"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Christian and Muslim Conversions in Late Antiquity

One of the unanswered, and unanswerable, questions in early Christian-Muslim encounters is how many people abandoned Christianity when it was politically or economically feasible for them to do so in order to hitch a ride with a newly ascendant Islam. In many places, such people simply dropped out of sight, and nothing like a mass census of them has ever been possible. At the same time, while conversion out of Islam to something else is officially a capital offense in Islamic law, that does not mean it never happened--though here, too, such conversions were often hidden for obvious reason. This whole process of conversion--how it happened, how many converts there were, and what their motives were--is a complex business indeed.

A volume released last year from Ashgate sheds light on the process of what it means to "convert" to or from Christianity, Islam, and other traditions: Arietta Papaconstantinou, ed., with Neil Mclynn and Daniel Schwartz, Conversion in Late Antiquity: Christianity, Islam, and Beyond (Ashgate, 2015), 396pp.

About this book we are told:
The papers in this volume were presented at a Mellon-Sawyer Seminar held at the University of Oxford in 2009-2010, which sought to investigate side by side the two important movements of conversion that frame late antiquity: to Christianity at its start, and to Islam at the other end. Challenging the opposition between the two stereotypes of Islamic conversion as an intrinsically violent process, and Christian conversion as a fundamentally spiritual one, the papers seek to isolate the behaviours and circumstances that made conversion both such a common and such a contested phenomenon. The spread of Buddhism in Asia in broadly the same period serves as an external comparator that was not caught in the net of the Abrahamic religions. The volume is organised around several themes, reflecting the concerns of the initial project with the articulation between norm and practice, the role of authorities and institutions, and the social and individual fluidity on the ground. Debates, discussions, and the expression of norms and principles about conversion conversion are not rare in societies experiencing religious change, and the first section of the book examines some of the main issues brought up by surviving sources. This is followed by three sections examining different aspects of how those principles were - or were not - put into practice: how conversion was handled by the state, how it was continuously redefined by individual ambivalence and cultural fluidity, and how it was enshrined through different forms of institutionalization. Finally, a topographical coda examines the effects of religious change on the iconic holy city of Jerusalem.

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