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.
-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:
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 .
second hypothesis is probable, as Morocco was in a very unstable political
situation, and Leo was affiliated to the declining Sultan of Fes.
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:
This could well be the most autobiographical text of all!