Becoming Muslim: Meanings of Conversion to Islam

University dissertation from Anna Månsson, Finngatan 8, 223 62 Lund, Sweden

Abstract: "Becoming Muslim: Meanings of Conversion to Islam" is an ethnographic study analyzing the identity-making of female Muslim converts. It is based on eighteen in-depth interviews with six women in Sweden and three women in the U.S. The process of becoming Muslim is explored by looking at the conversion narrative, the cognitive organization of a Muslim identity, and encounters with the surrounding world. By focusing on the self-making in the light of acquiring and understanding new religious and cultural ideas, the study demonstrates the intricate interplay between public and mental representation and how each woman incorporates Islam into her personal identity. Proceeding from the women’s life stories and recent work in cognitive anthropology, and psychological anthropology in general, I show how the women, despite a profound break in worldview, nevertheless experience continuity between a "before" and an "after." Rather than a sudden one-time change, the material points to the conversion as a continuous process of integrating a break in worldview with a coherent self-presentation. This continuity is preserved partly through pre-existing cognitive models that remain salient throughout the conversion process. I analyze how the converts organize their Muslim identities and appropriate the religious system through cognitive models such as "the model of solidarity," "the model of gender equality and women’s right," and "the model of spiritual connection and understanding." Thus, the thesis emphasizes the importance of previously internalized ideas in the women’s understanding of Islam. Also, the tension between the women’s own self-image and socially assigned categories is analyzed. In encounters with family, parents, friends, Muslims, converts, and unknown people, the women engage diverse labels and discourses on how a Muslim, Swedish, and American woman is supposed to be and act, which triggers different strategies as well as shifting self-representations. Embracing a Muslim identity brings forth negotiation of alternative versions of "Swedishness," "Americanness," and "femaleness." The material shows how the women engage, try out, and sometimes integrate seemingly irreconcilable representations and how they identify themselves as being both Swedish and Muslim or American and Muslim. It reflects a dynamic psychocultural process, which brings forth not only reproduction of, but also changes in, cultural and religious forms. The conversion to Islam and the women’s transcultural identities reflect both a transformation of self and larger cultural and social transformations.

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