Islam has grown to become one of the most practiced religions with millions of followers spread across the world. The Arab conquests and trade in Sub Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, and China from the seventh century marked the start of a process of religious transformation, which eventually led to the current Muslim populations in these regions. Nonetheless, there are certain differences in how Islam was spread in these regions, thus the need to examine the distinct patterns that led to the surge of the religion in these areas.
Historical records from China indicate that Islam was spread to its mainland during the Song and Tong Dynasties that ruled the country between 618 and 1279 A.D. The two silk roads (a land road and sea road) that connected China, Middle East, and Central Asia enabled the transmission of Islam (Michalopoulos, Naghavi, and Prarolo 56). The two routes made significant contributions to the development and uptake of world culture by bridging the gap between western and eastern cultures. The Western world was interweaved with Chinese culture through these roads. At the same time, the ideologies of Islam were transmitted to mainland China. Therefore, traditional Chinese customs, which occupies a key role in the history of world culture, was enriched with new concepts.
Islam penetrated into China initially through two regions. First, the southeast, after the creation of maritime communication channels to Canton. Second, the northwest going through the Pamirs via the Tarim Basin to Shenshi and Kansu (Michalopoulos, Naghavi, and Prarolo 57). Most of these Muslims were freebooters, soldiers, and merchants, and married Chinese women and settled down, leading to the rise of Hui Muslim (Chinese-speaking). China also has a region with a tiny Iranian community of Tajiks located in the far west, and some Muslims with Mongol heritage in Kansu (the Tung-hsiang). All Muslims in China are Sunni Hanafi, with the exception of Tajkis, as they follow the Aga Khan. Today, China has one of the largest populations of Muslims in the world.
Southeast Asia is usually referred to as Muslim archipelago, as it has the largest population of Muslims in the world. Most Muslims in the region are Sunni, which means they adhere to Shafii ideology of Muslim jurisprudence. Historical records do not depict exactly when and how Islam arrived in Southeast Asia. Nonetheless, there is little doubt that it was transmitted largely by merchants in the twelfth century (Michalopoulos, Naghavi, and Prarolo 31). By the time the Portuguese ventured into the region in the sixteenth century, Islam already had a wide following. The spread of the religion continued up to the seventh century.
Across the decades, many Muslims in South East Asia started to translate the religious texts of Islam in Arabic to the local languages. Consequently, two kinds of Islam developed, orthodox and local. The two sects continue to co-exist in the modern world. Additionally, two other factors from Middle East influenced Islam in the region; puritanical Washabbis movement originating from Saudi Arabia and the Islamic modernism and revival in response to the rise of Western powers in the region.
The spread of Islam in Sub-Saharan Africa had multiple trajectories. Islamists had already ventured into northern Africa by the 1700s; this was only a few decades after prophet Muhammad shifted with his followers from Mecca to Medina located in the Arabian Peninsula, which is close by (Michalopoulos, Naghavi, and Prarolo 110). The Arab conquest of Spain as well as the movement of Arab troops to areas as far as the Indus River led to the development of an empire that spread over three continents, just a few centuries after the death of Prophet Muhammad. From the eighth to the ninth century, Arab travelers and traders, who were referred to as African clerics, started to spread Islam across the eastern coast of Africa and to central and western Sudan, which literally means Land of Black People (Michalopoulos, Naghavi, and Prarolo 116). Such moves stimulated the development of urban Muslim communities.
Considering its practical and negotiated approaches to different cultural settings, the spread of Islam in Africa is regarded in terms of its numerous histories instead of one movement. The first people to convert were merchants in Sudan, and then some courtiers and rulers in Ghana across the eleventh century followed by Mali in the twelfth century (Michalopoulos, Naghavi, and Prarolo 116). However, peasants in rural regions had little contact with Islam. In the eleventh century, intervention by the Almoravids, under the stewardship of Berber nomads (who observed Islamic law strictly), instigated the conversion of people in Sub-Saharan Africa. Essentially, the spread of Islam through Sub-Saharan Africa was neither uniform nor simultaneous; however, it followed an adaptive and gradual approach.
The above analysis shows that Islam was spread to China, Southeast Asia, and Africa in various ways. However, there lies some similarities on how people in these regions received Islam. Trade played a big role as Muslim merchants who settled in these regions interweaved Islam with the local religions. The most profound influence was in Southeast Asia, which has the largest Muslim population in the world today. As Islam continues to spread, it is important to trace these roots to see the direction where the religion is heading.
Michalopoulos, Stelios, Alireza Naghavi, and Giovanni Prarolo. Trade and Geography in the Origins and Spread of Islam. No. w18438. National Bureau of Economic Research, 2012.