A wonderful summary of this is found in Nehemia Levtzion, ‘Towards a comparative study of Islamization’, in Levtzion, ed., Conversion to Islam (New York: Holmes & Maier, 1979), pp.1-23, reprinted as chapter I of the volume of Levtzion’s essays edited by Michael Abitol and Amos Nadan in 2007, four years after his death, and published by Ashgate under the title Islam in Africa and the Middle East: Studies on Conversion and Renewal.
Source Material on Conversion to Islam
From Muslim perspectives there are usually no written sources until a couple of centuries after Islam was established – historiography developed only after a class of litterati had emerged. The works are largely of legal import, which makes distinguishing fact from fiction tricky. (2) In areas where a written culture already thrived the arrival of Islam impoverished the region’s literary resources – as in Java in the 14th-16th centuries or among the Christian communities of the Middle East from the 7th century onwards. (3)
Travellers’ accounts (Muslim and Christian) provide some indications of Islam’s spread, but ew also need to look at name changes in places and populations, tax registers (3-4), and even at how the various Islamic legal schools influenced new areas of Muslim expansion (4-5). Accounts of dream-inspired conversions and oral tales of family histories may be a fruitful area of new research.
The Militant Expansion of Islam: The Role of the Nomads
Conversion as immediate reslut of conquest or political submission was limited to the Bedouins of Arabia and the Berbers of Maghrib, and a few minor cases. The political secession of the Arab tribes after the death of Muhammed was interpreted also as religious apostasy (ridda). The Berbers apostasized 12 times according to Muslim traditions, rebelling fiercely and compelling the Arab to withdraw from N. Africa several times. In other words, they were initially taken as submitting to Islam as religion as well as political force, such were the harsh measures used to ensure their complete submission [islam]. (6)
However, military conquest did not usually lead to immediate Islamization of populations. It did open the door to two factors that encouraged conversion in the longer term: colonization of lands by nomads, and the evolution of distintively Muslim government and institutions (7). The settling of Arab nomads in the Fertile Crescent took place after the establishment of Islamic government; the settling of Turkic nomads in Anatolia preceded centralised Muslim rule in that area and was therefore more violent and overall more thorough. In the Fertile Crescent conversion accelerated once non-Muslims were attracted to work in the Arab garrison towns (previously segregation and non-conversion were encouraged to preserve Arab-Muslim purity along with the tax base). The Balkans are an interesting blend – conquered by the Ottoman state with restricted nomad influx, they retained even more of their Christian character than the Middle East. (8)
Conversion under Muslim Rule
By no means enforced by the new rulers, but increasingly promoted by them. In Iran, the military elite converted immediately in order to retain their status; the bureaocracy converted after 150-200 years in order to keep their jobs. By the 11th century 80% of the population was Muslim. Many conversions were clearly motivated by economic and social pressures. ‘The process was aided further by the fact that once conversion to Islam took place, there was no backsliding.’ (9) [This is the particularly sinister move. Is it unique among religions to enshrine such a thing in law or to claim it to be an essential part of the faith?]
Initial liberal policies towards non-Mulism subjects, so as to use their skills in administration and scholarship, gave way to less and less tolerance as the proportion of Muslims increased and as the ulama gained more leverage over the governments. They exploited the Muslim masses’ resentment towards rich/influential non-Muslims and in times of crisis (war or famine) were able to capitalise on massacres and other persecuting measures to reduce the standing of the non-Muslims or to force them to convert (10).
Truly forced conversions were not as widespread as Christian sources claim, but more common than Muslims admit (11). Under the Seljuks, under the Mamluks, under the Ottomans (especially the devshirme system), under some Mughals (notably Aurangzib, 1658-1707) there were forced conversions (10). In general, the creation of the total environment that fostered the supremacy of Islam was the route that Muslim rulers generally took. (11)
The Encounter with Other Religions
‘In all cases of conversion from Christianity, Muslims had a political superiority, achieved by military conquest. The same was true in the case of Iran and parts of India. But in other aresa, in the further lands of Islam, Muslims were considered to be superior because of their literacy, magical and healing efficacy, and their wealth’ (11).
In Africa and Indonesia, Muslims infiltrated the syncretistic religions, while denouncing elements of their latitudinarianism, thereby gradually Islamizing the state and the society. (12) But in China, with neither military nor cultural superiority, the Muslims had to battle to survive – choosing to be Muslim in private but Sinicized in public.
