October 13, 2008

The Great Arab Conquests: Why People Reverted to Islam


This is the ninth post in my series about Hugh Kennedy's book, The Great Arab Conquests. Here, Kennedy examines, at the very end of the book (pages 374-76), why people in the conquered lands chose to revert to Islam. His answer is that it was to their material benefit, that this was a way for people to become part of the new, dominant culture of the day. What's interesting is what Kennedy doesn't say, that the mass reversion of the native populations to Islam was not "by the sword," as Islamophobes mistakenly believe. Instead, the reversion to Islam was a very slow, gradual process that took centuries to complete.

Note: While this topic was originally set to be the last post in this series on Kennedy's book, I've decided to continue on, insha'allah, with a related series, focusing on some of the leaders and other people mentioned in The Great Arab Conquests, and descriptions about places, geographical and architectural, in Muslim lands. While I plan on using Kennedy's book in the future, I hope to use other research materials for these new posts.


As we have repeatedly seen, the Muslim conquerors put little or no pressure on the recently subjected populations to convert to Islam. Any attempt at compulsory conversion would probably have provoked widespread outrage and open hostility. As it was, the Muslim authorities established working relationships with the heads of the churches and other religious institutions that were now in their power. Conversion when it came was partly the result of fiscal pressures, the desire to escape the hated poll tax, but also because conversion provided an opportunity to escape from existing social constraints and to become a part of the new ruling class. Being a Muslim had always been essential for anyone who wanted a career in the military. By the tenth century, and before in some areas, it had become very difficult to have a successful career in the civil bureaucracy without becoming a Muslim. Attraction, not coercion, was the key to the appeal of the new faith.

During the first century, the Muslim Empire was a fairly open society. The elite of the new empire were the Muslims and Islam claimed to be a religion for all mankind. No would-be convert could be denied membership of this new elite. In contrast, Roman citizenship or membership of Persian aristocratic families was an exclusive, privileged position to be defended by those who enjoyed it. By converting to the new religion of Islam, conquered people could move to being conquerors, members of the new ruling class and, at least theoretically, equal to all other Muslims. Of course, problems soon arose and there were prolonged and violent clashes between old Muslims and new Arab and non-Arab Muslims, but this could not undermine the fact that Islam was open to all.

This is the other side of the collapse of the old social order and class boundaries lamented in aristocratic Persian sources of the period. There were some spectacular examples of this mobility. Nusayr was a prisoner of war, probably of humble Aramaean origin, captured in one of the early Arab campaigns in Iraq. He converted to Islam and his son Mūsā went on to become governor of North Africa and supreme commander of the Muslim forces in the conquest of Spain. At a humbler level, the peasants who refused to obey the orders of the Persian landowner in Iraq, the Copts who chose to stay in North Africa rather than being forced to return to their native Egypt, or the local men who served with the Arab armies in Transoxania may all have seen the coming of the Muslims as an opportunity to better themselves, taking advantage of the freedom and opportunities offered by the new order.

The early Muslims brought with them a great cultural self-confidence. God had spoken to them through His Prophet, in Arabic, and they were the bearers of true religion and God's own language. It is interesting to compare this with the Germanic invaders of western Europe in the fifth century. When they occupied the lands of the Roman Empire, they abandoned their old gods and converted to Christianity, the religion of the empire they had just conquered, and, as far as we know, no one claimed that God spoke German. This cultural self-confidence meant that Arabic became the language of administration and the language of the new high culture. Anyone who wished to participate fully in government or intellectual activity had to be literate in Arabic and preferably a Muslim. Again the contrast with the Germanic west is revealing. Here Latin remained the language of administration and high culture until at least the twelfth century, the new ruling class adopted Latin titles like duke (dux) and count (comes), and the Germanic languages survived only as vernaculars. The Muslim titles, caliph (khalīfa), amīr and wālī (governor) were all Arabic in origin.

Nonetheless, conquest was the prelude to conversion. It established the political and social framework within which the much slower, incremental processes of changing to Islam could take place. By the year 1000, it is likely that the majority of the population in all the different areas that had been conquered by 750 were Muslim. The conquest did not cause conversion but it was a major prerequisite: without it Islam would not have become the dominant faith in these areas.

The success of the Muslim conquests was the product of a unique set of circumstances and the preaching of a simple new monotheistic faith. There were many features of Islam that would have made it approachable to Christians and Jews. It had a Prophet, a Holy Book, established forms of prayer, dietary and family laws. Abraham and Jesus were both great prophets in the Muslim tradition. From the very beginning Islam established itself as a new faith, but it was one that claimed to perfect rather than destroy the older monotheistic ones. It had none of the strangeness of, say, Buddhism. These similarities, this common tradition, must have aided and encouraged conversion.

In many ways acceptance of Muslim rule was the result of Muslim policy toward the enemy: it was almost always preferable to surrender to the invaders and to make terms and pay the taxes rather than to resist to the last. The Islamization and Arabization that followed conquest over the next two or three centuries would not have occurred if political conquest had not already succeeded, but they were not a direct and inevitable consequence of that conquest. Instead, it was a gradual, almost entirely peaceful result of the fact that more and more people wanted to identify with and participate in the dominant culture of their time.

Photo credit: Wikipedia/Tawelsensei. La Mezquita, the former masjid of Cordoba, Spain. The architecture is notable for its giant arches, with over 1,000 columns of jasper, onyx, marble, and granite.

4 comments:

JDsg said...

Sorry, Paul, I have a low tolerance for Islamophobes. All comments have been deleted and future comments, if any, will be deleted as well, insha'allah. Thanks for visiting.

Paul said...

Shame we can't debate. Anyway you're welcome to visit my blog. Many of the issues I raise would merit from what could perhaps be described as 'an Islamic perspective'. I try to answer all comments and have a free debate, you're welcome.

JDsg said...

Thanks, anyway; I'm not interested in debates. If you're interested in learning, you're always welcome.

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