Converts and Social Integration

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Converts and Social Integration



Non-Arab Muslims . After the Muslim conquest of non-Arab lands in the eighth century, non-Arabs in these regions gradually but steadily converted to Islam, creating a demographic transformation of Muslim society. Arabs were no longer the only Muslims. Modern scholars explain the conversion of non-Arabs in many ways, the most common being economic. Non-Muslims paid two kinds of taxes; jizya and kharaj both of which were higher than a Muslim’s zakat and the ’ushr taxes. The jizya was paid by the People of the Book in lieu of military service and for protection by the state (thus, the designation “Protected People”). Theoretically, if one converted to Islam, such a tax no longer applied. There are several flaws in this widespread theory. First, the number of people who converted to Islam was much greater than those who achieved economic advantage by doing so. The state saw a disadvantage in granting fiscal equality to new Muslims, and some government officials, especially during the Umayyad period (651–750), demanded that converts continue to pay the jizya tax. Because Islam regarded all Muslims as equal brethren within the ummah, these officials contradicted the teachings of Islam by following such a policy.

Mawali . Umayyad officials also established an inflammatory social policy regarding new converts. Non-Arab Muslims became known as mawali, similar to the status accorded freed slaves in pre-Islamic society, creating a hierarchical social structure in which the mawali were considered inferior in social status. Pious Muslims of Arab origin objected to this policy and began to argue for a change. A social movement of Arabs and non-Arabs favoring integration formed the nucleus of a growing opposition to the Umayyads. At some point the state policy of distinguishing between non-Arab Muslims and Arab Muslims became useless. Converts assumed Islamic (Arabic) names, increasingly spoke Arabic, and intermarried with Arabs. The ethnic divide became less and less sharply delineated. Family ties and mutual business interests emerged between Arab and non-Arab Muslims, and a growing, vocal segment of the society began to call for integration and equality for the mawali. Such demands became so widespread that the reformist Umayyad khalifah ‘Umar ibn Abd al-Aziz (ruled 717–720) attempted to introduce social and tax reforms to address the brewing tension. His reforms proved only temporary, however, and when later khalifahs reversed his policies, rebellions flared up even more frequently than before ‘Umar’s reforms. The Umayyads’ failure to make needed social reforms spelled the end of their dynasty. An underground revolutionary movement succeeded in defeating their armies by 750.

The Abbasid Revolution . The Umayyads were followed by the Abbasid dynasty, which ruled from 750 to 1258. During this long period, so many social, political, and economic changes took place that the social structures and organization toward the end of these five centuries little resembled those at the beginning. The most profound change was in the nature of the new society. To integrate the mawali into the power structure of the state—and thus uphold the principle of equality for all Muslims—the Abbasids abolished the status of mawla, meaning that it no longer defined a social class. Government bureaucrats were increasingly people of mixed origins. The scribes employed by the Abbasid khilafah were largely Persians or Persianized Aramaeans. This group was so large that it constituted a social class, the kuttab (scribal class), and they wielded considerable political and social influence. Books were published on Persian ideas, values, and, most important, political practices. Soon books and treatises began to praise the heritage of other ethnic groups. Al-Jahiz (circa 776–869), one of the most brilliant literary figures of his time and of partial African descent, wrote a tract in praise of blacks. Arabs responded by writing tracts in praise of their culture. A lively literary debate was carried out in this manner for nearly a century. This literary movement came to be known as the Shuubiyya movement (loosely translated as “people’s pride” movement). It may be seen as an indication of the vibrancy of Islamic society at the time and as an indication of that society’s multi-ethnic and multicultural makeup.

