Religious Conversion

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Religious Conversion

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Dec 6, 2011, 7:28 pm

Without much study or real knowledge, I'm struck by how many people, including Christians, converted to Islam through the ages ... whole countries ... and how few people, once converted, ever disowned Islam, or converted to Christianity. I mean, places such as Constantinople and Turkey, the very heart of Orthodox Christianity.

Can anyone refer me to a book or books which speculate on my theory, or which might say otherwise?

Edited: Dec 10, 2011, 8:39 am

I suspect we see Islam and Christianity as far more distinct now than they have been in the past. Christian doctrines such as the concept of Jesus as God or the free-will versus pre-destiny that we might see as hard distinctions between Christianity and Islam have been controversial in Christianity.

Christian sects such as Arianism did not believe in the trinity and that Jesus was equally God. Islam considers Jesus (isa) to have been just a prophet, not God. Some heterodox sects of Islam, notably the Alawis, do in fact consider Jesus to be divine.

Also, in early Christianity, even the writings of St. Augustine favoured pre-destiny over free will as Islam now seems to. When St. John of Damascus wrote the first Christian criticism of Islam in the 8th century, he was criticising Islam (the Heresy of the Ishmaelites) in much the same way as he criticised other heretical sects of Christianity.

We could argue that conversion of Christians to Islam was easy because most (probably largely illiterate) people couldn't tell the difference. After all, not only is Jesus counted as a prophet in Islam and his mother Mary (Maryam) is revered. Mary is actually mentioned more in the Koran than in the New Testament. Stories such as the annunciation and the virgin birth of Jesus are in the Koran and are well known to Moslems. The Second Coming of Jesus heralding the end of the world is both a Christian AND an Islamic doctrine.

Dec 10, 2011, 8:54 am

Converts in general tend to be more zealous then cradle believers.

Dec 10, 2011, 7:52 pm

I remember reading a book years ago that traced conversion rates during the Middle Ages in Middle Eastern countries from Christianity to Islam. In many communities these went amazingly slowly, hundreds of years after that area had been conquered by a Muslim army. Most Islamic countries actively discourage (if not forbid) Muslim-Christian conversions, so they do look very one-way.

Spain used to have large tracts of Muslims living there, and after the Reconquista, I believe many Muslims had converted to Christanity. This is a real mixed history, as Christian didn't always believe the conversions, and I don't know whether there is any statistical data on this process.

Dec 11, 2011, 1:12 am

It took several hundred years for northern Sudan to change from Christianity to a Islam, mainly through inter-marriage. Sudan was Christian from around the 4th century; by around the 15th century Christianity had all but disappeared.

Dec 11, 2011, 2:43 am

Islam began about 600 years after Christianity, so many of the areas it spread into (such as Syria and parts of North Africa) were already largely Christian. If no Christians (or Zoarastrians) had converted to Islam, it would have remained confined to the lower Arabian peninsula.

Remember, too, that the process of conversion was rarely peaceful, or without coercion. Christians in Muslim countries (and vice versa) were second class citizens at best, who had to pay heavy taxes. In Turkey, in the last century, Christians were massacred (over a million Armenians were murdered by Turks and Kurds) or fled in fear for their lives. In much of the Middle East, this process of persecution and emmigration is ongoing. In Lebanon, Christians were the largest ethnic/sectarian group at independence. Now, mostly due to emmigration, they are outnumbered by Muslims.

To be fair, Muslims in Christian countries have suffered similar treatment. The amazing thing is that some Christian families in Egypt and other Muslim-dominated countries have had the courage to stay true to their beliefs, despite centuries of oppression.

Dec 11, 2011, 7:34 am

"Conversion" can happen in two ways: through a dominate political power making it a convenience or necessity to convert or through a change in conviction. Most Christian conversion after Constantine but before the end of Western colonialism and most Islamic conversion fall into the first category. In this path to conversion the religion fuses with the state, become a support for the state, and the state makes it clear that those of other faiths are probably or legally treasonous.

Dec 11, 2011, 10:49 am

>7 lawecon: Not really disagreeing with you, lawecon, but a third way might be simply taking over by inter-marriage and demographics, which is how the Islamisation of (northern) Sudan is generally perceived. From soon after the beginning of Islam, Muslims came to Sudan as traders, gradually inter-married and produced Muslim children, and several hundred years later a Christian state had been transformed into a Muslim one without, apparently, major conflict nor mass conversion. It was helped by the fact that the Christian Church was disconnected from the grassroots due to its use of a foreign language (Greek). Or maybe you would consider this dynamic to be a subset of your first option?

Dec 11, 2011, 6:35 pm


The book I read years ago did mention what you say about the children of mixed marriages almost always being Muslim. This book looked at individual communities, where old tax rolls and other records were still available -- so these were places not 'wiped out' by the passing of a Muslim army. First names in Arabic tend to be considerably different between Christianity and Islam -- maybe George is Christian and Abdul is Muslim.

