Do Muslims convert non-Muslims?

It is important to make a distinction between the Islamic da’wa and religious conversion. Da’wa is the act of inviting people towards the message of Islam.

ByHilal Ahmed
Do Muslims convert non-Muslims?
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The advocates of the Ghar Wapsi (“Home Coming”) campaign made a very powerful claim. They asserted that a majority of Muslims (and Christians as well) are local converts. Taking advantage of political patronage in medieval India, the argument goes, Muslim religious figures forced the poor and marginalised Hindus to convert to Islam. 

This process has been continuing in colonial and post-colonial India. Article 25 (1) of the Constitution, which grants freedom of conscience and the right to profess, practice and propagate religion is thus problematic and anti-Hindu in nature.  

The Ghar Wapsi initiative was presented as a sincere solution to reconvert Muslims and Christians to Hinduism. And, at the same time, control the activities of Muslim organisations. The provocative overtone of this campaign died down quickly. However, the campaign was able to establish religious conversion as a politically contested issue. 

The question is, Do Muslim religious organisations convert non-Muslims? 

Da’wa and conversion 

It is important to make a distinction between the Islamic da’wa and the modern notion of religious conversion. Da’wa broadly means invitation — inviting people towards the message of Islam. On the other hand, conversion is loosely defined as the adoption of new religious beliefs and a fundamental transformation of a person’s religious identity.

This subtle distinction is crucial. The post-1947 Islamic da’wa movements remain highly indifferent towards non-Muslims. Following the traditions established by the modern Islamic religious reform movements of the 19th century, the contemporary da’wa movements concentrate primarily on the Muslims of India. In other words, an inward-looking Islamic da’wa discourse emerges in post-colonial India, which seems to be governed by the logic of right to freedom of religion.

The contours of da’wa  

Let us briefly look at the positions of two leading Sunni da’wa movements—Tablighi Jamat and Jamaat-e-Islam-e-Hind (JIH) and ideas of two prominent Sunni religious figures — Maulana Wahiduddin Khan, Maulana Abul Ala Hasan Ali Nadwi (also known as Ali Mian) to map out the contours of Islamic da’wa in contemporary India. These organisations and religious scholars have a profound impact on contemporary Indo-Islamic religious traditions, especially among Sunnis. 

Tablighi Jamaat, for instance, has emerged as a leading form of Islamic religiosity in contemporary India. Despite its stated adherence to apolitical da’wa, the Tablighi Jamaat’s presence has always been felt in public life, particularly in relation to communally-targeted violence against Muslims. 

Maulana Mohammad Yusuf, the second Amir (head) of Tablighi Jamaat, describes da’wa as an end in itself. Defining the meaning of da’wa, he said, “the manner in which Prophet Mohammad lived his life and worked for the deen of Allah is tabligh”. 

This explicitly religious focus of the Tablighi Jammat’s da’wa project is an example of propagation of religion in purely legal-constitutional sense. In fact, this form of da’wa moves away from any kind of direct social-religious intervention and goes for the protection of Iman of those who have already recognised themselves as Muslims!

JIH is another influential Muslim organisation, which actually functions as a pressure group. JIH recognises da’wa as a mode to assert Islamic identity in secular India. Although JIH’s relation with the Indian state has always been problematic, it has successfully established itself as a leading Islamic da’wa movement. 

The JIH also recognises the centrality of da’wa as an important aspect of Islamic religiosity. But, at the same time, it does show an active interest in the ongoing public debates and issues concerning Muslims. In fact, dissemination of Islam is identified as a method to engage in direct public discussions. To work out a practical design for this seemingly difficult project of da’wa, especially in the post-Partition anti-Muslim environment of the 1950s, the JIH took the language question very seriously. The JIH publishes a large number of Islamic books in different Indian languages. 

Maulana Wahiduudin Khan, who runs the organisation, Al-Risala, offered a different and creative interpretation of da’wa. He criticised the inward-looking attitude of the Islamic religious elite and argued for a humane, peace-oriented, rational approach for propagating Islam. 

While recognising Islam as the best, authentic and unadulterated religion, Khan offered a nuanced perspective on conversion. In his opinion, 

Conversion in Islamic thought is not synonymous with proselytism in the formal sense. It is an event, which takes place in a person’s life as a result of intellectual revolution or spiritual transformation. It is not simply leaving one religious tradition for another. The Islamic ideal of conversion is for the individual to discover the truth after an exhaustive search for it and then by his own choice, abandon one religion for another.”

The question of Islamic rationality is also evoked by Maulana Ali Mian Nadwi–the former Rector of the Darul Uloom Nadwatul Ulama. Nadwi, who wrote extensively on Islamic da’wa in India, argued for a contextual da’wa, which can operate within the realm of the constitutional right to religion. 

Nadwi’s framework is not only about preparing Muslims to introduce Islam to non-Muslims but also make them aware of their constitutionally granted rights. He traces compatibility between Islamic principles and democratic norms to conceptualise Muslims of India as an identifiable minority community—with a distinct culture and religion. The purpose of da’wa, in this case, is to spread the message of this distinctiveness to Muslims, non-Muslims and above all, to the state.

Propagation of Islam versus conversion  

These preachers of Islamic da’wa respond to two fundamental issues: (a) How to interpret the secular law without compromising with the belief in Islamic supremacy? (b) How to configure a da’wa which does not cross the dividing line between propagation of religion and conversion of non-Muslims?

Wahiduddin Khan’s emphasis on modern rationality helps him to offer a Da’wa, which he finds compatible with his rational interpretation of Islam and/or Indian secularism. Khan called this endeavour “an ideology of peace”.  

Tablighi Jamaat’s expressed commitment for apolitical da’wa functions differently. The agenda to prepare Muslims for purely religious purity (deen) never poses any challenge to secular law and allows them to operate in a protected sphere of religion.

The JIH, on the contrary, seems to identify ‘propagation versus conversion’ as a vantage point to interpret not merely the Islamic principles but also the foundational doctrine propounded by Mawdudi. As a result, terms like Islamic revolution and Hukmat-e-Allah (the kingdom of God) gradually disappear from JIH’s literature. 

For Ali Mian Nadwi, law and secularism are deeply ingrained in the social values of Muslims, even in medieval times. Hence, reasserting Islamic sovereignty as a form of da’wa in the post-colonial period, he argues, never contradicts with the constitutional schema of modern state.

This brief overview suggests that post-colonial Islamic da’wa discourse in India is highly multi-layered. It functions like a pendulum. The ideal-textual interpretations of Islam for making Muslims more Islamic are one extreme end of this swing, and the legal-constitutional considerations are at the other end. 


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