This article describes an observable pattern in Western converts’ journey to Islam. It shows how at an early stage in their life, many Westerners are disenchanted with their religion, Christianity or Judaism, and proceed to explore radical alternatives including new age religion, eastern religions and even various cults. Their search for spiritual and religious identity is usually not satiated by these alternatives and so they gradually gravitate toward Islam. The author argues that in Islam these converts find reason, order, meaning, and a contemporary relevance that is missing in western as well as eastern religions. It is the opportunity to traverse the “Middle Path,” familiar yet new, similar yet different, which the author suggests may well be the reason why these “seekers” eventually find whatever they are looking for in Islam.
The conversion of Westerners to the religion of Islam follows an observable pattern involving readily identifiable stages, including: deliberate rejection of the religion of one’s upbringing or cultural surroundings (for Westerners, Christianity and Judaism); a subsequent period of several years characterized by experimentation with religious systems (usually Eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism or their derivatives) which represent a radical departure from the rejected religion; dissatisfaction with and eventual rejection of the radical alternatives; and conversion to Islam as a movement from an extreme departure back in the direction of the religion that was originally rejected. Thus for many converts, Islam is a “middle way” between two unacceptable poles, or, to use the terminology of philosophers, a synthesis rooted in a practical Hegelianism.
The purpose of this article is to describe in detail each stage of the above-mentioned process, including reasons cited by Westerners for the unacceptability of contemporary expressions of Christianity and Judaism, as well as reasons for the eventual rejection of radical alternatives. The features of Islam that allow it to be characterized as a “middle path” will be highlighted in the concluding section.
The case studies cited in the essay originally formed the basis of a much larger study of conversion to Islam conducted by the author in 1987 and 1988. Accounts of the religious experiences of 34 Americans and 38 Europeans were collected and subjected to statistical analysis for the purpose of determining a profile of the “typical” convert to Islam. Results of this study are available elsewhere and will be used only as background information for the present discussion.
Stage 1 : Rejection and Apostasy
In recent years, a great deal of information has become available regarding the disaffection of Westerners with the religious traditions that have come to be considered intrinsically “Western,” i.e., Christianity and Judaism. California sociologist Wade Clark Roof has shown in his study of A Generation of Seekers how “baby-boomers” (persons born between 1946 and 1964) have been particularly susceptible to this trend. According to his findings, two-thirds of the persons within this age range abandoned the faith of their parents or their surrounding culture during their teens. Of those who drop out, less than one in four return to active participation in a place of worship.
Christians have suffered far heavier losses than have the Jewish people. Disaffection with Judaism does not appear to be as common as does withdrawal from the various expressions of Christianity. In a study designed to determine the faithfulness of adherents to specific religious groups, Roof and C. Kirk Hadaway discovered that members of the various Jewish sects were the least likely to convert to some other religious system, with an 83.9 percent rate of perseverance. Several factors contribute to this phenomenon, most notably the tight cohesion that exists between Jewish religion and culture and the close bonding created among adherents to Judaism through the centuries due to prejudice and persecution. But it is noted
that certain aspects of contemporary Judaism are rapidly becoming highly problematic for Westerners. The hypocrisy of nominalism, the legalism of ritualistic practices, and the militancy of Zionist politics are most often cited as reasons for leaving the faith. The general trend toward secularization within Western society plays a role as well. This is particularly true with Jewish young people, many of whom are constantly pressured to conform to the values and practices of Western culture and for whom bonding due to prejudice and persecution has not been as strong as it was for previous generations. For these reasons, apostasy from Judaism is on the rise.
The most recent studies have shown that only 11 percent of baby boomers currently attend a church or synagogue regularly and that up to 70 percent of U.S. citizens under age 30 have no religious training at all.