Persians . The successes of the Abbasids in integrating the Persians may be measured not only by the preponderance of the Persians in the scribal class but also by the powerful new governmental positions that were staffed largely by Persians, particularly the office of the wazir. Holders of this office were at the head of the bureaucracy and became the second most powerful figures in the realm. Depending on the energy and the inclinations of the khalifah, the wazir was sometimes delegated the authority to make all appointments and to lead the army of the khilafah. Indeed, under the Abbassids the mawali—especially the Persians—came a long way from their position of inferiority under the Umayyads. In studying patterns of conversion to Islam, Richard Bulliet has found that by 750 (that is, during the Umayyad period) only 7 percent of Persians had converted to Islam, but within fifty years of the advent of the Abbasids and their social programs (that is, between 750 and 800) nearly 45 percent were converted. It took another one hundred years for the majority of the Persians to convert to Islam and for Zoroastrians to dwindle to a small minority.


In the ninth century, as Muslim society grew increasingly diverse, writers began to describe the merits of their various racial or ethnic groups. In his Kitab al-Imta’wa al Mu’anasah (Book of Enjoyment and Good Company) the tenth century Arabic philosopher and man of letters Abu Hayyan al-Tawhidi commented on this tendency:

It is not in the Persian’s nature nor his custom nor his origin to acknowledge the merit of the Arab, and neither is it in the nature of the Arab nor in his habit that he be delighted at the merit of the Persian. And the same applies to the Indian, the Greek, the Turk, the Dailamite, and others, for the consideration of merit and nobility rests upon two things. The first is that by which one people became distinguished from another, at the time of the creation, by the choice of good and bad, by correct and erroneous opinion, and by the contemplation of the beginning and die end. The matter depends upon this, but secondly, every nation has virtues and vices and every people has good and bad qualities, and every group of people is both complete and deficient in its industry and its wielding of influence. And it is decreed that bounties and merits and faults be poured forth over all mankind, scattered among them all.

Thus the Persians have politics, manners of government, restraints, and ceremonies; the Greeks have science and wisdom; the Indians have thought, deliberation, agility, beguilement, and perseverence; the Turks have courage and boldness; the Negroes have patience, the ability for hard labor, and joy; and the Arabs have bravery, hospitable reception, fidelity, gallantry, generosity, responsibility to obligation, oratory, and a gift for explanation.

Moreover, the merits mentioned above, in these famous nations, are not possessed by everyone of their individuals but rather are wide-spread among them. But there are some in their group who are devoid of all of them and are characterized by their opposite; that is, the Persians do not lack a man ignorant of politics and lacking in manners, found among the riffraff and the rabble. Similarly, the Arabs do not lack a cowardly or an ignorant or a foolish or a miserly or an inarticulate man. And the same holds true for the Indians, the Greeks, and others. Accordingly, when the people of merit and perfection from the Greeks are compared with the people of merit and perfection from the Persians, they come together on an even path. There is no difference between them except in the degrees of merit and the extents of perfection, and those are general rather than specific. In a like manner, when the people of shortcoming and vileness of one nation are compared with those of shortcoming and vileness of another nation, they come together on a single path. There is no difference between them except in degrees and extents. And no attention is paid to that nor any blame put upon it. Thus it has become clear from this list that all the nations have divided among themselves merits and shortcomings by the necessity of natural endowment and the choice of thought. Beyond that, people only compete among themselves regarding inheritance, native custom, overwhelming passion of irras-cible souls, and the angry impulse of emotional force.

Here is another thing, an important principle which it is not possible to avoid pointing out in our discussion. Every nation has a period of domination over its opponents.… And for this reason, Abu Muslim, when asked which people he found most courageous, said, “All people are courageous when their fortune is rising.” He had spoken truly. And accordingly, every nation at the beginning of its prosperity is virtuous, courageous, brave, worthy of glory, generous, outstanding, eloquent, perceptive, and reliable. This point of view is extrapolated from a phenomenon common to all nations, to one universal to each nation at a time, to a thing embracing each group, to one prevalent to each tribe, to something customary in each family, to one special to each person and each man. And this change from nation to nation illustrates the abundance of the generosity of God to all His creation and creatures in proportion to their fulfillment of His demand and their readiness to exert themselves at length in attaining it.

Source: “Enjoyment and Good Company,” translated by John Oamis, in Introduction to Arabic Literature, edited by Use Lichtenstadter (New York: Schocken, 1976), pp. 353–357.


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