Monday, March 05, 2012

Conversion to and from Islam

This is a weekly post by Nidhal Guessoum (see his earlier posts here). Nidhal is an astrophysicist and Professor of Physics at American University of Sharjah and is the author of Islam's Quantum Question: Reconciling Muslim Tradition and Modern Science.

In a previous post I highlighted the report on ‘The Future of the Global Muslim Population’ that was released by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life (PFRPL) in January 2011. The report looked at demographic trends in 44 Muslim-majority countries and considered the importance of various factors, such as levels of education (of women), economic well-being (GDP per capita), contraception and family planning, etc. In that post of mine, I focused on contraception and abortion attitudes and laws.
In this post, I would like to highlight another (brief) section of the report, the one on conversion, as a factor that may influence demographic trends (increases or decreases in the numbers of Muslims).
First the report notes that “[s]tatistical data on conversion to and from Islam are scarce.” It explains why:
Some national censuses ask people about their religion, but they do not directly ask whether people have converted to their present faith. A few cross-national surveys do contain questions about religious switching, but even in those surveys, it is difficult to assess whether more people leave Islam than enter the faith. In some countries, legal and social consequences make conversion difficult, and survey respondents may be reluctant to speak honestly about the topic. Additionally, for many Muslims, Islam is not just a religion but an ethnic or cultural identity that does not depend on whether a person actively practices the faith. This means that even nonpracticing or secular Muslims may still consider themselves, and be viewed by their neighbors, as Muslims.
Then the report makes the following important observation:
 What little information is available suggests that there is no substantial net gain or loss in the number of Muslims through conversion globally; the number of people who become Muslims through conversion seems to be roughly equal to the number of Muslims who leave the faith.
The emphasis in the text was added by me, as I think the idea that the number of people leaving Islam being roughly equal to the number of people converting to Islam is really worth noting. We tend to rarely hear about people who are brought up as Muslim but later declare themselves as non-Muslim, and we end up believing that such cases are rare. In contrast, we hear so much about conversions into Islam, especially in the west, and we thus unconsciously end up believing that there is definite and substantial “net gain” in the number of Muslims worldwide. In fact, the trends show that the number of Muslims globally does indeed increase rather fast compared to the rest of the world population, but only due to birth rates (which are directly related to poor women’s education, low standards of living, etc.).

The report goes on to give a bit more information on the topic of conversions:

the Pew Forum’s survey of 19 nations in sub-Saharan Africa, conducted in 2009, found that neither Christianity nor Islam is growing significantly at the expense of the other through religious conversion in those countries. Uganda was the only country surveyed where the number of people who identified themselves as Muslim was significantly different than the number of people who said they were raised Muslim: 18% of Ugandans surveyed said they were raised Muslim, while 13% now describe themselves as Muslim, a net loss of five percentage points. In every other sub-Saharan Africa country surveyed, the number of people who are currently Muslim is roughly equivalent to the number saying they were raised as Muslims.

The Pew Forum’s U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, conducted in 2007, found a similar pattern in the United States. In that survey, the number of respondents who described themselves as Muslim was roughly the same as the number who said they were raised as Muslims, and the portion of all U.S. adults who have converted either to or from Islam was less than three-tenths of 1 percent (>0.3%). Due to the relatively small number of Muslims in the nationally representative survey sample, however, it was not possible to calculate a precise retention rate for the Islamic faith in the U.S. [In a footnote, the report notes that “Muslims currently constitute less than 1% of the U.S. adult population”.]

An independent study published in 2010 that examined patterns of religious conversion among various faiths in 40 countries, mainly in Europe, also found that the number of people who were raised Muslim in those countries, as a whole, roughly equaled the number who currently are Muslim. But the sample sizes for Muslims were so small that the results cannot reliably predict Muslim conversion trends.

Very interesting information on a somewhat sensitive or even taboo topic (conversion from Islam)…


Gary said...

For a brief period in Australia Islam was the fastest growing faith in the country. It has now been passed by Buddhism. As a rule converts were almost invisible and to a large extent still are. There were claims of a spike in conversions shortly after Sept. 11 but I suspect that was partly due to already existing converts becoming more vocal in defence of there chosen belief. What I have observed over a period of 25 years has been many of the children of Muslim immigrants who have grown up in Australia choosing to be more actively and openly Muslim than their parents. This has come about because they have grown up in Australia and are more at home in the broader society.

There is a history of Muslim presence in Australia pre dating European settlement. Muslims also arrived with the first European settlers.
I have heard some American scholars point out that Islam has never really taken root in a country until it establishes institutions and produces scholars within that country. This is now happening in Australia with private colleges being established and Muslims developing Islamic studies courses for mainstream universities.

AnotherAnonymous said...

I think what's more important is, how many of the Muslims actually practice their religion? A lot of people are just born into them, but that doesn't mean they actually practice or believe in it.

Nidhal Guessoum said...

Gary, you make some interesting points. Let me query/comment briefly on them.
One, I am not sure I understand why when things were quiet before 9/11, converts to Islam would have chosen to be silent and invisible, but when after 9/11 the western public (including, I presume, Australia) panicked about Islam and Muslim, converts would have chosen to become more visible and assertive. Please explain.
Two, I think your observation of children of Muslim immigrants become more observant and assertive of their faith/religion is consistent with what we have witnessed in Europe and in America. One should note, however, that the revival of religion is a worldwide phenomenon, not just an Islamic one, something that Muslims often don't like to acknowledge.
Three, your remark about Islam not really taking root in a country until it has produced scholars within that country may be true for some lands, and for America and the UK, clearly this criterion has been fulfilled, but I'm not sure about France and Germany, for example, though no one can say that Islam is not an established religion there.
I'll interested in your and others' further thoughts. Thanks for the illuminating comments.

yomna said...

dr. nidhal i want to ask you about something related to the science and islam topic so how can i reach you ? i am in desperate need of a knowledgable opinion like yours !

Gary said...

Nidhal, prior to Sept. 11 most converts in Australia were invisible. They mainly stayed within the ethnic group they were involved with when they converted. There were a few high profile converts who were well known among Muslims but not among non-Muslims. The response of most of the organisations claiming to represent Australian Muslims was belated, inadequate and mostly provided ammunition for media stories attacking Muslims and Islam. What this did to was force many converts to come forward and make their own efforts to deal with the issue. The end result was converts networking more and meeting each other more often. A number of them became involved in grass-roots advocacy groups including one which was quite successful in dealing with the media. This effort was not just driven by converts. Muslims born and raised in Australia also became involved in outreach aimed at presenting a positive image of Muslims.

One of the things you mentioned in your post was the number of Muslims who also leave Islam. I know it is happening but sadly I can find no reliable statistics on the issue or research into their reasons for leaving. That is something that would be interesting to look at but suspect it is too sensitive to make any research easy.

Nidhal Guessoum said...

Please feel free to email me. I don't want to post my email address here, as it gets picked up by spambots, but if you go to, you'll find me under the Physics Department listing (College of Arts & Sciences), with my email and everything.

Yomna said...

dr. nidhal ive just sent you the email. i really hope you can reply and thanks alot sir .