On Conversion

The “Missionary dilemma”

Based on my PhD-thesis, Transforming Friendships, on the influence of interfaith friendship between Christian and Muslims in Norway, on views on religion, I found that the theme of conversion had special interest for many of my informants. Most of my Christian informants appeared to have an urge to convert their Muslim friends, while the Muslim informants had a more relaxed view on the theme.

Christians on conversion

One Christian informant called the question of conversion a typical “missionary dilemma” in relation to her Muslim friends, and another said that when friendship only became “a program” it was not real. You do not become friends only to convert them. Some told me that they tried to avoid all kind of religious controversies in order to maintain the friendship with a Muslim. Other motives than developing the relationship itself were viewed as proofs that the friendship was built on a fundamental falsehood. Does this mean that my Christian informants abandoned all hope for their friends to become Christians? Before I answer this question, we shall take a closer look at what my Muslim informants thought about conversion.

Muslims on conversion

Most Muslim informants felt that the theme did not mean a great deal to them. There may be several reasons to this. It may for instance be that they withheld their opinions because they did not want to offend me as a Christian researcher, or that they wanted to be careful as newcomers to Norway and a religious minority in what they named as a “Christian country”. Or it may be that my Muslim informants simply were not especially preoccupied in trying to convert their Christian friends to Islam. Even if the Muslim interviewees had a different way of addressing the issue of conversion, several of them admitted that they would be very happy if their Christian friends converted to Islam. At the same time, they stressed that it was important not to put pressure on their Christian friends. Some talked about how it would help them to paradise if they were able to convert their friends to Islam, that it was a religious duty to try to convert the other, and that they could be punished if they did not try. Some also thought that had too little knowledge about Islam to be able to lead their Christian friends to Islam.

Is friendship more important than conversion?

It appeared that most of the Christian informants had changed their strategies from a confrontative Christian witness, to a subtler one. Where friendship gave the Christians problems in relation to their views on conversion for their Muslim friend, the relationship helped to solve the same problem. Because Jesus meant “so incredibly much” to her, Berit, for instance, found it natural to share the best in her life with her Muslim friends. In addition, both the Muslim and the Christian interviewees, underlined that the friendship would last even if the other did not convert, because the relationship was based on a more solid foundation than a common faith.

Religious inspiration

By pointing to the way that Jesus behaved towards the Samaritan woman by the well (Jn 4:5-26), who belonged to another religious belief than the religious majority of the time, one Christian informant had found inspiration both to give to and to receive from her Muslim friends. First Jesus received water from the woman, before he preached the gospel about the living water and about the Kingdom of God. In interfaith friendships it is important to both give and to receive. Several Muslim informants, for their part, told about how the life of the prophet Muhammed was an inspiration to them. They told me about a Jewish neighbour of the Prophet that treated him badly. In return the Prophet only treated him with kindness. When the Jew one day became very ill, Muhammed visited him and cared for him, which resulted in a close friendship and eventually that the Jew converted to Islam. Consequently, one informant found it important to demonstrate concern, openness and hospitality towards people with another faith when it came to the issue of conversion. One Muslim female informant told me that she once said to her Christian friend that she was “welcome to become a Muslim”, to invite her into the Muslim fellowship.

Religious creativity

An elderly Christian couple found it important to accept that their friends had another faith, and not pressure them, in the same way that they experienced acceptation and respect from their own Muslim friends. Other Christian interviewees prayed that God would arrange for later conversations about conversion for their friends, while others hoped that God would use others in their congregation for this purpose. Tore was open to the possibility for his friend to become a Muslim that followed Jesus, without taking part in a total conversion in a traditional sense. In a similar way Talal and Warda thought that the way that their Christian friends took care of a multi-handicapped foster child maybe would make it possible to enter straight to paradise after their deaths, in the same way as when Muslims performed such unselfish and good acts. It appeared that these different solutions had come about as results of the informants’ reflections on the connection between their friendship and their thoughts on the problem of conversion.

Conclusion

Interfaith friendship can challenge traditional views on conversion, and at the same time help to solve some of the same challenges. Friendship brought mutual respect, acceptation, recognition, hospitality, and patience. The wish to convert the other was reframed into a new context that eased the degree of religious zealousness. One does not proclaim “the Truth”, with capital T, to one’s friends, but instead one gives priority to the friendship in many different ways, without completely abandoning the wish for the other to get hold of what the informants found to be the best part of life.

Author

  • Torstein Try is an Associate Professor at Ansgar University College in Norway. His work focuses on intercultural studies.

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