Sharp Blue: Conversions


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Someone over on that OPFOR thread asserted that conversion to Christianity in the Roman Empire was not coerced and conversion to Islam under the early Caliphate was. I took issue with this:

Although Constantine’s Edict of Toleration was the high point of religious toleration in the Roman world, it didn’t last for long. His heirs soon attempted to stamp out paganism. Within a century of the reign of Constantine, Roman emperors had banned pagan festivals and sacrifices, closed and destroyed pagan temples, banned pagans from holding posts in the administration and encouraged acts of mob violence against pagans. By Justinian’s reign in the sixth century, paganism itself, rather than just its external forms, had been made illegal. If none of this was quite as bad as the intermittent persecutions of Christians under the pagan Empire, it was still far from enlightened toleration.

As for conversion to Islam, I don’t think it’s fair to say that peoples were converted to Islam by conquest. Certainly, the Muslim armies expanded explosively into the vacuum left by the mutual devastation of Rome and Persia, but for the first centuries of Muslim rule Islam was clearly the religion of the political elites and the masses in the former Roman provinces remained largely Christian. So long as they paid the jizya, this was just fine with the Muslims.

It was just fine with most of the Christians themselves too. Many of the leading Christian families remained powerful under the Caliphs, and in fact large parts of the Monophysite clergy found their new Islamic overlords preferable to the emperors of Constantinople who had persecuted them as heretics. This situation largely continued until the fall of the Ummayad Caliphate to the Abbasids in AD750. Thereafter, a combination of economic hardship - which increased the relative weight of the jizya - and the allure of Arabic culture and political power drove the conversion of Christians to the new religion.

Even under the Abbasids, though, Christian missionaries used the protection of the Caliphate and the vast new perspectives opened up by the eastward-facing stance of the the new dynasty to spread their religion into Central Asia and beyond to China.

(The Zoroastrians fared much worse under Islamic conquest as they weren’t “peoples of the book”. But I don’t suppose anyone today much cares about them.)

In other news, I’m thoroughly enjoying the relatively new Veruca Salt EP, Lords of Sounds and Lesser Things, which arrived today. Roll on VS IV!

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