Don’t Lose Your Head!

Four Reasons for the Early Spread of Islam

By David Wood

Muslims often cite the early spread of Islam as evidence of its divine origin. While history shows that Islam spread rapidly, many Muslims (and many non-Muslims) have a distorted picture of why it spread rapidly. For instance, in a popular Islamic apologetic, Mawdudi claims that Islam spread because of Muhammad’s eloquence and conviction:

When [Muhammad] began preaching his Message, all of Arabia stood in awe and wonder and was bewitched by his wonderful eloquence and oratory. It was so impressive and captivating that his worst enemies were afraid of hearing it, lest it should penetrate deep into the recesses of their hearts and carry them off their feet making them forsake their old religion and culture. . . . He came before them as an illustrious politician, a great leader, a judge of the highest eminence, and an incomparable general. . . . A nation which for centuries had produced not one single great man worthy of that name now gave birth, under his influence and guidance, to thousands of noble souls who were to travel to far-off corners of the earth to preach and teach the principles of religion, morality and civilization. He accomplished this feat not through any lure, oppression or cruelty, but by his captivating manner, his winsome personality, and the conviction of his teachings. With his noble and gentle behavior, he befriended even his enemies. He captured the hearts of the people with his boundless sympathy and human kindness. . . . By his forceful personality, he made a permanent impression on the hearts of thousands of his disciples and molded them according to his liking. . . . Can anyone cite another example of a maker of history of such distinction, another revolutionary of such brilliance and splendor?[1]

Mawdudi apparently finds it impressive that early Muslims converted to Islam because of Muhammad’s "eloquence and oratory," "his captivating manner," and "the conviction of his teachings." Yet these are feeble motives for conversion: many Germans committed themselves to Adolf Hitler’s political movement for the exact same reasons. Nevertheless, even if these grounds were entirely justified, Mawdudi still presents us with an incomplete picture. There are many other reasons for the rapid spread of Islam, but Muslims are understandably ashamed of acknowledging them. Let us briefly discuss four such reasons.

Reason One: Muhammad’s Ability to Breed Rage in His Followers

Historically, we know of at least one individual who was so impressed by Islam’s ability to inspire men to kill without question that he concluded that Islam must be true:

The apostle said, "Kill any Jew that falls into your power." Thereupon Muhayyisa bin Mas’ud leapt upon Ibn Sunayna, a Jewish merchant with whom they had social and business relations, and killed him. Huwayyisa was not a Muslim at the time though he was the elder brother. When Muhayyisa killed him Huwayyisa began to beat him, saying, "You enemy of God, did you kill him when much of the fat on your belly comes from his wealth?" Muhayyisa answered, "Had the one who ordered me to kill him ordered me to kill you I would have cut your head off." He said that this was the beginning of Huwayyisa’s acceptance of Islam. The other replied, "By God, if Muhammad had ordered you to kill me would you have killed me?" He said, "Yes, by God, had he ordered me to cut off your head I would have done so." He exclaimed, "By God, a religion which can bring you to this is marvelous!" And he became a Muslim.[2]

In this passage, Muhammad tells his followers to "Kill any Jew that falls into your power." Muhayyisa, acting on Muhammad’s orders, kills a Jewish merchant named Ibn Sunayna. Huwayyisa doesn’t understand how Muhayyisa could turn against a friend of the family so quickly, so Muhayyisa explains it to him. Essentially, Muhayyisa’s justification for the murder is that Muhammad told him to do it, and that, if commanded by Muhammad, he would murder anyone, even his own family. Huwayyisa is much impressed by his brother’s willingness to mindlessly follow the orders of Muhammad, so he converts to Islam, shouting, "By God, a religion which can bring you to this [i.e. a readiness to kill your own family] is marvelous!"

Huwayyisa’s admiration for his brother’s dedication was probably shared by many in the early hours of the Islamic Empire. Young men without direction were suddenly transformed into ardent followers of a new system of belief, and they would do anything for their prophet. "Surely there must be something to this new religion," people would think. Even so, the devotion of believers is not an infallible test for truth. If it were, we would have to conclude that Christianity, Mormonism, Islam, Buddhism, communism, and Nazism are all true, for all of these systems have produced dedicated adherents.

Reason Two: Patently False Prophecies

Many people were impressed when Muhammad spoke. He seemed to know everything, and he confidently answered difficult questions that no one else could answer. The problem is that many of his answers later turned out to be completely false. Consider the following answers given by Muhammad:

When Abdullah bin Salama heard of the arrival of the Prophet (the blessing and peace of Allah be upon him) at Madina, he came to him and said: "I am asking you about three things which nobody knows but a prophet: What is the first portent of the Hour? What will be the first meal taken by the people of Paradise? Why does a child resemble its father, and why does it resemble its maternal uncle?" Allah’s Apostle (the blessing and peace of Allah be upon him) said: "Gabriel has just now told me of their answers." . . . "The first portent of the Hour will be a fire that will bring together the people from the east to the west; the first meal of the people of Paradise will be extra-lobe of fish-liver. As for the resemblance of the child to its parents: If a man has sexual intercourse with his wife and gets discharge first, the child will resemble the father, and if the woman gets discharge first, the child will resemble her." On that Abdullah bin Salam said: "I testify that you are the Apostle of Allah."[3]

