The aesthetics of superiority : Conversion narratives as performative acts in a climate of religious competition
Tabea Scharrer (Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology)
Paper short abstract:
On the basis of Islamic conversion narratives it will be shown that in the Eastern African climate of religious competition between Christianity and Islam conversion narratives not only serve as an enactment of a truthful conversion but also as the very means in this competition.
Paper long abstract:
While doing fieldwork on Islamic missionary movements and their followers in Kenya and Tanzania between 2004 and 2007 I came across highly standardised narratives about becoming Muslim. These were told by converts and non-converts alike and are similar in their argumentative structure to one very visible form of Islamic missionary work - the public comparison of the Bible and the Quran. Following the ideas of the South African Ahmed Deedat groups that call themselves Wahubiri wa Kiislamu (Muslim Bible Preachers) or Islamic Propagation Centre organise these kind of public debates, that almost seem like staged spectacles, on a regular basis to demonstrate the superiority of their religion. These public representations take place in a climate of religious (and also political and economic) competition between various Christian and Islamic movements and in societies where Muslims form an influential minority. The audience for this narrative of superiority however is not necessarily the 'Other' but often the own group, no matter if the narrative is told by converts as an enactment of their conversion or converts and non-converts alike as a means in this competition. However in both cases the way Islam is thought about and therefore the (self-)image of Muslims is recreated time and again through narrating as a performative act.
Aesthetics of conversion