The issue of forced conversion from Islam to Christianity – and vice versa – in the Middle Ages is surrounded by a fog of confusion, preconceptions and lack of reliable sources. Let’s take what we now call Spain and Portugal as an example.
At the fall of the western Roman Empire in the fifty century, the Christian Visigoths ruled the peninsula. They had adhered to the Arian version of the faith but were cajoled by the papacy in to accepting mainstream Catholicism. In the year 711, Christian Iberia fell to an invading army from north Africa and so began seven hundred years of an Islamic presence.
By the 1000s, some historians believe the majority of Spaniards had converted to Islam living in the more populous and thoroughly Islamified cities in the south like Cordoba and Seville. The northern crusader kingdoms that emerged like Leon and Aragon were more sparsely populated.
The Islamic position was to tolerate the ‘dhimmi’ faiths of Judaism and Christianity on condition they paid a special tax, obeyed the laws of the caliphate and did not seek to convert muslims. The position on those who commit apostasy – leave Islam for another religion – is still argued about. The main body of the Koran leaves room for doubt that the death penalty was automatic but the subsequent ‘hadith’ – or sayings of Mohammed – are a lot more strident. Click here for more on that debate.
Like Jews in the rest of Europe, Christians were barred from certain professions and were at the receiving end of petty restrictions. They were often forced to do menial jobs like cleaning the sewers or the streets.
I think most ordinary people – once deciding that the caliphate in Spain was going to be a permanent feature – threw their lot in with the faith of the ruling class. After all, who wants to pay more tax than they have to and if you wanted to advance in society, why make a fuss over theology. That may be too simplistic, but I think a combination of peer pressure, financial pinch and fear of authority drove people in to the mosques.
There were periods of oppression where the official tolerance collapsed – normally in response to external threats. But otherwise Spain and Portugal became lands of three faiths: Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Once the Christian kings of the north began to push the muslims back towards Morocco, they didn’t immediately embark on forced conversions of muslims. Indeed, one Spanish king proudly declared he was the sovereign of the three faiths of Spain.
But the Catholic church wasn’t going to tolerate this situation forever. Jews and Muslims were herded in to ghettoes – there’s still a part of Lisbon called the ‘Mouraria’ after the “moors” that lived there. You also find ‘judiarias’ in Iberian cities where Jews were grouped. Again, I think most ordinary people waited and saw if the new rulers were going to prevail then threw in their lot with the ruling faith.
Those that couldn’t stomach conversion held out and by 1492 when the last emir, of Granada, had been kicked out – there was still a sizable muslim community. This was when King Ferdinand and even more so Queen Isabela struck and made ‘infidels’ either convert or leave the country.
All of which begs the question, did the Templars enforce conversion to Christianity on muslims they found themselves ruling over. I think the answer is no. In outremer, the Holy Land, the mission of the Order was to protect the Holy places and allow access by Christians on pilgrimage from all over Europe. But the idea that they actively sought to force Christianity on the muslims and Jews of Jerusalem or Acre seems wide of the mark.
The medieval papacy seems to have reserved its most cruel behaviour for other Christians promoting heretical strands of belief – like the Cathars. Particularly as the Cathars threatened the church’s property interests in southern France as well as the loss of thousands of souls.