Symposium on Religious Conversion

8 June 2015
Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Cambridge

The Centre of Islamic Studies in partnership with the Woolf Institute convened the Symposium on Religious Conversion in Cambridge on the 15 June 2015. The Symposium provided a platform for leading academics, experienced practitioners and postgraduate students to present their work in the field of religious conversion from different faith perspectives, disciplines and time periods. The speakers were joined by an engaged audience of community workers, students and academics in related fields from organisations and universities across the UK.

The first panel on the ‘Public Sphere’ began in mid-20th century Egypt with Dr Hanan Hammad’s discussion of the representations in popular culture of the conversion to Islam of the Egyptian singer Leila Murad. The focus remained on 20th century North Africa with Kirsty Bennet’s talk on Isabelle Eberhardt’s public mediation of her conversion(s) to Islam in French colonial Algeria. The panel concluded with a reflexive account of the meaning – or lack thereof – of ‘conversion’ in a Hindu context by Shaunaka Rishi Das, Oxford Chaplain for Hindu Studies. Panel two featured presentations on converts to Islam in prisons in the UK by two practitioners with considerable first-hand experience, Tanayah Sam and Maqsood Ahmed. In panel three, on ‘Ethnicity, Gender & Class’, Dr Esra Ozyurek situated the conversion to Islam of two former East Germans in the context of their alienation in unified Germany. Dr Joanne Britton delivered an account on how converts to Islam in the contemporary UK ‘confront the absence of race and the presence of racism’, and the panel concluded with a comparison by Shahla Suleiman, from the Centre of Islamic Studies, between male and female experiences of conversion to Islam from the Centre’s Narratives of Conversion projects. In the final panel on ‘Ruptures and Continuities’, Dr Kathryn Kraft explored charity provided by churches in Lebanon to Syrian Muslim refugees, considering both its material and spiritual components, including instances of conversion, and the panel and symposium concluded with talks from Cambridge postgraduate students, Dorothea Ramahi and Philip Rushworth – both recipients of Centre of Islamic Studies studentships. Dorothea explored conversion to Islam in relation to family in the contemporary UK and ‘the making of intimate strangers’ and Philip discussed the ethics of practicing the Quranic instruction to ‘enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong’ in a convert support network in Manchester. Dr Paul Anderson from the Centre of Islamic Studies rounded off the Symposium by drawing together a number of themes that emerged from the talks and discussions throughout the day.

The Symposium was a rich and rare opportunity for researchers and practitioners to engage in a dialogue around the core theme of religious conversion from different perspectives, and this coming together elicited interesting and sometimes unexpected convergences in the meaning and experience of conversion from different regions, faiths and periods, while also highlighting its divergent, contextual and individual character. This theme of convergence/divergence was perhaps best reflected in the following questions that emerged throughout the day: what does the English term ‘conversion’ mean? What assumptions inhere in its meaning? In what instances does its meaning make sense of conversion, and when is it limited? These questions, and many others, continued into the evening when participants, organisers and guests came together for dinner at Gonville and Caius College and visitors to Cambridge had the chance to witness two spectacles: the sun shining and the beginning of ‘May’ Week.

By Philip Rushworth, University of Cambridge

Panel Themes:

The Public Sphere

Papers are invited to consider the ways religious conversion interacts with the public sphere. How does conversion engage, bolster or unsettle understandings of national identity in the public sphere? What role do converts play as sources of knowledge and representatives for their religion and religious communities? In what ways have converts served as ‘cultural critics’ of mainstream norms in the public sphere? This theme also includes consideration of how converts express or manage identity and religious practices in “secular” public spaces.


Prisons and Gangs

The interaction of conversion with the dynamics of prisons and gangs are the subject of this panel. What draws people to convert in prisons and gangs and how does this differ to other cases of conversion? In particular, how can the high rates of conversion to Islam in prisons in the UK and in other countries be explained? How do prisons and gangs shape the ways in which religion is learnt and enacted? What is the impact of prison staff, such as prison chaplains, and faith-based networks and organisations in shaping the decision to convert and experiences of conversion?


Ethnicity, Gender and Class

Papers are invited to explore the ways in which ethnicity, gender and class interact with conversion. How far do these factors shape the rationale for conversion? In what ways do they shape the lived experience and the shifting contours of identity and practices of converts? This theme will also consider the role of ethnicity, gender and class in the reception of converts and conversion. How do these factors shape attitudes towards converts among family, friends and social networks and, at a wider scale, the depictions of converts in national media and broader society?


Ruptures and Continuities

When is conversion experienced as a rupture and continuity? In which fields of everyday life is rupture explicitly marked and in which is it apparently more subtle and tacit? What kinds of rupture are considered important by converts, and how do these differ to those considered important by families, friends and wider society? How far does conversion modify other forms of identity, such as pre-conversion faith identity, or national identity? Papers are also invited to consider how change and continuity is reflected in scholarly and popular representations of converts and conversion.

Symposium Programme is available here.