Tuesday, March 24, 2009

On Conversion

My attitude towards conversion (or, as it’s often called “reversion”) has shifted over the course of these past months in which I have been learning about Islam. At first, conversion was not even on my radar as a possibility. I saw myself a non-Muslim, period. Converting to any religion, and perhaps particularly to Islam, was simply unthinkable to me at that time.

As I began to read about Islam, and especially as I read the Quran, I experienced moments of being overwhelmingly compelled by the poetry of the Quran. I began to toy with the idea of conversion as possibility, if only a remote one.

I was thinking in terms of "if I convert" -- I was engaged in an open process of learning about Islam, which might face conversion as one of many possible outcomes but certainly not the most likely one. For some of that time, I was staying in another city with some friends who are now adamantly secular atheist “born” Muslims and who productively challenged and questioned my evolving views. One of them told me, “If you convert, you better be sure, because if you convert and then leave Islam, they’ll kill you.” Obviously, that is a ridiculous prospect—no one would kill me for apostasy here in the contemporary United States—but his warning highlighted the high stakes of choosing Islam. For many people, choosing Islam means a matter of life and death—or at least paradise vs. the fire.

After I returned to my home town, I started taking the Islam 101 course at the local masjid, and began to think in terms of "when and how I will convert". Conversion seemed a likely, if not imminent, possibility. The "Islam 101" course is also known as the "New Muslims" course, and most of the other sisters in the class are recent converts who expect me to join them soon as a fellow new Muslim.

Most recently, though, I have wavered between intense moments of wanting to convert and moments of thinking that Islam is definitely not for me, all centering around the question of "why I would convert". I do not want to end up converting simply because it is expected of me—or because I feel that I owe it to the fine people who have been giving me Dawah. I want to feel that it is the right thing for me. If someone asks me why I am converting, I should be able to articulate a coherent and theoretically sophisticated response, as I would to explain any of my political or ethical positions. I am asking myself if my reasons for finding meaning in Islam are good reasons, insufficient reasons, or symptomatic of other issues.

Conversion in Islam consists of taking Shahadah—saying two basic sentences in Arabic in front of witnesses. That conversion process is, on face, simple and easy. However, speaking those words, knowing their meaning, and believing that meaning do not make for a simple matter and I do not wish to take that matter lightly.

Shahadah means “witnessing”—a strong public affirmation of unwavering belief. To witness does not mean “this idea seems most plausible to me at this moment” or “I believe some of this but the rest I’m not sure of or haven’t even learned about yet”. I feel that I need to learn more before I can be a viable witness.

These questions of “if” “when” “how” and “why” are questions that surface and submerge in the daily reconfiguration of my thinking about conversion in particular and my relationship to Islam in general.

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