Searching for Heaven in the Real World: A Sociological Discussion of Conversion in the Arab World by Kathryn Ann Kraft
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Kathryn Kraft’s book is a study of groups of converts from Islam to Christianity in Egypt and Lebanon. Working in the field of sociology of religion, she attempts to analyse and understand the consequences of the decision to leave Islam and embrace a Christian faith. (Why the indefinite article? This is never explained but I’m certain this is not the way that converts speak of their faith.)
Her intent is clearly explained on page 16: After telling us, at some length, about her methodology and research experience, she will utilize two Islamic doctrines, tawhiid and umma, to “explore the lives, cultures and values of converts from an Arab, Muslim background.” She does this by treating a number of idealized topics (hence the word “heaven” in the title): the perfect researcher, perfect unity (tawhiid), perfect community (Umma), perfect dream, perfect believer and a perfect identity. A recurring theme is that these converts (and it is good that she uses the correct word here—convert) have a vision and hope for something in converting to Christianity that they do not ultimately achieve. In making the dangerous and difficult move of converting they are hoping for heaven on earth, but in fact meet with disappointment on multiple levels. They are disappointed by churches that don’t welcome them, by missionaries who are overbearing or pastors who are disconnected, they are alienated from their (Muslim) families and nations, they are disappointed by the intolerance of Islamic law, and so on (anomie is the technical term which Kraft uses to summarize this state).
That Kraft is frank about the difficulties faced by Christians from a Muslim background is refreshing. Much of the material that exists about these converts tends to lionize them and portray them as having faith to move mountains and standing up under persecution like Polycarp or Perpetua. This does indeed happen sometimes, but Kraft’s exploration of the other side of the coin is welcome, even if at times the “anomie” of these “deviant persons” tends to overpower the equally genuine truth that these converts often have a powerful and refreshing sense of hope and love which they had not experienced in Islam.
Kraft is able to explore some new territory in relation to these converts. How do converts manage the question of self-identity in a country like Egypt where they cannot legally change their religion from Muslim to Christian? How do they relate to their families? What are the effects of leaving a structured diin like Islam, with set fasts, pray times, a manner of chanting the Qur’an, for evangelicalish Christianity (mostly), which tends to eschew such structure and (blandly, perhaps) encourages people to simple pray to God whatever is “on their heart”? Also welcome is Kraft’s willingness to acknowledge the complexity of the convert identity, and her treatment in Chapter 7 of various strategies used by converts to figure out how to live as Christians from a Muslim background is nuanced and does not oversimplify the topic. In engaging with the question of identity she is following in the footsteps of Seppo Syrjanen who composed the first sociological case study of converts from Islam to Christianity.
There are problems with the book, however. At times it was not clear to me whose voice was speaking: the convert’s, or hers? Some sections had a wealth of quotations from her sources which were helpful and welcome, but at other times one could go for pages reading the author’s analysis on some facet of conversion life without reading a single quotation from the sources themselves. This does not mean that her conclusions are false, my own research among converts (Arabs and Iranians, mostly) actually tends to back up most of her points. But there are sections where allowing the voices of the researched subjects to be present before going on to analyse them would improve the reading experience.
As to the methodology and her own reflection on herself as a researcher (the end of Chapter 1 and Chapter 2), I am ambivalent. Students doing scholarship among MBB’s in the Muslim world, and especially the Arab world, will find this lengthy section helpful and indeed may well want to use it as a template for their own methodology section. Comaprisons to nuns leaving the convent may warm the heart of anthropologists, but add nothing to the book. Readers who simply want to know about the converts from Islam may well want to skip her chapter on “the perfect researcher”.
Perhaps the most difficult decision to make in relation to field research is related to how to analyse the data. After weeks, months or years of interviews, e-mails, conversations, visiting churches and hearing sermons and songs—one must figure out how to go about identifying what stays in and what stays out, what is worth exploring more and what is not, what gets a whole chapter in the thesis, and what gets a paragraph or an appendix or is simply saved for future articles. It is at this point that
Kraft makes her most puzzling move by choosing two Islamic concepts: tawhiid and Umma. Kraft has claimed that she wants to let the converts speak on their own terms, using their own ideas, and not impose ad extra her own presuppositions. So why would she choose these two concepts? The question is never answered in her book.
The author overestimates, I think, the significance of tawhiid, which refers to the monadic monotheism of God’s essence in Islamic theology. Kraft believes that this tawhiid is refracted onto the life of the Muslim by creating a unified and integral way of life. For instance, tawhiid would resist the idea that secular order and religious order should be separated from each other. And so, she appears to believe, in leaving Islam converts are hungering for this same sort of integrated life and identity they had experienced (maybe?) in Islam, but become disappointed when this dream of heaven on earth is not fulfilled in Christianity.
The implication is that there is something special about Islam, because of tawhiid, that makes the Muslim (and ex-Muslim) hunger for a well-integrated life and identity that is not present in other societies. This is a problematic claim. Is it not more likely that modernity tends towards compartmentalized, fragmented identities, and that the normal way to be human, including for non-modern Christians, is to desire and perhaps attain such an integrated life? This position has been argued extensively by Peter Berger in his book, Facing Up To Modernity: Excursions In Society, Politics, And Religion. According to him, Modernity has created five key problems. One, abstraction: this is related to the mass state and media, and the rise of the Machine, and the destruction of what have been historically integrated communities (71, 72). Two, futurity—as children of Modernity are always focusing on the future and not the present or the past. Three, individuation: entailing the separation of the individual from the collective, which has led to greater anomie. Four, liberation: people have liberty to choose who or what they will be, but that liberty may convert itself into being forced to choose, and thus become oppressive, this experiencing of being forced to choose is called the heretical imperative. Five, there is secularization: “Modernization has brought with it a massive threat to the plausibility of religious belief and experience” (78).
One could ask similar questions about the concept of the Umma. Are we to believe that the desire to belong to a close-knit and united community is particular to Islam? Is it not in fact particular to many forms of Christianity throughout history (if not evangelicalism today)? In other words, it is not Islam that is different here, it is modernity that is bizarre and novel in its willingness to fracture and compartmentalize facets of the human life, and while not all Christianity is the fruit of modernity, evangelicalism certainly is.
Kraft’s choice of two concepts from Islam, a religion which her converts claim to have left, to explain how Christians live is the most problematic and puzzling aspect of this book. In spite of this over-reliance on the explanatory power of tawhiid and Umma, her analisys actually succeeds quite well. I just wish she would have used different words to treat the topic. After all, the chapter on tawhiid is very much about relationships, and the chapter on Umma about community. Simply acknowledging that relationships and community are integral aspects of what it means to be human—whether one is Christian or Muslim—and that the convert’s life cannot be examined without treating the two topics would have sufficed.
The book’s conclusion (the final chapter) is its strongest note, with Kraft briefly explaining the next frontier of exploration in relation to Christians from a Muslim background: the second generation. How converts raise their children in societies like Egypt where the extended family is Muslim and the child is, according to the dictates of the shari’a, by necessity Muslim and must be taught Islam in school—these topics are completely unresearched to my knowledge.
Kraft has provided us with a valuable book, one of the only ones in existence about converts from Islam to Christianity. Her sober treatment of the difficulties they face and the complexity of their strategies in negotiating identity and relationships outweighs any deficiencies on might identify, and mean that, without a doubt, this book will be indispensable reading for any scholar researching similar converts.
Reviewed by Duane Alexander Miller, NETS Book Reviews, October 2013
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