Spread Of Islam

What are the Reasons for the Fact that Islam Spread Over Such Vast Territories in Such a Short Time in the Past?

What are the Reasons for the Muslims’ Defeat and Failure at the Present Time?

A Muslim could be defined as one who believes in God and the principles of faith decreed by God, who never deems the opposite of these principles even likely, and thus submits and surrenders himself to God. That is, a Muslim is one who wholeheartedly and sincerely performs and represents all His commands with respect to regulating his individual, familial and social life. However, during some periods, Muslims might have been unable to find the opportunity to represent Islam in all respects. Even so, if people burnt with the love and yearning to represent Islam and writhed in the longing to live and act upon it, God willing, they would not be responsible, blamed and reprimanded for collective failures. Any subtle, complex system dismantled and laid aside unused, its use half-forgotten with the passage of time, can only be re-assembled and made to work again after the greatest application and effort. How much more so if that system were a way of life involving the taking on of burdens and responsibilities which, in the long term productive of ease and contentment, are in the short term sometimes strenuous and arduous—how difficult to build up that way of life again, reviving the consent of not one or a few persons but of a whole society? And yet, if people are determined, persevering and sincere in the intention of making it work again, their sincerity of effort may suffice to excuse them, even though their effort did not or could not succeed. If people pursue that goal with a total commitment and yearning, as a matter of life and death, they would surely not be held accountable if the goal eludes them. In fact, in order to be exempted from the responsibility, one should either live Islam thoroughly or burn with a strong desire to live Islam and to make it a lived reality. Any acts contrary to this will entail consequences in this world and in the Hereafter. In this world, the people suffer abasement and degradation as a consequence of living apart from Islam; they will be condemned to live in all the domains of life, social, political, commercial, military, under the power and direction of unbelief, and they will be mightily surpassed in the fields of knowledge and technology. Then, in the Hereafter, they will be questioned and punished severely for all that failure, that surrender to the powers of unbelief.

The Second Siege of Vienna in 1683 by Frans Geffels

The Second Siege of Vienna in 1683 by Frans Geffels

For almost a thousand years, Muslims experienced civilizational rise from one level to another and earned the highest acclaim. During the period of the Rightly Guided Caliphs that rise had a sublime, heavenly quality. Those who followed the Prophet in the first Islamic century were real representatives of the true Islamic way of life. God’s Messenger says concerning this period:

Muslim armies will arrive, after me, at the gates of cities, where they will be asked, “Did anyone among you see the Prophet?” The answer will be affirmative, and the gates will be opened for them. Those who succeeded them will also perform jihad and they will be asked, “Are there any people among you who saw those who had seen the Prophet?” They will reply, “Yes,” and the cities will be conquered by them. There will finally come the third generation, who will be asked, “Did anybody among you see those who had seen the followers of the Prophet’s Companions?’ When this question, too, receives an affirmative answer, conquest will also be bestowed upon them.”[1]

Again, in another narration recorded in Bukhari and Muslim, God’s Messenger says concerning those three succeeding generations:

“The best of you are those who live in my period, then those who succeed them, and then those who follow them.”[2]

Those three generations followed strictly in the Prophet’s footsteps and, accordingly, were granted great victories.

When we look at our Islamic past, we see that the historical events confirm the sayings of the Prophet. The period of the Four Caliphs was thirty years. During the reign of the third, ‘Uthman, the Muslims spread in all directions of the known world. In one direction, they went up to Lake Aral and in the opposite direction up to Erzurum in eastern Anatolia. Despite differences and disagreements at that time, the spirit of jihad against unbelief was always strong, sustaining the consciousness of being active and moving forward. During that time the Muslims conquered the northern Africa in its entirety. ‘Uqba ibn Nafi’ was the Muslim commander in that campaign and died at the age of 50. However, the campaign was successfully concluded within his life-time and he managed to make himself listened to and obeyed by all the Berbers. When he reached the Atlantic, he rode his horse into the sea and there stood and exclaimed: “O God! If this sea of darkness did not appear before me, I would convey Your Name, which is the source of light, to overseas lands as far as the remotest corners of the world.”[3] The great Muslims of that time did not dispose of modern ships or planes that can travel in almost any weather conditions. At that time, they campaigned on a mount or on foot, and rivers were forded or crossed upon simple rafts. Despite shortage of means, the Muslims were able to travel to and conquer vast stretches of territory in different parts of the world in a remarkably short span of time.

