CONVERSION . The nature and definition of conversion elicits enormous controversy. Given the complexity, and to some, the transcendent mystery of conversion, it is no surprise that scholarly consensus has yet to be achieved. For some, conversion is a form of pathology. For others, it is an example of human manipulation and coercive power. It is important at the outset of this article to note that Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam have been traditionally identified as conversionist (or missionary) movements. However, conversion studies necessarily deals with a much broader array of religions and topics than those confined to any of these three religions. The subject of conversion, once the exclusive franchise of evangelical Protestants and psychologists of religion, is now investigated by scholars in anthropology, history, missiology, religious studies, theology, and sociology.
Fundamentally, conversion is religious change. Since the 1980s, however, the very definition of conversion erupted as a zone of contention. What changes? Who changes? How does one change? How much change is necessary for the change to be considered conversion? What is authentic conversion? These debates permeate the extensive and growing literature on the nature of conversion. The word conversion itself is a source of debate. Especially in areas where missionaries from a variety of religious traditions have been active, the specter of forced, or at the very least, manipulated conversions, elicit a desire to reject the word conversion as a symbol of the colonial missionary enterprise.
Two common English definitions of conversion originated from the Greek terms epistrophe, which can mean "conversion" or "turning around," and metanoia, which can mean "repentance" or "to turn around," with an emphasis on the inner transformation of the convert. The term conversion was employed initially within Judeo-Christian circles to describe a believer's self-identification with a religious tradition either through faith in God and/or through commitment to new beliefs, rituals, and a religious community. Comparatively, converts to Buddhism, especially in its earliest Indian environs hundreds of years before the emergence of Christianity, described their own experience not as "converting" but as "enlightenment." To the faithful within monotheistic religious traditions, conversion was seen positively as testimony to the truth of the religion as well as guarantor of salvation. Pejoratively, conversion often meant sacrificing personal or social identity, a rejection of local lifeways and customs, through the "turning to" another religious tradition that may have been associated with a dominant political, social, or religious power.
Constructing theories and interpretations of conversion can be an arduous enterprise. "Insiders" assume that people convert to the insider's religion because the religion is, of course, true. "Outsiders" to a particular religion will not assert that a person converts to another religion because it is true. Moreover, the secular person may use explanations that are related to psychological needs, sociological factors, cultural forces, economic incentives or deprivations, and/or political constraints or inducements to make sense of the phenomena, thereby reducing the concept of conversion to a monocausal force rather than recognizing its pluriform nature. Facile definitions of such robust and dynamic phenomena fail to account for the multifaceted process that affects social, psychological, religious, and political life. Definitions of conversion abound, yet the use of theory helps human beings to begin to intellectually grasp its meaning. Given the inherent complexity of conversion, there exists no single comprehensive theory that successfully disentangles the numerous threads that together give rise to religious change. For instance, not all conversions entail inner transformation—some require adherence to divine laws revealed to human beings. Furthermore, some scholars suggest that conversion entails an abrupt and radical religious reorientation or intensification, while others assert that conversion processes are gradual, with the convert progressively entering a new religious tradition or deepening their commitment to their present tradition.
The study of conversion has dramatically expanded. In addition to numerous articles and monographs, the most common format is the edited book with articles addressing various dimensions of the phenomenon. In some cases the books are organized according to disciplines, in other cases they are focused on a particular religion or a region of the world. Recent contributors to this genre include Robert W. Hefner, Andrew Buckser, and Stephen D. Glazier in anthropology; Christopher Lamb, M. Darrol Bryant, and Peter van der Veer in religious studies; and Rowena Robinson and Sathianathan Clarke in the study of conversion in India. Others have added to the extensive literature in historical studies, including Steve Kaplan, Kenneth Mills, Anthony Graftson, and James Muldoon, while Kenneth J. Collins and John Tyson have written about Wesleyan studies. These studies are valuable in providing rich detail and texture to descriptions of conversion processes. There is a need for students of conversion to work more systematically in interdisciplinary studies in order to build a more coherent, cumulative approach to theory and research.
