Early Islam – Why did Muhammad succeed in converting Arabia to Islam?

Why did Muhammad succeed in converting Arabia to Islam? What were the greatest obstacles to the achievement of this aim?

In this essay, I will explore the life of Muhammad and the background of the period in which he lived.  It will be seen that a mixture of religious authority, political and economical power, and military might along with his mediatorial expertise brought the Prophet success in converting Arabia to Islam.  The greatest obstacles encountered by him were those of his own tribe and the Jews of Madina.

Arabia, in the seventh century, when Muhammad was born, was poised for change, socially and politically, as well as in their religious beliefs and practices.  Tribalism could no longer meet the needs of the people.  The needs were for a ‘new ideological synthesis incorporating their deep aspirations to recognition of the value of the individual personality’.[1]

Muhammad attempted to bring coherence and unity through conversion to Islam, (‘self-surrender’ in Arabic), to an otherwise divided society.  In so doing, the greatest obstacles the Prophet encountered were from those who already had control of the religio-political and economic forums of power and influence.  In Mecca, these were members of his own tribe, the Quraish, guardians of the sanctuary and in Medina, the Jews.

Mecca was the religious and political and economic and intellectual centre of Arabia.  The city was situated on the trade routes from Yemen to Syria and from Abyssinia to Iraq.  Prosperity came to the city due to the well of Zamzam, and a sanctuary, the Kaaba.  Mecca was a pilgrimage centre, which earned the city wealth; the Zamzam well was associated in Islamic tradition with the Matriarch, Hagar, and the Kaaba was purported to be built by Abraham and Ishmael, and in which bloodshed was forbidden.  In Muhammad’s time, however, the Kaaba, rather than being used as a place of worship for Abraham’s monotheistic God, housed instead 360 idols of tribal patron deities.[2]

At the age of forty, the Prophet claimed to receive revelations from the monotheistic God of Abraham. He began preaching in Mecca against the religion of his day, calling for repentance and active faith in God. He urged the hearers to begin living responsibly by embracing social justice.[3]

Muhammad saw some success to his preaching.  People began to accept Islam, both men and women, in large numbers until the fame of it spread throughout Mecca.[4]  However, his success was not without its opposition.  According to Ibn Ishaq, the earliest of sira (manner of life) compilations, (150/768) it was Muhammad speaking disparagingly of the pagan deities that led to his opposition in Mecca.  Commercial interests played their part also.  A commercial boycott was put in place in Mecca to exclude Muhammad and his followers from trading.  This boycott finally collapsed[5].

These early rivals to Muhammad’s message of the ‘Unity of God’ and the ‘equality of man’ (sic) were later quashed when Muhammad returned from Medina (8/630).[6]  Following his return, a truce was worked out and there was finally peace between the Meccans and Muhammad.[7]

In the meantime, Muhammad’s wife died in the same year as the failed commercial boycott.  It was at this period of his life that the Prophet, aged fifty, was invited by a delegation from Yathrub, later renamed Madina (‘the city of the Prophet’), to come and act as mediator in their midst.[8]  Madina was a fertile oasis 200 miles further north where the population was mainly made up of two tribes and three Jewish clans.  Muhammad and his small band of followers (the Emigrants) left Mecca (622).  In Medina, Muhammad claimed to receive further revelations.[9]

The Medinian revelations gave basic guidelines for how to establish an Islamic society.  His statesmanship and mediatorship coming to the fore, Muhammad created a religio-political blueprint, ‘providing his followers with a mark of personal and group identity’.[10]  In this way, Muhammad, a man of no personal power, began to establish his leadership and rule in Medina, ‘whose only distinction was that he claimed to speak with the voice of Allah’.[11]

According to the historian, Rafiq Zakaria, the Prophet ‘established a state, though ruling was never Muhammad’s original intention’.[12]  However, Rodinson differs, claiming, ‘there was as yet no question of a state with a supreme authority, able to enforce a degree of order by means of a public force set apart from society’.[13]  Having left Mecca, however, survival was the most important item on the agenda for the Prophet and his followers on arrival in Medina.

In order to survive, Muhammad and the Emigrants engaged in warlike activity, acceptable at the time they lived in, for the booty it afforded them.  They began attacking the caravans of the Quraish enroute to Syria from Mecca.  Some of the Medinan’s began to join them.  Submission to Islam was the criterion of membership.[14]  Ruthvin sums this up in ‘Submission to “God and his Prophet” was, in the first instance, submission to a victorious bedoin army’.[15]

According to Zakaria, however, no blame is laid upon the Prophet for resorting to such means.  ‘It was the vicious and violent opposition to his mission (to preach the message of the Qur’an and to bring people to the ‘right path’) that forced him to resort to arms’. [16]  The stand off by the Medina Jews had led to the deterioration of his relationship with them; the Jews of Madina became an obstacle to Muhammad’s success.

How much of an obstacle is brought to light by Michael Lecker in interpreting Waqudi’s text;  Lecker claims that the status of the Jews of Madina was such that, ‘it was mainly the Jews that were the principal owners of fortresses and weapons in Madina’.[17]  Not accepting the Messenger of Allah’s moral authority, they also refused the amnesty offered them in the Madina charter.[18]

Finally, an incident occurred wherein the execution of the entire Jewish clan, the Banu Qaynuqa, the silversmiths who controlled much of the commerce in the town, was ordered by the Prophet.  However, a commutation of the sentence was secured on their behalf.[19]  Instead of their execution, the Banu Qaynuqa were banished from Madina with only their camels and goods.  Their property confiscated and divided up, a fifth of all booty taken was given to the Prophet. [20]

Muhammad spent the next few years, either by military campaigns or by diplomacy, trying to win over the loyalty of the surrounding tribes.  The dispute with the Meccan tribes had broadened, embracing most of the nomads of western Arabia as well.[21]  Finally, in the spring of 627, five years after Muhammad had left Mecca, the Meccans were defeated outside the city of Medina during a time of a self imposed siege on the city by the Prophet.