A question I have relates to South Sudan, which appears to have a fairly constant group of Christians over the centuries. Is this because South Sudan is not really Arabic or is it because Ethiopia isn't that far away, and the center of that country is mostly Christian.

Dec 11, 2011, 8:08 pm


So,...... the Christians didn't have any children?

Dec 14, 2011, 10:11 am

>10 lawecon: I think the assumption would be that Christian man + Christian woman have Christian children; Muslim man + Muslim woman have Muslim children; Muslim man + Christian woman have Muslim children; a Muslim woman is unlikely to marry a Christian man. I think that over six to seven hundred years that dynamic would be significant. Whether the fact that a Muslim man can have up to four wives is also significant I don't know. I suspect there would have been a point where the balance of social and political expediency shifted towards Islam.

>8 John5918: South Sudan has a different history. It was never really penetrated by any outside influences until around 1840, when the Ottoman Empire began to take an interest, largely for the slave trade. Christian missionaries moved in but made little headway, mainly because most of them died of disease. After the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium was established in 1899, Christian missionaries returned and established a Church which is still going strong over a century later. It became an indigenous Church from the 1960s when the Khartoum government expelled all the missionaries from South Sudan as part of its Arabisation and Islamisation campaign, which really back-fired. African traditional religions are also still strong in many parts of South Sudan.

Dec 14, 2011, 8:57 pm


Can I assume from your answer, which I appreciated, that Ethiopia has not had a significant infuence in South Sudan.

Dec 14, 2011, 9:04 pm

I guess I don't understand your point(s) If, typically, Christians breed Christians and Muslims breed Muslims, then how is a country converted from Christian to Muslim "over many years" unless there is an "invasion" of Muslims or it somehow becomes advantageous for people to break the foregoing regularity? If you followed the discussion on monopoly and competition of a month or so ago, you will know that monopoly is ultimately based on state control.

As for higher birthrates, we Jews are facing that purported "threat" right now. The Haredi often have huge families. The Reform and Conservative have moderate sized families. Hence, one often sees actual threats by Haredi posters that "we're going to breed you out of existence or at least into a small minority." The problem is that the Haredi also despise the modern world and modern education. It is a negative value for them for men to do anything but "study Torah." Hence, they are simply breeding themselves into increasing poverty and ignorance. Not exactly an in-group success strategy. But they'll find that out in the long run. Malthus was eventually right about "positive checks."

Dec 15, 2011, 12:37 am

>13 lawecon: And I suppose I don't know how to make it any clearer - it looks to me like a 2:1 birth ratio there, without even taking into consideration polygamy. But anyway the point that is made by historians of Sudan is that it was not a violent nor mass conversion but a gradual change over several hundred years due to Arab migration and intermarriage.

>11 John5918: As far as I know, Ethiopia/Abyssinia had no significant influence on South Sudan, at least not until recent times when Mengistu played a major role in the establishment of the Sudan People's Liberation Army from 1983. I suppose one could say they also played a role in the Fashoda incident of 1898 by slowing down the French party which was trying to get to Fashoda via Ethiopia to meet up with Marchand, at least according to a recent book, The Race to Fashoda by David L. Lewis. It's possible that the huge swamp which proved an obstacle to Arab and European penetration of South Sudan also hindered the Ethiopians, but I don't think I've seen much written about Ethiopian influence on Sudan.

Dec 15, 2011, 5:14 am

I wonder what proportion of conversions are for the purpose of marriage in the modern world. My partner's brother's wife converted to Islam to get married and (although I have never met her), I hear she is quite committed to it.

Dec 15, 2011, 8:08 am

Conversion from Christianity to Islam is not prohibited.

Conversion from Islam to Christianity can carry a death sentence in Islamic countries.

It appears to me that it's easier to convert to Islam than to Christianity in those areas.

Dec 15, 2011, 9:42 pm

Conversion from Islam to Christianity can carry a death sentence in Islamic countries.


Just wait a decade or so and you'll find that conversion to Islam can "carry a death sentence" in a country with which you're very familiar. After all, there is precedent

Dec 16, 2011, 3:50 am

Fuzzi's (16) point is interesting because our perspective on religion is usually as something that is a personal choice in an essentially secular state. Islam has a greater emphasis on the concept of the Islamic State. So converting from Islam to Christianity has not only the personal dimension but can also be seen in some conservative Islamic societies as something like renouncing citizenship, refusing to participate and take responsibilities in society or even treason.

Dec 16, 2011, 5:18 am

>18 marq: I would agree with you about the western perspective on religion. In communal and traditional societies there is often a greater sense of shared social coherence and values. It's not always as extreme as the treason you mention, but nevertheless the communal aspect of one's religious adherence is a major factor. Personal individual choice plays a lesser role in such societies. And not only in the developing world; there probably weren't many Catholics converting to Protestantism and vice versa in Northern Ireland over the years.