Here Muhammad is presented with three questions: (1) What is the sign that the end is coming? (2) What will the first meal in Heaven be? (3) How come a child sometimes looks like its father, but other times resembles its mother’s family? Notice that Muhammad’s answers to the first two questions—a great fire in the end-times and fish-liver in heaven—are utterly unfalsifiable; that is, it is impossible to test them or prove them wrong. Muhammad could have just as easily claimed that the "portent of the hour" will be that three frogs will recite the Qur’an, and that the first meal in heaven will be peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. In other words, we have no reason to think that Muhammad’s answers are correct, for we have no way to test their accuracy. Even so, Muhammad’s third answer is falsifiable; it can easily be tested in the light of modern science. So how does Muhammad’s answer stand up to criticism? Not very well. Women don’t have a "discharge" that contributes to the appearance of the offspring. They have an egg, but this isn’t a discharge. Further, a child’s appearance has nothing to do with which parent has the first discharge. Muhammad’s answer, as it turns out, is wrong.

But notice that his answer won him an important Jewish convert, who was amazed at Muhammad’s brilliance. One of Muhammad’s greatest strengths was that he had complete confidence in his own answers, yet this confidence was misplaced. His assurance led others to believe that he must be correct, but he wasn’t. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Muhammad’s proclamations is that Muslims have never recovered from their awe at his claims, even though many of these claims have been shown to be false. To this day, Muslims retain their misplaced confidence in the sayings of their prophet, and Muhammad’s answers are still winning converts.

(For more on Muhammad’s scientific blunders, see "Talking Ants and Shrinking Humans.")

Reason Three: Boundless Greed

Muhammad made an enticing guarantee to those who joined him in his struggle:

[Muhammad said]: "The example of a Struggle in Allah’s Cause—and Allah knows better who really strives in His Cause—is like a person who fasts and prays continuously. Allah guarantees that He will admit the Struggler in His cause into Paradise if he is killed, otherwise He will return him to his home safely with rewards and war booty."[4]

[Muhammad] said: "Khosrau will be ruined, and there will be no Khosrau after him, and Caesar will surely be ruined and there will be no Caesar after him, and you will spend their treasures in Allah’s Cause."[5]

If a seventh century pagan Arab rejected Islam, he was guaranteed nothing. He may be poor all his life, and he wouldn’t know what would happen to him when he died. But Muhammad guaranteed that if a person dies fighting Islam’s enemies, he will enter Paradise, and that even if he survives, he will return home "safely with rewards and war booty." Either way, pagans were much better off (financially) if they became Muslims.

This promise of rewards and war booty was an important factor in the early spread of Islam. Indeed, using war booty to win converts was part of Muhammad’s strategy. For example, when Muhammad was accused of distributing the spoils of war unevenly, he replied, "Are you disturbed in mind because of the good things of this life by which I win over a people that they may become Muslims while I entrust you to your Islam?"[6] Imam Muslim adds: "[W]hen the Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him) conquered Hunain he distributed the booty, and he bestowed upon those whose hearts it was intended to win."[7]

Muhammad’s promises of wealth were so great that, when difficulties arose, his followers sometimes complained that he wasn’t delivering on all that he had promised:

The situation became serious and fear was everywhere. The enemy came at them from above and below until the believers imagined vain things, and disaffection was rife among the disaffected to the point that Ma’attib bin Qusyahr brother of B. Amr bin Auf said, "Muhammad used to promise us that we should eat the treasures of Chosroes and Caesar and today not one of us can feel safe in going to the privy!"[8]

These passages stress the importance of wealth and booty as a motive for conversion. Muhammad promised his followers that they would one day spend the treasures of Caesar. He distributed war booty after every military campaign, and he used his wealth to win converts. Thus, many early Muslims embraced the religion with impure motives, yet Muhammad saw nothing wrong with such conversions.

Reason Four: Fear of Death

Muhammad’s personality, conviction, and eloquence certainly played a role in winning people to Islam. However, he won few supporters when he relied on his "winsome personality" and sincerity to spread Islam. It is only when Muhammad turned to violence and oppression that we find large conversions to Islam. For instance, Muslim writings report a large number of conversions that took place after the assassination of a woman who had criticized Islam:

When the apostle heard what she had said he said, "Who will rid me of Marwan’s daughter?" Umayr bin Adiy al-Khatmi who was with him heard him, and that very night he went to her house and killed her. In the morning he came to the apostle and told him what he had done and he said, "You have helped God and His apostle, O Umayr!" When he asked if he would have to bear any evil consequences the apostle said, "Two goats won’t butt their heads about her," so Umayr went back to his people. . . . The day after Bint Marwan was killed the men of B. Khatma became Muslims because they saw the power of Islam.[9]

Whereas the men of Khatma became Muslims when they saw Islam’s power over others, many individuals converted because their own lives were in danger. Ka’b bin Zuhayr heard from his brother that Muhammad "had killed some of the men in Mecca who had satirized and insulted him and that the Quraysh poets who were left . . . had fled in all directions."[10] The brother then suggested that Ka’b go to Muhammad and convert before it was too late. Ka’b heeded his brother’s advice:

