Islam, Proselytization, and Converts

"Invite (all) to the Way of your Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching; and argue with them in ways that are best and most gracious."
(The Qur’an Translation, Sura 16:125)

For Muslims, the Qur'an is considered the direct, unadulterated Word of God. The Qur'anic exhortation to invite others to Islam is therefore understood to be an imperative, and establishes the proselytization of converts as a natural, integral component of the faith. The invitation is proffered by Islamic organizations, via written material, and through the lives of individual Muslims, and the response has been great – Islam is currently the fastest growing religion in the United States. But is this growth a result of active Islamic recruitment, or the product of growing American disillusionment? Who is doing the seeking, the religion or the converted?

Certainly, there are aspects of Islam that appeal to Americans; on the other hand, there are issues that undoubtedly hinder conversion. Some of these aspects and issues are of concern to all of American society, while others relate only to specific groups, such as women and African Americans.

One of the more interesting appeals of Islam for Americans is its surprising connection with time-honored American ideology. As the author Carol L. Anway writes, the tenets of Islam have "... much in common with traditional American ideals including family, dedication to God, good works, commitment to a religious community, education, religious freedom, and discipline" (151). For Americans who feel their society gradually slipping away from these long-established, family-oriented values, Islam proposes a return to fundamental principles. For such people, the integration of every aspect of life under the umbrella of faith is a sensible and attractive way to live. Of course, it is this very idea of incorporating Church and State that other Americans find objectionable – for these citizens, the Islamic archetype of a universal Muslim community is an abhorrent threat to the American ideal of religious freedom.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are Americans disenchanted with a government and culture they perceive as mired in a conservative, Christian-fundamentalist viewpoint. To them, the adoption of Islam provides one possible response, a whole-life rebuke or rejection of this position.
Although many Americans undoubtedly view Islamic culture as exotic and foreign, there is a contingent of people (including those from both of the groups described above) who find themselves increasingly comfortable in such an environment. "Some find the intellectual appeal of a great civilization of scholarly, scientific, and cultural achievements a refreshing antidote to the often anti-intellectual and secularist climate of the contemporary West" (Smith, 65). For them, the exoticism only adds to the appeal.

Some American converts to Islam have cited specific problems with Christianity as their motivation for conversion. Finding it difficult to understand the concepts of Jesus as God (or the son of God) and the Holy Trinity, they sought counseling from Christian leaders, who were unable to adequately clarify matters. In Islam, they encountered a belief that the Bible, originally a true message from God, has been corrupted by man, and that Jesus, a prophet of God, is not the savior of mankind. Although this assertion ran counter to the initiate’s previous religious education, it did provide answers that felt more concrete. Of course, this rejection of Jesus as the Messiah can also be a major obstacle for the potential convert with a Christian upbringing.

In addition to the issues enumerated thus far, American women have described other points that make Islam either particularly attractive or unappealing. Many women are faced with conversion when considering marriage to Muslim men, who will generally only marry within their faith. As a "new" Muslim, some women who convert to Islam find themselves being treated like outsiders within the Islamic community, especially single women (there is also evidence of a larger rift between many "original" Muslims -- male and female -- who have immigrated to America and American-born citizens who have converted).

Above all, the greatest conversion issue for American women is the head covering known as the hijab. Wearing the hijab can isolate a woman from her non-Islamic friends and family; forgoing the hijab can alienate her from other Muslims. This is a difficult situation that few women find an easy solution to.

Another subset of American society that has had a distinctive relationship with Islam is the African American community. As a religion that spread across northern Africa centuries before slave traders brought Africans to the New World, Islam speaks to the African American’s ancestral dignity, inspiring “… black pride and a sense of confidence by linking a disenfranchised, humiliated, and exploited people to the conquering and cultured Moors of the Middle Ages" (Diouf, 205). African American Muslim organizations have produced numerous unique interpretations of Islam, some of which have been rejected by the rest of the Islamic community, or branded as false.

Sufism, a small sect of Muslim mysticism represented by only a minuscule population in the United States, offers alternatives to mainstream Islam that have captured the attention of some Americans. Espousing a direct experience of God, the Sufi "... concept of jihad [has been] spiritualized and used as a description of the struggle to purify one's inner self" (Poston, 128). Jane I. Smith writes in "Islam in America" that "Americans find Sufi movements open, accessible, tolerant, and supportive of individual needs and concerns" (69). In time, the progressive attitude of Sufism could prove particularly well-suited to American sensibilities.

Mosques, Islamic community centers, and individual Muslims across America conduct endless outreach to improve the reputation of Muslims, educate outsiders about the principles of Islam, and invite them to join. Their proselytization efforts are proving increasingly successful. "My prediction is that if Muslims in America continue to gain confidence in themselves as the bearers of a viable religious alternative and to increase their commitments to a internal/personal strategy of missions, their da'wa [proselytizing] activity will increase substantially in the years to come" (Poston, 134). While Islamic da'wa will possibly run up against increasing opposition in America, the mission will likely prosper as long as there are Americans seeking change, understanding and fulfillment in their lives.

Works Cited

Diouf, Sylviane A. Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas. New York: New York UP, 1998.

Anway, Carol L. “American Women Choosing Islam.” Muslims on the Americanization Path? Eds. Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad and John L. Esposito. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998.

Poston, Larry A. “Da’wa in the West.” The Muslims of America. Ed. Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1991.

The Qur'an Translation. Trans. Abdullah Yusuf Ali. Elmhurst: Tahrike Tarsile Qur'an, Inc., 2005.

Smith, Jane I. Islam in America. New York: Columbia UP, 1999.

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