It is one of the mysteries of destiny that wherever the Companions of the Prophet went or conquered then, there is to this day a Muslim people, even in countries far from the “heartlands” of the Arabian peninsula—such as Dagestan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan. These countries still have functioning mosques and traditional religious academies, raised scholars and scientists, who were, and are still, regarded as the best in their fields, from Bukhari to Muslim, from Muslim to Tirmidhi, from Ibn Sina to al-Farabi, because Islam was lived and acted upon in those lands. We certainly believe that the splendor and excellence of an Islamic ethos, spirit and consciousness will be experienced again in those places, and the Muslims will regain their former status in the world.

That the Companions of the Prophet managed to conquer so many places in such a short time certainly has its own explanations and meaning. First of all, the Companions were wholly devoted to the cause of Islam. Superficially viewed by their enemies, they must have seemed to them to be out of their minds—certainly, their accomplishments were such as to stir and freeze all imagination. For instance, ‘Ali slept in the Prophet’s bed, in his place, on the night when the Prophet left for Madina and the enemies surrounded the house intending to assassinate the Prophet with multiple sword blows. ‘Ali’s doing so means that he had accepted the likelihood that he would be dismembered and killed. But the polytheists’ hands remained hanging in the air, so astounded were they that the person in the bed was not the Prophet but a young man who accepted such a sacrifice and thus attributed no value to the rest of his life, at the age of 17. In another instance, on hearing the continuous howls and voices of livestock and domestic animals, Abu Jahl and other polytheists climbed to the roof of the house of Abdullah ibn Jahsh to learn what was going on in there. They were struck by what they saw. All the members of the family had deserted the house to follow the Prophet, taking nothing with them, giving not a second thought, to their possessions, thinking only of moving to Madina to be with the Prophet. Upon this Abu Jahl said to ‘Abbas: “How strange! That cousin of yours has caused such a split (iftiraq) between us that it is impossible either to explain or to understand.” Home, goods and chattels, wife, children and family, and everything were left, given up, for the sake of God, His Messenger and the message he brought. How could polytheists comprehend such a thing?


A 1907 image of the Great Mosque of Mecca with people praying therein

While Abu Bakr was migrating from Makka to Madina, he did not take anyone along with him, but he left his children, wife and father, whom he loved dearly, back in Makka. ‘Uthman did not take his wife, Ruqiyya, the beloved daughter of the Prophet, along with him while migrating. Ruqiyya was the light of the Prophet’s eyes, and I certainly believe that if it were said that a life is needed for Ruqiyya, each and every Muslim would run to sacrifice his own life thousands of times for her. However, that Ruqiyya was left in Makka and ‘Uthman emigrated to Madina. Such was the loyalty to the Prophet at that time.

On his return from negotiations with the Prophet ‘Urwa bin Mas’ud he said the following to the people in Makka about the Companions’ commitment to their cause and devotion to the Messenger of God:

O people, I have been sent as envoy to kings—Caesar, Chosroes, and the Negus—but I have not seen a king whose men honor him as the Companions of Muhammad. If he commands anything, they almost outstrip his word in fulfilling it; when he performs his ablution, they well-nigh fight for the water thereof; when he speaks, their voices are hushed in his presence; nor will they look him full in the face, but lower their eyes in reverence for him . . .[4]