This article on conversion focuses on a number of theoretical orientations currently deployed in the study of conversion. Various theories elucidate different dimensions and processes involved in the phenomenon of conversion, and each theory grows out of different sets of assumptions and methods of research. No single theory currently dominates the field of conversion studies. By exploring a wide array of conversion theories, the diversity and complexity of conversion will be illumined. The theories are organized according to broad categories that focus on the person, social and cultural approaches, religious and theological approaches, and convergent models; the latter are theoretical approaches that seek to be interdisciplinary and inclusive.
Personalistic theories include:
According to the psychoanalytically oriented scholar, the phenomena of conversion is driven and shaped by the primal forces within the personality. Sigmund Freud suggested that the id, ego, and superego engage in constant conflict, giving rise to the human urgency to seek gratification of powerful desires, where culture, religion, and conscience (superego) serve to constrain. In Freud's view, conversion processes are fragile compromises in the ongoing conflict of the life and death instinct, where the drama of infant, mother, and father are mirrored in the dynamics of conversion. Religious rituals, beliefs, and relationships are motivated by such powerful emotions as guilt, grief, terror, emotional deprivations, and all kinds of suffering that propels the person into religion. Adherents of psychoanalytic theory interpret conversion as inherently pathological, interpreting it as a means to overcome childhood fears and conflicts rooted deep within the personality.
Carl G. Jung developed the archetypical theory that asserts that there are fundamental, universal patterns within the human psyche that give form to human experience. Based upon his work, scholars of archetypical theory postulate that conversion takes place when a person is captivated by a powerful religious symbol or experience that meets profound needs within that person's psyche. Scholars following archetypical theories take seriously the symbol systems of religion in order to understand the attraction and impact upon a convert.
Some scholars of conversion assert that human beings form emotional ties reflecting the connection of an individual with their original primary caregiver. Building on some of the foundational notions of Freud and evolutionary theory, John Bowlby's work asserts that conversion in part compensates for severely deprived and distorted parenting patterns or it can be congruent with parental modes of relating to the dependent child. Attachment theory emphasizes the primacy of affective and emotional relationships as formative.
Attribution theory is based on the universal human need to create and/or find meaning in life, including meaning for inexplicable daily events as well as more profound issues of the human predicament, such as undeserved suffering and death. Adopting a new system of attributions about the nature of self, others, and God is a significant aspect of what happens for many converts. Attribution theory asserts that religion or a religious perspective provides meaning and a sense of purpose to those issues that haunt human consciousness. This theory stresses the cognitive and intellectual spheres of conversion processes.
Social and cultural theories include:
Increasingly, scholars of conversion recognize the importance of the cultural dimensions of the conversion process. Previously the bulk of theoretical work on conversion was derived from people of European racial and cultural heritage. Unquestioned assumptions about patterns of family life, modes of selfhood, and norms of mental health were either ignored or were assumed to be superior to people of other racial, ethnic, and national origins. While most Euro-American scholars previously tended to universalize their perceptions of self, personality, and motivation, more recently there has been growing interest in researching non-Western settings or people with Asian, Latin American, African, or Pacific Island backgrounds.
Alan Roland's self theory postulates variable dimensions of self that are virtually universal but have different valence or importance in various cultures. Roland suggests that the five dimensions constituting the whole self are the individual self, the family self, the spiritual self, the developing self, and the private self. For instance, in India and Japan, the family self is more developed and most people in those countries tend to be focused on the family aspect of selfhood. Multicultural theories of conversion take into account, for instance, the norms of individual self and family self in their assessment of conversion dynamics. Whereas in the West, where the norm is the isolated, autonomous convert, people from some non-Western cultures may convert "en masse," as a group mirrors their contours of selfhood. A viable theory of conversion requires recognition of different forms of selfhood in the person and group and the contours of selfhood subsequent to conversion. Likewise, other social scientific theories of conversion, namely those from anthropological and sociological perspectives, require sensitivity to the perspective of the Western or non-Western assumptions regarding the role of culture and society in the motivations to convert. Conversion theories will be enhanced significantly when people from various parts of the world develop theories reflective of and relevant to indigenous cultures and religions.
This approach seeks to investigate the experience of Africans, Asians, and Latin Americans with imperialism and colonialization. Scholars working in post-colonial theory examine the processes by which the presence of military, economic, and cultural power have shaped the infrastructures and superstructures of societies, cultures, economies, and subjectivities of people in post-colonial nation states. Conversion to a world religion, such as Islam or Christianity, is interpreted as a part of the "colonization of the mind and spirits" of the dominated peoples. Submission and resistance of the colonized in the conversion process are important themes for postcolonial theorists. Furthermore, the blending of the local religious tradition with the world religion, sometimes understood as syncretism, often creates a robust and creative religious experience. That is to say, understanding conversion in a postcolonial context involves recognizing human actors as actively engaged in negotiating strategies and tactics of submission as well as resistance and innovation.
