Nipissing University

History 2805 -- History of Islamic Civilization

The Spread of Islam

Steve Muhlberger

This lecture begins with the story of Ibn Battuta, and so it owes a great deal to Ross Dunn's book, The Adventures of Ibn Battuta : A Muslim Traveller of the 14th Century, which can be found in our library.

Ibn Battuta is known as the greatest traveler of pre-modern times.  Born in 1304 in the Morrocan town of Tangier, he got an education in religious law  At a young age, he decided to take off for Mecca -- an obvious excuse for any Muslim young man with itchy feet.  Once he was on the road, Ibn Battuta didn’t come home for twenty years.  At one point, he made an oath never to double back on his own route.  This wasn’t entirely practical; for one thing he went to Mecca on three separate occasions.  But he did travel to every boundary of the dar-al-Islam,  the home of Islam, and on a few occasions went beyond into infidel lands.

(Discussion of his route in class)

Places visited include:

One obvious point that could be made is the sheer size of the Muslim world at this time.  It was possible for him to see most of the civilized lands of the Eastern Hemisphere, including most climactic zones, without going far out of the dar-al-Islam.

What is maybe a more interesting point grows out of looking at the way that Ibn Battuta lived in the quarter-century that he was away from Tangier.   Ibn Battuta lived off the fact that he was a scholar and a pious man -- things that were not identical but very close together.  When he left Tangier for Mecca in 1325, he took money with him, but he was banking on the fact that at the very worst, wherever he went, other religious scholars would look after him; and more than that.  Throughout the Muslim world, pious rulers would be happy to give gifts to a man of his sort.  He might even win great favor in the eyes of one of them, and end up a rich and influential man.

Ibn Battuta was right.  For 25 years, he did live off his status as a scholar and pious man.  At certain points he did gain employment as a qadi or judge of Shari law.  Three of his jobs were lucrative and important.

In Delhi in India, the sultan, Muhammed Tughluq, made him one of several qadis for his capital city, a job that actually does not seem to have involved much judicial work but paid very well; Ibn Battuta had the rights to the revenue from several Indian villages.

This position led eventually to Ibn Battuta being appointed ambassador to China.  The embassy ended in disaster with Ibn Battuta’s ships going down in a sudden storm and him being stripped of everything by pirates. Ibn Battuta thought about going back to Delhi after this, but he thought that his eccentric master would be more likely to execute him than repair his fortunes, so he continued his travels.

Soon after this, he stumbled into his third job.  When he landed on the Maldive Islands, which are south and west of India, he was recognized by an old acquaintance from India as a former qadi of the great capital city.  The queen of the Maldives and her vizier were impressed and quickly forced him into service.   This was not what Ibn Battuta had wanted, but he decided to go with the flow.  He was soon married several times into the high aristocracy of the Maldives, exercizing his judicial and religious authority in a very forthright manner, and well on his way to becoming a big political wheel.  In fact, when he was expelled from the Islands by his enemies, his first thought was to find an ally and go back and conquer the place.  From being a reluctant resident to dreaming of supreme power in a matter of months!

Three rather lofty jobs gained on the strength of his status as religious scholar. They are  the only major jobs he got from rulers in 25 years, and all together they lasted about eight of those years.  

The rest of the time he lived off gifts from rulers who did not expect him to do any work at all!  He would breeze into town, introduce himself to the local scholars, visit the local sufi holy man, get an invitation to the court, and when he finally met the ruler, would make a good enough impression that they would load him down with fancy robes and gold.  If we can believe his own story, Ibn Battuta was very seldom uncomfortable in the whole quarter of a century, except in the aftermath of a few major disasters.

The success of Ibn Battuta is more astonishing when we look at his qualifications.He began his whole tour of the Muslim world when he was only 21 years old.  That is, his status as scholar was based on only a little learning -- perhaps about as much as you might get in a three-year university degree in Canada today.   He was not honored across the world because of his astonishing formal education.  He had merely a thorough grounding in the basics -- especially the Qur'an -- and some grasp of law according to the Maliki school of jurisprudence.   But he was able to parlay that knowledge, and his own strength of his personality, into a life of adventure and the enjoyment of hospitality.

What does this mean for our understanding of the spread of Islam in the fourteenth century and later?

 Ibn Battuta thrived on the basis of modest scholarship and more than usual piety because of the prestige of Islamic learning across the breadth of the Eastern Hemisphere.  It represented more than religious learning, although that was important enough.  Men like Ibn Battuta and the knowledge that they carried in their heads was not just a link with the religion of Muhammed -- it was the international language of order, of civility, of government, of culture.

Furthermore, because of the continuing expansion of the Muslim world, there were plenty of places where people even moderately conversant in that language were a valuable resource.  Ibn Battuta made no impact on the court of the Mamlukes in Cairo, or the Iranian capital of Tabriz; scholars were a dime a dozen there.  But when he went to the Muslim frontiers, such places as Anatolia, or India, or the Maldives, or any number of minor courts along his itinerary, he was respected as a symbol of Muslim orthodoxy.

This is a role, by the way, that Ibn Battuta was quite willing to play.  He was a rather straight-laced sort, and in many places he went he saw that Islamic standards were not being upheld with sufficient vigor.

