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CONVERSION. In one of the first divine revelations recorded in the Qur’an, the prophet Muhammed was commanded by God to “arise and warn!” (74.1). This is taken by some Muslim scholars to signal the beginning of public preaching of the message, which until then was presumably done privately among the Prophet’s family and intimate friends. Hence, almost from the very outset, Islam was to be a proselytizing faith with a mission to bring its message to all who would listen. In another passage in the Qur’an Muhammad was told, “Invite to the way of your Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching; and argue with them in ways that are best and most gracious” (16.125).

At first, however, most members of the community ofMeccain which Muhammad lived and to which he brought this message tended to reject it for social, religious, and economic reasons. With his migration toMedinain 622 CE together with his small community of converts, and the acceptance he found there for his message, a strong base was established for the spread of that word and the conversion of most ofArabia. As the message spread through conquest beyond the borders of theArabian Peninsula, the greater community of new Muslims, at first still largely of Arabian stock, found it difficult to integrate non-Arabian outsiders into its traditional social structure. Acceptance of Islam at that time meant integration into the existing tribal framework of Arabian society. This concept changed slowly under the influence of the very different societies that fell under Muslim sway. Within a relatively short time, as large numbers chose or were forced to join the community, conversion and converts found a place in Islamic society and ideology.

In common English usage, conversion means “to turn around, transform, bring over or persuade to a particular view, change or turn from one state to another.” This definition, referring to an inner change or transformation, flows from a Christian concept of conversion. It is barely applicable to religious traditions like Judaism and Islam that emphasize the observance of a divine law and of socially validated acts as well as matters of belief. Until modern times when contact with Christian missionaries introduced their concept of conversion, the Arabic lexicon lacked any precise equivalent of this term. This was so, first of all, because in the Islamic tradition entrance into the religious community is viewed less as an inner transformation than as a divinely determined return to fitrah, the natural disposition or condition in which all humanity is born but which may have been altered by one’s parents. Indeed, the Qur’an states, “Whomsoever it is Allah’s will to guide. He expands his bosom to Submission (Islam)” (6.126).

The act of becoming a Muslim differs from conversion to Christianity above all because to enter Islam is literally to perform the act of surrender or submission to God and God’s will, it also involves tawbah (“return, repentance”) to the fitrah, humanity’s natural disposition. Hence the word islam itself means “submission”; from the same Arabic root come the verbal forms aslama and istaslama, denoting the act of becoming a muslim, literally, “one who submits or surrenders” and professes that surrender by adhering to the Prophet’s message.

This act of submission to God consists first and foremost in tawhid or proclaiming the absolute oneness and uniqueness of God; shirk, the cardinal sin in Islam, is the association by comparison of anything with God. In traditional interpretations this includes ascribing to any human being or any aspect of nature powers that belong to God alone. Submission simultaneously involves bearing witness that Muhammad is the messenger and prophet of God. From these follow the observance of what God commands, as revealed to the prophet Muhammad (e.g., prayer and almsgiving), and avoidance of what is forbidden (e.g., eating pork and drinking wine). In Muslim tradition this raises the issue of the distinction between islam and iman, the latter translated as “faith” or “belief.”

When the Prophet was asked, according to several traditions, to clarify the distinction between the two, he said that islam consists of “worshiping Allah, not associating anything with Him, carrying out the prayers, giving the prescribed alms, and fasting during the month of Ramadan.” These came to be formalized as the Five Pillars of Islam: the confession of faith; prayer preceded by ritual cleansing and involving prescribed actions; almsgiving in a specified amount and manner; fasting during the month of Ramadan; and, at least once in a lifetime, pilgrimage to Mecca. But he added to these aspects of islam, khayrat or “good works”, saying “to give food (to the hungry), and to greet with peace those one knows and those one does not know.” [See also Pillars of Islam.]

The standard presentation of iman, on the other hand, came to consist of belief in God, his angels, his revealed books (including the original revelations recorded in the scriptures of the Jews and Christians), his messengers or apostles, the day of resurrection, and fate or destiny. By way of distinction, therefore, islam consists of the performance of the Five Pillars, specified acts in a social environment; later iman or faith consists of certain beliefs, as outlined above. This set of beliefs came to be elaborated in several creeds composed during the ninth and tenth centuries CE (third and fourth centuries AH). Whereas iman resides in the heart and may be known only by God, the acts of islam should be witnessed by humanity. Muslim scholars have differed over the relationship between islam and iman, but one definition in a tenth-century creed states, “There is no faith whatsoever without islam, and islam could not exist without faith (iman)”. [See Iman.]

