by Michael Isenberg.
No claim about Islam is more likely to start an argument than the one that Muslims spread their religion by telling conquered peoples, “Convert or die.” It’s right up there with “Jihad is Holy War.”
As with most such debates, the truth is complicated.
Strictly speaking, forced conversion to Islam violates Muslim law, the Shari’ah. In the words of the Quran, “There is no compulsion in religion (2:256).”
Rather than force unbelievers to apostatize, scripture tells Muslims,
Fight those who believe not in Allah, nor in the Last Day, nor forbid that which Allah and His Messenger have forbidden, nor follow the Religion of Truth, or of those who have been given the Book, until they pay the tax (jizyah) in acknowledgment of superiority and they are in a state of subjection (9:29).
In other words, Islam does not tell unbelievers, “Convert or die.” It tells them, “Convert, live under our rule as second class citizens, or die.” While technically that is not forced conversion, I submit it’s not any better.
Sometimes they were at the hands of a rogue leader and eventually cooler heads prevailed. That was the case in 1198 when the ruler of Yemen, al-Malik al-Mu’izz Isma’il, declared himself the caliph—leader of all the Muslims—and ordered forced conversions of Jews and Christians. Those who refused were beheaded. Three years later, al-Malik was murdered by his own troops and the converts went back to their old religions.
But in other cases, conversion was at the hands of rulers who to this day are among the most cherished and revered figures in Islam. Saladin (who incidentally was the uncle of al-Malik) is known in the West for his chivalry toward Richard the Lion-Hearted. But he wasn’t so chivalrous after the ass-whooping he inflicted on Crusader forces in the Battle of Hattin (1187). The Templars and Hospitallers taken prisoner were ordered to convert. Many refused. Saladin’s secretary Imad ad-Din, who was there, wrote what happened next:
Saladin ordered that they should be beheaded, choosing to have them dead rather than in prison. With him was a whole band of scholars and sufis and a certain number of devout men and ascetics, each begged to be allowed to kill one of them, and drew his sword and rolled back his sleeve. Saladin, his face joyful, was sitting on his dais, the unbelievers showed black despair.
Two hundred knights were massacred. Observe that the “devout men” and “scholars,” who were the authorities responsible for enforcing the Shari’ah in general and the laws against forced conversions in particular, enthusiastically participated.
My last example is from the year 1148, during the conquest of Morocco by the Almohads, a fanatical sect that rebelled against their rulers, the Almoravids. They thought the Almoravids were soft on the enforcement of Shari’ah. We have an unusually detailed and personal account, thanks to a letter found in the cache of documents known as the Cairo Geniza. As refugees streamed from Morocco into Egypt, one Jewish merchant, Solomon b. Abu Zikri Judah, recounted to his father the news they brought from the town of Sijilmasa, which was where their family was from:
You certainly wish to know the news from the Maghreb [Morocco], the ears who hear about it will tingle [Jeremiah 19:4]. The travelers have arrived, among them groups of Jews, who were present at the event. They reported that ‘Abd al-Mu’min the Susi attacked the [Almoravid] amir Tashfin in Wahran [Oran], besieged him, annihilated his army, killed him, and crucified his body. Then ‘Abd al-Mu’min conquered Tilmaan [Tlemcen] and killed everyone in the town, except those who apostatized. When the news arrived in Sijilmasa, the population revolted against the amir, declared themselves in public as opponents of the murabitun [Almoravids], drove them out of town, and sent messengers to ‘Abd al-Mu’min surrendering to him. After he entered Sijilmasa, he assembled the Jews and asked them to apostatize. Negotiations went on for seven months, during all of which they fasted and prayed. After this a new amir arrived and demanded their conversion. They refused, and a hundred and fifty Jews were killed, sanctifying the name of God:
The Rock—his deeds are without blemish and all his ways are justice [Deuteronomy 32:4].
Blessed be the true judge, whose judgments are just and true.
The King’s word has power; who may say to him, “What are you doing? [Ecclesiastes 8:4].
The others apostatized; the first of the apostates was Joseph b. ‘Imran, the judge of Sijilmasa. Because of this I lament and wail, etc. [Micah 1:8].
Before ‘Abd al-Mu’min entered Sijilmasa, when the population rose against the Almoravids, a number of Jews, about two hundred, took refuge in the city’s fortress. Among them were Mar Ya’qub and Abbud, my paternal uncles, Mar Judah b. Farhun and [???]. They are now in Der’a after everything they had was taken from them. What happened to them afterward we do not know.
Of all the countries of the Almoravids there remained in the hands of the dissenters only Der’a and Miknasa (Meknes). As to the congregations of the West, because of our sins, they all perished; there has not remained a single one described as a Jew between Bijaya [Bougie] and the Gate [street] of Gibraltar, they either apostatized or were killed. And on the day I am writing this letter news has arrived that BIjaya has been taken…
At ‘Abd al-Mu’min’s conquest of Fez 100,000 persons were killed and at that of Marrakesh 120,000. Take notice of this. This is not hearsay but a report of people who were present at the events. Take notice.
The translator, S.D. Goitein, comments that the last two numbers are probably exaggerated. A horrific series of events nevertheless.
As for ‘Abd al-Mu’min and the Almohads, they went on to complete their overthrow of the Almoravids and extend their bigoted, Islamist rule over much of Spain and half of North Africa. Their dynasty would last over a hundred years, and destroy the vibrant culture that once flourished in Muslim Spain. Take notice.
|Michael Isenberg drinks bourbon and writes novels. His latest book, The Thread of Reason, is a murder mystery that takes place in Baghdad in the year 1092, and tells the story of the conflict between science and shari’ah in medieval Islam. It is available on Amazon.com|