Home Religion & Spirituality Islam, Conversion, And Xenophobia – A Talk With Sabreina Lei

Islam, Conversion, And Xenophobia – A Talk With Sabreina Lei


Converted to Islam some years years ago, Dr. Sabrina Lei, an Italian writer and researcher, is one of the emerging Western Muslim scholars and cultural activists. After getting a thorough grounding in Latin and Greek, Dr Sabrina read philosophy at Rome’s La Sapienza University, and got her research degree in philosophy, working on Wittgenstein’s concept of time in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus in 2000. A few years later she went back to her academic research again, and got a PhD in ancient philosophy. Dr. Sabrina Lei, Currently working as Director of Tawasul, Centre for Research and Dialogue, has published almost a dozen books on Islam and related topics so far, including a study on the spiritual and medical benefits of Salat (Muslim Prayer) and the Italian translations of the works of some of the great Muslim scholars like Sheikh Naseruddin Albani, Muhammad Al-Ghazzali, Muhammad Iqbal, Muhammad Asad, etc. Below is a conversation with her. 

1. How was your conversion and as a European what were your experiences after it?

Before talking directly about my conversion or journey to Islam (I prefer the term journey, in its spiritual sense, to the term conversion to refer to the process of my acceptance of Islam), I would like to make a few important points about the very idea of the conversion.

First, conversion, to whatever religion, must be approached as a very personal and spiritual process that one undergoes through the exercise of one’s personal freedom, without any coercion. And in other words, conversion, basically, is a personal enlightenment that one goes through as a way of personal fulfillment in terms of one’s genuine spiritual and religious quest.

In a  modern  democracy, if it is vibrant, liberal and robust in its democratic tradition, the state or the society in which one lives should not have any role in forcing or conditioning one to accept or convert to one particular religion or to renounce it.

And the Sharia, precisely because an individual’s religious choice is viewed as intimately connected with his or her human freedom, sees forced conversion  null and void. And this Islamic approach is based on the Quranic injunction that there is no compulsion in religion. And in Islam it is the purity of intention or Niyyah that counts when it comes to the validity of any meritorious acts. The core of the purity of any action is that it should be done  seeking the pleasure of God alone, with one fully satisfied with one’s choice. In other words, embracing Islam, one of the most meritorious acts from the Islamic point of view, should be a personal decision, in exercise of one’ free will and freedom, for it to be counted as genuine in Islam.

Dr. Sabrina Lei (sitting at the right)

Secondly there must be a certain amount of ethical and moral considerations when it comes to the public manifestation of one’s conversion or the way we Muslims approach the question. Unfortunately, we can see certain unhealthy trends  among a section of Muslims or the preachers that display pomp, theatrics, often accompanied with an aggressive Dawah (propagating about Islam) style in the way the question of the conversion is approached.

Here such people, without knowing the social implications and consequences of such aggressive Dawah style, follow the style of the charismatic televangelists in which it is the number of people they convert to or their zeal to convert others to their faith that matters. And actual and sincere change of one’s heart seldom matters in such theatrics. And of course, there is no place for such theatrics in the Islamic ethics.

And the third, in spite of the fact that one’s right to change one’s religion is part of human rights, recognised  by so many international conventions and democratic constitutions in most parts of the world, due to the growth of xenophobia (especially Islamophobia) and right-wing nationalism, the exercise of this very important human right seems to be becoming very difficult and controversial in certain societies. So, Muslims should be wise and sensitive not to give the xenophobes any excuse to inflame the passion and communal polarization through illogical, careless and exhibitionist style of Dawah and the question of  conversion.

We Muslims should be wise and sensitive to religious, cultural and social situations in which we live when we approach the question. And finally, conversion to  Islam is not a conversion to Arab culture or any other dominant cultures  which converts get acquainted with in the process of conversion. In other words, converts should not cut off themselves from their own original cultural milieus, as long as the ethical and moral fabrics of such cultural milieus are not against the principles of Islam.

Finally, simply because one becomes a Muslim one does not cease to be the part of one’s family,  as Islam clearly teaches Muslims to maintain the family ties even with their relatives are non-Muslims.

Now, after this somewhat long introduction to your question about my conversion, if I should tell you, it has surely been a process or a journey, a quite long one indeed. And I think it started even before I came to study Islam systematically.