As the early, rapid conquest of large areas of the Near East and North Africa laid the basis for a vast empire ruled by Muslims, varying approaches were taken toward nonbelievers, first in Arabia and then in the twogreat empires between which the peninsula was situated. In this early period, the question of conversion depended largely on the attitudes of the military commanders of the various Muslim units. The Sassanian Persian Empire, which ruled over today’sIraq,Iran, and most ofCentral Asia, was rapidly conquered in its entirety. The adherents of the existing state religion, Zoroastrianism, and its various offshoots were rather rapidly converted to Islam, and it is estimated that Islam became the majority religion by the tenth century. Only small remnants of the once-powerful Zoroastrians and of the Christian and Jewish minorities survive there now. By contrast, in the portions of theByzantine Empirethat were conquered different conditions prevailed in the various provinces. Here the official Greek Orthodox church was challenged by a variety of Eastern Christian churches, and there were widespread Jewish communities as well. The Syro-Palestinian area is said by some Western scholars to have become a majority Muslim area only after the Crusades, andEgyptonly somewhat later.

Based on concepts derived from the Qur’an and the traditions attributed to the Prophet, society in the new Islamic empire came to be divided between two main groups of subjects, the believers and the other peoples of the book-those who possessed sacred scriptures, at first Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians. These became the so-called “protected peoples” (dhimmi). They were guaranteed protection of life and property and the freedom to practice their own religion and administer its laws, but they were subject to certain restrictions, among them the payment of special taxes (largely limited to the jizyah or poll-tax) and the observance of sumptuary laws. These were laws governing personal behavior, including the wearing of distinguishing garments, prohibition from riding horses, bearing arms, or building edifices higher than those of Muslims, regulation of public religious practice, and the like. The acceptance of dhimmah was thus accompanied by secondclass status and formalized acts of degradation; the latter were enforced or ignored depending on the ruler of the time or the power of the Muslim religious authorities in the various Islamic states that arose after the collapse of imperial power. [See People of the Book; Dhimmi; Jizyah.]

Although differing in details from one locality to another, the process of conversion has come to be more or less standardized. The act of becoming a Muslim begins with the first of the Five Pillars, the recitation in the presence of witnesses of the shahadah, the Confession or Profession of Faith: “I bear witness that there is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.” The performance of the other Pillars, also presumably in public, is expected to follow. [See Shahadah.] In addition, although not originally mentioned in the Qur’an, circumcision (khttdn) came to be seen as an essential requirement for a male convert. The prophetic tradition mentions it as a part of the fitrah, connecting it with the life of Abraham. In some areas of the world, especially among the uneducated masses, male circumcision came to be recognized as a sign of being a Muslim and indeed to signify the act of entering into Islam. [See Circumcision.] Adoption of what came to be considered Muslim names and of specifically Muslim types of dress, especially the modest attire required of women, were also expected in order to differentiate the convert from former coreligionists. Ceasing to eat pork and to drink alcoholic beverages also came to be considered symbolic breaks with the past.

As indicated above, the rate of conversion varied greatly from one area of the empire to another-rapid in some and almost glacial in others. Although the disappearance of pagan religions in areas conquered by Islam has been little investigated, there has been considerable scholarly discussion about the causes for the transformation of once predominantly Christian and Zoroastrian areas, with relatively large Jewish minority communities, into largely Muslim ones. The thoroughness of the process cannot be laid to the use of force or threats of death, although these did occur at times, but rather to a variety of factors. Some of these were economic, often including quite significant differential taxation, certain trade advantages in specific places, and prohibitions against the ownership of land or slaves by non-Muslims. Then there were social motives: intermarriage involving a male dhimmi and a Muslim woman, an otherwise forbidden act; the ability to retain high social standing or to rise from a lower one; or the advantages of belonging to the ruling, majority group. Finally there were spiritual reasons such as genuine respect for and attraction to Islamic teachings and practice. The economic and social aspects seemed to dominate during the earlier periods, as Islamic theological and philosophical thought developed sophistication during periods of free intellectual intercourse among scholars of the different faiths in early ‘Abbasid Baghdad or at the peak of Umayyad rule in Spain. Later, when Sufi ideas and practices spread, these seem to have become very attractive throughout non-Muslim populations of the Islamic realm. One example of this trend may be seen in the circle of Jewish intellectuals around Abraham ben Moses ben Maimon (1186-1237), the grandson of the great Jewish philosopher Maimonides. Although he himself remained a Jew and tried unsuccessfully to introduce Muslim, especially Sufi, practices into Judaism, some of his companions converted to Islam.

There were infrequent instances of forced conversion in various parts of the empire at different times, for instance during the reigns of the mad caliph al-Hakim (r. 996-1021) in Egypt and of the fanatical Almohads in Spain and Morocco (1130-1269), when the choice was indeed conversion, exile, or death. Aside from forced conversion, there were relatively large numbers of converts in the face of the stringent enforcement of discriminatory laws during the reigns of certain Mamluk sultans (126o-1517) inEgyptandSyria, as well as severe persecution under the early Safavid rulers inIran(1502-1736). These were, however, exceptions. Scholarly opinion now generally holds that Muslims reached majority status in the empire as a whole only by the tenth century, and in certain areas, such asEgypt, as mentioned above, some centuries later.

