Swimming against the Current: Muslim Conversion to Christianity in the Early Islamic Period

By Sahner, Christian C. | The Journal of the American Oriental Society, April-June 2016 | Go to article overview

Swimming against the Current: Muslim Conversion to Christianity in the Early Islamic Period


Sahner, Christian C., The Journal of the American Oriental Society


I. INTRODUCTION

Historians often imagine the process of religious change in the medieval Middle East as a one-way street, flowing from church to mosque, and indeed it was for most of the region's Christian inhabitants. Sometime after the Crusades, scholars surmise, the Middle East went from being a predominantly Christian world (with sizeable numbers of Jews, Zoroastrians, Manicheans, and others) to one whose majority population practiced Islam. (1) This was an uneven process, plagued by ramp-ups and slow-downs connected to the vicissitudes of conquest and the varying fortunes of missionaries. It was also a process of remarkable regional diversity. (2) Just as there were areas that crossed the threshold of a Muslim numerical majority early on, there were others that held out for centuries, including parts of Upper Egypt, the mountains of Lebanon, and northern Mesopotamia, some of which remain predominantly Christian to this day.

Despite this, conversion to Islam should not be regarded as the only religious option in the early period. While it is undeniable that most of the region's Christians (and non-Muslims more broadly) did convert to Islam gradually, there were many who chose a less "popular" direction. These included Christians who initially embraced Islam, but regretted their decision and returned to their original faith; the children of mixed marriages who spurned their fathers' Islamic faith and embraced their mothers' Christianity; (3) and a small but significant group that historians have all but ignored (and whose existence some have even denied (4)): Muslims from entirely Muslim families who converted to Christianity. This group--which I shall refer to as "true apostates" (5)--are the subject of the following essay.

Religious Change in the Post-Conquest Middle East

Understanding this particular form of conversion--indeed, most kinds of religious change in the early Islamic Middle East--requires us to abandon the image of conversion that much of our society has today, which owes a great debt to the likes of Paul of Tarsus, Augustine of Hippo, and the Second Great Awakening. This model understands conversion as an outward manifestation of a changing interior or emotional reality. Though this may describe some conversions in the premodern period, it is woefully inadequate for understanding the vast majority of conversions in the early medieval Middle East, which were often not a matter of spiritual conviction but the result of an array of social and political factors detached from questions of high theology and doctrine. (6) In fact, the line between religious conversion and cultural assimilation was often very blurry. For this reason, historians of other periods--such as Linford Fisher, a scholar of Christianity among Native Americans in the colonial period (7)--prefer to speak of a process of religious "engagement" or "affiliation" rather than outright "conversion," a distinction that works for our period, too.

The issue of religious change in the post-conquest Middle East raises a still more fundamental question that tends to be overlooked when scholars discuss conversion: what kind of Islam were these early Muslims practicing, and what kind of Christianity were they adopting? When we think back to the seventh, eighth, and ninth centuries, we must keep in mind that "Islam" and "Christianity" meant something very different than they do today. Levels of lay catechesis were probably very low, and in the cities and villages of Egypt, Syria, and Palestine where Muslims and Christians first rubbed shoulders, it was not always clear where the practice of one faith ended and the other one began. Theological uncertainty was compounded, in turn, by deep social and cultural similarities between the two populations, especially as the ranks of the Muslim community swelled with converts from non-Arab, non-Muslim backgrounds. (8)

As Jack Tannous has shown, medieval sources are filled with vivid reports about the state of confusion on the ground: recent converts from Christianity who requested baptism for their Muslim children; Muslims reciting pagan poetry from the pulpits of mosques because they confused it with the sound of the Quran; small children tasked with leading the Friday prayers because no one in their communities mastered Scripture as well; caliphal missions to catechize new Muslims who had no idea how to pray; and Muslims who sought spiritual counsel at the feet of Christian holy men. …

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