However, the Prophet advised those who stood up for him: “Do not stand up (for me) as the Persians do (stand up for their elders).”[5] As the Prophet demonstrated and lived modesty and humility, so he rose ever higher surpassing even the angels. It was narrated that when the Prophet first saw the Archangel Gabriel, he was frightened. However, as one of the saints, lovers of the Prophet, remarked: “If Gabriel had comprehended the essence of the haqiqat al-Ahmadiyya (the truth of Muhammad), he would have passed out and never come to himself till the Day of Reckoning.” The Prophet always rose higher and higher in respect of his power of relationship, obedience, submission and servanthood to God. However, every step toward the highest deepened his humility. He presented himself as an ordinary man, one among many others, and was deeply disturbed by any other manner or treatment shown to him.

That period was such that the Companions attached themselves deeply to the Prophet and integrated with him thoroughly. When the Prophet said: “Your blood is my blood, your life is my life,” the words confirmed what actually existed as a full harmony and accord. When the time came to spread and represent Islam abroad, when it was necessary to emigrate to different lands and climates, none of them asked why or what. They simply went and never thought to return to their old homes. Let alone thinking of coming back, out of the fear of blemishing the sincerity of the intention to emigrate for the sake of God only, they trembled at the thought of dying being buried in their old hometowns. Sa’d bin Abi Waqqas had fever in Makka, and was shaking with grief. When the Prophet asked the reason for his sadness, it was that he was worried that he would die in Makka after he had emigrated to Madina, and that thus his emigration would not be complete.

When marching on the Khaybar, the Prophet did not want to take ‘Ali on the expedition because he had some ailment of the eyes. However, ‘Ali was not willing to be left behind. He said: “Would you have me to stay behind with the women and children, O Messenger of God?” He did take part in the expedition and the citadel of Khaybar was conquered though his extraordinary courage.

Once, before leaving Madina for an expedition, the Prophet appointed Umm Maktum, a blind person, in charge during his absence. He was exempt from fighting because he was blind; the other who remained behind were women and children. Years later, when Umm Maktum learned that the Muslims were going to fight the Persians. Despite his old age, he joined the marching soldiers and expressed his wish to take part in the battle ahead. Some Muslims, especially Mughira ibn Shu’ba, wanted him to stay away from the front, but Umm Maktum found an opportunity to talk to the commander of the Muslims, Sa’d ibn Abi Waqqas and said: “Mughira bin Shu’ba wanted to prevent me from fighting in the way of God. If any of you prevents me from fighting and dying in the way of God today, I will make complaint about you to the Caliph ‘Umar.” What a reason to complain about—being prevented from offering his life in the way of God! When asked what he could do, he answered: “Yes, I am blind, but this will not prevent me from holding the flag and walking straight ahead. So, I would like to hold the banner before the army.” He really seized the opportunity, did not hide behind excuses, but took part in the front line, held the banner, walked forward, and found what he yearned for, martyrdom at the battle of Qadisiya.

The Companions were that kind of people, who scorned danger in the way of God, and even courted death for the sake of their true belief, and to convey it to other lands.

Though Abu Talha had grown very old, weak and feeble, when he heard that the army was preparing to go to Cyprus, he called his grandsons and told them that he would like to take part in the expedition: “I heard from the Prophet that Cyprus would be conquered[6] and I think it is time for it, and I’d like to take part in it. However, it is not possible for me to sit and ride on horse-back. Therefore, tie me tightly to the horse lest I fall off.” His grandsons did not want to yield to their grandfather’s wish and argued that he was quite old, and so excused and would not be accountable for being absent from the battle. However, he replied that he understood the Qur’anic verse urging people to strive in the way of God as not discriminating between young and old; he read it in the absolute sense. In the end, the grandsons were unable to dissuade him and Abu Talha joined the army in the way that he wished. However, his life did not suffice to complete the journey as he was so elderly and feeble; but he did, after all, achieve what he longed for in this world, and perhaps he might have said with his last breath: “All thanks and praise to God! You bestowed upon me what I longed for.”