In India there were conversions from all levels of society Islam did not particularly appeal to the dalits, instead it confirmed the power/status of the Brahmans, whether or not they converted. (13) In Iran, Richard Buillet argues, the lower classes tended to be attracted to sectarian Islam (or Zoroastrian revivals) since they had a lot to gain from overturning the status quo: the upper classes fought to preserve the orthodoxy that guaranteed their position, gaining increasing strength against the Arab dynasties and eventually able to reassert a Persian ruling dynasty. (13-14)
In West Africa being a chief and being a Muslim were not usually compatible, since conversion carried overtones of ‘clergy’ that struck at the chiefs’ self-esteem, even when large proportions of the populations had become Muslim.
Traders as Carriers of Islam
Beyond the nomads’ military reach the merchants took the message of Islam. The early garrison towns of the Middle East were a focus for trade as well as religion. ‘In Islam, migration to the town is considered meritorious because it is in the urban milieu that one can fully practice the Muslim way of life’ (15). Thus urbanization increased the rate of conversion to Islam. Interestingly, as Muslim traders moved around (with a very good reputation among other peoples), sustaining Islamic cultural links and joining up various Islamic groups, some chose to settle on the land, in the process becoming de-Islamicized as they were cut off from trade routes and urban centres (in Africa and China at least). (16)
Saints and Sufis as Agents of Islamization
Indigenous accounts of conversion to Islam hardly ever mention the traders so beloved of historians’ explanations. They focus instead on wandering saints who accompanied the traders (16). ‘The frontiers of Islam were extended not through the work of the learned urban ulama, but by the efforts of the rural rustic divines, many of whom were mystics and often also members of institutionalized sufi orders’ (17). They drew many non-Muslims who had not been able to get healing, etc., through their traditional religions. On Hausa Muslim says “without non-Muslims, Muslim scholars would starve”! (17)
Before the 10th century, conversion to Islam took place only in the lands ruled by Muslims. Growing trade in Central Asia initially spread Nestorianism and Manichaeism for only heterodox sects (Kharjis, Shi‘is and Isma‘ilis) propogated without state support. But once the sufi movement grew, from the 10th century, so Islam spread outside the borders of Muslim political control. The sufis also worked hard to Islamize populations newly conquered, such as in Anatolia, India and Sudan (17).
In Anatolia (conquest), Bengal (conquest) and Java (peaceful penetration) ‘Islamization was not so muh a process of individual conversion, but what might be described as a religious transmutation of the society, in which nearly the entire population became Muslim, or was assumed to be Muslim’ (18). [Which puts any given individual in a tight spot when it comes to declaring another religious faith. What is not assumed is not accepted...]
Communal and Individual Conversion
In Northwest India and East Africa conversion was more individual and piecemeal, since the local Muslims (Turks and Afghans; Swahili) retained a strong and proud ethnic-cultural difference from the non-Muslims. Conversion required the adopting of a whole new identity. Anatolia, Bengal, Java and West Africa were far more gradual and communal. (19)
The initial communal conversion of the Arabs and the Berbers required very strong measures to maintain, when the converts decided they weren’t really converts but had only offered temporary political submission! The Syrians and others in the Fertile Crescent tended to convert more slowly and individually, renouncing their former identity and kin completely upon conversion.
Reform or the Perfection of the Initial Adhesion to Islam
A.D. Nock differentiates “conversion” from “adhesion”. Islam, as a great prophetic religion requires “conversion”, but, ironically, its growth has depended on processes much closer to Nock’s “adhesion” (21). The exclusiveness was often toned down, demands on new converts were toned down, and only after Islam had gained a foothold did it ramp up the exclusivity and the prophetic critique of laxity. Groups convert to Islam over long periods, tending towards greater orthodoxy as reformist movements arise to purify the people’s faith. (21)
While accommodation to local cultures helps Islam to survive, espeically in the early centuries in a new area, reformist movements generally try to purge Islam of the syncretism, stirring up hostility from existing soft ulama (as in Senegal or Java, where many Muslims view their syncretism as a true Islam). (22) Reformist zeal is often accompanied by military will, however, and in West Africa as a result of the jihads of the 18th and 19th centuries new states were formed on the basis of their adherence to reformist Islam, challenging and replacing those Muslim kingdoms that were still engaged with the pre-Islamic heritage. Shari‘a became the law, and observance became the norm. (22)