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Conversion

Source:
The Islamic World: Past and Present What is This? Accessible coverage of Islam from the seventh century to the twenty-first century

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    Conversion

    The word conversion means “change or turn around.” It was used first to describe the experience of people who became Christians. They saw themselves as undergoing an inner transformation, or change of heart, that inspired them to embrace Christianity. Muslims, however, believe that all people are born into Islam. The paths of some, or their parents' actions, lead them away from their faith. Therefore, conversion to Islam is not considered a change of heart, but a return to one's original condition.

    The Conversion Process.

    Islam is defined as “submission.” A Muslim is “one who submits or surrenders.” This submission to God's will is shown through the public performance of the Five Pillars of Islam, which a convert undertakes as the core element of his or her conversion process. The person first recites the Profession of Faith in front of witnesses: “I bear witness that there is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.” Then he or she carries out the other pillars—prayer five times a day, giving money to the poor, fasting during the month of Ramadan, and pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca.

    Other acts have been associated with conversion to Islam. They are symbolic of the convert's desire to leave his or her past behind. Male converts are usually circumcised. Women adopt a conservative or modest form of dress, and many cover their hair. Most new believers adopt Muslim names and refrain from eating pork or drinking alcohol.

    Spread of Islam.

    Islam has had a tradition of preaching since its beginning. According to the Qur'an, the Prophet Muhammad was told, “Invite to the way of your Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching; and argue with in ways that are best and most gracious.” (surah 16.125 ) After Muhammad left Mecca and settled in Medina, the community of Islamic faithful grew rapidly. In the centuries following Muhammad's death, vigorous military campaigning by his followers extended the Islamic empire to include Spain, Central Asia, and India. At first, Arab Muslims found it difficult to place non-Arab Muslims within their social structure, but Islamic society soon accommodated large numbers of converts.

    Two main groups existed within the early Islamic empire—the believers (Muslims) and the so-called “protected people.” Because Christians and Jews had sacred scriptures of their own, they were not pressured to convert to Islam. They were free to practice their religion and to own property. Certain restrictions applied, however. Christians and Jews had to pay special taxes and aspects of their lives were controlled. They were subject to laws governing personal behavior, clothing, and means of transportation. They could not bear arms or construct buildings that were higher than those of Muslims. In effect, they had second-class status in the community and pressure to convert surely existed.

    In addition to these differences in treatment, prohibitions on marriage between Muslims and non-Muslims and a desire for higher social status may have motivated some conversions. Economically, it was more advantageous to be a Muslim. Besides not having to pay the special taxes, Muslims had greater trading opportunities and fewer property restrictions.

    While many under Muslim rule converted to Islam for economic or social reasons, others were attracted to its practices and teachings. Beginning in the 1100s, Muslim traders and Sufi missionaries had an enormous influence on the spread of Islam. They introduced the faith to people in sub-Saharan Africa, southern India, Indonesia, Malaya, and China.

    Modern Converts.

    In recent centuries, emigration has contributed to the spread of Islam and the increasing number of Muslims worldwide. Furthermore, the Islamic principle of equality strongly appeals to people who have suffered discrimination or have felt alienated from the mainstream culture of their homeland. In the early 1900s, the Islamic faith took root among some African Americans who were weary of decades of oppression and the lack of a recognized cultural identity. At first, many African Americans were drawn to a form of Islam that encouraged racial pride through militancy and anti-white sentiment. More recently, however, many African Americans follow Sunni Islam with its teachings of racial harmony. White and Hispanic Americans are also converting to Islam. They, too, are attracted by the concept of equality among believers, as well as the simplicity of Islamic traditions and the emphasis on community. See also Dietary Rules; Islam: Overview; Muhammad ; Pillars of Islam; Rites and Rituals; Sufism.

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