Conversion, exemption, and manipulation: social benefits and conversion to Islam in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages

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The choice of individuals and groups to embrace Islam in the first few centuries after its emergence is rightfully considered an act that was charged with spiritual meaning. At the same time, however, the act also brought with it dramatic implications for the configuration of communities whose social and political structures were dictated by theological ideologies, scriptural traditions and memories of primordial pasts. In this essay, I wish to focus on the social aspects of conversion to Islam, particularly on how shifts in confessional affiliation were prompted by social concerns. Once they entered into the Islamic fold, the new converts were able to enjoy a variety of benefits and exemptions from burdens that had been imposed on them as non-Muslims. Yet conversion to Islam did not only offer exemption from taxes or liberation from slavery. In the final part of this essay, I attempt to show that conversion to Islam, or even its mere prospect, could be used for obtaining various favours in the course of negotiations for social improvement. An ecclesiastical authorization to divorce without legal justification, the release of a Jewish widow from her levirate bonds, and the evasion of penal sanctions are examples of some of the exemptions that were sought out or issued in response to conversion to Islam. In the period under discussion, in the context of a social setting that was founded on confessional affiliation, conversion to Islam signalled a social opportunity that was at times manipulated by individuals for the sake of improving their personal status.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)196-216
Number of pages21
JournalMedieval Worlds
StatePublished - 1 Jan 2017


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