Proselytism and the world's religions

by Halima Krausen
Hamburg - Some months ago, two news items caused excitement: one reported that 4000 Germans converted to Islam last year, and the other was that a Council of Ex-Muslims had been established. In a secular society where the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion includes freedom to change one's religion or belief these should be side issues. But in fact, they caused considerable concern both to churches and among Muslims. Each group feared that those who turned away might actively contribute to a hostile atmosphere rather than quietly choosing another religion or ideology.

Beneath the secularist surface, conversion remains a delicate subject. Is, then, religion not such a private matter after all?

Sociologically, religious communities may look like any other social group. Initially, a religious tradition may have been identical with the beliefs, laws and rituals of a tribe, making most sense in its particular geographical and economic environment and including local and tribal deities. We find traces of this system in the ancient Middle East, where the Biblical narrative evolved, or in a number of traditions in the Indian subcontinent under the umbrella of Hinduism.

People were born into certain traditions. If conversion was an issue at all, it was a matter of adoption or some other kind of integration. Among the few stories of personal choice in the Bible is the one of Ruth who tells her mother-in-law, "Your people will be my people and your God will be my God" (Ruth 1:16).

On this "tribal level", the hope for the well-being and numerical strength of one's own group is only natural. So is the necessity to draw dividing lines between "us" and "the others" and to insist on group loyalty. The concept of religious freedom from an individualist perspective seems alien in this context. "Leaving the group" would be equivalent to a change of loyalties and perceived as a loss or a betrayal, resulting in mourning and excommunication or even persecution of the apostate.

On another level, religion is a path that involves orientation towards a goal and personal commitment. It is represented by enlightened and inspired individuals, like the Biblical prophets or the Buddha, who combined criticism of theological and social grievances within their communities with visions of a more balanced and meaningful future. The logical consequence is to teach these insights to others. Thus, the prophets confronted kings and priests to warn them of the consequences of idolatry and social injustice. Buddhist teachers presented Far Eastern kingdoms with the eight-fold path. Jewish teachers had followers in the Roman Empire until they were forbidden to accept converts on penalty of death. Christian missionaries, motivated to "go and teach all nations..." (Matthew 28:19), spread their message of salvation through faith. Muslim teachers invited others to ethical monotheism, insisting "there is no compulsion in religion" (Qur'an 2:256).

The emerging movements sometimes replaced the "tribe". New converts were welcome, even if they were motivated by personal advantages like better social status. But then the same loyalty was expected not only to the community but also to its path to salvation. With this, the dividing lines between "us" and "the others" assumed a metaphysical dimension. While religious systems were never monolithic blocks but instead influenced each other in various ways, there were also claims of exclusivity. In an oversimplified logic: if "our" way is right, then any other path must be an aberration; in the worst case, a threat that "we" must defend ourselves against a view that readily lends itself to demonising the "other".

On the other hand, love for our fellow human beings would oblige us to save them by converting them to "our" path. We come across this idea among some Christian missionaries, but also among some Muslims although earlier revealed messages are expressly confirmed in the Qur'an and people of different faiths are asked to "compete in good actions" and leave their different views to God to decide (Qur'an 5:48). In fact, religious communities seem to be competing in polemics and spite rather than in good actions, alienating themselves from the ethical and spiritual essence of their tradition. It is not surprising then, that religion is sometimes considered a factor of conflict rather than of reconciliation and peace.

With the world becoming increasingly complex and interconnected, projects of interfaith dialogue have emerged, based on the premise of our common humanity: all people want happiness. These dialogues promote understanding and trust. But in order to deal with a pluralist world, we work in two directions. One is looking for tools within our religious sources. Meditating on the Qur'anic perspective of the One God and the variety in creation, including the different colours and attitudes and even religious rituals among human beings, may well take us beyond tribalist rivalry and the exclusivity of paths to a vision of a common goal of healing and peace. The other is exploring our religious sources together which is not a new idea. By studying with colleagues of other religions, Muslims scholars and mystics have often discovered how those different colours and shades represented by our traditions are actually aspects of the One Light.


* Halima Krausen is the director of the Initiative for Islamic Studies and Imam of the German-speaking Muslim community in Hamburg. This article is part of a series on apostasy and proselytism distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CG News) and can be accessed at

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 02 October 2007,
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Other articles in this series

Death by religion by Claude Salhani
Message from the Prophet is clear: coexist by Hisham al-Zoubeir
Report this from Sudan by Ellen Davis
Keeping the faith through interfaith dialogue by Rev. David Gray
The right to change one's religion by Shaykh Abdallah Adhami