Conversion: Changing Religion or a Return to Primordial Nature?

The word ihtida means the embracing of Islam by people who belong to other religions. Literally, conversion is derived from the word huda (the right way), which means "finding the right way; guiding", and it is a term that encapsulates "reaching the truth, finding the right way."

Ihtida defines the embracing of Islam by people who belong to other religions. A person who embraces Islam is called a muhtadi.

Embracing other religions is known as "conversion" in Western languages and people who change their religions are called "converts." The word ihtida defines only the embracing of Islam, while "conversion" has a broader meaning. "Conversion" also defines the condition of a person who does not perform the duties stipulated by the religion embracing the religion; that is, it can also refer to a person who calls themselves an "atheist" accepting the religious rules of their society and becoming a religious person. At the same time, it can refer to one who rejects one religion and believes in another religion.

Conversion can be actualized in various forms and conditions that bring about different results. A person who flatly refuses the religious values of their society and who seeks satisfaction in other religions can experience this, and a person who wants to marry someone who is a member of another religion may superficially change their religion, eventually sincerely embracing the new religion frankly in time.

Religious psychology and religious sociology both deal with the issue of conversion. These fields study conversion not from a perspective of the abandoned religion and the newly embraced religion, but from the perspective of the personal and social needs of the person caused by their belief that there are certain reasons for conversion from one religion to another. Moreover, those who speak in the name religion emphasize a theme of divine source versus human sources.

Does Conversion Occur for Emotional Reasons or Intellectual Reasons?

In relation with the conversion issue, which is a long and complex process, there is a disagreement on whether the influence on the person is emotional or intellectual. Some social scientists present an outlook which emphasizes the emotional influence on the person, while some social scientists ague the existence of intellectual factors which change the emotions and thoughts of a person in terms of reality. The opinion of the first group is based on the theory that all converts undergo the same or similar processes, and they claim that people who change their religions with a psychodynamic approach experience emotional conflicts in their childhood or immediately before the conversion. According to the approach of the second group, conversion is a conscious attempt to understand the truth clearly and comprehensively beyond personal perception. While the psychodynamic approach considers the person as having a passive role in conversion issue, according to the intellectual approach, the person is active and conscious.

Reasons for Conversion:

If one takes into account both approaches, it is possible to give the following reasons for conversion:

  • The former religion was not considered to be satisfactory.
  • The negative attitudes of those who embraced the former religion and the clergymen of the former religion.
  • The expansion of knowledge and life experience.
  • Positive behaviors on the part of people who belong to the other religion and who desire the convert to lead a life in such a society and environment.
  • Marriage to a person who belongs to another religion.
  • Obtaining material gain.
  • Being influenced by religious suggestions.
  • Being exposed to a shocking effect, etc.

Generally, there is a preparatory period, a process and course in conversion. The fact that those who are new converts are included among those who are eligible for the charitable alms (At-Tauba 9/60) shows that Islam approves of such a preparatory period. Apart from this, there are sudden conversions, though rarely, which occur without any initial signs. The ihtida of Umar and the conversion of Saint Pavlus, who is considered to be one of the founders of Christian theology, from Judaism to Christianity as a result of a vision can be considered as examples of this type of conversion. However, there may be a preparation of the subconscious even in such incidences of conversion.

Islam's Approach

Islam is a universal religion and wants all people to benefit from its values and for non-Muslims to convert to Islam. It gives duties to the believers in terms of conversion, "Call unto the way of your Lord with wisdom and fair exhortation, and reason with them in the better way" (An-Nahl 16/125). This verse clearly defines this duty. There is no class of clergyman in Islam and all Muslims are responsible for delivering the universal message of Islam. Prophet Muhammad, who had a universal prophethood, emphasized this issue with the following hadith (saying of the Prophet) "Guiding someone to conversion is more beneficial than acquiring a fortune" (Bukhari, "Jihad", 102; Muslim, "Faza'ilu's-sahaba", 34). The concept of conversion, which is mentioned 60 times in the Holy Quran, is attributed to the grace and benefaction of Allah and it is required that subjects use their will and make a choice between religions (Al-Qasas 28/56; Muhammad 47/17).

If we approach the issue theoretically, we can understand that it is possible for all of mankind to find the right path, depending on the will of Allah (al-An'am 6/ 35). However, Allah created mankind with free will, where they have to make a choice between what is good and what is bad.

In addition to the factors mentioned here, Allah helps people find the right path by means of His revelations and prophets. From this aspect, the function of the prophets and the saints that follow this path consists of leading people, yet this function should never influence the freewill or choice of a person. In a sense ihtida or conversion is not the acceptance of a new religion by a person, it is a return to the original religion, as according to Islam, all people are born in the religion of the creation (Islam). The parents are responsible for preserving the natural disposition of the child and in Islam there are no ceremonies symbolizing the child's entrance into the religion in puberty, as this is the case with Christianity. This understanding of Islam indicates that human being inherently retain the ability to recognize Allah. According to this, a person who converts to Islam it is merely returning to their natural way. In the Quran we are told of the agreement that was made between Allah and human beings during their creation (al-Araf 7/172) and there is a hadith that states that children are born in the religion of the creation Islam, yet their parents make them a Jew, Christian or Mejusi (Bukhari, "Jana'iz", 93; Muslim, "Fate", 22-25). Thus, most western people who have come to Islam prefer to use the word "revert" (one who returns) instead of the word "convert".

The only condition for Ihtida is declaring the shahada and accepting the unity of Allah and the prophethood of Muhammad (pbuh). One does not have to undergo any ceremony or go through any form of religious institution, yet declaring the shahada before at least two people has become a tradition. Islam reverts are expected to perform a ritual ablution and then to learn the main principles of the religion. It is not required that the revert change their name unless the name evokes something that is contradictory to Islam. It is recommended that male reverts undergo circumcision. On the reversion to Islam one's previous sins are forgiven by Allah as they are considered reborn in terms of spirituality.

Islam is still the fastest spreading religion in the world, just as it was in the past; it is finding new adherents in Africa, United States and Europe. It also draws more attention in Western communities than it did in the past. The conversion of some western intellectual and popular figures to Islam in recent years can be considered to be an indication of this. It is not possible to ascertain the number of conversions to Islam in the Western world, as this is not something that is covered in population censuses. However, according to data obtained from specialist surveys, the number of Europeans  who have converted to Islam is approximately as follows: between 30,000 and 50,000 in France, 5,000 in Germany, 5,000 in the Netherlands, 3,000 in Belgium and 3,000 in Denmark. In the United States the number of converts is estimated to be between 40,000 and 75,000. Islam has also gained new adherents among the Afro-American communities in America and the black communities in Europe, particularly in England following the revival of the teachings of Maliq as-Sahbaz (Malcom X) in the 1990s. It is reported that in the United States hundreds of thousand of Afro-Americans have converted to Islam. Again in the Far East, hundreds of thousands of conversions have taken place. For instance, Korea is a country with one of the highest numbers of conversions to Islam; the number of reverts is above 35,000. The reasons for conversions to Islam are primarily the result of study or marriage and conversions take place among people who are between the ages of twenty-one and thirty.

Excerpt from Ali Kose, TDV Islamic Encyclopedia, “İhtida article”, Istanbul 1994


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