Contours of conversion: the geography of Islamization in Syria, 600-1500.

Author:Carlson, Thomas A.
Position:Critical essay


When Khalid b. al-Walld invaded Syria in 13/634, the region was inhabited by a religiously mixed population with multiple kinds of Christianity present alongside Judaism and paganism. When the Ottoman sultan Selim I conquered Mamluk Syria nine centuries later in 922/1516, the region's religious diversity looked distinctively more Muslim, with Sunnis of four legal schools sharing the land with Druze, Nusayris, Ismailis, and Twelver Shiites, in addition to reduced populations of Christians and Jews. The process of Islamization whereby regions such as Syria slowly shifted from areas without Muslims to those where Muslims

formed the majority is one of the more dramatic transformations of the medieval world.

Both the mechanisms and the contours of Syria's Islamization are poorly understood. In part this is due to the absence of surviving demographic data before the Ottoman tax census records of the sixteenth century. After Selim I's conquest, the bulk of Syria was divided between provincial governments (sg. eyalet) based in Aleppo, Tripoli, and Damascus, although portions of eastern Syria around al-Raqqa were assigned to Ruha (modern Urfa), while areas historically regarded as northern Syria were incorporated into the eyalet of DQlqadir or the Ramadanid principality. (1) The tax registers (sg. defter) produced by the new provincial governments, many of which survive, identify religious minorities due to the differential taxation applied to non-Muslims. (2) These records demonstrate that in the sixteenth century the Muslim population of Syria formed an overwhelming majority in the countryside and a large majority in most towns and cities. (3) Much scholarly debate centers upon how quickly the majority of the population adopted Islam.

But demographic change was only one component of a multi-faceted process of Islamization in Syria. Many medieval Muslim jurists seem to have regarded widespread conversion to Islam as irrelevant to Islamic society, while increased enforcement of regulations upon non-Muslims to demonstrate the superiority of Islam appears more important to their notion of Islamization. The Umayyad caliph 'Abd al-Malik b. Marwan (r. 65-86/685-705) is generally credited with replacing Byzantine coins with aniconic "Islamic" coins and with building the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, showing that state-sponsored Islamization had numismatic and architectural implications. Governmental Islamization was only one component of the broader, and far slower, process by which Syria became in some sense "more Islamic." That process transformed urban environments, as mosques replaced churches, synagogues, and temples as the foci of cities. (4) Islamization included the conversion of landscapes, as monasteries fell into ruin and Muslim shrines sprang up instead. (5) Concepts of areas as "primarily" one religion or another shifted with Islamization, as did social expectations regarding typical relationships between members of different religious groups. Islamization was a complex and multi-dimensional process that spanned many centuries.

This lengthier process was also not one-directional. Muslims converted to Christianity as well as vice versa. Ruined non-Muslim religious sites could sometimes be rebuilt. (6) Al-MuqaddasI (fl. late tenth century) acknowledged that despite his high praise for Syria's many advantages, "some [of its people! have apostasized." (7) Yaqut al-Hamawi (d. 626/1229) mentioned a village named 'Imm between Aleppo and Antioch, "in which today everyone is Christian," but he quotes the Risala of Ibn Butlan from the eleventh century to say that two centuries earlier it had a mosque. (8) In certain contexts Islam was not the only religion supported by the state, as Muslim rulers sometimes provided stipends to Jewish and Christian religious authorities in addition to the ulema. (9) Furthermore, the Byzantine reconquest and the Crusades reintroduced non-Muslim rule to portions of Syria from 358/969 to 690/1291, so that even state support for Islam could not be taken for granted. Indeed, under Frankish rule a large enough number of Muslims sought to become Christian that canon law needed to be developed in order to handle difficult social questions regarding marriage and slavery in such cases. (10) As Benjamin Kedar concludes, "in the Frankish Levant, passages from Islam to Christianity and vice versa were not rare at all." (11)

The boundaries of Syria in medieval Arabic geographical thought were different from today. Yaqut presented the most common definition of this region as extending from the Euphrates to the town of al-'Arish on the Egyptian coastline southeast of Gaza, and from the Arabian desert to the Mediterranean Sea (see map on previous page). (12) This definition leaves open how far into modern Turkey the region was thought to extend, and before the Byzantine reconquest of the tenth century the northwestern border of Syria was simply considered to be the boundary of Byzantine control, sometimes even including Malatya on the upper Euphrates as the northern edge of Syria. (13) On the other hand, Yaqut does not include any major city north of Manbij and Aleppo, noting only in passing the border regions (thughur) of al-MassIsa, Tarsus, Adhana, and Mar'ash. (14) This article will take as the northern border of Syria the Taurus Mountains of southeastern Anatolia, excluding Malatya but including the border towns mentioned by Yaqut.

