How easy is it to convert to Islam?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Aug. 31 2006 6:30 PM

I Converted at Gunpoint

Am I really a Muslim?

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The two Fox News staffers who were kidnapped in Gaza earlier this month were forced to convert to Islam at gunpoint, according to news reports. Fox's Steve Centanni said on Wednesday that he didn't know if he was officially a Muslim—"I don't know enough about Islam to know if it was official, or recognized." Well, is he a Muslim, or isn't he?

Most Muslims would say he isn't. An often-quoted passage of the Quran says, "there is no compulsion in religion." Since Centanni claims that his conversion was made under duress, it would be invalid, according to this passage. (The conversion video made by the kidnappers cites that passage and says Centanni accepted Islam "without any pressure.")

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

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On the video, Centanni swears an oath called the shehada, which has two parts. First, he says, "I testify that there is no God but Allah." Then, he says, "I testify that Mohammed is the messenger of Allah."

As a general rule, saying these lines aloud is enough to convert to Islam, but certain restrictions apply. The rules for the shehada are the same as those for swearing any oath under Islamic law. The history of these sworn statements goes back to a medieval (and pre-Islamic) Arabic custom called baya, which referred to taking an oath of allegiance to a particular leader. Muslim scholars disagree over the exact interpretation of these rules, but most say that you can't swear an oath while you're drunk or under duress. You also can't testify to something that you're not sure of in your heart.

Scholars differ on other points. Some believe that the oath must be repeated three times before it's official. (Jurists have even debated the maximum amount of time that can elapse between each repetition.) Some Shiites say the oath should include a reference to Ali. And it's not clear how many witnesses must be there to hear the oath—some say there should be at least one man or two women; others demand a bigger crowd. (There's even a tradition of private conversion, where God is the only witness.) Jurists have also debated the question of whether uncircumcised adult converts can enter the faith without a medical procedure.

A ritual washing—called ghusl—is sometimes part of the conversion process. The About.com guide for how to convert to Islam lists "take a shower" as the fifth step.

In the kidnappers' video, Centanni follows the shehada by announcing he has taken the name "Khaled." Not all Muslim traditions require the adoption of an Arabic name, though lots of Western converts—like Cassius Clay and Cat Stevens—have chosen to go this route. One school of Islamic thought argues that it's a sin to change your name, since doing so would disrespect your father.

Converts who want to participate in the hajj must go through one more step. Only Muslims are allowed to enter the city of Mecca, and the Saudi government demands proof of conversion. Converts can get a conversion form at their local mosque. In the United States, the forms look something like marriage certificates, with the date and witnesses listed.

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Explainer thanks R. Kevin Jaques of Indiana University.