King John of England was incompetent. He bungled war with France, lost his possessions, and quarreled with his nobles. Pope Innocent III excommunicated John in 1209. John settled with the church in 1213, but some believe he flirted with conversion to Islam. According to the story, John approached the Caliph of Morocco, Muhammad al-Nasir, for support to transform England into an Islamic kingdom. According to tradition, al-Nasir rebuffed King John to concentrate on his own struggling kingdom. However, the story lacks credibility or corroborating evidence.
King John launched an ill-fated war in France. The king lost his territories in Northern France and experienced financial problems related to the war effort. He alienated his nobles with his dictatorial disposition and tax increases. At the same time, John fought with Pope Innocent III over the vacant position of Archbishop of Canterbury. The pope consecrated his own candidate, but John refused to accept the appointment. In response, the English king refused to allow the new archbishop into the kingdom and seized papal lands. Eventually, Innocent III excommunicated John. A couple years later, the nobles revolted against their king and forced him to sign the Magna Carta limiting monarchical powers.
By 1213, John was isolated and surrounded by the enemies he created. According to one chronicler, writing decades later, John decided on a drastic course of action. The king approached Muhammad al-Nasir of Morocco for support. John hoped the Muslims would help him hold the throne in exchange for converting England to Islam. The Caliph held North Africa and southern Spain, but his empire was besieged from internal and external forces. As a result, he refused John’s plea. Eventually, King John and the pope reconciled and England remained Christian.
There are some problems with this story. First of all, there is only one source for the alleged event. It is highly probable that the chronicler wished to denigrate John’s historical reputation. This was unnecessary since John had done that himself. Second, if John converted to Islam, he would have been overthrown in short order. Very few Englishmen would support converting the country to Islam. For a medieval European king wishing to survive, abandoning Christianity would have been disastrous. As a result, this story is apocryphal. Despite this, the legend has survived for nearly a millennium.