Swimming against the current: Muslim conversion to Christianity in the early Islamic period.

Author:Sahner, Christian C.

    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. (9) These anecdotes, scattered across a range of Muslim and Christian sources, reveal an exceptionally fluid world in which it was easy to cross boundaries and still easier to miss the mark on what religious elites came to understand as "orthodox Islam." There were many reasons to stay within the Muslim fold, but as these anecdotes reveal, conversion did not always instill a deep sense of attachment to other Muslims or necessarily endow a rigorous understanding of Islamic belief and practice. In fact, as Nehemia Levtzion has put it, a good many converts entered the community through a process of "passive adhesion to Islam" (10)--brought about by the mass conversion of an Arab tribe, for instance, not after a long process of spiritual deliberation. It is this culture, fluid and occasionally confused, that provides the backdrop for our study of Muslim converts to Christianity.

    The Christian Martyrs of the Early Islamic Period

    Although true apostates are nearly invisible in conventional Muslim sources of the period, we can learn much about them thanks to a relatively untapped corpus of Christian hagiographic texts written during the first four centuries of Islamic rule. These sources recount the lives of Muslims who converted to Christianity and, with one exception, were executed for apostasy, for which they were commemorated as "saints." They belong to a larger cohort of Christian "martyrs" from the Umayyad and 'Abbasid periods, whose lives were recorded in a kaleidoscope of languages, including Greek, Arabic, Latin, Georgian, Armenian, and Syriac. (11)

    The use of hagiography for historical purposes raises an obvious methodological question: can these sources be trusted? After all, saints' lives are notoriously formulaic, filled with miracles and theological polemics. The German historian Bruno Krusch went so far as to call them kirchliche Schwindelliteratur, (12) and it is no wonder that we use the term "hagiographic" today to refer to biographies that are uncritically glowing or historically suspect. What is more, virtually no Muslim sources of the period mention any Christian martyrs by name. (13) How can we cope with this dilemma?

    Before mining the texts for historical details on true apostasy, we have to understand their literary aims. As Sidney Griffith, Mark Swanson, Thomas Sizgorich, and others have shown, the lives of the neomartyrs are fundamentally works of exhortation. (14) They were written by monks and priests at a time when many Christians were either converting to Islam or embracing the Arabic culture of the conquerors. Therefore, their authors set out to encourage loyalty to the church by celebrating models of resistance to Islam. These models included Christians who embraced Islam and then returned to Christianity, Muslims who converted to Christianity for the first time, and Christians who challenged Islam by publically disparaging the Prophet. For these various crimes, Christians could be killed by the state and venerated as martyrs within their communities.

    Although our picture of the martyrs is heavily colored by the apologetic agenda of their biographies, we should not ignore the thick stratum of historical information inside them. As Griffith points out, with rare exception, the modern scholars who edited these texts also accepted their basic veracity--leaving aside clearly literary elements, such as reports of miracles, set speeches, and dialogues. What is more, a large number of martyrologies contain incidental information that can be verified using outside sources, including the names of Muslim officials who executed martyrs, topographical details of where martyrs lived, and dates of their births and deaths. (15) These, in turn, instill confidence that the authors were writing about real people, places, and events, although embellishing them to advance their aims. Even if we assume that the sources contain minimal information about real happenings, there is historical value to be gained by understanding how authors narrated their stories. As a genre, the martyrologies were successful precisely because they portrayed what many readers understood as possible: they represented a spectrum of intelligible behaviors with which readers could identify and from which they could draw strength. Therefore, contrary to some scholars who regard these texts as literary fictions, I believe that a great many martyrologies can be read as stylized accounts of what were, in most cases, actual events. Even if we cannot be certain that they happened as described, at least we can be confident that the scenarios they recount were plausible in the eyes of their readers. This is not to ignore the exhortatory nature of the texts. Rather, it is to propose a sensitive reading of them in order to mine them for information about which Muslim sources are largely silent--including conversion from Islam to Christianity.


    Before beginning, it is worth acknowledging that the view of scholars who downplay the incidence of "true apostasy" is not entirely unreasonable. Conversion from Islam to Christianity was rare in the early Middle Ages. Not only did apostates face the possibility of death (apostasy constitutes a capital offense under Islamic law), but they enjoyed few material benefits because of their conversions. What is more, they must have suffered severe social penalties, including ostracism by family and friends, loss of work, and even exile.


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