Abstract Dr. Uriel Simonsohn
Uriel Simonsohn (Department of Midddle Eastern History, University of Haifa)
Abstract: The Liminal Place of Converts to Islam: Language, Law, Society, and Culture
When considering questions of integration, assimilation, and adjustment in the formative centuries of Islam it is vital to think about the human vectors who facilitated, or triggered, civilizational changes. Recent scholarship has duly noted the process by which Islamic civilization took shape through the constant absorption of ideas and adaptation to changing social and political circumstances. Accordingly, modern scholars have come to acknowledge the significance of cross cultural ties in the course of this process. The Muslim takeover of territories that were inhabited by a rich variety of communities of different cultural backgrounds had a crucial impact on the evolving contours of Islamic civilization through the early and medieval Islamic periods. The process was likely to have accelerated once members of these communities began switching alliances and entered the Muslim fold, as conversion to Islam appears to have been anything but a swift and absolute act. Both the gradual nature of conversion to Islam and the enduring ties of Muslim converts with their former coreligionists were to imbue converts with brokering qualities.
It is the premise of this talk that the place of Muslim converts was central among the human vectors through which ideas and practices took on an Islamic badge. The significance of shifting communal allegiances, therefore, exceeded changing spiritual convictions, as it entailed dramatic social and cultural intersections. Former non-Muslims who joined the Muslim fold constituted vital conduits of cultural change as they sustained former social solidarities while creating new ones.
In this talk I wish to draw attention to the liminal positions of converts to Islam in the early and medieval Islamic periods. It is this liminality, I believe, which rendered the place of Muslim converts so central in the course of an emerging, and constantly changing, Islamic civilization. My analysis will evolve around four main spheres of inquiry: linguistic, legal, social, and cultural. Linguistically, I will seek to show how the terminology used in Hebrew, Syriac, and Arabic to refer to apostates was aimed at individuals who retained some level of contact with their former coreligionists, rather than burned all bridges. With regard to law, I will discuss the place of converts to Islam in the legal affairs of their former communities. From a social perspective, I will point out to the endurance of social ties between converts and their former coreligionists as relatives, neighbors, or business partners. And, finally, culturally, I shall dwell upon the persistence of cultural practices and sentiments among converts to Islam, with regard to aspects of ritual, education, perceptions of proper government, and architecture.