by Yurij Maximov
It is widely believed that Muslims do not abandon Islam.
This widespread opinion is, however, only partly true. It is true that it is difficult to convert Muslims, but it is not so much the difficulty of converting Muslims as it is the scarcity of Christian missions among them that leads us to believe they are hard to convert.
Still, if many think that Muslims are difficult to convert to Protestantism or Roman Catholicism, even more would think it impossible to convert Muslims to the Orthodox Faith. This later opinion has its basis in a general lack of knowledge about the missionary labors of the Orthodox throughout the ages and the world in places as diverse and far apart as Africa, India, Siberia, China, Japan, and Alaska.
Indeed, the history of Orthodox missions among the Muslims is a particularly important and fascinating part of the overall mission of the Orthodox Church. As it is impossible to fully cover the history of Orthodox missions among the Muslims here I have only attempted to highlight some of its facets to give those interested a better idea about this part of the Orthodox Church’s missions.
Although it is generally known that many of Muhammad’s followers found refuge in Ethiopia during the early years of Islam, it is not well known that one of his followers, Ubaidallah ibn Jahiz, became a Christian while in Ethiopia and was baptized there. He was the first Muslim, but certainly not the last, to discover and embrace the truth. Here are two stories from the early history of Islam, both set in the reign of the fourth ‘righteous’ caliph, Muhammad’s nephew and son-in-law Ali:
“One Muslim converted to Christianity. Ali ordered him to return to Islam, but he refused. Ali killed him and would not give his body to his relatives, though they offered much money. Ali burnt the body.
“Another man from the tribe Bani-Ijl became a Christian. He was brought shackled to Ali, who spoke at length with the convert. In response to Ali’s questions the man said, “I know that Isa [Jesus] is the Son of God.” Then Ali stood up and stamped on him. When the others saw it they also started to trample the man down.
And Ali said: “Kill him.” He was killed and Ali ordered that the body be burnt.”
Missions within the East Roman or Byzantine Empire
From history we know that after the Arab Muslims’ early conquest of Antioch the East Roman or Byzantine Empire regained that great city, together with northern and central Syria, during the 10th century.
During the ensuing period of Byzantine rule the entire Arab Muslim population voluntarily converted to Orthodoxy, including the Arab nobility.
The same happened in the district of Laodicea and the town of Melitene, which returned to the Byzantine Empire during the same time period.
Most notable, however, is the conversion of the Bedouin tribe of the Banu Khabib in 935, who “[numbered] 12,000 horsemen with full armament, with families, clients (people who were not members of the tribe, but who enjoyed its protection – Y.M.), and slaves joined the Greeks, accepted Christ and started to fight against their former fellow believers.
A history in Arabic by Ibn Safir, who wrote in the 13th century, said that the Banu Khabib remained Christians “till today.”
Several examples of more ‘concentrated’ missions among the Muslims can be found in Byzantine hagiographical works. In the middle of the 9th century St. Theodore of Edessa converted the “Saracen king”, Muawid, one of the three sons of the Umayyad caliph Mutawakkil (847-861), to Orthodoxy, baptizing him with the name John together with his three confidants.
St. Ilya the New, when staying in Palestine at the end of the 9th century, healed and baptized many Muslims. Later, while traveling to Persia, the Saint met twelve Muslims whom he converted to Christianity and baptized.
At the opening of the 9th century St. Gregory Dekapolites wrote about the conversion of the Umayyad caliph’s nephew, which was followed by the conversion of many other Muslims.
There are other vivid stories that can be recalled. At the end of the 9th century and the beginning of the 10th century a Spanish Muslim, Omar ibn Khaphsun, converted to Christianity with his sons and ruled over several mountain valleys for nearly fifty years, having the castle Bobastro as his residence. During the same period of time the Kurdish prince Ibn-ad-Dahhak, who possessed the fortress of al-Jafary, abandoned Islam for Orthodoxy. Additionally, the contemporaries of the Muslim theologian Abdallah ibn Kullaib (who died in 955) write that he secretly converted to Christianity. It is also known that Bunei ibn Nefis, a military commander and confidant of caliph al-Muktadir, became an Orthodox Christian and fought with the Byzantines against arabs.
Looking at all of these sources we can say that as many as 100,000 Muslims converted to Christianity during the 9th and 10th centuries. It is also interesting to note that in the 15th century the great Muslim city of Baghdad and some regions of Asia Minor ruled by the Turkish Kara-Kiunglu dynasty adopted Christianity, they having been condemned by Egyptian historians for apostasy.