When Ka’b received the missive he was deeply distressed and anxious for his life. His enemies in the neighbourhood spread alarming reports about him saying that he was as good as slain. Finding no way out, he wrote his ode in which he praised the apostle and mentioned his fear and the slanderous reports of his enemies. Then he set out for Medina and stayed with a man of Juhayna whom he knew, according to my information. He took him to the apostle when he was praying morning prayers, and he prayed with him. The man pointed out the apostle to him and told him to go and ask for his life. He got up and went and sat by the apostle and placed his hand in his, the apostle not knowing who he was. He said, "O apostle, Ka’b bin Zhayr has come to ask security from you as a repentant Muslim. Would you accept him as such if he came to you?" When the apostle said that he would, he confessed that he was Ka’b bin Zuhayr.[11]

History also shows that some were directly threatened with death (in the presence of Muhammad) if they didn’t convert:

[Muhammad] said: "Woe to you, Abu Sufyan, isn’t it time that you recognize that I am God’s apostle?" He answered, "As to that I still have some doubt." I said to him, "Submit and testify that there is no God but Allah and that Muhammad is the apostle of God before you lose your head," so he did so.[12]

Abu Sufyan doubted the prophethood of Muhammad, yet he was told to convert before he lost his head. Fully aware of the countless people that had been murdered by Muhammad, Abu Sufyan submitted to the Prophet.

Thus, fear of death played a crucial role in converting people to Islam. Since Islam didn’t really take root until Muhammad began spreading it through violence, fear of death may have been the single most important factor in the early spread of Islam.

(For more on Muhammad’s violence, see "Murdered by Muhammad.")


There are many reasons for the early spread of Islam. Muhammad won numerous converts due to his conviction and sincerity, and many were impressed by his acts of kindness, charitable deeds, and dedication to prayer. Nevertheless, these aren’t necessarily good reasons to convert to a religion. We might reasonably infer that a true prophet will be sincere and dedicated to his religion, but we can’t thereby conclude that a sincere and dedicated individual must be a true prophet. Many religious leaders throughout history have shared certain admirable qualities; this doesn’t mean that they were all speaking the truth.

In choosing a religion, a person’s soul may very well hang in the balance; it is therefore not a matter to be taken lightly. Conversion should be a turn towards the truth, not merely a turn towards a "winsome personality." As we have seen, people dedicated themselves to Islam because they were impressed by its ability to inspire men to commit murder. They chose Islam because Muhammad had complete confidence in his revelations, even though many of these revelations turned out to be false. Muhammad won converts by enticing them with riches and by threatening them with death. These aren’t good reasons to adopt a system of belief.

This isn’t to say that there are no good reasons for committing oneself to a religion. I’m only suggesting that we must be very careful about where we place our faith, for false teachings and false teachers abound in our world. But the truth is out there; it’s simply not found in Islam. However, there is another religion that, like Islam, spread very rapidly. Like the early Muslims, its followers were dedicated. Like Muhammad, its founder was sincere and eloquent. Yet it didn’t spread through violence,[13] or through false prophecies, or through the enticement of worldly riches. Instead, it spread because its founder, Jesus of Nazareth, had risen from the dead. This miracle showed that God had approved of Jesus’ teachings, and that we should all therefore give heed to his message. But what was his message? Jesus said that he would die on the cross for the sins of the world, and that, by putting our faith in him, we would gain eternal life. Christianity is the only religion that has this historical verification to prove its authenticity. It is the only religion we can know is true. The early Christians, then, unlike the early Muslims, had a very good reason for converting.

This article is a revised version of an essay that originally appeared on


1 Abul, A’la Mawdudi, Towards Understanding Islam (New York: Islamic Circle of North America, 1986), p. 58, 59, 67.

2 Ibn Ishaq, Sirat Rasul Allah (The Life of Muhammad), A. Guillaume, tr. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), p. 369.

3 Sahih Al-Bukhari, Dr. Muhammad Matraji, tr. (New Delhi: Islamic Book Service, 2002), Number 3329.

4 Sahih Al-Bukhari, Number 2787.

5 Ibid., Number 3027.

6 Ibn Ishaq, p. 596.

7 Sahih Muslim, Abdul Hamid Siddiqi, tr., Number 2313.

8 Ibn Ishaq, pp. 453-454.

9 Ibid., p. 676.

10 Ibid., p. 597.

11 Ibid., p. 598.

12 Ibid., p. 547.

13 Muslims may respond by arguing that Christianity used violence during the Crusades, Inquisition, etc. However, it must be noted, first, that Christianity only used violence after it merged with the Roman Empire. Once the Church was in league with the Roman emperors, it opted for the Roman way of doing things. This was an error on the part of Christians, but it has nothing to do with the teachings of Jesus. Violence had no part in the early spread of Christianity. Second, this use of violence was contrary to Jesus’ teachings (see Matthew 5:38-47). Hence, whereas violence is completely consistent with both the words and deeds of Muhammad, it is inconsistent with the words and deeds of Jesus.

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