion and its role in thousands of years of human history?  

4. How do we understand history in a way that is not shaped by a desire to sugarcoat, but also intellectually honest about its complexities? What challenges have you faced in your research in distinguishing myth from fact?

It begins with intention. How sincere are we, as learners, in studying history? Are we seeking guidance or gratification? Do we have a mature grasp of the reality of the human condition so as to not lose perspective as we journey through history? The Qur’an offers many stories of the past, and these often tell us of the best of Allah’s creation (peace be upon them), yet Allah doesn’t deprive us of benefiting from discussions of event the temporary shortcomings that they had, from the story of the disobedience of Adam to Allah’s displeasure at the Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) frowning and turning away from a blind man, and everything in between: Nuh pleading for his son’s life, Yusuf seeking help from his cellmate, Musa being impatient with al-Khidr, Yunus abandoning his duty, Dawud making an error in judgement, and so on. It is only by humanizing the people in these stories – neither unreasonably exaggerating their qualities nor depriving them of due respect and appreciation – that we are able to learn so much from them. And this should be our approach for history in general.  

The Qur’an is a source we can trust, but for all the human history that is not described in the Qur’an, the safest approach is to learn from a wide variety of sources (e.g. Shaykh Abu’l Hasan Ali Nadwi and Marshall Hodgson, representing two different traditions and offering two different overviews of Islamic history), make an effort to learn about the gatekeepers (historians, popular history blogs, etc.) and identify their biases, and ask Allah to bless us with beneficial knowledge. My work as a historian is to come as “close” as I can to a reasonable reconstruction of history, while remaining humble and bearing in mind that even in that moment, I may in fact be very far off. “Allah knows best” is an expression I’m very mindful of. I should also add that I’m as interested in the ways people imagine their history as I am in history itself. It’s important to keep in mind that studying history tells us more about ourselves than it does about the people and places we’re studying. It’s not only about distinguishing myth from fact, but also pondering over why we retain certain “myths” and “facts” in our personal or collective memories, and lose others along the way.

5. Islamophobia is a word that evokes many discussions and debates over its definition and scope, among Muslims and non-Muslims alike, and with it the proposal of alternatives (for example, Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad in his recent book coined the alternative phrase “Lahabism”). — How does language shape the way we understand it? — What are the limits and benefits of the term Islamophobia?

Every word or expression has its limitations, and many words fall short of duly illuminating the constellation of phenomena that we are trying to reference when we use them. The reality of something is often difficult to capture in a word; the word can only allude to certain realities (sometimes poorly) through an association we have built in our minds over time. I believe many critics of the term “Islamophobia” are too fixated on its literal meaning while not showing nearly the same level of concern for ameliorating the deeply disturbing realities it alludes to. Imagine a group of surgeons arguing about how to give a precise name to a patient’s condition instead of actually treating the patient. I am not denying that words, and the meanings they carry (or the meanings we perceive them to be carrying), have power, or that the way we name things is always important. But I do believe that naming can become a distraction; hence why many authors and essayists title their work only after it is complete. Substance has to be the priority.  

I’m not overly defensive of the term “Islamophobia”. It does not originate in the Islamic tradition, nor was it coined or defined primarily by Muslims. I use it, as I believe many people do, for convenience: it is conventional, and familiar enough to be easily processed by a person who is introduced to it or reminded of it. To me, those are the only real benefits it has. As for limitations, I believe the term is easy to superficially criticize and dismiss (e.g. “there is no such thing as a phobia of Islam,” “of course we don’t support xenophobia against Muslims but we believe its fair to criticize Islam,” etc.). I am supportive of “Lahabism” which Shaykh Abdul Hakim Murad has thoughtfully introduced, because I believe that developing our own vocabulary is an important part of seizing the reins of our narrative, and also because the unfamiliarity of the word would put critics and skeptics in a position where they would have to actually engage with the reality behind the word. However, it would take significant buy-in from within the Muslim community, and a very diligent approach of introducing it to open-minded non-Muslims, for “Lahabism” to become mainstream, and during this process it would likely impede some of the efforts already underway to dismantle Islamophobia (the reality, not the word). In short, the transition would ultimately be helpful, inshaAllah, but likely long and uneasy, so that’s something to keep in mind. But as I said, what’s more important to me is that the nomenclature not distract us away from efforts to challenge and dismantle the many, very real manifestations of Islamophobia, Lahabism, Muslimphobia, anti-Muslim bigotry, whatever we may call it.

6. In How Islam Spread Throughout the World you discuss some factors that historically contributed to the acceptance of Islam around the globe. What research has been done on factors driving people to the faith in modern times? How can Muslims harness those strategies moving forward? — Do you distinguish between in-person versus digital media da’wah efforts? Do you think there’s a marked difference in efficacy?

As I argued in my article, historically the message of Islam was shared through various forms of engagement – including, but not limited to, da‘wah, trade, intermarriage, social influencers, migration – and accepted for many different reasons, particularly due to its widely-appealing emphasis on unity, justice, and universality. I’m not aware of a significant body of research on this, but based on general observations I believe it’s safe to say that all of these factors continue to play central roles in the process today. Of course, the dynamics of engagement have changed due to digital technologies and a more globalized world. Muslims can take advantage of the opportunities that have opened up by engaging more, and in ways that were previously unfeasible. Many of us are privileged to have access to global culture at our fingertips and we should try to ensure that we are not only consciously and responsibly consuming that culture but also producing and sharing our own, distinct culture – our da‘wah – through those same channels and networks.

I believe in-person communication has greater efficacy, and that in-person da‘wah remains significantly more enriching and effective than digital forms. However, it’s necessary for Muslims to excel in both. Many people’s first, only, or most important exposure to Islam in our time is likely online. Let’s look at YouTube, for example. I recall reading a journal article on Muslims’ use of YouTube. By 2012, there were already about half a million YouTube videos tagged with “Islam”, and nearly 5,000 more were being uploaded every week. Religious videos about Islam (and to a lesser extent, Christianity), were the second-largest thematic cluster on YouTube after music videos. Of course, many of these videos were not created by Muslims, and many (by both Muslims and non-Muslims) were severely misrepresenting Islam. A more recent journal article published in December 2020 examined Shaykh Yasir Qadhi’s influential YouTube videos on the topic of the Islamic perspective on evolution. Clearly, YouTube (and I’m sure the same could be said of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, perhaps even Snapchat and TikTok) has been a space in which a variety of da‘wah work can be performed, including clearing up misconceptions about Islam which are also widely-circulated on these same platforms. 

Photo credit: Liam Sims on Unsplash

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2 thoughts on “Did Islam Spread By the Sword?: Q&A with Hassam Munir

  1. This article is full of baloney!
    Tabari’s History volumes 9 through 17 are all about the Islamic conquests of other countries. The Muslim’s message was “Accept Islam and you will be safe.”
    When Muhammad conquered Mecca, Ibn Sa’d records that the people accepted Islam “willingly or unwillingly.” They knew they’d be killed if they didn’t bow the knee to Muhammad. As Abbas said to Sufyan, “Recognize Muhammad as prophet before you lose your head!”

    Islam continues to rule by the sword. To this day, if Muslims in Muslim majority countries want to leave Islam they face persecution or death. Why? Muhammad commanded that apostates should be put to death. Even the Quran recommends punishment against apostates.

    ISIS has far more in common with Muhammad and real Islam than westernized Muslims living in the West. ISIS does what Muhammad did.

    If Hassan Munir truly believes in the rights of other then he would leave Islam and work to expose its darkness. Instead he’s a propagandist.

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