The sword might conquer lands and occupy countries, but it never could open hearts and plant in them the seeds of faith. Opening hearts to a new religion requires acts of another kind; it requires persuasion and appeal to sentiments, as well as the ability to influence others. If it were true that the Muslims who entered other countries forced Islam on the residents of those countries, then why did the latter not immediately embrace Islam?

History bears witness to the fact that the people of the conquered countries did not at once convert to Islam as the Muslim armies entered their countries; the people stuck to their own religions for tens of years, and it was only on an individual basis that people embraced Islam. Even the Copts in Egypt, who were treated with true justice at the hands of Caliph `Umar (who punished the son of Egypt’s governor because he had unjustly lashed a Copt), did not embrace Islam.

The eminent Muslim scholar Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi states: I agree with the researchers who objectively analyze the lessons of history and hold that the Muslim futuhat (openings or conquerings) had just objectives:

1. Overcoming the tyranny of the rulers of other countries who prevented their subjects from listening to the call of Islam. The Muslims had (by Almighty Allah’s order) to make Islam known to the people of other countries, but the tyrant rulers would not allow their subjects to listen to the word of Islam and the call of the Qur’an. [This is the custom of tyrants from the dawn of history: to prevent their oppressed subjects from adopting principles that might call for equality and treatment with dignity.] The story of Pharaoh and the sorcerers is a clear example of this. When the sorcerers declared their faith in Allah, and said, as written in the Qur’an: [“We believe in the Lord of Aaron andMoses,  (Pharaoh) said: “Ye put faith in him before I give you leave. Lo! He is your chief who taught you magic. Now surely I shall cut off your hands and your feet alternately, and I shall crucify you on the trunks of palm trees, and ye shall know for certain which of us hath sterner and more lasting punishment”] (Ta-Ha 20:70-71).

The tyranny of the rulers at that time hindered the spread of the universal call of Islam. So when the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) sent letters to rulers of the nearby countries inviting them to Islam, he (peace and blessings be upon him) told them that if they rejected the call, they would be responsible for misguiding their subjects. For example, he (peace and blessings be upon him) said in his letter to the emperor of the Byzantine Empire, “If you reject this call, you will be responsible for misguiding your Arisiayin (peasants).” He (peace and blessings be upon him) also wrote to the Persian Emeror, “If you refuse the call of Islam, you will be responsible for misguiding the Magians,” and to Al-Muqawqis ;(ruler of Egypt) he wrote, “If you refuse the call of Islam, you will be responsible for misguiding the Copts.”

This state of affairs affirms the proverb that prevailed at that time: “People follow the religions of their rulers.” Islam thus wanted to set matters right and give people the chance to see for themselves which path to follow. They were free to choose their beliefs that would establish their identity and shape their motives and goals in life. Hence, the wars in which the Muslims engaged in against the rulers of other countries led to the removal of the barriers between the common people of these countries and Islam. With this, they could choose for themselves, without fear of punishment, either to believe or disbelieve in Almighty Allah, bearing the full responsibility for their own choices.

2. Protecting the Muslim State. An objective complementary to the above one is that the emerging Muslim state in Madinah not only had to prove its sovereignty, but it also had a message of mercy and justice to deliver to all mankind and an ideology to practice. Any state seeking change of this kind at that time would usually be confronted with hostility and aggression from the great powers [the Byzantine and Persian empires]. These powers saw the emerging Muslim state and its principles as a threat to their interests. They believed that this would lead to an inevitable confrontation between the two parties. Hence, Muslims at that time
were in a situation to undertake what is referred to nowadays as a defensive war, so that they could defend their territories against the prospective threats of the neighboring countries that differed with the Muslim state’s ideology and interests.

3. Freeing the weak countries. Scholars of history are aware of the state of the world’s affairs before the advent of Islam, when many parts of the world were under occupation of one of the two supreme powers, Persia in the East and the Byzantine Empire in the West. This is parallel to the state of the world during the Cold War in the 20th century between the supreme powers of Russia and the United States. Sometimes, the Persian Empire would be victorious over the Byzantine, and sometimes the contrary would take place as related in the Qur’an: [The Romans have been defeated in the nearer land; and they, after their defeat, will be victorious] (Ar-Rum 30:1-3).

At one point, the Persian Empire was occupying territories of Arabia and Iraq, and the Byzantine Empire was occupying territories in the Levant, Egypt, and some parts in North Africa. Since Islam strives to free humans from being enslaved by other humans, it had a mission to deliver the weak people from suffering oppression at the hands of their powerful occupiers. Contemplate Allah’s words with which Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) ended his letters to Byzantine emperor and the ruler of Egypt: [Say: O People of the Scripture. Come to an agreement between us and you: that we shall worship none but Allah, and that we shall ascribe no partners unto Him, and that none of us shall take others for lords beside Allah] (Aal `Imran 4:64). These words carry a general call of freedom for all mankind. Hence, Muslims, by Allah’s instructions, took it upon themselves to deliver the weak people from the oppressive foreign rule. [That objective was so clear that the occupying authorities themselves knew that the lands entered by Muslims would welcome the latter as saviors and] that is why Emperor Heraclius said, upon his departure from the Levant, when the Muslim troops had entered it, “With peace I greet you, Syria (before I leave you), a greeting that will never be followed by [my] coming back.”

The Byzantines in Egypt used to exploit the prosperity of Egypt and oppress its people to such a degree that the Egyptians warmly welcomed the Muslims’ opening (fath) of Egypt. In fact, the Muslims succeeded in entering Egypt and freeing it from the Byzantine occupation with only 8,000 soldiers.

In conclusion, I’d like to tell those who claim that Islam spread at the point of the sword that, while the sword may conquer lands and occupy states, it will never be able to open hearts and inculcate faith in people. Converting people requires acts of another kind. For example, it requires various means of persuasion, appeal to sentiments, and charisma. All of these qualities can help invite people to a new religion. Besides, forcing a certain kind of religion upon people usually ends up with them developing an aversion to the authority and its ideology. In addition, people who deeply contemplate Islamic history and the method of the spread of Islam around the world will come to realize that Islam did not spread immediately in the countries conquered by the Muslims.

The spread of Islam only occurred after while, after the barriers between the common people of these countries and Islam were removed. At this point, they were able to consider Islam within a peaceful atmosphere, away from the disturbance of war and the battlefields. Thus, non-Muslims were able to witness the excellent morals of the Muslims, with their very own eyes, and the ways in which Muslims dealt with their Lord, as well as with non-Muslims and other Muslims.

Keep in mind the example of Egypt, where although the Copts joyfully welcomed the Muslims’ entry into Egypt, they did not immediately embrace Islam. It was only on an individual basis that the Egyptians converted to Islam. Even the Coptic man who was treated with impressive justice at the hands of Caliph `Umar (when `Umar punished the son of Egypt’s ruler because the latter had unjustly lashed the Coptic man’s son) did not embrace Islam (and no Muslim then ever thought to force him to do so).