Conversion and Acculturation
I thought of this again while reading Tamer el-Leithy's "Coptic Culture and Conversion in Medieval Cairo, 1293-1524 A.D.," which in 2005 received Honorable Mention for MESA's Malcolm H. Kerr Dissertation Award. A study of the major waves of conversion during the Mamluk sultanate,it begins with a discussion of the martyrdom story of John of Phanijoit, who converted from Christianity to Islam, and then went back to Christianity and was executed despite the attempts of Muslim authorities to spare him. As el-Leithy says:
"More generally, the martyrology presents John's conversion to Islam as a progression, a social process rather than a religious event, the culmination of John's 'mixing' with Muslims. Cairo was the primary locus of this insidious social contact between Copts and Muslims - 'the place of net-snaring entrapment, the path of stumbling' - contact that always bore the latent threat of conversion."
A important trend in medieval Middle Eastern social history is to ascribe more agency to non-Muslim communities under Islamic rule, and el-Leithy does so in the matter of conversion. For example, early on, he discusses women who convert to escape slavery or unwanted marriages to non-Muslims. Near the end, however, is when el-Leithy most directly deals with what could be called acculturation, as practices accepted by Islam but not by Coptic Christianity, such as concubinage, polygyny, and divorce, became commonly practiced by Copts who lived in close proximity with Muslims. (El-Leithy's terminology is "cultural convergence.") Furthermore, any Christian or Jew could appeal to Muslim courts to have their affairs decided under shari'a, and with four schools of Islamic law to choose, from, "court shopping" became a regular practice in all manner of affairs. As el-Leithy says on this point:
"The more such Copts became integrated into Muslim society and law, the less likely they were to remain Christian. Even should such Copts remain officially Christian, Coptic law retained only a partial hold on their desires, possibilities and practices: their Christianity was as superficial as that nominal Islam of which older Muslim authors accused Coptic converts."
El-Leithy discusses this mainly through the correspondence of Patriarch Yuhanna XIII, who reigned from 1483-1524, but frequent supporting evidence from other sources, particularly Cairo Geniza documents from the 11th and 12th centuries, indicates that situation was not new, and probably forms an important element of the environment which made possible the massive conversion waves in response to Mamluk pressures and enticements.