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Christians in the Muslim World

Intermediaries Between Enemy Worlds

Author: Bartolomé Bennassar and Lucile Bennassar Title: Les chrétiens d'Allah. L'histoire extraordinaire des renégats Publisher: Perrin, Paris, 2001, 595 pp.

Lucile Bennassar is a historian; Bartolomé Bennassar is a more well-known historian. In 2005 they published with the same publisher their Histoire des Espagnols, tomo 1, VI°-XVII° siècles. In 2002 Hachette published his L'inquisition espagnole : XV°-XIX° siècle. The work reviewed here, which deals with the extraordinary story of the renegades, deals with epochs with which Bartolomé Bennassar has greater familiarity. As regards the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the archives of the Inquisition, which have been consulted by Lucile and Bartolomé Bennassar, mention procedures dealing with Christians who became Muslims and then returned willingly or otherwise - to lands governed by Catholic princes: hundeds of thousands of men and women with Christian origins who became Muslims at that time, often under the coercion of imprisonment but also at times voluntarily. As regards these examples of coercion, these were carried out either by, or on behalf of, Muslim political authorities: after being made prisoners, for example, after a military defeat or after a raid on European coasts or at the time of violent encounters in the Mediterranean sea or the Atlantic ocean.

 

The authors employ a label renegades without defining it sufficiently, according to Church law and according to the regimes of princes and the juridical systems that were in force during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. With its almost six hundred pages, this work reads rather like a novel of cruel adventures. Whatever the case, the authors have tried to understand what induced a part of the Christians who became Muslims to subsequently request, when this became possible, an audience at the Sant Uffizio to ask for their own reintegration into the Roman Catholic Church. Many of them fomented revolts to escape, with the purpose of dying as Christians, even though at times this could have been the outcome of a desire to go back to lands where trade was promising more because it was dominant. The authors, according to what they state, have deliberately wanted to remain dependent on the written sources of the Inquisition and have not hesitated to emphasise that in certain returns to the Roman Catholic Church a certain component of ambiguity was to be found.

 

With regard to the Inquisition, it appears from the sources on the renegades that the threats of punishment with fire or galley ships were only applied rarely; instead a compassionate welcoming was engaged in. Some renegades were not even touched by the Inquisition on their return to Western European lands. The renegades were able, at least in part, to exercise the role of intermediaries between two civilisations, one Christian and the other Muslim, which both abhorred above all atheists and the company of atheists. But did not the renegades, in relation to both the Christian faith and the Muslim faith, perhaps possess only weak rudiments? Some renegades must have embraced the Muslim religion when they were very young, given that since their early childhood they had grown up away from the lands where they were born.

 

As regards the experience of these Christians, how many were forced to remain Muslims? How many, instead, wanted to remain Muslims? And amongst all these Christians, how many came back because they really wanted to and how many did so against their will? The statistics make it impossible to establish the answers to these questions and this the two authors honestly admit; yet they believe that the experience of violence and force was not the only experience. Some Christians who became Muslims remained so voluntarily. Amongst these, some sought subsequently to develop trade with the Christians of their countries of origin or with lands that bordered on the Ottoman Empire. And some renegades were able to take the pathway to the Church, at times even with the consent of their ancient Ottoman dominator.

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