Another Companion, Abu Ayyub al-Ansari, who hosted the Prophet at his home, had already been married with children when the Prophet first arrived at Madina. Abu Ayyub’s grandchildren helped him mount the horse before he came all the way to Istanbul (Constantinople) under the command of Yazid. From the Prophet’s arrival in Madina to the rule of Mu’awiya and the command of Yazid, we may count that 40 or 50 years passed. Abu Ayyub must therefore have been around 75 or 80 years old when he arrived in the vicinity of Istanbul.

Let us pause to ask at this point: What were such Companions of the Prophet after? There are many verses in the Qur’an and there are sayings of the Prophet praising their virtues and attributes. God named them as Ansar (Helpers) and Muhajirun (Emigrants) and glorified them. They were even foretold in the Old and New Testaments (the Torah and the Gospel). They had listened to the Prophet saying that the victorious armies of Islam would arrive at the gates of Europe, and that he gave tidings that Constantinople (now Istanbul) would be conquered by Muslims. Many attempts were made to realize this and be worthy of the encouragement of these words of the Prophet: “Certainly, Constantinople will be conquered. Blessed is the commander who will conquer it, and blessed are his troops.”[7]

Since that city was itself a symbol of a large dominion, the Prophet was thus directing his community to carry Islam all over the world. So the only objective they had was to be among the troops the Prophet praised and thus gain the pleasure of God. There was no other motive, ambition or purpose behind the hardships and dangers they endured. Since the Prophet pointed out the worthiness of the army in the eyes of God, the Companions were in a sense competing to become members of that army.

Hoping to be an object of the Prophet’s praise, Abu Ayyub al-Ansari (Khalid bin Zayd) set forth from Madina to Istanbul even in old age. The city was besieged for weeks and months, but the Muslims were not then granted the conquest. Before that, Abu Ayyub al-Ansari was totally exhausted and waiting for death. One of the things he mostly kept asking was “Any news of the conquest?” Eventually, when the commander of the army realized that he was on the very verge of death, he asked the noble Companion of God’s Messenger if he had any wish. Abu Ayyub al-Ansari said: “Take me as far as possible. If it is possible, take me and bury within the walls of Constantinople. We came to conquer Constantinople, but I see that I will not be blessed with such a conquest. On the other hand, I definitely believe that one day the tidings of the Prophet will come true and be attained by some [other Muslims]. Therefore, I would like to be buried over there. Listening to the clashing of their swords and shields in my grave will please me. Let me hear at least the voices of those blessed soldiers.” Almost five or six centuries later, Istanbul was conquered by the Ottoman commander, whose name was also Muhammad (Mehmed), at the age of 22. Such sweet manifestations of destiny, as to end one period in history and start a new age, to be blessed with the tidings of God’s Messenger, to break down an iron door, like the door of Khaybar, leading to Europe, to represent the Muhammadi spirit completely at his time, were the blessings bestowed on Sultan Mehmed the conqueror. He can be said to have represented the Muhammadi spirit in his time like a Mahdi; his was among the voices of the soldiers that Abu Ayyub al-Ansari wished to hear and welcome to Istanbul.

Those people who sincerely and devoutly commit themselves to either irshad and tabligh (guiding and enlightening others) or to striving by what they own (material and physical struggle, jihad with their lives and wealth) can conquer the world and hold their authority in it. As the Prophet of God expressed it in a hadith, when the fear, of death grasps the souls of the Muslims, everything gained will start to slip away piece by piece. We enjoyed great status and weight among the peoples and in the history of the world until two or three centuries ago. Now we have lost that. There can be only one explanation for this: namely, that we were victorious when we had the Islamic spirit, and kept our submission, obedience and servanthood to God in a firm and sound condition. During the period in which we started to slip backward, our souls were captured and enslaved to fear of death, and other fears, weaknesses, love for life, ambitions and concerns for our own future.

