I have read the Wikipedia article spread of Islam.

The claim is made that conversion at swordpoint was rare

It is now apparent that conversion by force, while not unknown in Muslim countries, was, in fact, rare.

And that non-Muslims had to pay a special tax, the Jizya

They paid a special tax; they were not supposed to wear certain colors; [...]

The wikipedia article about this tax, however, claims that

[it does] not constitute sufficient economic motive for conversion

and that it may have been smaller than another tax (the Zakat), which Muslims had to pay. (further reading suggests that maybe the Jizya had to be paid in addition to, not instead of, the Zakat)

This answer suggests that maybe social exclusion was used

those Dhimmi's have been living separate from Muslims, or were required to wear special clothes, in order to distinguish them from Muslims

but that only works after Muslims are already a majority.

It is my impression that spontaneous mass conversion is historically rare (or even non-existent). For example, places under Roman rule retained their original religions (they did not convert to the Roman religion) until the Christianisation of the Roman empire, which was imposed by force.

So if it wasn't by force, and it wasn't by economic incentives, how did the Islamic Empire incentivise conversion?

  • 4
    Wikipedia article is not a reliable source in this case.
    – Alex
    Apr 29, 2017 at 9:15
  • That was my impression, too. Do you know of any better sources that I could read on the subject?
    – Wouter
    Apr 29, 2017 at 9:23
  • 4
    Some Muslim regimes specifically discouraged conversations because of the revenue stream the Jizya represented. In general, what methods were overtly used were basically the same Christians used in the west. I.e. mostly that to not be part of the dominant religion was to be excluded from the power structures and much of society.
    – user15620
    Apr 29, 2017 at 15:42
  • @StevenBurnap You have the core of an answer there. Would you care to write an answer? May 1, 2017 at 14:23
  • Unfortunately, it's hard to link to the source because it mostly comes from memory and the history of Byzantium podcast. Also, I don't have time to do the answer justice.
    – user15620
    May 1, 2017 at 16:03

2 Answers 2


The first quote in the question is part of a longer quote from Albert Hourani included in the Wikipedia article on the spread of Islam. That same quote answers the question as follows: "In most cases worldly and spiritual motives for conversion blended together." But what does this mean exactly? As addressed in the question, tax policies probably don't explain much.

The first paragraph of the article mentions that conversion to Islam was:

boosted by missionary activities particularly those of Imams, who easily intermingled with local populace to propagate the religious teachings. These early caliphates, coupled with Muslim economics and trading and the later expansion of the Ottoman Empire, resulted in Islam's spread outwards from Mecca towards both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and the creation of the Muslim world. Trading played an important role in the spread of Islam in several parts of the world, notably southeast Asia.

To clarify the second point a bit, a merchant's conversion to Islam could improve their access to trading opportunities. Certain trading ports might allow special privileges to Muslims, and individual Muslim traders might prefer to do businesses with other Muslims.

A few points raised elsewhere in the article:

Conversion to Islam also came about as a result of the breakdown of historically religiously organized societies: with the weakening of many churches, for example, and the favoring of Islam and the migration of substantial Muslim Turkish populations into the areas of Anatolia and the Balkans, the "social and cultural relevance of Islam" were enhanced and a large number of peoples were converted.


During the following Abbasid period an enfranchisement was experienced by the mawali and... c. 930 a law was enacted that required all bureaucrats of the empire to be Muslims.

It should be clear by now that the precise answer may have varied somewhat according to when and where you are asking about.

  • 1
    having your head chopped off, your sons castrated and sold into slavery, and your daughters and wife sold as sex slaves, was a very big worldly motive for many...
    – jwenting
    May 2, 2017 at 9:25
  • @jwenting See the first quote in the original question.
    – Brian Z
    May 2, 2017 at 13:48
  • 1
    That first quote is blatantly false. Or at the very least the result of a very tight definition of "conversion by force". If they just mean telling people at sword point to convert or die, yes. Being more subtle (to a very small degree) like my scenario would in their definition not fall under conversion by force but conversion by coercion...
    – jwenting
    May 4, 2017 at 5:52

Since it was the middle ages, I do not know if these had an important influence, but apart from the purely financial incentive, there might be also:

Apostasy was not really an option. So the proportion of muslim people was likely to increase.

Any faith-mixed wedding would become a muslim wedding. A muslim man could marry a non-muslim woman, but a non-muslim man could not marry a muslim woman, unless he converts to Islam.

There might be similar elements I do not know of. With time, they look like they would motivate a significant number of conversions.

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