The Medieval Review 17.12.13

Gelez, Philippe, and Gilles Grivaud, eds. Les conversions à l'Islam en Asie Mineure et dans les Balkans et dans le monde musulman: comparaisons et perspectives. Mondes méditerranéens et balkaniques, 7. Athens: École française d'Athènes, 2016. pp. 284.

Reviewed by:

Patricia Blessing
Pomona College

This edited volume is best viewed in perspective with the volume to which it serves as reaction and follow up, namely: Gilles Grivaud and Alexandre Popovic (eds.), Les conversions à l'islam en Asie Mineure et dans les Balkans aux époques seldjoukide et ottoman: Bibliographie raisonnée (1800-2000) (Athens: École française d'Athènes, 2011). For a review of that volume, to which the present reviewer did not have access, see that of Alexandre Papas. [1]

The present volume consists of the papers given at the symposium held at the École française d'Athènes in spring 2012 to celebrate the publication of this magisterial work. This fact is worth noting here, since it may explain why the bibliography in some of the individual chapters does not extend beyond works published in 2012. This is regrettable particularly with regard to Anatolia, where a number of relevant works have been published since. [2] Unlike such specialized volumes focusing on one region in a specific period, however, the volume under review has the advantage of broad coverage. Four chapters each focus on the Balkans/Anatolia and other regions of the Islamic world, respectively, and three on methodological questions. From this point of view, the volume has a lot to offer since it will allow scholars from different fields to engage jointly in reading on one large question, conversions to Islam. It is important to note that the conversions under discussion happen from a range of other religions: Judaism and Christianity in Anatolia, the Balkans, and the Middle East but also Hinduism and Buddhism in India and Indonesia. The big gaps in geographical coverage are Sub-Saharan Africa and Central Asia.

The individual chapters vary in their approaches, but often offer to frame the issues of conversions in the medieval and early modern period with the dynamics of the nineteenth to twenty-first centuries, engaging with backgrounds of colonial expansion, nationalism, and post-Soviet fragmentation. This is immensely useful, particularly when reading on a topic not close to one's area of specialization. The brief introduction sets up this premise, although not quite explicitly so.

The second introductory essay on the islamization of the Balkans by Philippe Gelez is also the most problematic in the volume. While the author states (19) that the bibliography edited by Grivaud and Popovic is the guiding line for the rest of his essay, the reader nevertheless would have appreciated the citing of references in the 55-page chapter that is almost devoid of them, and hence practically assumes familiarity with the bibliographic volume by Grivaud and Popovic. Without that book at hand, the essay is highly problematic, in that it does not explain where its sources lie. The following chapters revert to regular scholarly practice, and cite their references throughout, so this issue does not pertain to the entire volume. More careful editing would, however, have avoided the inconsistent spelling of names and the use of short titles that do not always make grammatical sense.

Alexander Beihammer's chapter is a detailed discussion of the early Seljuk conquest of Anatolia in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and how it is represented in Arabic, Persian, Byzantine, and Syriac sources. This is an excellent introduction to the primary sources, as well as to the historiographical framework within Turkey, where the Seljuks have been instrumentalized in a number of complex ways. Jacob M. Landau's chapter on the Jews and Dönme is a bibliographical essay that supplements the volume edited by Grivaud and Popovic (109); to list of younger scholars mentioned in the essay, one might add some of their recent publications, including the collection of Marc Baer's articles translated into Turkish and work of Cengiz Şişman. [3] Nenad Moačanin focuses on the success of islamization in Bosnia under Ottoman rule in the sixteenth century, arguing that socio-economic reasons played a central role. This short by pointed introduction is particularly useful for the non-specialist since much of the available bibliography not easily accessible. The following chapter by Philippe Gelez discusses changing attitudes towards Islam in the Balkans by non-Muslim rulers, particularly in the Hapsburg Empire in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, but also discusses issues of Bosnian and Croat identity beginning in the seventeenth century. This complex introduction provides a clear survey of publications that again, are not available to the specialist for linguistic reasons. In the second part of the book, essays on regions outside Anatolia and the Balkans begin with Aminah Mohammad-Arif's chapter on conversion to Islam in India, offering a large sweep from the early conquests in the eighth century to the Partition between India and Pakistan in 1947. This clearly argued essay is both general introduction and critical bibliographic survey, and hence an excellent starting point for scholars interested in this topic, but unfamiliar with India. Similarly, Olivier Sevin introduces the varied issues connected to conversions to Islam in a large geographical area that includes Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore, Brunei and East Timor. Both chapters have in common that unlike in the rest of the volume, conversions do not only happen from Christianity or Judaism. Discussing the Middle East from the sixteenth century to the present, Bernard Heyberger offers a critical discussion of confessionalisation and conversion, their relationship to the rise of Arab nationalism, and their contemporary aftereffects. Lucette Valensi expands the scope of the original bibliographic volume to discuss the forced mass-conversion of Jews to Catholicism in Spain in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, along with individual conversions, and compares it to the forced conversion of Muslims in two waves in the sixteenth century. Both tracks of conversion are closely intertwined with the Inquisition, large-scale emigration, for instance of Jews towards the Ottoman Empire in 1492, and the complex relationships between converts and non-converts. In the third section of the book, methodological reflections begin with Anneliese Nef's chapter on the seventh to tenth century, and looks at the studies listed in the bibliographic volume from the medievalist's point of view. This allows Nef to discuss, for instance, the meaning of conversion and islamization more broadly. Related to this discussion, Tijana Kristić emphasizes that for further research on conversions to Islam within the Ottoman Empire, a critical evaluation of the meanings of "Islam," "conversion" and "Ottoman Empire" is needed in order to move forward (245), and proceeds to suggest avenues to do this. The final essay, by Lucetta Scaraffia, discusses the range of issues connected to Christian identities as they face conversion to Islam, for instance the specifics that women may face when they convert. The regional focus is broad, with references to Anatolia, the Black Sea region, and Spain, among others.

Overall, as stated in the beginning, this volume is best viewed as a companion volume to Grivaud and Popovic (eds.), Les conversions à l'islam en Asie Mineure et dans les Balkans aux époques seldjoukide et ottoman since the chapters either react to or supplement the bibliography and framework offered there. Individual chapters are also useful in providing introductory bibliography, but particularly in highlighting some of the historiographical issues that arise in the study of conversion to Islam, both in general and with regard to specific regions.

-------- Notes:

1. Alexandre Papas, "Gilles Grivaud et Alexandre Popovic (eds.), Les conversions à l'islam en Asie Mineure et dans les Balkans aux époques seldjoukide et ottomane. Bibliographie raisonnée (1800-2000). Athènes, École Française d’Athènes, 2011, 904 p.," Cahiers de la Méditerranée 90 (2015):, accessed 6 September 2017).

2. E.g., A. C. S. Peacock, Bruno De Nicola, and Sara Nur Yildiz (eds.), Islam and Christianity in Medieval Anatolia (Farnham, Surrey, and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2015).

3. Marc Baer, Atmeydanı'nda Ölüm: 17. Yüzyıl İstanbul'unda Toplumsal Cinsiyet, Hoşgörü ve İhtida (Istanbul: Koç University Press, 2016); Cengiz Şişman, The Burden of Silence: Sabbatai Sevi and the Evolution of the Ottoman-Turkish Dönmes(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).

Copyright (c) 2018 Patricia Blessing

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