Those Muslims in the past spread to all parts of the world and conveyed the Divine Message and established the best and noblest type of rule. What can this accomplishment be attributed to other than the fact that they really devoted their physical, spiritual and material wealth to the way of God?

No matter what nation or ethnic background they were from, we see in all those heroes raised from the Islamic world the same spirit. They scorned and ignored the pleasure of living for themselves but preferred the pleasure of making others live instead. The only thing they had in mind was to spread the Religion to which they were bound as believers and followers, and they regarded that belonging as the highest honor. In the Seljuk, Ottoman or other states, in rulers like Alparslan, Kılıçarslan, Murad Hudavendigar, Mehmed the Conqueror, Selim I, Salahaddin Ayyubi, and many others, we see the same spirit and consciousness.

Alparslan, the Seljuk Sultan, who defeated the Byzantines in 1071 and thus opened the doors of Anatolia and the vast Byzantine territories to Muslims, delivered a sermon before the Battle of Malazgirt (Manzikert), one of the great decisive battles in history, and concluded with this prayer: “O Lord, make the white clothes and robe I put on my shroud today.” Those Muslims went on the battlefield to become martyrs rather than victors, and proved that with the shrouds they put on before battle. In that way they were undoubtedly ready to tackle the enemy army, often many times more numerous, without a second thought. At the end of the day, the Muslims were victorious and the enemy were defeated and captured, even the Emperor Romanus Diogenus, and we believe that Sultan Alparslan meant it sincerely when he said he was not so happy because he had not reached his goal, which was to become a martyr.

The Ottoman Sultan Murad Hudavendigar prayed throughout the night: “O Lord, make my army victorious but me a martyr” before he fought against the Serbs in Kosovo. His prayer was accepted, he defeated the Serbs, saw his army victorious but while inspecting the wounded soldiers, he was stabbed to death by a Serb. As he lay on the ground, he was asked what his last wish was. He said two words “Never dismount.” Then he passed away. The wish he expressed was never to stop struggling in the way of God and carrying His Divine Message further.

The magnificent state (and states) established by people of this quality enjoyed such prestige and authority in the balance of power in the world that other nations and states looked to them and adjusted themselves and regulated their affairs accordingly. They exerted such efforts in the way of Truth, and scorned everything except that, holding God first in all plans and affairs. They thought and evaluated everything according to the Divine Will and Pleasure, and became the zealots of the Sublime Cause. For this reason God protected our borders from all intrusions, and we led a glorious and dignified life in the past. When we lost such high attributes and spirit, we were surrounded on all sides, degraded and eventually captured by our enemies. We first died in spirit and then in dignity and honor, and then in physical, material terms.

If we would like to recover and represent Islam beautifully as they did in the past, we must first recover those factors which made our ancestors attain their high rank, all of them, not neglecting a single one among them. For the truth is:

. . . man can have nothing but what he strives for (Najm 53:39).

By M. Fethullah Gulen

See also:


[1] Bukhari, Fada’il al-Ashab, 1; Muslim, Fada’il al-Ashab, 208-9.

[2] Bukhari, Fada’il al-Ashab, 1; Muslim, Fada’il al-Ashab, 212.

[3] Ibn al-Athir, Kamil fi al-Tarikh, 4/106.

[4] Bukhari 3:180; Ibn Hanbal 4:324; Tabari 3:75

[5] Abu Dawud, Adab, 151-152; Ibn Hanbal, Musnad, 5:253

[6] Ibn Kathir, Al-Bidaya wa l-nihaya, 7, 152.

[7] Another narration of the hadith is as follows: “Certainly, Costantinople will be conquered. How good is the commander who will conquer it, and how good is his army.” Ahmad Ibn Hanbal, Musnad, 4/335; Hakim, Mustadrak, 4/422.

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