The Spread of Islam in Asia From 632 to Present

Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque in Brunei at sunset.

Bernard Spragg. NZ/Flickr/CC BY 1.0

In the 11th year of the hijra, the year 632 CE of the western calendar, the Prophet Muhammad died. From his base in the holy city of Medina, his teachings spread across most of the Arabian Peninsula.

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Spread of Islam in Asia to 661 CE

Map of the spread of Islam in Asia in 661, showing Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria, Oman, and Yemen.
The spread of Islam in Asia by 661, after reigns of the first four caliphs.

© Kallie Szczepanski

Between 632 and 661 CE, or the years 11 to 39 of the hijra, the first four caliphs led the Islamic world. These caliphs are sometimes called the "Rightly-Guided Caliphs," because they had known the Prophet Muhammad while he was alive. They expanded the faith into northern Africa, Persia, and other nearby parts of southwest Asia.

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Spread to 750 CE

Map of the Middle East and the spread of Islam in 750.
The expansion of Islam in Asia by 750, when the Abbasid Caliphate took power from the Umayyads.

© Kallie Szczepanski

During the reign of the Umayyad caliphate based in Damascus (now in Syria), Islam spread into Central Asia as far into what is now Pakistan.

The year 750 CE, or 128 of the hijra, was a watershed in the history of the Islamic world. The Umayyad caliphate fell to the Abbasids, who moved the capital to Baghdad. This city was closer to Persia and to Central Asia. The Abbasids aggressively expanded the Muslim empire. As early as 751, the Abbasid army was at the borders of Tang China, where it defeated the Chinese in the Battle of Talas River.

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Spread to 1500 CE

Map of Islam's expansion in Asia circa 1500, showing spread along Silk Road.
Islam in Asia by 1500, after Arab and Persian traders spread it along the Silk Road and the Indian Ocean trade routes.

© Kallie Szczepanski

By the year 1500 CE, or 878 of the hijra, Islam in Asia had spread to Turkey (with the conquest of Byzantium by the Seljuk Turks). It had also spread across Central Asia and into China via the Silk Road, as well as to what is now Malaysia, Indonesia, and the southern Philippines via the Indian Ocean trade routes.

Arab and Persian traders were very successful in expanding Islam, due in part to their trade practices. Muslim merchants and suppliers gave one another better prices than they did for non-believers. Perhaps most importantly, they had an early international banking and credit system through which a Muslim in Spain could issue a statement of credit, similar to a personal check, that a Muslim in Indonesia would honor. The commercial advantages of conversion made it an easy choice for many Asian merchants and traders.

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Islam in Modern Asia

Map of predominantly Muslim areas of Asia today.
Islam in modern Asia.

© Kallie Szczepanski

Today, a number of states in Asia are predominantly Muslim. Some, such as Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, and Iran, specify Islam as the national religion. Others have majority-Muslim populations but do not formally name Islam as the state religion.

In some countries such as China, Islam is a minority faith but predominates in particular areas such as Xinjiang, the semi-autonomous Uighur state in the western part of the country. The Philippines, which is predominantly Catholic, and Thailand, which is mostly Buddhist, have large Muslim populations at the southern ends of each nation.

This map is a generalization. There are non-Muslims living within the colored regions and Muslim communities outside of the marked boundaries.