Edited: Dec 16, 2011, 8:32 am

>18 marq:

Is it really true that Islam simpliciter ihas a greater emphasis on the concept of the theocratic State than Christianity simpliciter? It seems to me that the level of generalization needed to make the comparison makes the comparison itself impossible--because there's no such thing as Christianity simpliciter or Islam simpliciter. I mean, I don't want to deny the possibility of making generalizations altogether (since that would throw religious anthropology out of the window altogether) but the Chriatianity of Constantine is not the Christianity of Leo Tolstoy is not the Christiaity of, I don't know, Fred Phelps.

Dec 16, 2011, 9:07 am


This was THE typical attitude in ancient times, and through much of the middle ages in much of the world. Things only became different gradually in the West since the Papacy became, or tried to become, a political power in itself. Further, many Western nations gradually adopted something like the attitude of early Roman Empire, where certain "communities" within the society (read, most of the time, "the Jews") were left to rule themselves internally, with someone like a Chief Rabbi held responsible for their interaction with the broader society.

The anomaly in history is the separation of "church" and state. That anomaly appears to be correcting itself. You won't like the correction or the equilibrium, when established. But that is the necessary consequence of a society where people can no longer think abstractly. The Boss has to be singular in such a society.

Dec 16, 2011, 9:53 am

>21 lawecon:

Wait, WHAT was the typical attitude in ancient times? That Islam was more interested in an Islamic state than Christianity in a Christian state? And what do we mean by "ancient times"? Imperial Rome pre-Constantine? Post-Constantine?) Claiming that a Christianity which looks to the Emperor to call ecumenical councils as being uninterested in a Christian state looks . . . well, I don't tend to be an expert in Church history of that era, but it sounds somewhat idiosyncratic to these ears.

I'll note that the reign of the last Holy Roman Emperor ended in 1806.

Dec 16, 2011, 11:23 am

Wait, WHAT was the typical attitude in ancient times?


Again, reading problems. It was typical that there was a fusion of religion and the state, and that not being a member of the state religion made one, at best, an outsider and, more typical, treasonous.

"Ancient times" means the great empires that predated the Alexandrian conquest, and most of the Hellenistic states after the conquest.

The EARLY Roman empire was somewhat of an anomaly, in that there was no attempt at local rule or imposing culture. The goal was purely tribute. But that, of course, soon changed, with Constantine being the most obvious example of that change in the later Eastern Empire, but most emperors after Augustus taking sides for one approved religion or another.

I would suggest that you may want to become more of a historian. You can't really understand the modern world in the West without appreciating what a historical oddity most of our beliefs are in the broader historical context.

Edited: Dec 16, 2011, 11:35 am

23: "It was typical that there was a fusion of religion and the state, and that not being a member of the state religion made one, at best, an outsider and, more typical, treasonous."

Okay, so are we united in our suspicion of #18's statement that "Islam has a greater emphasis on the concept of the Islamic State," then?

If so, then I seem to have at least a workable appreciation of "what a historical oddity most of our beliefs are in the broader historical context" and just couldn't tell from what you wrote in 21 if you were agreeing or disagreeing with me.

(Of course, the earliest Early Church was also something of an anomaly, in that it seemed relatively uninterested in taking over the reins of secular authority. But that relationship to authority seemed to lie latent post-Constantine up until, I don't know, the Anabaptists?)

Dec 16, 2011, 11:47 am

(Of course, the earliest Early Church was also something of an anomaly, in that it seemed relatively uninterested in taking over the reins of secular authority. But that relationship to authority seemed to lie latent post-Constantine up until, I don't know, the Anabaptists?)


From my perspective, it works the other way around. ANY religion can be "interested in" or "not interested in" "taking over the reins of secular authority." Most aren't either TO BEGIN WITH. But it doesn't matter, since there are those already in power - the people with the weapons, the police, the jails, and the troops. What is interesting is what happens when the state realizes (as most have) that religion is a way of controlling "its" people.

What is also interesting, of course, is the reaction of those running the religion in question to the offer of a limited position of political power. On that issue only the anabaptist movements have some historical merit, albeit the early history of Pennsylvania is not an example in their favor.

Dec 16, 2011, 12:11 pm

>25 lawecon:

I'm not really trying to assert any directionality (and I'm not sure it makes any sense to). The only intentionality involved (assuming divine intervention was not involved) was Constantine's, who was both Roman and Christian (at the relevant points in history).

Dec 16, 2011, 2:59 pm

Constantine, actually, was and remained a worshiper of Solarium (or was it Solaris) - in any case, the Sun God. He wasn't baptized until he was on his death bed. He had, however, decades before, appointed himself as head of The Church and he presided at several of the Great Councils. See how things fitted together differently in those societies?