Converting for tax reasons

On the road to heaven: Self-selection, religion and socioeconomic status

By Mohamed Saleh (Toulouse School of Economics)

Abstract: The correlation between religion and socioeconomic status is observed throughout the world. In the Middle East, local non-Muslims are, on average, better off than the Muslim majority. I trace the origins of the phenomenon in Egypt to a historical process of self-selection across religions, which was induced by an economic incentive: the imposition of the poll tax on non-Muslims upon the Islamic Conquest of the then-Coptic Christian Egypt in 640. The tax, which remained until 1856, led to the conversion of poor Copts to Islam to avoid paying the tax, and to the shrinking of Copts to a better off minority. Using a sample of men of rural origin from the 1848- 68 census manuscripts, I find that districts with historically stricter poll tax enforcement (measured by Arab immigration to Egypt in 640-900), and/or lower attachment to Coptic Christianity before 640 (measured by the legendary route of the Holy Family), have fewer, yet better off, Copts in 1848-68. Combining historical narratives with a dataset on occupations and religion in 640-1517 from the Arabic Papyrology Database, and a dataset on Coptic churches and monasteries in 1200 and 1500 from medieval sources, I demonstrate that the cross-district findings reflect the persistence of the Copts’ initial occupational shift, towards white-collar jobs, and spatial shift, towards the Nile Valley. Both shifts occurred in 640-900, where most conversions to Islam took place, and where the poll tax burden peaked. Occupational barriers to entry and the religiously segregated schools both led occupations to persist in 900-1848.


Review by Chris Colvin

This paper, which was distributed by NEP-HIS on 2013-10-18, forms an important contribution to the growing literature on the economics of religion. In it, Mohamed Saleh attempts to explain why Egypt’s Coptic Christians are historically better off than its Muslim majority, and why their elite status has persisted in the long run. Using a variety of different archival sources, some of which required extensive and expensive data collection and digitisation, Saleh advances the hypothesis that poor Copts converted to Islam to escape taxes levied on non-Muslims in the period 640-900.

In contrast with Maristella Botticini and Zvi Eckstein’s explanation of the distinctive occupational selections of Jews, which requires conversion for religious reasons (failure to read the Torah), Saleh’s explanation for Coptic socioeconomic superiority is that they were responding to an economic incentive (exemption from the Poll Tax). Those who were sufficiently well off to bear the tax imposed on them by their new Islamic overlords remained Christian; those who were better off if they joined the growing ranks of the new Arabic religion decided instead to register at their local Islamic authorities. On average, both groups were better off by the move. The institutional design of the Islamic faith incentivised voluntary conversion out of pursuit of worldly rather than heavenly riches. Taxes led to the virtual eradication of Coptic Christianity, or at least its switch from being the faith of Egypt’s majority to the faith of a very small minority, by rewarding new members financially.

Poor Copts voluntarily abandoned Christianity for tax reasons

Salah argues that poor Copts voluntarily abandoned Christianity for tax reasons

Saleh discounts religious reasons for conversion using a carefully constructed historical narrative backed by time series evidence. Coptic Christianity and the Islam practiced in the Nile Valley were quite similar in the period when most conversion took place in terms of their mystical ritualization and worship; Islam was neither more nor less costly to practice than the incumbent religion. Copts were not required to read to be good Christians and so unlike Jews in this period had no religious incentive to invest in human capital; the Botticini-Eckstein hypothesis does not work here. Districts where the poll tax was more strictly enforced witnessed wider conversion among poor Copts to Islam, further solidifying the status of the Coptic elite. Their socioeconomic position was subsequently maintained for over a millennium through segregated schooling and the fact that reverse-conversion was punishable by death, among other things.

Saleh is poised to expand his research to other parts of what is now the Muslim world. In his paper, he sets out how other yet-to-be digitised tax registers can used to find out why Christianity survived to varying degrees in the Levant and North Africa, or, conversely, can help explain the historical process of Islamization. I look forward to reading the results of such work.


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