How the Islamic World was Forged: An Exercise in Common Sense
How most of the non-Muslim ancestors of today’s Muslims were converted to Islam.
Raymond Ibrahim is a Shillman Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
What made non-Muslims convert to Islam, leading to the creation of the Islamic world?
Early historical sources—both Muslim and non-Muslim—make clear that the Islamic empire was forged by the sword; that people embraced Islam, not so much out of sincere faith, but for a myriad of reasons—from converting in order to enjoy the boons of being on the “winning team” to converting in order to evade the dooms of being on the “losing team.”
Modern day Muslims and other apologists—primarily in academia, government, and mainstream media—reject this idea. They argue that the non-Muslims who embraced Islam did so from sheer conviction; that the ancestors of today’s 1.5 billion Muslims all converted to Islam due to its intrinsic appeal; that the modern day coercion and persecution committed by the Islamic State and other organizations is an aberration.
Of course, as mentioned, the primary texts of history are full of anecdotes demonstrating the opposite. However, because ours is an increasingly ahistorical society, in this essay I endeavor to show that sheer common sense alone validates what history records, namely, that the Islamic world and its populace was forged through violent coercion.
To do so, I will use Egypt—one of the most important Muslim majority nations and my ancestral homeland—as a paradigm. I will show how a historic fact that Islam’s apologists habitually boast of—that there are still millions of Christians in Egypt (approximately 10% of the population)—is not proof of Islam’s tolerance but rather its intolerance.
In the 7th century, when Islam was being formulated, Egypt had been Christian for centuries, before most of Europe had converted. Alexandria was one of the most important ecclesiastical centers of ancient Christian learning and, along with Rome and Antioch, one of the original three sees. Much literary and ongoing archeological evidence attest to the fact that Christianity permeated the whole of Egypt.
Writing around the year 400—roughly two-and-a-half centuries before the Arab invasion—John Cassian, a Christian monk from the region of modern day Romania, observed that
the traveler from Alexandria in the north to Luxor in the south would have in his ears along the whole journey, the sounds of prayers and hymns of the monks, scattered in the desert, from the monasteries and from the caves, from monks, hermits, and anchorites.
The question now becomes: what made such an ancient and heavily Christian nation become Islamic? More specifically, what made the ancestors of today’s Egyptian Muslims—most of who were Coptic Christians—convert to Islam?
For an objective answer to this question, a completely overlooked factor must be considered.
In the 7th century, when Muslim Arabs overran Egypt, and on into the medieval era, religion was not something to be casually adhered to or changed as it is today in the West. People of that era were true believers; there was no alternative narrative—no so-called “science vs God” claims.
Whatever religion a person was born into was accepted with absolute conviction—despite the many movies that project modernity onto Medieval Christians. (Thus the focal character of Kingdom of Heaven, Balian, and all other Christian protagonists reject the “fanatical Christians” and exhibit a more open, tolerant, and “nuanced” view on religion, including Islam. Such depictions are anachronisms with little grounding in history.)
In Medieval Europe, the truths of Christianity were etched into the minds of all, from youth on up. There was no doubt—because there was no alternative. As historian of Medieval Europe and the Crusades Thomas Madden puts it:
[T]he medieval world was not the modern world. For medieval people, religion was not something one just did at church. It was their science, their philosophy, their politics, their identity, and their hope for salvation. It was not a personal preference but an abiding and universal truth.
In this context, to apostatize, to leave the Christian faith, especially for another creed, was the most unthinkable of all transgressions against one’s own soul—a sin that would lead to eternal damnation.
It was of course the same with Muslims. The point here is that pre-modern man took the religion of his people, his tribe, his world, very seriously—especially when such religions taught that failure to do so, or worse, to willingly apostatize, would lead to eternal hell.
Put differently, even if Islam offered intrinsic appeal, the idea that pre-modern Christians were “free” to choose to convert—free of guilt, free of fear, free of existential trauma—is anachronistic and thus implausible.
Again, Western man, who lives in an era when people change religions as often as they change shoes, may have great difficulty in fully appreciating this idea. But it is true nonetheless.