Following this victory, the remaining Jews who opposed his rule in the city of Medina were attacked. The Jewish men were executed, the Jewish women and children sold into slavery. Medina and the Muslim community (umma) were entirely behind him. However, elsewhere in Arabia, where minority religious groups were willing to pay the per capita tax (jizya) religious tolerance was exercised.  The Prophet now resolutely set his sights on Mecca and ultimately all of Arabia.[22]

Muhammad set out to subdue Mecca by way of a peaceful pilgrimage to the Kaaba, and in 630 he purged the Kaaba of idols.[23]  Forthwith, the Prophet and the umma continued to consolidate Muslim rule over the remainder of Arabia through diplomacy and military might in both the north and the south.  Whole tribes from the Arabian Peninsula sent deputations seeking alliances with him.[24]  The last two years of his life, from the victory at Hunayn in January, 630 to his death in 632, Muhammad devoted his energies to expanding his influence among the Arabs.[25]

A man born in the right time at the right place, the success of Muhammad to convert all of Arabia to Islam can be attributed to a number of other things including his exercise of and by the acceptance of the believer of his moral authority as the Messenger of Allah.  As a political leader a politician and a peacemaker he offered unity and cohesion to the tribes of Arabia.  Where his rule was resisted, Muhammad resorted to military might.  His increasing economical power also helped ensure his success.

Finally, his conquest of Mecca, the religious centre of Arabia, with the subsequent cleansing of idols from the shrine also helped to foster the propagation of Islam.  The greatest obstacles to his mission were members of his own tribe, the Quraish of Mecca and the well-armed Jews of Madina.  However, by the end of his life he had overcome these obstacles and accomplished his mission: Arabia was converted to Islam.



Early Islam, Essay 1, 2004.


Cantell Smith, Wilfred, The Meaning and End of all Religion, 1962, Mentor, New York, 1964.


Esposito, John, L., Islam the Straight Path, Oxford University, Oxford, 1991.


Kennedy, Hugh, The Prophet and the Age of the Caliphates: The Islamic Near East from the sixth to the eleventh century, Longman, Essex, 1986.


Lecker, Michael, Waquidi’s account on the status of the Jews of Madina: A study of a combined report, in The Formation of the Classical Islamic World: The life of Muhammid, Vol 4, Uri Rubin (Ed.), Sydney, 1998,


Rauf, M. A., A Brief History of Islam: With special reference to Malasia, Oxford, London, 1964.


Robinson, Neal, Islam: A concise introduction, Curzon, Surrey, 1999


Rodinson, Maxime, Mohammed, trans. Anne Carter, Vintage, New York, 1974.


Rubin, Uri, (ed.), The Formation of the Classical Islamic World: The life of Muhammad, Vol. 4, Sydney, 1998.


Ruthven, Malise, Islam: A very short introduction, Oxford, 2000.


Zakaria, Rafiq, The Struggle Within Islam: The conflict between religion and politics, Ringwood, 1988.

Mansoor, S. Parvez, ‘Method Against Truth: Orientalism and Qur’anic studies’, in RELS 301, Religion Literature, Study Guide and Unit Notes, 2003, pp 96-104, University of New England, Armidale: NSW.


[1] Neal Robinson, Islam: A concise introduction, Surrey, 1999, p. 146.

[2] Malise Ruthven, Islam: A very short introduction, Oxford, 2000, p. 30.

[3] Wilfred Cantwell Smith, The Meaning and End of Religion, 1962, New York, pp. 83.  Muhammad, like other Prophets such as those of Judaism in the kingdoms of Judea and Israel, of Christianity in the Roman [Byzantine] empire and Zoroasterism of the Persian (Sasanid) empire, also preached against the ‘religion’ of his day, calling instead for individual responsibility and social change, declaring that human kind faced the resurrection from the dead, a final judgment, and rewards and punishment.

[4] Ruthven, op. cit.,, p. 33.

[5] ibid., p.p. 33, 34.

[6] M. A. Rauf, A Brief History of Islam: With special reference to Malasia, London, 1964, p. 4.

[7] Ruthven, loc. cit.

[8] ibid., Ruthven,  p. 33.

[9] Robinson, op. cit., p.p. 16, 66.

[10] Ruthven, op. cit., p. 2.

[11] Ibid., p. 154.

[12] Rafiq Zakaria, The Struggle Within Islam: The conflict between religion and politics, Ringwood, 1988, p.29.

[13] Rodinson, op. cit., p. 155.

[14] ibid., p. 152. 

[15] Ruthven, op. cit., p.12. 

[16] Zakaria, op. cit., p. 28.

[17] Michael Lecker, Waquidi’s account on the status of the Jews of Madina: a study of a combined report, in The Formation of the Classical Islamic World: The life of Muhammad, Vol 4, Uri Rubin (ed.), Sydney, 1998, p. 26.

[18] Rodinson, op. cit., p. 154.

[19] Hugh Kennedy, The Prophet and the Age of the Caliphates, Essex, 1986, p. 37.

[20] Ibid.,, p. 37.

[21] Ibid., p. 39.

[22] Robinson, op. cit., p. 20.

[23] ibid.,, p. 20.

[24] John, L. Esposito, Islam the Straight Path, New York, 1991, p. 11.

[25] Kennedy, op. cit., p. 44.