Leo's conversion: a matter of convenience?

Of all issues which divide Leo scholars, none is as pronounced as Leo's conversion. Put simply, while most Western scholars accept that Leo converted to Catholicism, for one reason or another, and for more or less time, all Arab scholars refuse to acknowledge that this conversion could have been any more than a survival measure. The question of the sincerity of Leo's conversion is an interesting one, and one that may perhaps never truly be solved. However, there are a few facts to be taken into consideration:

- Leo was baptized on June 6th 1520, by Pope Leo Xth himself.

"ne usci per essere battezzato il 6 gennaio 1520 in S Pietro da Leone X stesso, che gli diede il name di Johannis Leo de Medicis" (Angela Codazzi, Leo Africanus, article in the Encyclopedia of Islam)

-Leo often expressed his intention to return to North Africa, once his "Italian business" was over. This would have meant returning to a Muslim society, where Apostasy was no small crime. So the fact that Leo could return to the Maghreb, and admit to having lived a Christian for 10 or more years is indicative of the ambiguity of his conversion. Regardless of his sincerity at the time of embracing Catholicism, he would have had to deny it when he returned to North Africa, to live amongst Muslims.

- Conversion was rather rampant in the Mediterranean states in Leo's time. Shortly after Leo's stay in Italy, several Moroccan princes crossed the straits to seek refuge in Christian lands. In a 1928 article about the conversion of Moroccan princes to Christianity, Henry de Castries describes the fate of three Moroccan dignitaries who converted to Catholicism. These conversions respectively took place in the mid 1500s, early 1600s and early 1700s; all three were voluntary. These princes converted for different reasons: to escape trouble in their own country, to join a religion they had suddenly been enlightened to, or both. In no case were they forced into Catholicism- they arrived free and remained free for the duration of their lives on Christian soil. After their conversion they took Latinized names reflecting their Moroccan origin (de Africa, Infante de Fez, Cherif, for example), the men who helped or adopted them (Gaspar, Balthasar), and their noble heritage (Don, Prince, Infante). This template oddly reflects Leo's own path and convert name: adopted by a Pope whose name he takes on (Johannes Leo de Medicis) and popularly known as Leo Africanus (which, in Latin, also translates to "de Africa"). More importantly, Leo's adoption by a Pope, or one of the Pope's close relatives is not a unique event: in 1733, Moulay Ahmed was baptized with Pope Clement XIIs own nephew for godfather.

So it may not be impossible that Leo let himself be captured, or rather sought to cross over to Christian lands, perhaps for reasons not unlike those which drove the above Princes to seek refuge in Christian lands. Using Henry de Castries' three princes as 'templates' for this voyage, we can derive the following hypotheses, explaining Leo's voyage to Italy:

      1. He was enlightened to the Catholic faith and was forced to leave his land for obvious reasons of persecution and ostracism (this is what forced Balthazar Loyola Mendez, formerly Mohammed, son of the leader of the Dila brotherhood, to leave his country).
      2. He fled his country for some legal or political reason and sought refuge on a Christian ship and a Christian land (Don Gaspar de Benmerin, who claimed to be the grandson of the last Merinide Prince, also claimed to have fled Fes in 1554 after his grandfather's defeat to the Saadian Cherifs, then rulers of Marrakech. Their initial intention had been to seek reinforcements amongst the Christian rulers and return to fight the Saadiens).
      3. His instinct for travel and curiosity led him beyond the Muslim world, to explore the land of the Christian infidel.

The first hypothesis is rather unlikely as Leo's writings do not reflect the zeal of a genuine convert, eager to repudiate his original faith. In Cosmographia, he never really describes the Muslim faith as being particularly despicable or illegitimate. Had he been such an enlightened convert, he probably would have expended more energy justifying his new found religion, and criticizing the old, as did Balthazar Loyola and Don Gaspar .

The second hypothesis is probable, as Morocco was in a very unstable political situation, and Leo was affiliated to the declining Sultan of Fes.
However, Morocco was on the brink of civil war when Leo left in 1518, and the Wattaside Sultan of Fes who Leo served was definitely losing the battle against the vigorous Saadian dynasty emerging in the South of the country. If we assume that Leo was indeed returning from an embassy to Constantinople when he fell captive to the corsair fleet, it is not unreasonable to wonder if the bad news he was bringing home (notably that the Ottoman ruler was not going to intervene to help the sultan of Fes) encouraged him to let his fate bring him to Europe.
Were this the reason for his escape, he makes no mention of it in Cosmographia.

The third hypothesis is also quite likely, and perhaps the most enthralling of the three. Could Leo have pushed the sense of adventure and travesty as far as enrolling in another religion to learn more about its people, lands and culture. Were this the case we would expect to see curiosity for Italian facts and details along with no particular desire to denigrate Islam. And indeed, both these attributes are to be found in his writings. Leo may well have been a circumstantial convert- a necessity to blend in with the local population. In thinking about this hypothesis one should read the following story by Leo:

"In the days when birds spoke, there lived a kind and courageous bird whose intelligence was quite remarkable. He was unique in that he could live both on land, with other birds and in the sea amongst the fish. In those days, all birds had to pay a tribute to their king once a year. Our little bird was resolved to pay nothing at all. And when the king sent his people to collect the tax from him, he flew off and did not stop until he had reached the depths of the sea. All the fish came to greet him and ask him about tales from earth. He told them that life had become sadly unfair up there, as a cowardly king had tried to tear all his limbs apart, for no particular reason, despite the fact that he, poor little bird was the greatest subject of all. He begged them to accept him into their community and promised to tell the world that these strangers had been more welcoming to him than his own kind. The fish believed him and he lived among them for an entire year. However, when it came time for the king of fish to collect his tribute, our little bird took off once again and sought refuge on land. And so, every time the tax collector came on behalf of the king of birds, he dove beneath the waves and every time the tax collector came on behalf of the king of fish he rushed back to the surface" (Epaulard, 66)

This could well be the most autobiographical text of all!