Featured Story - Conversion to Islam in the Pre-modern Age

coverUriel Simonson (University of Haifa) and Luke Yarbrough (UCLA), organizers of the 2020–21 IIAS Research Group  “Cultural Brokerage in Pre-modern Islam,”  are celebrating the publication of a new book that they co-edited with Nimrod Hurvitz (Ben Gurion University) and Christian Sahner (University of Oxford).

Their book, Conversion to Islam in the Premodern Age: A Sourcebook, contains 57 primary-source passages that shed light on processes of conversion across the first millennium of Islamic history.   The selections are introduced and translated, from a dozen languages, by more than forty leading scholars.

The co-editors have contributed sweeping introductions on conversion to Islam as a historical phenomenon spanning eras and far-flung locales.




Many of the selections in the sourcebook illustrate the kind of cultural change—namely, cultural brokerage—that Simonsohn, Yarbrough, and their Research Group are examining this year. “Cultural brokerage” has been invested with subtly different meanings in different academic disciplines. It involves the mediation of cultural change by agents who are deeply embedded in particular historical settings. This mechanism is amply attested in cases of conversion. For example, contributor Daphna Ephrat (Open University of Israel) translates excerpts from a hagiography about the thirteenth-century Sufi master ʿAbdallāh al-Yūnīnī, known as the “Lion of Syria.” Al-Yūnīnī was said to have led several Christians to convert by performing “miracles” that reflect his deep acquaintance with the local culture. In one instance, he reads a greedy Christian peasant’s mind, generously giving him all of his own possessions, which the peasant had been secretly coveting. The peasant converts to Islam in response. This account presents al-Yūnīnī as a cultural intermediary in the sense proposed by the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu: a figure who assigns value to particular aspects of culture, such as religious values, and convinces others to follow her or him. Tales like this one would have affected the way that contemporary Muslims and non-Muslims imagined the roles of gift-giving and performances of supernatural intuition in catalyzing religious change.

Cultural change is not, of course, always welcomed, particularly when it involves change as potentially profound as religious conversion. Another selection, provided by Ulrich Rebstock (University of Freiburg), highlights another side of conversion: its gradual and uncertain progress in particular regions, here the Songhay Empire on the Niger River. The author of the text is a Muslim firebrand of the fifteenth and sixteenth century named al-Maghīlī. In the text, al-Maghīlī attacks the allegedly insincere and backsliding converts that he observed in this region. In terms of “cultural brokerage,” the North African al-Maghīlī is imposing a new level of severity within what had clearly been a more fluid West African Islam. The people he criticized, meanwhile, were, by their practices, gently adjusting what it meant to practice Islam in their own West African setting.

The Research Group “Cultural Brokerage in Pre-modern Islam” brings together experts on pre-modern Islamic thought, administrative practice, advice literature, gender, trade, empire, and more in order to fine-tune a theory of “cultural brokerage” that is sensitive to the specific dynamics of Islamic history.