Since around the middle of the sixteenth century, conversion to Islam has been carried out to a great extent through the activities of traveling merchants, mendicant Sufis, and Muslim popular preachers, as has been the case in parts of Indonesia and other areas of East Asia and Africa. More recently, other factors have emerged that aid in the spread of Islam. Some of these have resulted from efforts to counter Christian missionary activity, especially in sub-SaharanAfricawhere Christianity and Islam have engaged in fierce competition for converts. Others flow from the rise of actively proselytizing groups within Islam, such as the Ahmadiyah sect that has been quite active in Europe and theAmericas, leading to activities by other Muslim groups to counter their successes. [See Ahmadiyah.]

An especially impressive development has been the spread of Islam among African-Americans in recent decades. This movement first arose early in the twentieth century and evolved into many subgroups, each following the teachings of a different charismatic leader, and each deviating in important ways from “normative” Islam. These movements generally accepted the idea that Islam was the original religion of their ancestors before they were brought as slaves toAmerica; their thought was permeated by anticolonialism and antiracism that often led to strong antiwhite theories and attitudes. Christianity as a religion has been portrayed as racist, as a “white man’s religion,” and as an agent of colonialism. Only after the death of Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam, one of the largest and most important of these movements, did the majority turn toward Sunni Islam with its teachings of racial harmony. This part of the movement is now accepted in the larger Muslim world and has gained momentum with an active program of prosyletizing. Today Muslims of all groups, Sunnis as well as remnants of a variety of sects of American origin, make up an important minority within the African-American community. [See Nation of Islam.]

The recent large-scale emigration of Muslims from their homelands to Europe and theAmericasfor economic and political reasons is dramatically changing the demographic distribution of Muslims in majority-Christian areas of western Europe and theUnited States. This emigration to the West has resulted, among other things, in the establishment of Muslim mosques, schools, and publishing houses where these did not exist previously and has led to considerable missionary activity in those areas. The more than one and a half million Turks in Germany, the several million North Africans and other Muslims in France, and the hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis, Indians, and other Muslims in Britain, are matched by the relatively recent influx of Muslim immigrants to the United States joined with converts to Islam among native-born African-Americans. It is roughly estimated that there are now between three and four million Muslims in theUnited States, among whom between five hundred thousand and one million are African-Americans.

Contemporary conversionary approaches in the West are generally irenic in tone, tending to stress the fulfillment of the teachings of Judaism and Christianity in the message of Muhammad. This implies the acceptance of Muhammad as the last of the line of prophets previously sent by God to those religions-biblical figures such as Abraham, Moses and Jesus, who are revered as prophets in Islam. It also demands recognition of the authenticity of Muhammad’s message as a divine revelation.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Anawati, Georges C. “Factors and Effects of Arabization and Islamization in MedievalEgyptandSyria.” In Islam and Cultural Change in the Middle Ages, edited by Speros Vryonis, Jr., pp. 17-41.Wiesbaden, 1975.

Arnold, Thomas W. The Preaching of Islam: A History of the Propogation of the Muslim Faith.London, 1913.

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Brett, Michael. “The Spread of Islam inEgyptandNorth Africa.” InNorthern Africa: Islam and Modernization, edited by Michael Brett, pp. I-12.London, 1973.

Bulliet, Richard W. Conversion to Islam in the Medieval Period: An Essay in Quantitative History.Cambridge,Mass., 1979.

Dennett, Daniel C. Conversion and the Poll Tax in Early Islam.Cambridge,Mass., 1950.

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Gervers, Michael, and Ramzi Jibran Bikhazi, eds. Conversion and Continuity: Indigenous Christian Communities in Islamic Lands, Eighth to Eighteenth Centuries.Toronto, 1990.

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Kister, M. J. ” `An yadin (Qur’an 1X/29): An Attempt at Interpretation.” Arabica 1t (1964): 272-278.

Levtzion, Nehemia, ed. Conversion to Islam: Papers, 1972-r973.New York, 1979.

Lewis, Bernard. The jews of Islam.Princeton, 1984.

Little, Donald P. “Coptic Conversion to Islam under the Bahri Mamluks, 692-755/1293-1354.” Bulletin of theSchoolofOrientaland African Studies 39 (1976): 552-569.

Poliak, Abraham N. “L’arabisation de I’orient semitique.” Revue des Etudes Islamiques 12 (1938): 35-63.

Vryonis, Speros, Jr. The Decline of Medieval Hellenism inAsia Minorand the Process of Islamization from the Eleventh through the Fifteenth Century.Berkeley, 1971.

WILLIAM M. BRINNER

Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/conversion/
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  • writerPosted On: November 6, 2012
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