After writing that “Christians saw crusades to the east as acts of love and charity, waged against Muslim conquerors in defense of Christian people and their lands,” Madden correctly observes:
It is easy enough for modern people to dismiss the crusades as morally repugnant or cynically evil. Such judgements, however, tell us more about the observer than the observed. They are based on uniquely modern (and, therefore, Western) values. If, from the safety of our modern world, we are quick to condemn the medieval crusader, we should be mindful that he would be just as quick to condemn us [regarding our values and priorities]…. In both societies, the medieval and the modern, people fight for what is most dear to them.
If Europeans were this dedicated to Christianity in the medieval era, what of the Copts of Egypt who were Christian many centuries earlier? Indeed, according to some historical sources, Egypt’s ancient Christians may have been especially tenacious in their zeal.
What, then, made them convert to Islam in mass is the question before us?
Is it plausible to believe that the primitive Muslim conquerors of Egypt did not discriminate against its indigenous Christians or pressure them to convert to Islam (even as Muslims do so now in the “enlightened” modern era)?
Is it true, to quote Georgetown University professor John Esposito, that Christians “were free to practice their faith to worship and be governed by their religious leaders and laws in such areas as marriage, divorce, and inheritance. In exchange, they were required to pay tribute, a poll tax (jizya) that entitled them to Muslim protection from outside aggression and exempted them from military service.” (Rebuttal to this assertion here.)
And yet, though left in peace and unpressured, Egypt’s original Christians found the new creed of sword-swinging, camel-riding Arabs so intrinsically appealing that they willingly apostatized in mass from the religion of their forefathers—a religion that was so fundamental to their being, albeit in a way modern man cannot comprehend?
In fact, common sense suggests that nothing less than extremely severe circumstances and hardships—persecution—prompted the Copts to convert to Islam.
Of course, for the historian who reads the primary sources—as opposed to the mainstream works of fiction being peddled as “history” by the likes of Karen Armstrong and others—the above exercise in common sense is superfluous.
For the primary sources make clear that, while Egypt’s Copts acquiesced to dhimmi status—constantly paying large sums of extortion money and accepting life as third class subjects with few rights simply to remain Christian—bouts of extreme persecution regularly flared up. And with each one, more and more Christians converted to Islam in order to find relief.
One telling example: in Muslim historian Taqi al-Din al-Maqrizi’s (d. 1442) authoritative history of Egypt, anecdote after anecdote is recorded of Muslims burning churches, slaughtering Christians, and enslaving their women and children. The only escape then—as it is increasingly today—was for Christians to convert to Islam.
After recording one particularly egregious bout of persecution, where countless Christians were slaughtered, enslaved, and raped, and where reportedly some 30,000 churches in Egypt and Syria were destroyed—a staggering number that further indicates how Christian the Near East was before Islam—the pious Muslim historian makes clear why Christians converted: “Under these circumstances a great many Christians became Muslims” (emphasis added).
Alongside these times of extreme persecution, the entrenched dhimmi system saw the increasingly impoverished Egyptian people slowly convert to Islam over the centuries, so that today only 10% remain Christian.
Consider the words of Alfred Butler, a 19th century historian writing before political correctness came to dominate academia. In The Arab Conquest of Egypt, he highlights the “vicious system of bribing the Christians into conversion”:
[A]lthough religious freedom was in theory secured for the Copts under the capitulation, it soon proved in fact to be shadowy and illusory. For a religious freedom which became identified with social bondage and with financial bondage could have neither substance nor vitality. As Islam spread, the social pressure upon the Copts became enormous, while the financial pressure at least seemed harder to resist, as the number of Christians or Jews who were liable for the poll-tax [jizya] diminished year by year, and their isolation became more conspicuous. . . . [T]he burdens of the Christians grew heavier in proportion as their numbers lessened [that is, the more Christians converted to Islam, the more the burdens on the remaining few grew]. The wonder, therefore, is not that so many Copts yielded to the current which bore them with sweeping force over to Islam, but that so great a multitude of Christians stood firmly against the stream, nor have all the storms of thirteen centuries moved their faith from the rock of its foundation.
The reader will bear in mind that although the above exposition concerns Egypt, the same paradigm applies to the rest of conquered Christian lands. Today the whole of North Africa is reportedly 99% Muslim—yet few are aware that it was Christian majority in the 7th century when Islam invaded. St. Augustine—arguably the father of Western Christian theology—hailed from modern day Algeria.
