CONVERSION TO ISLAM BEFORE THE OTTOMANS:
THEORIES OF CONVERSION
As pointed out at the beginning of this study, the literature on con- version in early and medieval Islamic times is rather limited in com- parison to the works produced on other topics of Islamic history. This situation is a reflection of the availability of historical sources for the study of conversion. There is, in fact, very little information about conversion in the otherwise abundant medieval Arabic reli- gious literature and chronicles. According to Bulliet, this is because the phenomenon itself was normally an individual, non-political, choice or experience, without profound religious meaning.1 It is not a surprise then that conversion did not capture the attention of the medieval Islamic chroniclers and religious scholars. Nevertheless, scholars have been able to identify certain general trends in the process of conversion and establish a timeframe.
The first fundamental point is that conversion to Islam was not an instant process immediately following military conquest. Although all conquered people “surrendered,”2 not all converted to Islam. It is acknowledged by most scholars that conversion resulting from mil- itary conquest was usually limited to a small number of individual cases. Only in the instance of the Arab and Berber nomadic com- munities did political allegiance result in conversion en masse.3 For most of the conquered communities the process was a gradual one, following the military conquest and extending over centuries. The
1 R. Bulliet, “Conversion Stories in Early Islam,” in Michael Gervers and Ramzi Jibran Bikhazi, ed., Conversion and Continuity: Indigenous Christian Communities in Islamic Lands Eighth to Eighteenth Centuries (Toronto, 1990), 125.
2 When relating to the events of the early Islamic conquests the compilers of chronicles did not distinguish between the two meanings of the verb aslama—“to surrender” and “to accept Islam” (Bulliet, “Stories,” 124).
3 N. Levtzion, “Comparative Study,” 6.