The Spread of Islam Along the Silk Route

The widespread adoption of Islam beyond the Arab peninsula is recorded in some older histories as starting as early as the mid-seventh century, but in fact, this probably did not occur until at least a century later. Richard C. Foltz suggests that the reason for this confusion is due to misinterpretation of the word islam ("submission"), used in Muslim histories to indicate the submission of one clan to the authority of another, and not the spread of the Islamic faith proper.1 In fact, it was the great success of the early Muslim clans in acquiring the submission of other Arab groups that eventually led to the spread of the religion beyond the Arabian peninsula. Foltz argues that the act of submission generated defacto non-aggression pacts between Muslim Arabs and their neighbors. Most of the clans of the Arab peninsula had submitted and professed their loyalty to the Muslim clans by the year 630, forcing them to find more targets for raids beyond the Arabian peninsula in Mesopotamia, Syria and Egypt, lands held by Byzantium and Sassanian Persia. Expanding into these areas, the Muslim clans had little trouble expelling the Sassanian and Byzantine leadership and their armies; some villages, Foltz notes, opened their gates to the Muslim Arabs and welcomed them as liberators.2

The Muslims set up Islamic governments in the regions they conquered, and by the 660s an Islamic dynasty, the Umayyads, was established in Damascus. By 750, other kingdoms ruled by Arab and non-Arab Muslim dynasties would come to control all lands from Spain in the west, throughout northern Africa, over all of Persia and the entire Middle East, spreading as far to the east as the edge of the Tang Empire in the Tarim Basin, and crossing the Indus river into Indian sub-continent. Sometime referred to as the "Islamic Empire," it was not a true empire since there was no central authority governing all of these lands. Rather, they were united by similar governments structured around the interpretation of Islamic law.

The true Islamization of the Silk Routes did not begin until around the beginning of the eight century. Initially, Muslims referred to their faith as "the Arab religion" (al-din al-'arab), and did not attempt to win converts. Though early Islam tried to transcend both class and racial distinctions, this goal was abandoned once the conquest of territories beyond the peninsula began in earnest.3  Keeping distinctions between ruling Muslims and conquered non-Muslims made for simpler governance, and guaranteed a privileged status for Muslims under the laws of the various Islamic states. For example, the tax policy of 'Umar (634-44) for the Christians of Syria clearly states this Muslim ruler's attitude towards his non-Muslim subjects:

Leave these lands, which God has granted you as booty in the hands of their inhabitants, and impose on them a poll tax (jizya) to the extent that they can bear and divide the proceeds among the Muslims. Let them till the soil, for they know more about it and are better at it than we are… For they are slaves to the people of the religion of Islam as long as the religion of Islam shall prevail.4

This situation created a strong motivation for non-Muslims to convert to Islam, particularly among those conquered who previously held elite economic, social and political positions, since becoming Muslim allowed them to rejoin the ruling group. Furthermore, the Arabs recognized a talent for administration among those they conquered. They adopted the Sassanian model for their Islamic governments and recruited local peoples to serve as government ministers, the majority of which were Sassanian Persians. As government officials, it was seemly for them to convert to Islam, though afterwards they began to press for the same rights as Arab Muslims.5  Yet, since these non-Arab Muslims had no Arab clan affiliation and thus no clear social identity in Arab society, the question of social equality among Arabs and non-Arabs was difficult to address. This development led to the adoption of non-Arab converts as mawla ("clients") by Arab Muslims, which made the mawla an honorary clan member of sorts. It was not long until the mawalis outnumbered the Arab Muslims, and when the two groups mingled, they formed a new body of religious and political elite, as well as a new middle class of merchants, artisans, teachers and scholars.6  By the mid-eighth century, Muslims controlled the western half of the Silk Route, and trade became the second major factor in the spread of Islam. For a merchant, the benefits of converting to Islam were very clear, particularly considering the extent to which cooperation and contacts were shared among Muslim traders both at home and abroad, as well as the fact that Muslim officials and Islamic laws alike favored Muslim over non-Muslim traders.7

Muslim traders traveled as far as the Tang capital of Chang-an and other cities in Chinese empire even further to the east. Some returned home after finishing their business, but others settled permanently in enclaves set aside for them in segregated quarters complete with mosques. The Tang emperor also granted lands in the western-most periphery of the empire to Muslim soldiers in 757 as a reward for their help in putting down the rebellion of An Lushan, and fifty years later Muslims were also allowed to settle in Yunnan. In both cases the Muslim settlers were given permission to take Chinese wives, though these women were not allowed to accompany their husbands back to their homelands.8  By Islamic law, children of a Muslim father are required to be raised as Muslim, which led to the formation of a Muslim Chinese minority in these regions during the Tang period. Many scholars point to these developments as the origin of the approximately five million ethnically Chinese Muslims known today as Hui, though the matter is still debated.

-- John D. Szostak


(1) Foltz, Richard C., Religions of the Silk Road: Overland Trade and Cultural Exchange from Antiquity to the Fifteenth Century (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999), p. 90.

(2) Ibid.

(3) Ibid., p. 92.

(4) Lewis, Bernad (ed.). Islam, from the Prophet Muhammad to the Capture of Constantinople, vol. II, Religion and Society (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), p. 224.

(5) Xinru Liu. Silk and Religion: An Exploration of Material Life and the Thought of People, AD 600-1200 (Delhi: Oxford India Paperbacks, 1998), p. 133.

(6) Lapidus, Ira M. A History of Islamic Societies (Cambridge University Press, 1988), p. 98.

(7) Foltz, p. 96.