Thus it is not an exaggeration to say that “the Islamic world” would be a fraction of its size, or might not exist at all, were it not for the fact that non-Muslims converted to Islam simply to evade oppression and persecution. Once all these Christians converted to Islam, all their progeny became Muslim in perpetuity, thanks to Islam’s apostasy law, which bans Muslims from leaving Islam on pain of death. Indeed, according to Dr. Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a leading cleric in the Muslim world, “If the [death] penalty for apostasy was ignored, there would not be an Islam today; Islam would have ended on the death of the prophet.”
Which leads to one of Islam’s most bitterest of ironies: a great many of today’s Christians, especially those in the Arab world, are being persecuted by Muslims whose own ancestors were persecuted Christians who converted to Islam to end their own suffering. In other words, Muslim descendants of persecuted Christians are today persecuting their Christian cousins—and thus perpetuating the cycle that made them Muslim in the first the place.
The long and short of all this is simple: Past and present, Islam has been a religion of coercion. More than half of the territory that once made up Christendom—including Egypt, Syria, Turkey, North Africa—converted to Islam due to bouts of extreme violence and ongoing financial bleeding. The Islamic State and like organizations and Muslims around the world are not aberrations but continuations. The violence, intolerance and coercion they exhibit—pressuring Christians to convert to Islam, compelling Muslims to remain in Islam—created and sustains what is today called the Islamic world.
Not only do we have a plethora of original source material proving these conclusions, but sheer common sense demonstrates as much.
1. St. Mark began evangelizing Egypt in the middle of the 1st century.
2. That two of the three original sees of Christianity originated in what are now two Muslim nations—Egypt and Turkey—further speaks to the Christian nature of the Middle East before the Islamic invasions.
3. Abba Anthony, Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate, Saint Anthony Monastery, March 2014, issue #3, p.6).
4. Thomas Madden, The New Concise History of the Crusades (NY: Barnes and Noble, 2007), 223.
5. As Muslims grew in numbers over the centuries in Egypt, so did persecution (according to Islam’s Rule of Numbers), culminating in the immensely oppressive Mameluke era (1250-1517), when Coptic conversion to Islam grew exponentially.
6. Taqi Ed-Din El-Maqrizi, A Short History of the Copts and Their Church, trans. S. C. Malan (London: D. Nutt, 1873), 88-91.
7. Alfred Butler, The Arab Invasion of Egypt and the Last 30 Years of Roman Dominion (Brooklyn: A & B Publishers, 1992), 464. One of the major themes throughout Butler’s book—which, first published in 1902, is heavily based on primary sources, Arabic and Coptic, unlike more modern secondary works that promote the Islamic “liberator” thesis—is that “there is not a word to show that any section of the Egyptian nation viewed the advent of the Muslims with any other feeling than terror” (p. 236):
Even in the most recent historians it will be found that the outline of the story [of the 7th century conquest of Egypt] is something as follows: …. that the Copts generally hailed them [Muslims] as deliverers and rendered them every assistance; and that Alexandria after a long siege, full of romantic episodes, was captured by storm. Such is the received account. It may seem presumptuous to say that it is untrue from beginning to end, but to me no other conclusion is possible. [emphasis added; pgs. iv-v]
Butler and other politically incorrect historians were and are aware of the savage and atrocity-laden nature of the Islamic conquests. The Coptic chronicler, John of Nikiu, a contemporary of the Arab conquest of Egypt and possibly an eyewitness, wrote:
Then the Muslims arrived in Nikiu [along the Nile]… seized the town and slaughtered everyone they met in the street and in the churches—men, women, and children, sparing nobody. Then they went to other places, pillaged and killed all the inhabitants they found…. But let us say no more, for it is impossible to describe the horrors the Muslims committed…”
Not, of course, that the average Muslim is aware of this fact. Indeed, in 2011 the Egyptian Muslim scholar Fadel Soliman published a book that was well received and widely promoted in the Islamic world, including by Al Jazeera, entitled Copts: Muslims Before Muhammad. The book makes the ahistorical and anachronistic—in a word, the absurd—argument that Egypt’s 7th century Christians were really prototypical Muslims and that that is why Arabia’s Muslims came to “liberate” them from “oppressive” Christian rule.
8. If not in theory, as some disingenuously argue, certainly in practice. See “Islamic Jihad and the Doctrine of Abrogation.”