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  • Maulana Wahiduddin Khan

Conversion - An Intellectual Transformation

Conversion—A healthy historical process

A few years ago I went through a book by an Indian writer called The Politics of Conversion. I found that there was only one point on which I differed from the author and that was the choice of title for the book. I felt that it might more justifiably have been called The Politicization of Conversion. This would have underscored the necessity to avoid the sensationalism of giving a political hue to something, which was, after all, a natural reality.

What is conversion? Usually conversion is equated with proselytism. But conversion, in its broadest sense, is much further-reaching, in that it is a universal principle of nature. It is a historical process—healthy and inexorable—and attempting to put a stop to it would be like trying to put a stop to history itself. And who in this world has the power to do so? Conversion, in reality, is the birth of an entirely new entity resulting from the encounter between old and new schools of thought. This is a universal law established by nature itself.

The study of human history reveals that a certain process is always at work, which Karl Marx had wrongly called dialectical materialism. More rightly this is a dialogue-conversion process. That is, when two systems of thought clash with each other, an intellectual revolution ensues.

This dialogue-conversion process is the only ladder to all kinds of human progress. That is, whenever any revolution of civilization has been produced or a human group has succeeded in performing some great creative role, it has always come in the wake of this same dialogue-conversion process.

There is no single form of this process. It can be religious or non-religious in nature. In the history of the last fifteen hundred years we find two major examples—one of religious conversion and the other of secular conversion.

The history of the Arabs provides the example of religious conversion. Up to the sixth century A.D., the Arabs led a confined tribal life under the idolatrous system. Then at the beginning of the seventh century, there appeared the religion of monotheism, Islam. In consequence, intensive dialogue began between the monotheists and idolaters. This dialogue assumed such an aggressive character that it came to the point of collision. As a result a new way of thinking was born among the Arabs, which went on growing till it took the form of a great intellectual revolution.

This intellectual revolution, or this discovery of a new idea, resulted in the emergence of a new personality among the Arabs. In the words of a European historian, every one of them acquired such a revolutionary personality that their entire people became a nation of heroes. Within just fifty years they brought about that historical event which is called by a historian “the miracle of all miracles.” Briffault puts this in a nutshell: “But for the Arabs, western civilization would never have arisen at all.”

Another example is that of the European Christian nations. After the crusades—a historical process extending over several hundred years—these nations too went through a conversion process. This conversion was secular rather than religious. Intense conflict took place between science and religion. This is elucidated in the book: Conflict Between Science and Religion.

This encounter continued for several hundred years in the form of dialogue and conflict, until a new intellectual revolution was produced within the European nations and they finally bade good-bye to the old and opted for the new. This revolution is known as the Renaissance.

It was this revolution which enabled the European nations to perform the greatest feat of history, i.e. emerging from the traditional age into the age of science. The truth is that the human mind is a treasure house of unlimited power. In normal situations the human brain remains in a dormant state. It is only external shocks, which awaken it, and the greater they are, the greater the intellectual revolution within man. This shock treatment produces in man what psychologists call brain-storming. This brings about a fresh intellectual outlook, a transformation that elevates a normal man to the level of a superman, who is then able to perform great feats.

Religious conversion is only a small part of this whole process. When the dialogue-conversion process is set in motion, it cannot have limits set to it. It is not possible to allow one kind of conversion and to prohibit another. Being a stormy process, it is boundless.

It must be appreciated that there are two major kinds of religious conversion—inner faith conversion and inter faith conversion. Now let us take an example of inter faith conversion. There was a multi-lingual Bengali Doctor of Philosophy, Nishi Kant Chattopadhyaye, who, having first studied philosophy, then all major religions, faced intellectual confrontation with different faiths. Finally he made an intellectual discovery in consequence of which he left his ancestral religion, Hinduism, in favour of Islam. His Muslim name was Azizuddin. He delivered a lecture, published later under the title, Why I Have Embraced Islam, which describes in detail the story of his intellectual development. This lecture has been reproduced in one of the chapters of this book.

There have also been instances of men and women who were born in Muslim families, who later cast off their family religion in order to turn into secularists, or even atheists in some cases. However, sooner or later they reached a turning point in their lives when they came back to Islam as sincere practicing Muslims.

The author of this book is an example of this kind of inner faith conversion. He was born in a Muslim family and until 1942, kept on performing all religious duties and rituals under the influence of the family. Then, an intellectual revolt took place in his mind against Islam and consequently he became a totally irreligious person for many years to come. It was not until 1948, after five years of systematic analytical study of modern philosophy, science and religion that the author was fully convinced of the continuing relevance and credibility of Islam and decided to return to it again. But, this time it was a return, or conversion, to a consciously chosen and rediscovered Islam, not to the traditionally inherited one.

To sum up, conversion is a universal and inescapable law of nature. A study of psychology and history tells us that, in order to give a new impetus to an individual or a group and to bring about a moral and intellectual revolution, what is most effective is the sense of discovery. This feeling of having discovered some truth, which was as yet unknown, awakens all the dormant powers of the individual. This feeling turns an ordinary man into a superman. It is such supermen who cross the ocean, who scale mountains, and who by their heroic character cause history to enter a new age. Today, human history is once again facing a deadlock. History is once again in need of people who pass through this experience of a discovery. For it is such people, charged with new spiritual power, who will give a strong push to human history to enter a new and a better age.

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