The classic study of Islamization remains Richard Bulliet's Conversion to Islam in the Middle Period (1979). Bulliet analyzed biographical dictionaries to graph the adoption of specifically Muslim names in several different regions across the Islamic world, making certain approximate assumptions about length of generations and age of conversion. He argued that these distinctively Islamic names first appear within a lineage for a convert to Islam or for his children, and graphing the incidence of Islamic names for the ulema in a biographical dictionary gives a curve (p. 19) that can be taken as the conversion curve for the region as a whole. (15) The result is a summative S-curve that displays the Muslim proportion of the population as monotonically increasing, whose slope represents the rate of conversion, first slow, then increasing to a midpoint, and then decreasing to level off again as the number of late adopters decrease. He suggests (pp. 109, 112) that conversions peaked from the late-eighth to the mid-tenth century, and that the rise of Shiite groups such as Druze, Nusayris, and Ismailis was occasioned by the late conversion of mountain Christians. Nevertheless, he acknowledges (pp. 110, 112) that his proposed conversion curve is difficult to correlate with the political, social, or religious history of Syria, and he concludes, "Syria does not present a tidy, easily understandable picture."

Somewhat more recently, Nehemia Levtzion (1990: 290) summarized what is known about the contours of the Islamization of Syria and Palestine before the Ottoman conquest, based primarily on secondary scholarship with reference to primary sources by al-Baladhurl (d. 279/892) and Michael the Syrian (d. 1199). This account derives primarily from narrative historical sources, whether used by Levtzion or by the other scholars he cites, and although narrative sources are helpful for connecting otherwise isolated data, their interests are typically circumscribed in ways that limit their utility for the purpose of describing regional Islamization. Michael the Syrian, for example, is interested almost exclusively in the secular rulers and in his own denomination of Christianity, and thus says very little about other Christian groups such as the Chalcedonians, much less the Jewish population of Syria. Al-Baladhurl's Futuh al-buldan primarily collects traditions about the seventh-century conquests, and only mentions non-Muslims to the degree that they figure in such traditions, without any attempt to discuss the state of non-Muslims in Syria in his own lifetime. Narrative sources need to be supplemented by additional evidence to provide a wider picture of the Islamization of Syria.

Studies of Islamization in Syria since 1990 have focused on specific themes, restricted source materials, and narrower time frames. Bethany Walker (2013) synthesized the archaeological evidence for Islamization into the ninth century at a site in central Jordan. Uri Simonsohn (2013) examined legal sources from the early Islamic period to clarify the process of personal conversions, especially reversed and repeated conversions. Nancy Khalek's Damascus after the Muslim Conquest (2011) focuses on the transformation of a capital city to the end of the Umayyad dynasty, while Amikam Elad (1995) examined pilgrimage to holy places in Jerusalem, primarily but not exclusively in the first couple of centuries of Islam. R. Stephen Humphreys (2010a) argued that Christianity continued to prosper under the Umayyad dynasty, bringing together a range of literary, economic, and archaeological sources. For a later period, the conversion of Syria's religious topography was analyzed by Daniella Talmon-Heller (2007a) for the eleventh to thirteenth centuries, indicating that Islamization was not merely an early Islamic phenomenon. These studies, each important for its scope, do not provide or permit the synthesis of a trajectory of Islamization, especially after the Umayyad period ending in 132/750.

One body of evidence that allows us to provide a first sketch of the contours of the Islamization in Syria over the longue duree, from the conquests of the seventh century to the Ottoman annexation of Syria in the sixteenth century, consists of the geographical texts composed by administrators, travelers, and belles-lettrists describing the region of Syria in the medieval period. An eclectic body of Islamic geographical literature, primarily in Arabic but partly in Persian, preserves indications of the progress of...

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