I must state that it was a process that I was not fully aware of it, when it started.  It could be described as a journey that actually started while still I was practicing and studying my erstwhile faith.  I studied Christianity, its history, theology, its holy books very thoroughly. I think I can say this without sounding to be self-praising. I was trained, very early on my life, in Latin and Greek, thus helping me to study the Christian religious texts from their original sources.

This study almost impelled me, even when I was a practising Catholic, to search for a more original revelation,  a religion that is more authentically rooted in the message of all Prophets mentioned in the Bible.  And also,  I was searching, may be without being completely aware of it,  for  a deeper form of relation with God, without  any  intermediary  figure between God and man,  to open for me the door  to find the direct way of worshipping Him alone.

Christianity, of course, offered me certain valid ethical and moral principles. It taught me the meaning of a certain spirituality and other worldliness. And the Catholic priests and nuns who taught me religion and philosophy were devote and sincere; however, I still found the need for finding a path that could show me how to lead my life in its fullness by adequately responding to the longings of my body and soul. In other words, I was craving for a way of life that could help me to achieve the balance between life in this world and the one to come after the death. And my sincere belief is that Islam has taught me that achieving such goal is possible.

As I am a trained philosopher ( my PhD is in classical Greek philosophy), it seems  quite natural that I  seriously started to study Islam after reading the philosophical masterpiece of Muhammad Iqbal, The reconstruction of religious thought in Islam, which I later translated and published in Italian language.

I found Iqbal’s approach to religion and philosophical thoughts quite fascinating. Iqbal does not see any kind of fundamental conflict between some of the aspects of western thought and the key philosophical teachings of Islam. This actually triggered my curiosity  and interest  in Islam, and so I started reading  the biography of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and the Holy Quran translations in English rendered  by Yusuf Ali and Muhammad Asad.  Later I also read various works of some of the great scholars of Islam, both ancient and modern like, Imam Ghazzali, Ibn Taimiyya, Muhammad Al-Ghazzali, Allama Maududi, Abul Hasan Al-Nadvi, etc. The thoughts and works of all these scholars helped me a lot in my study of Islam.

Slowly I started understanding that in Islam there was a special kind of spirituality, which was at the same time intimately connected with the life in this world, that I was searching for a long time.

After studying the Quran very closely, I was fully convinced that it was the final revelation from God.  In other words, the last revelation from God given to Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), as the completion of the revelations carried by other Prophets of God, especially the Biblical Prophets.

An another fascinating and totally liberating idea of Islam is the role of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). Through his life,  the teachings of the Quran in all their majesty and beauty were actualized. His Companions and those pious early followers and the brilliant Muslims came after the Prophet (pbuh), following the footsteps of the Prophet (pbuh) created the glorious Muslim civilization that, in my opinion, has contributed more than any other known civilizations to the religious, spiritual, moral, political and scientific development of our collective human civilization.

In other words, when one embraces Islam one is not alone, though it is through one’s personal decision, one becomes part of a glorious civilization and of course a religion that teaches that all revelations from God carry the same message of God’s unity (Tawhid) and the common origin of humanity, beyond all man-made divisions and discrimination.

In other words, in Islam one is at home, spiritually, emotionally and even materially. So for me, my conversion was an experience of the homecoming of the heart, a rediscovery of my own inner-self or Fitrah (primordial nature/predisposition) in the religion of Islam.

Taking into consideration of all these aspects, I interpreted my conversion as the final step of a process leading towards the pure faith in Tawhid, which can be experienced and lived in every place and in every culture. For this reason, after the conversion, I did not cut off my relation with the western society and culture, but I tried to present to the western audience, especially Italians, Islam as a universal religion, which is endowed with deep human values shared, also, by all, including the westerners.

I am an Italian and European by birth and culture. And I am a Muslim by choice who sincerely believes that Islam is a universal religion that can be lived and followed in any parts of the world, beyond all cultural and national barriers.

In others words, in my opinion, when you are a Muslim you are at home everywhere, whether you are in the East or in the West. And when you are a Muslim, you also live with an indubitable faith that your eternal home is the hereafter. And you live with a full awareness of the life in this world and the hereafter.

2. I follow your Facebook posts. Going through your timeline, I observed that you always speak about the connection with non-Muslims, the way we approach them and consider them, the language of preaching, etc. Please share your experiences in Dawah field.