With increased urbanization and modernization, along with ethnic and religious pluralism, old notions of self, communities, relationships, and convictions are changing. In social psychology and sociology, identity theory suggests that conversion is a process of gaining convictions and values that consolidate understandings of the self to structure the relationships with others and to provide a sense of continuity in a fragmented world. In this sense, conversion consolidates identity and helps to maintain it through time, providing a sense of meaning in a world characterized by social mobility and anomie.
According to Robin Horton, human actors seek to understand, predict, and control space-time events. Horton proffered a theory of microcosm and macrocosm based on his work in Africa. In the African context, the microcosm consisted of the quotidian world occupying most of a community's daily activities. Their religious life concerned the explanation, prediction, and control of their concrete world. However, virtually all groups, according to Horton, had a macrocosm—the wider world—that was only minimally developed because their daily energy was focused on the microcosm. With increasing social mobility small-scale African communities interacted with people from a wider social world, which expanded the myths, rituals, and symbols of the small-scale societies to include the macrocosm—a broader world of a high god, rationalized religion, and often a formal scripture. Horton's theory reflects evolutionary motifs, since the theory assumes that conversion entails a movement from microcosm to macrocosm based on active cognitive decision-making.
Some scholars assert that conversion involves, among other things, learning a new narrative that reconstructs a person's biography in light of a new allegiance, a new theology, and a new set of rituals. Biographical reconstruction and the resulting narrative provides new meaning to a person's self, God (or other transcendent reality of a particular tradition), relationships, community, and world. Conversion in this sense means adopting a new story that resonates with the convert, finding connections between "my" story and "the" story, and incorporating the story into one's own life narrative. Conversion stories among evangelical Christian traditions frequently present themselves as personal testimonies, often weaving biblical stories and themes into the convert's own narrative, and thus making past biblical truths contemporaneous with the current believer's own experience. Likewise, a convert to Buddhism can speak of a personal experience of awakening along the lines as prescribed in the Buddhist scriptures.
The increasing interconnectedness and ease of global communication systems, such as television, radio, and the Internet, and ease of mobility through airlines, automobiles, and trains have invigorated and, in some cases, made possible the growth of new religious movements, the spread and intensification of world religions, and the global revitalization of such movements. Globalization has enabled unprecedented mass communication, through which the yearnings for spiritual renewal and transformation are contacted and cultivated. For example, through globalized media even hinterland villages may have access to religious programming and watch images of the Muslim pilgrimage (ḥājj), Christian televangelists healing the sick, or Hindu devotees chanting sacred text, all beamed in from distant locations. Scholars of the globalization theory of conversion stress not only the content of the message but the form of the communication.
Religious and spiritual theories include:
Whenever scholars employ theory to illuminate their data, it is important to keep in mind that all attempts at understanding complex phenomena are inherently reductionist. Theoretical biases and perspectives come into play in all theory construction. As such, some scholars of conversion note the normative issues within each religion. Historically, earlier discussions of the theologies of conversion were dominated by evangelical Christians, whereas liberal Christians emphasized social concerns. The Roman Catholic Church, following the reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965), also began to reexamine the phenomena of conversion. Historically, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam have been the "missionary religions" aimed explicitly at converting others. Newer religious movements, such as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Unification Church, each have their own set of normative guidelines for what constitutes authentic conversions. For one, conversion may entail accepting a God as revealed by a prophet (e.g., Joseph Smith and Mormonism), but for others, conversion may consist in accepting the prophetic insight of a founder that may be focused less on a transcendent being than on an immediate experience of belonging and community.
Whether scholars write from within a particular religious tradition or from a variety of theoretical perspectives, many recognize the crucial role of religious experience, divine intervention, and transcendence. They apply descriptions and definitions of the process of conversion according to their theological anthropology, their doctrine of human nature. These normative theologies disclose their assumptions regarding the deep structures of the human being and focus on the way in which human beings were created, their desires and aspirations, the human predicament, and, in some traditions, the urgent need for a relationship with a transcendent being or law that gives meaning, orientation, and, indeed, even their salvation.
