“Converting on Paper”: Faith vs. Warm Bodies

This post on Muslimah Media Watch caught my eye, because it reminded me of one of my favourite topics – converting on paper. I think the subject is pertinent. I disagree with Yusra’s assertion that for Muslim women, marrying non-Muslims is not an issue, because, as she puts it, “Muslim women believe that their freedom lies within the teachings of Islam.” I rather view this as a minority issue – no more irrelevant than the issues the GLBT community faces when trying to carve out its own space within a particular religion. I also think that this issue will continue to grow in importance, because, crisis or no crisis, the world is progressively getting smaller. More and more people are leaving their communities, or stretching the concept of what “community” means in the first place. As their numbers continue to grow, so will the issue of “mixed” marriage.

What do I mean by the phrase “conversion on paper”? Let’s put it this way – We all know people who had to convert to a particular religion because of their prospective spouse. Whether due to religious law, family pressure, inheritance issues, etc., people convert in order to get hitched all the time. While some are sincere in their conversions, others view it purely as an issue of convenience. With Islam in particular, it’s not as if a Muslim woman (someone who isn’t very religious, for example) can simply say, “oh, I can’t marry this dude ’cause he’s a non-Muslim? Well, I guess I’ll stop being Muslim then,” because many communities actively police those who would like to officially leave the religion.

The word official is important here, because we all know that the issue of religion is actually quite elastic to begin with. I’m not just talking about Islam here either. Many people are religious only nominally, or culturally (I often see the argument that Asra Nomani is pushing for a cultural interpretation of Islam, which makes me scratch my head, because who isn’t influenced by a particular culture in one way or another?).

Conversion is often framed as something that’s “best for the children,” as in “dear God! Won’t somebody please think of the children?” but we all know that you can’t make your kids believe. You can make them culturally adherent – little Soraya put on a hijab upon puberty, how wonderful, little Boris goes to Sunday prayer every week, how special – but faith is a different subject altogether. You can lead a horse to water, et cetera.

Conversion, instead, is important because it addresses the “warm bodies” issue. It gives the impression that the religion is striving and strong, that it won’t be taken over by infidels of whatever stripe. It’s addresses a security concern.

Modernity takes its toll, but religion isn’t going out without a fight. I believe that there will be more and more “paper converts” in the future. This may be the part where you say, “of course, it’s terrible what’s happening in these modern times, but when we get society fixed up, inshallah, we will…” What? Send a weekly committee to the house of every convert to make sure they’re following whatever interpretation of Islam (or any other religion that’s an issue) you have decided is the most authentic?

We all know that you can choose who you marry (well, assuming your family doesn’t shove a prospective spouse down your throat). You don’t choose, however, whom you fall in love with. So people make whatever arrangements that are necessary. Remember that scene in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” when the prospective groom converts to Orthodox Christianity? It’s shown as a positive moment, but it also made me wonder just what the character was supposed to believe, in the end. Probably nothing. The ceremony is what’s important. Not the faith.

In my impossible post-religious utopia, the only issue will be that of faith.

10 thoughts on ““Converting on Paper”: Faith vs. Warm Bodies

  1. I’ve seen this happen several times and I’m still baffled by the absurdity of it. In every case that I have witnessed, it has nothing to do with the religion itself, and everything to do with what the community will think.

  2. There are several complex issues here, including no less than the definition of religion itself. What we understand as religion today is a modern, post-secular phenomenon. Even the questions we raise about in/sincerity of faith probably would’ve made little sense in pre-modern society. The same could be true of the claim that “many people are religious only nominally, or culturally” — of course, you are right and I totally agree, but such a statement also has the pitfall of reinforcing certain modes of being (more) religious as (more) legitimate.

    Anyways, I guess what I’m saying is that conversion for marriage need not be a negative thing. It’s almost like someone becoming American thanks to marriage. Of course, in my earlier “more-religious” days I used to think this kind of fake conversion is ridiculous. Like when Jemima became Muslim for the Pakistani cricketeer Imran Khan (probably one of the bigger South Asian celebrity weddings when I was in high school). But now I feel that people’s ways of becoming/being are probably more complex than we ourselves realize, and simple labels like “fake” don’t do justice.

    But of course, not being allowed to marry someone for their religious/etc identity, now that’s a whole other debate…

  3. I’m sorry if I made it seem as though I make a distinction between “real” Muslims (Christians, Jews, Jedi Knights, etc.) and “cultural” Muslims (Christians, Jews, Jedi Knights, etc.).

    I think that some people like to put on airs and graces, but I believe that it essentially boils down to the fact that the definition of a an adherent of a particular religion can be arbitrary at best. I wish that more people would admit the extent to which culture, not faith, plays a big part in their lives.

    And how religion is one big conundrum anyway, and following it doesn’t always mean what you think it means.

  4. This post reminded me of the couple I knew in the States, who met and married in the early 80s. She was Muslim and he was Jewish. If I remember correctly, they had twins and one of the girls is a hijab-wearing Muslimah (the mother doesn’t cover) while the other turned out to be a militant agnostic. It’s true what you say about leading a horse to water.

    I don’t know how I will feel if my daughter grows up to want to marry a non-Muslim man but I can’t imagine loving her less, or that this act will make her be “outside Islam.” I think that people worry so much about the outside markers that they forget the faith that you mention here.

  5. Oh, you should come to the former USSR sometime. We have them by the buttload (and thank God for small favours, because many people have taken to a reactionary Christianity since the Fall).

  6. 20 some years ago I was engaged to a Greek man. He said, ‘but of course you will have to convert to Greek Orthodox’ (I think he only ever went to church on Easter anyway) And I thought, no, no I won’t. I was christened as a catholic and if I was going to be converting to anything it would be to agnosticism! lol So, needless to say, we ended up calling it off, I wouldn’t say that religion really had anything to do with it. But I certainly was never going to be a hypocrite and pretend to be something that I was not.

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