The early Arab conquests and forced conversions

The early Arab conquests and forced conversions May 27, 2020


Babylon Fortress, Old Cairo
A remnant of the pre-Islamic Babylon Fortress, in the anachronistically titled “Old Cairo” neighborhood. A favorite place for us to visit when we lived in Egypt, the fortress surrendered to Arab forces in December, AD 640.


I share a couple of passages from Graham E. Fuller, A World Without Islam (New York, Boston, and London: Little, Brown and Company, 2010):


[I]t is absurd to think in simplistic terms of “loyal Christians falling to anti-Western Muslim forces,” the often-popular Western version of the process.  The Christians in these Semitic regions were not particularly loyal or happy with Byzantium and were already quite anti-Western in predisposition.  Simple theories of “Islam versus West” dichotomies here simply collapse in the face of the realities.  (85)


Elements of internal discontent within the Byzantine and Persian empires — [the Christian sects of the] Monophysites and Nestorians in Syria, Christians and Jews within Iran — facilitated the overthrow of both empires, city by city, as the Muslims advanced.  According to the Boston University professor of medieval Islam Merlin Swartz, most of the Jewish population was discontented with their persecuted status within the Byzantine Empire and welcomed the Muslim armies, whose rule would turn out to facilitate a new flowering of Jewish culture.

Furthermore, contrary to expectation, conversion of the conquered citizenry to Islam was not at all the immediate goal of the Arab conquerors; the extension of Muslim power and authority was.  We are really talking more about secular change — change of rulers — than of religion itself at the social level.  As [Ira] Lapidus points out, “The Arab conquerors did not require the conversion as much as the subordination of non-Muslim peoples.  At the outset, [the Arab conquerors] were hostile to conversions because new Muslims diluted the economic and status advantages of the Arabs.” (86-87)


I marked these passages not because they contain information that was new to me.  Quite the contrary.  Although I’m not an Islamic historian in the standard sense of the term, I consider myself an Islamic intellectual historian.  More to the point, I studied Islamic history in graduate school, especially during my years in Egypt; I incorporate Islamic history into my courses on Islamicate culture and the religion of Islam; and, when I lecture on the subject, I make these very points.  I marked these passages because I want to remember to make these points (if I haven’t already) in the heavily revised third edition of my introductory book on Islam for a Latter-day Saint audience.  I’m making a checklist for myself of points that must not be omitted.



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