The Muslim world was now a large place, and still growing.  It now included many places outside the Middle East, where the culture was significantly different from the area where Islam had been born.  Such issues as dress and men and women mixing socially were really only the tip of the iceberg.  People in Africa or the steppes of eastern Europe or in Mongolia who called themselves Muslims might still be very attached to idolatrous customs that could never be justified by any strict reading of the Qur'an.   But since those practices were ancestral customs going way back, and serving to define community life, only a very few, pious in the new way instead of the old way, even considered giving them up.  In India, even Muslims born and bred sometimes found Hindu ideas and practices attractive, and Indian converts did not necessarily give them up.

Even with so many people on the frontier reluctant to become whole-hearted Muslims, Islam continued to spread.  Why?

The basic reason is, that whether you lived in Mali in Africa, Male in the Maldives, Samudra in Sumatra, Saray on the Volga River, or Kilwa in what’s now Tanzania,  the dar-al-Islam occupied the center of the world.  It was the area where all trade routes converged.  It was the location of the major political powers.  It was where the great courts with their luxurious and sophisticated cultures thrived.  It was the source of the most influential literate languages -- and remember that literacy meant power, the possibility of organized government.   So over most of the Eastern Hemisphere, anyone interested in life beyond the local level -- in long-distance trade, in big-power politics, in international fashion, in art and literature -- had to be interested in Islam.

So if you were a small-time trader, the owner of a single canoe in Zanzibar, or if you were a small-time prince in West Africa, and wanted access to the big time -- what was the logical step?  Conversion to Islam would make life so much easier.  It would make you part of that oh-so-attractive international community from which all good things came.  It might even have spiritual or magical advantages.  Any Muslim you ran into would tell you that the dar-al-Islam did not gain its power simply from literacy, or technology, or a mastery of the arts of government.  It was the message of the Holy Qur'an, the traditions of the prophet, the practice of the pillars of Islam, and the insight and blessings of holy men that really made the difference between ignorance and the true religion.

The spread of Islam gains a great deal of its momentum from the desire of outsiders to be let in.  Thousands were impressed by the prestige of Islam and willing to listen to anyone who would explain the secrets of these powerful strangers.  Who would do it?

There are four main types of Muslim missionaries bringing the message to the world of ignorance:  Warriors, merchants, sufis, and scholars of law.

The role of the warriors should be obvious by now.

In many areas, however, conquest had nothing to do with the early stages of conversion.  The reach of Muslim merchants was much greater than the reach of Muslim arms.   Remember that Muhammed himself had been a merchant from a city of merchants, and his religion had always held merchants and their way of life in high respect -- unlike others which denigrated commerce in favor of holy poverty.  So merchants were also positive on Islam.  Merchants coming to new countries on the periphery of the civilized world, settling  in remote locations, intermarrying with the locals, remained loyal to Islam -- which among other things provided a legal and moral framework for international trade.  And their local business associates often converted as well.  In much of Africa and Indonesia, the penetration of Muslim traders and the conversion of local ones was the beginning of conversion: a special and rather prominent group served as the seedbed of a Muslim society.

Sufis were equally able and willing to go into the far reaches and bring the word.  Sufis, you’ll recall, were men (and sometimes, rarely, women) who sought through imitation of the Prophet to gain a deep knowledge of the divine, even direct contact with God.  For the sufis, the inner spiritual state mattered more than the literal fulfilment of Sharia law.   This made sufis more suitable missionaries than legal scholars like Ibn Battuta.   An accomplished sufi could show the spiritual value of Islam to people who knew nothing about it and who might not be at all impressed by its more formal aspects.   Also, a sufi was never just an isolated holy man.  He was somebody’s student, and the teacher of many aspiring sufis, and thus a member of a brotherhood that might include individuals and communities in many countries.  The sufi brotherhoods, or tariqas,  held property, built schools, communicated with each other, and thus were an important part of the framework of  society in established Islamic societies.  And like the networks of merchants, they were able to reach out into non-Islamic lands, forming a bridge between them.

This leaves us with the scholars like Ibn Battuta.  I doubt that they were the most effective first-wave missionaries.  But when the leaders of an Indonesian port or a Turkish tribe or an African kingdom had decided that Islam was the way to go, and began to seek closer connections with the Muslim world, it was then that they needed the scholars to tell people just what was Islam and what was not -- to act as judges, teachers and administrators.  It was at this point that the parade of footloose or ambitious scholars became vital for the consolidation of a new Islamic society.

I want to make one more point before I bring this lecture to a close.   In Islam, which has no division between clergy and laity, there was nothing to stop a sufi from also being a merchant, or a scholar, or even a warrior.   Of course most people specialized -- but we do know of sufis who used the support of their brotherhoods to make themselves princes; and merchants who grew so great in their neighborhoods that they took over the government; and scholars who were also sufis and influential members of international brotherhoods.   In any of these roles people might become leaders of  society; more than that, champions of Islam.

If we want to understand how Islam continued to spread in the later years of the Islamic Middle period, and into modern times,  we have to see how flexible and adaptable it was.  It was like a language that is easy to learn yet which is powerful enough to express many meanings; a language that made possible links between many different peoples in many different places.


Copyright (C) 1999, Steven Muhlberger.