Every American knows that Egypt is an overwhelmingly Muslim country, by far the most populous Arab Muslim state.  Many Americans, on consideration, might also be aware that, before the arrival of Islam, Egypt was just as solidly Christian, the cultural and spiritual heart of the early Church.  How did one situation give way to the other?

Although Egypt’s Christians had been subject to previous outbreaks of persecution, these events now reached an alarming new intensity.  Mobs demanded that Christians and Jews recite the Muslim profession of faith upon threat of being burned alive.  The government struck at churches and confiscated the estates of monasteries, destroying the financial basis of the Coptic Church.  And the persecution now reached the whole country, rather than being confined to Cairo.  Under increasingly violent conditions, many Christians accepted Islam, in a massive wave of conversions.  Muslim historian Al-Maqrizi reports the unprecedented scale of the change:

Many reports came from both Upper and Lower Egypt of Copts being converted to Islam, frequenting mosques and memorizing the Quran . . . In all the provinces of Egypt, both north and south, no church remained that had not been razed; on many of those sites, mosques were constructed.  For when the Christians’ affliction grew great and their incomes small, they decided to embrace Islam.  Thus Islam spread among the Christians of Egypt and in the town of Qalyub alone 450 persons were converted to Islam in a single day. . . . [T]his was a momentous event in Egyptian history.

These events occurred in 1354, at a time when Europe was entering the early Renaissance, decades after the time of Dante, and, more to the point, 700 years after the initial Arab conquest of Egypt.

In light of popular constructions of history, the Egyptian story seems multiply wrong, in terms both of the chronology or religious change and, more particularly, of its manner.  Partly, we suffer from the curse of oversimple maps.  As any number of textbooks and television documentaries tell us, Islam rapidly extended its power over the Middle East, in a movement symbolized as a fast-spreading stain.  The maps imply that conversion to Islam was a swift and painless process: Presumably, infidels rapidly came to acknowledge the superior virtues of Islam.

The notion of an easy, amiable conversion fits well with the many recent books that stress the tolerant nature of Islam and its reluctance to impose its beliefs by force.  Karen Armstrong famously contrasts Muslim tolerance with the bigotry so evident in Christian history.  Writing of Islamic Spain in the ninth century, she remarks that, “Like the Jews, Christians were allowed full religious liberty within the Islamic empire and most Spaniards were proud to belong to such an advanced culture, light years ahead of the rest of Europe.”  The notion of Islamic tolerance is often associated with idealized pictures of the friendly coexistence that supposedly prevailed in medieval Spain, the convivencia.

Coexistence in some times and places does not preclude persecution in others, however.  Much as Christian Europe treated its Jewish population, good social relationships between Muslims and Christians could endure for decades or even centuries.  But in the world of Islam as in Europe, persecution, when it did arise, could be savage, devastating the minority community, and, in both cases, the 14th century witnessed a crescendo of violence and discrimination.  Even in the most optimistic view, Armstrong’s reference to Christians possessing “full religious liberty” in Muslim Spain or elsewhere beggars belief.

Undeniably, many Christians and others (Jews and Zoroastrians) were driven to accept the new faith, whether by outright persecution or systematic discrimination, exercised over centuries.  Nor did Christianity simply fade away of its own accord, following a centuries-long downward slope to oblivion.  Across the Christian worlds of Africa and Asia, the 12th and 13th centuries marked a widespread cultural renaissance in many lands and many tongues, movements that produced some of the greatest thinkers and authors of the Christian Middle Ages, dazzling Syriac scholars such as Bar-Hebraeus and Jacob Bar Salibi.  Only around 1300 did the ax fall, and quite suddenly.

So extensive, indeed, were persecutions and reductions of minority groups that it is astonishing how little they have registered in Western consciousness, or how readily the myth of Muslim tolerance has been accepted.  One factor distorting memory has been the total oblivion into which the non-European Christian communities have fallen, coupled with the assumption that the familiar realities of the present day must always have existed.  For those accustomed to a near-solidly Muslim Middle East, it seems incredible that a different situation might ever have existed, or, if it did, that it could ever have experienced a different outcome.  And such a vision has contemporary relevance: If we know nothing of Middle Eastern Christians, we care little for their welfare: hence, the moral blindness in U.S. policy toward the region over the past century.

To stress intolerance in Islamic history does not mean that we must abandon one mindless stereotype—universal convivencia—and replace it with another image, that of ceaseless violence and persecution.  Anyone who believes that boundless aggression and ruthless tyranny over minorities are built into the DNA of Islam needs to explain the quite benevolent nature of Muslim rule during its first six centuries; but advocates of Islamic tolerance must work equally hard to account for the later years of the religion’s historical experience.  Though Muslim regimes could tolerate other faiths for long periods, that willingness to live and let live did fail at various times, and, at some critical points, it collapsed utterly.  The deeply rooted Christianity of Africa and Asia did not simply fade away: It was crushed.