Missions of the Russian Orthodox Church
The Russian Orthodox Church has a long history of mission work among the Muslims. St. Michael of Kiev (who lived in the 10th century) sent the monk Mark to preach Christ to the Muslim Bulgars, and thanks to his efforts four Bulgar princes were converted and baptized. St. Peter of Moscow (who lived in the 13th century) publicly debated with Muslim preachers and triumphed over them. St. Makary of Moscow (who lived in the 16th century) baptized Ediger-Mohammed, the last khan of Kazan, and preached the Orthodox Faith among the Tatars. Thanks to over four centuries of missionary work a new subgroup developed within the Tatar people, the Krjashens or Orthodox Tatars. According to the 1926 census the Krjashens numbered around 200,000. Today they number nearly 320,000.
Another Turkic people who converted from Islam to Orthodoxy are the Gagauz, their total number today being around 220,000. Since 1994 they have had their own autonomous territory within the Republic of Moldova – the “Gagauz Yeri.” The Gagauz descended from the Turkic Oguz, Pechenegs, and Polovzy who adopted Islam as early as the 9th century but later converted to Christianity in the 13th century. A sprinkling of Arabic words and Muslim terms found in everyday Gagauz are the main evidences of their Islamic heritage. In the Russian-Turkish wars at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th the Gagauz fought for the Russians, at the same time settling the depopulated steppes of southern Bessarabia (modern day Moldova).
Missions among the Caucasian peoples of southern Russia have been no less fruitful. During the second half of the 16th century Allah-Verdi of Tsakhur, who had previously converted from Islam and had become a Christian missionary, brought the entire Ingyl Georgian tribe back to Orthodoxy. At the dawn of the 19th century over 47,000 Ossetians converted to Christianity, thus bringing the majority of the Ossetian people out of Islam. By 1823 nearly all Ossetians were Orthodox.
Quite a few Abkhazians also returned to Orthodoxy. In August 1759 a Kabardian noble, Kurgoko Konchokin, was baptized with his entire family, taking the name Andrei Ivanov and filing a petition to the mayor of Kizliar town to “assign him a plot for settlement between the hamlets of Mozdok and Mekenem. In 1762 he was given the rank of lieutenant colonel and given the name Konchokin, prince of Cherkasy. It was Ivanov who founded the present town of Mozdok, where many Kabardians settled and voluntarily converted to Orthodoxy. Their descendants number nearly 2,500 and constitute nearly half of the Mozdok Kabardian subgroup. The conversions of well-known and prominent individuals can be found among all the peoples of the Caucasus.
Saints of the Orthodox Church who converted from Islam
The people dealt with here are special cases, for they converted from Islam and subsequently bore so much spiritual fruit that they were glorified by the Church who saw them as worthy of joining the ranks of the Saints who have shone forth in this dark world. Let us briefly look at some of their lives.
On 6 January 786 the Baghdadi Arab, St. Abu of Tbilisi, was baptized.
On 14 April 789 the Palestinian Arab, St. Christopher Sabbait, received the martyr’s crown by taking the vows and performing ascetic labors in the lavra of St. Sabbas (Mar Saba).
On 25 December 799 St. Antony-Ruwah, a Damascene Arab of the Quraish tribe, was beheaded for converting to Christianity.
Around 800 St. Pachomy, a nephew of the caliph, was murdered after taking vows at St. Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai. Around 820 St. Barbar, a North African Arab and soldier in a Muslim army, was baptized in the territory of the Byzantine Empire (6/19 May).
On 1 April 1229 the Bulgar merchant St. Abrahamy was killed for preaching Christianity to the Bulgars. In 1552 Sts. Peter and Stephan, baptized Tatars from Kazan, suffered at the hands of their former coreligionists and were killed (24 March/6 April).
In 1555 the Tatar Tursas was baptized. He later became known as Serapion of Kozheozero (27 June/10 July 1611) after founding the Theophany/Epiphany monastery at Kozheozero in northern Russia and raising seven Saints for the Church of Russia.
In 1614 St. Hodja Amiris the Soldier, who saw the miracle of the descent of the holy light, was martyred.
On 3 May 1682 St. Ahmed the Deftedar, a high-ranking Muslim Turk, was martyred for the Faith.
At the beginning of the 19th century St. Constantine Hagarit (2/15 June 1819) and
St. John (23 September/6 October 1814), the son of an Albanian sheikh, converted to Christianity and died for Christ.
These Saints are the greatest evidence and fruit of the Orthodox Church’s missionary labors and its great spiritual (if not statistical) triumph. God, not willing that any should perish, but that all should repent (III Peter 3:9), has gathered together a worthy harvest from the Muslim peoples.