Dawah is the Muslim way of life in my opinion.  In other words, it is the vocation not a job, as far as a Muslim is concerned.  This means that every Muslim throughout his or her life should be a living witness of the teachings of Islam, as much as it is within his or her abilities. However, living connection with non-Muslim should not be approached as a strategy for preaching or conversion. It is Allah who guides people to Islam. And our duty is to share the message of Islam by actualizing the true universal message of Islam through our lives.

Actually, in my opinion, the very term  preaching is of evangelical Christian background popularized by charismatic preachers. And it may not be a good idea to understand the term Dawah in the sense of preaching. So, I am very cautious not to use the term preaching for the Dawah work.

Verbal preaching is not always the best path to introduce one to Islam. And aggressive preaching, without showing any respect to the faith non-Muslims, whatever its form,  must be avoided. We should be respectful of the human dignity while sharing the message of Islam with others by not treating them as mere human commodities for conversion. We should not forget that evangelical proselytizing project was a colonial idea that worked closely with the brutal colonial state powers in Asia and Africa during the eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  And its vestige can be still seen in many poor Asian and African countries. In Islam our Dawah activities must be rooted in the Sunnah (praxis)of the Prophet (pbuh), reflecting in lives the exemplary qualities of the Prophet (pbuh) such as love, compassion, forgiveness, empathy, truthfulness, courage, etc. The key term here is Naseeha. It is very difficult to translate layers of the meaning of this word in different contexts. But the essence of it in relation to others is that we wish for others whatever good that we wish for ourselves. And Islam, according to our Muslim belief, is the greatest blessing that a human being can have. However, how to work for it or how to work to share Islam with others depends on the situation, religious, cultural, social and political atmosphere a Muslim in which a Muslim lives.

My experience in the field of Dawah is actually rooted in the West and consequently it is shaped by the general condition of western society. In the West, human relation with the notion of religion is quite problematic, due to its bitter historical experience with the Church. This is the reason why many people in the West generally show a kind of psychological resistance towards almost every discourse that directly involves religion or the discussion on religious dogmas. This is the reason why it is better in terms of Dawah to create a positive space for Islam in the western society, which actually still does not have, through cultural, intellectual and religious institutions. Such institutions should start sincere dialogues with non-Muslims, which, in the beginning, should not be necessarily religious in its traditional sense. In my opinion, Dawah is not always about proselytising; it is also about building bridges of understanding across religions and cultures, building human relationships rooted in sincerity and goodwill towards others. And it is also about being present in the world as a living community, contributing towards human welfare in different ways.

Many westerners show negative attitude towards Islam because the majority of them do not have any chance to know Islam in a neutral way, both as a religion and as a civilization.  And sadly, the rapid growth of Islamophobia in many western countries complicates the image of Islam and the westerners’ approach to Muslims further.  Keeping these factors in mind, Tawasul Europe is active at the cultural and religious levels, organizing seminars, workshops, conferences on Islam, Islamic civilization, as well as conducting Mosque visits. During the mosque study-tours, people are introduced to Islam through the architecture of the mosque, the spiritual and cultural presence of the mosque in the lives of Muslims. And we also conduct very open and respectful question and answer sessions during the mosque visits to discuss various issues related to Islam and its presence in today’s public space.

3. I read one of your interviews in Prabodhanam, you spoke a lot about the language of preaching, simplicity in presentation and all. How can we be so simple in Dawah?

Being simple does not mean to be prosy and banal but to convey the message of Islam in a smooth way, taking fully into consideration of the cultural, religious and social backgrounds of the people addressed. I mean that sometimes, and especially in the western society where the relation with religion is quite problematic, it is better to convey the message of Islam through our life examples and the creation of reputed institutions than by direct preaching, as I mentioned before. And when it comes to the creation of the new language of Dawah (not preaching) that I mentioned in my Prabodhanam interview last year, it refers to not just the creation of new linguistic tools to demystify Islam and challenge the negative media projections of Islam. Basically, the creation of the new linguistic tools and idioms to challenge the hegemonistic and Islamophobic discourse is very important. However, we must go beyond such theoretical projects by creating social, cultural and educational spaces for Islam in the West and other parts of the world to address the various concerns of the people living in today’s globalised world. In other words Muslims in the West need to empower themselves by creating educational, religious, cultural and intellectual institutions through which we can register boldly and robustly our religious, spiritual and cultural presence in the public space. And obviously such bold presence of Islam and Muslims in the world will be beneficial to all people.