Background

Date: Tuesday 4th - Wednesday 5th June 2013

Venue: St Mary’s University, Twickenham 

Generously supported by: The Society for Renaissance Studies, St Mary’s University and the School of Theology, Philosophy and History (St Mary’s University)

Symposium Organisers: Claire Norton and Nur Sobers-Khan

This two-day symposium was generously supported by the Society for Renaissance Studies and St Mary's University.

The topic of religious conversion into and out of Islam as a historical phenomenon is one that is mired in a sea of debate and misunderstanding. Religious conversion tends to be viewed as the crossing of a line that cannot be re-crossed. The convert traverses not only religious divisions, but in an early modern or Renaissance context, frequently political, cultural and geographic boundaries as well, thereby blurring allegiances and identities. Although conversion is often interpreted as involving the active spiritual conviction of the convert, the paradigm of religious conversion as solely engendered by a self-conscious psychological and spiritual conviction is problematic in the early modern/Renaissance context as religious practice was not necessarily viewed as an entity separate from one's identity and sense of communal belonging. Reading between the lines of a wide variety of sources suggests that religious conversion between Christianity, Judaism and Islam in the early modern Mediterranean often had a more pragmatic and prosaic aspect and constituted a form of cultural translation and a means of establishing communal belonging through the shared, and often contested articulation of religious identities.

This symposium took an approach to religious conversion that did not view religion as a specific set of orthodox beliefs and strict practices to be adopted wholesale by the religious individual or convert. However, it did not uncritically argue that conversion was simply undertaken for the sake of economic or social advancement. Instead the conference participants analysed conversion as part of a process of acculturation which facilitated the adoption of a world view and set of cultural practices that allowed the convert to interact with a specifically human, rather than divine, set of cultural beliefs that enabled him to make sense of his surroundings and encouraged a sense of belonging to a wider community of fellow believers. It explored the role conversion played in the fabrication of cosmopolitan Mediterranean identities and examined the idea of the convert as a mediator and translator between cultures. The twenty-one speakers included professors, junior scholars and postgraduate students from countries as far afield as the US, Germany, Turkey, Italy, Greece, and Hungary. Their papers considered in a variety of different ways how early modern converts traversed not only religious divisions, but also political, cultural and geographic boundaries thereby complicating allegiances and identities. Many also explored the role conversion played in the fabrication of cosmopolitan Mediterranean identities and how it intersected with trading networks, wider patterns of voluntary or involuntary economic migration, and the dissemination of ideas, intellectual traditions, cultural practices and material goods.

All the papers were of a very high standard and resulted in some stimulating conversations and debates at the end of the various panels and during the coffee and lunch breaks. An edited volume of selected papers from the symposium is planned and will hopefully be published in late 2014 or early 2015. I would like to thank all the participants for sharing their research and making this event so successful. Most importantly however, I want to express my gratitude to St Mary's University for hosting the symposium, and to both St Mary's and the Society for Renaissance Studies for generously providing funding without which the symposium would not have happened.