Orthodox missions to the Muslims today
Orthodoxy continues to evangelize the Muslims today. It is enough to note the establishment of the now 2,500-strong Orthodox community in Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world, in the late 1980s through the labors of one person, Archimandrite Daniel Byantoro, to see that Orthodoxy remains involved in evangelizing the Muslim peoples. In addition to Indonesia there are active Orthodox missions in the Muslim regions of Bulgaria and in the predominantly Muslim country of Albania, while in many Muslim countries there are thousands of underground Christians.
Furthermore, in the Russian Orthodox Church there are Kazakh, Tatar, Chechen, Ingush, and Tabasaranian priests. Many of them converted from Islam, and as far as laymen are concerned there are several thousand faithful who converted to Orthodoxy from Islam.
Overall there are still many conversions of Muslims from Islam to Holy Orthodoxy.
1. V. Krivov. “Araby-christiane v Antiochii ?-?I cc” // Traditzii i nasledije Christianskogo Vostoka (Moscow, 1996), ss. 248-249.
2. A. Mez. Die Renaissance Des Islams (Heidelberg, 1922). Cited by Russian translation: (Moscow, 1996), S. 324.
3. V. Bartold. Turcija, islam i christianstvo / Sochinenija. Vol. VI. (Moscow, 1966), s. 421.
4. Ch. Loparyov. Gretcheskije zhitija svjatych VIII-IX cc. (Petrograd, 1914), ss. 432-433. The information in the “Life of St. Theodore” indirectly proves to be true also by Arabian sources. In 866 Muawid under the order of his brother the caliph was thrown in prison and killed, apparently, for converting to Christianity.
5. Ch. Loparyov. Op. cit. S. 502.
6. J.D. Sahas. “What an Infidel Saw that a Faithful Did Not: Gregory Dekapolites (d. 842) and Islam” // Greek Orthodox Theological Review ? 31 (1986), pp. 47-67.
7. G.E. von Grunebaum. Classical Islam. (London, 1970). Cited by Russian translation: (Moscow, 1988), s. 115.
8. A. Vasilyev. Vizantija i araby. Vol. II. (Saint-Petersburg, 1902), s. 220.
9. M.N. Swanson. Early Christian-Muslim Theological Conversation among Arabic-Speaking Intellectuals.
10. V.Bartold. Op. cit. S. 424.
11. A. Schipkov. Vo chto verit Rossija. (Sanct-Peterburg, 1998), s. 93. Every 30 years all Krjashens have been recorded as Tatars. They were simply forgotten. Only recently, in 1999, were they officially restored in Russian Federation. Since the end of the 1980s the cultural and spiritual revival of the Krjashen people has been apparent.
12. G. Ibragimov. “Christianstvo u tzachurov” // Alpha i Omega ? 1 (19) 1999, s. 177.
13. Long before him (in 1558) the Kabardian duke Saltan Idarov converted to Orthodoxy.
14. I. Bolova. Mozdokskije kabardintzy. (Stavropol, 2001).
15. E. Braida, C. Pelissetti. Storia de Rawh al-Qurasi. (Torino, 2001).
16. J.D. Sahas. “Hagiological texts as historical sources for Arab history and Byzantine-Muslim relations. The case of a barbarian saint” // Byzantine Studies (NS) ? 1-2 (1996-1997), pp. 50-59.
17. Y. Maximov. Svjatye Pravoslavnoj Tcerkvi, obrativshiesja iz islama. (Moscow, 2002), ss. 52-55.
18. Y. Maximov. Op. cit., ss. 56-63.
19. Y. Maximov. “Saint Serapion of Kozheozero: Former Muslim and founder of Kozheozersky Monastery” // Again (appear).
20. N.M. Vaporis. Witnesses for Christ: Orthodox Christian Neomartyrs of the Ottoman Period, 1437-1860. (SVS Press, 2000), p. 103.
21. N.M. Vaporis. Op. cit., pp. 136-137.
22. N.M. Vaporis. Op. cit., pp. 324-328.
23. N.M. Vaporis. Op. cit., pp. 288-290.
Yurij Maximov teaches Religious Studies at the Moscow Orthodox Seminary located in Sergiev Posad in the Lavra of Saint Sergius of Radonezh. He has published two books in Russian, “Svjatye Pravoslavnoj Tcerkvi, obrativshiesja iz islama” (Saints of the Orthodox Church Who Converted from Islam), and “Svjatye Otzy ob islame” (The Holy Fathers and Islam), and more that 50 articles in Russian, English, German and Bulgarian.
Copyright © 2004 Yurij Maximov.