My friend Wael Taji has been examining narratives around conversion to Islam in the West and was able to identify a few specific types of converts and motives behind conversion. Here is a summary of his findings around major reasons why people convert to Islam.
For many in the increasingly multicultural, heterogeneous, disoriented West, Islam provides a specific identity by which they can define themselves and their relationships with other entities in the world.
A young guy at my gym (16) who recently converted to Islam is an example; he is son to a white father who abandoned his black immigrant mother before he was born, and described to me the difficulties of identification at school. He was being raised by a black mother in a black neighborhood, but looks more white. Islam grants him a consistent in-group with which he can find solidarity. He knows absolutely nothing about the theological aspects of Islam and hasn’t read the Qur’an, but takes pride in his new identity as a Muslim and often drops standard Muslim vocab (hamdulillah, mashallah, etc).
His newly obtained insider status he displays frequently, saying ‘we’ (Muslims) and ‘you’ (non-Muslims) even though he only converted a few months ago. Previously, as a ‘white’ looking kid yet also a product of a black subculture, there were presumably fewer individuals he could feel connected with in the same way.
The West is increasingly irreligious, but the human need for spirituality remains a motivating factor in many of our lives. We naturally seek out something to fill that void. For many, Christianity seems ‘weak’ and ‘feminine’ in comparison to a much more ‘muscular’ and uncompromising Islam. The level of piety displayed by self-declared Christians, many of whom do not go to church and the vast majority of whom do not do anything ‘Christian’ above that, might also seem ‘shallow’ in comparison to Muslims, who (ostentatiously) display strong degrees of religious attachment and faith.
For some, then, a quest for spirituality and a desire to know the ‘truth’ of existence can drive them towards religion; Islam will often be the obvious choice due to its constant proselytizing, its muscularity and universal presence, and the unwavering faith (and total lack of doubt) of the vast majority of its adherents. As a convert, I myself fell into this category.
Islam is a religion, but that religion mandates a specific way of life for its adherents in a way that no other organized religion does. While this is authoritarian, many people in the West, especially young people, feel that this gives them a sense of purpose; they are no longer sleeping in until 1 in the morning on weekends, but waking up for fajr at 5 AM.
Not only that, but they have a clear template for how to live their lives; do this, do that, and things will all turn out fine. For many, these firm guidelines bestow upon their lives a sense of drive that would otherwise be lacking. There are also clear tiers of accomplishment and progression that allows someone to feel successful; memorizing surahs, for example, or improving one’s tajweed gives a sense of achievement that is otherwise lacking for many people, especially those in dead-end jobs or careers.
Indigenous women are the largest source of converts to Islam in Europe. Islam assigns women a clear role as homemakers submissive to their husbands (4:34) and although this may seem counterintuitive, some women (not only underachievers) are quite happy to be just that, and feel uncomfortable with an increased burden of responsibility placed upon them by feminism and the equality of the sexes, which demands they do more. For them, Islam gives them a more ‘traditional’ template which not only does not punish them for not taking on a career and being a stay-at-home mom, but in fact rewards them for it.
I feel like narratives around conversion in prisons is also something worth examining, as it is happening at an alarming rate in the UK and often results in the emergence of religious gangs within prisons openly exposing extremist views, which can impede reintegration. I’m currently reading more on this phenomenon.
Another type, the ‘decolonialist’ type of conversion, is observed particularly in the United States, where Islam has been seen as a more authentically ‘African’ religion, ever since the 1930s with the founding of the Nation of Islam movement. Prominent individuals like Malcolm X have popularized this model, and many black Americans feel that they have a collective grievance against Christianity for slavery which is best solved by turning to Islam. The MASSIVE increase in appropriated names of Arabic origin in the black American community is symptomatic of this trend.
I’d be very interested to hear any comments from those of you who had the patience to read through this.
By Wael Taji