Another feature of the phenomenon of conversion is the relationship between sacred texts and the convert. Some religions affirm the sacred quality of a particular language as it is used for prayer, worship, and reading, while others emphasize the inherent translatability of scriptures, with the assumption that the Divine endorses mother-tongue communication. Islam, which affirms the distinctively sacred role of Arabic, exemplifies the former and Christianity and Buddhism, which has since their beginnings emphasized translation into vernacular languages, the latter. The translatability and untranslatability of sacred texts plays a significant role in understanding the conversion process as lives of converts are shaped and guided in part by sacred texts and the cultural and revelatory traditions that in part gave rise to them.
Convergence models include:
Lewis R. Rambo developed a stage model of conversion as a heuristic device that attempts to illuminate the phenomena by highlighting crucial dynamics and elements of religious change. It is important to note that while Rambo's theory is neither unilinear nor universal, the usefulness of his model lies in its ability to systematically organize the complex phenomena of religious change as well as some of the technical issues emerging in conversion scholarship. It should be noted that this stage model does not assume a discrete, unidirectional movement through the stages, but rather a dynamic process of interplay between the stages.
Rambo lays out seven stages of the converting process. Stage one identifies the context in which converting takes place, which functions as the matrix of conversion. Stage two is crisis, where disordering and disrupting experiences call into question a person's or group's taken-for-granted world. This crisis is often triggered by the interaction of external or internal forces, exemplified by colonial contact in the former case and the words of a charismatic religious leader in the latter. Stage three is quest, which encompasses different ways people actively respond to crises. Stage four is encounter, which describes the contact between the potential convert and the advocate of a new religious option. Stage five is interaction, in which the converting person or group learns more about the teachings, lifestyle, and expectations of the group, and is required to begin making alterations in beliefs, rituals, and relationships that are consistent with the prescriptions and proscriptions of a new religious community. Stage six is commitment, where a decision is required and, in many cases, a public demonstration of the status change is expected. Stage seven is consequences. Given the fact that converts are in the process of changing many different aspects of their life, discernment of the nature of these changes is important. Indeed, some religious traditions seek to assess the authenticity of a conversion based on these changes. The criteria are based on the expectations of specific religious communities, including such dimensions of affective, intellectual, ethical, religious, and social/political domains. Scholars of conversion assess the consequences based on criteria derived from their own disciplines, whether from history, social sciences, religious studies, or otherwise. Many scholars of conversion believe that authentic conversion is a continuous process of transformation.
Feminist theory elucidates the influence of gender inequality in all aspects of life. In Western society, patriarchy has generally dominated society, culture, and religion, giving priority to male perspectives in religious, social, cultural, and economic domains. As a result, feminist studies of conversion have only recently emerged. Feminist theory points to issues that need to be addressed in the study of religious change. For instance, do women experience conversion differently from men, and, if so, in what ways? Do religious models of conversion constrict and distort women's motivations, needs, and desires? Is religious conversion healing and helpful to women, or just another mode of domination? Preliminary studies indicate that, indeed, women do experience conversion differently than men, have significantly different motivations for conversion, and often approach the process of religious change in different ways. Future conversion studies must incorporate feminists' concerns in research and writing.
Christianization and Islamization theory
In the conversion studies literature there is a growing body of work that falls under the broad headings of Christianization and Islamization theories. These studies explore the religious, historical, cultural, social, political, economic, and ideological factors and forces that create and sustain comprehensive processes by which religions, in these cases Christianity and Islam, are disseminated, cultivated, consolidated, and sustained by a wide range of forces that create an environment in which individual religious change takes place. These processes have parallels in discussions of other inclusive processes called Sankritization, Buddhization, Confucianization, Hellenization, modernization, and secularization. Some scholars of conversion would reject this all-embracing process as being called conversion. It is, however, accurate to say that in many studies of conversion and in the ordinary use of the term, it is common to speak of the conversion of Armenia, the Roman Empire, the Philippines, Syria, and so forth. Conversion must be seen as more than merely individual religious change because it usually entails the transformation of political, social, and cultural environments that create what might be described as an ecology of conversion that makes individual conversion possible.
All-inclusive studies often focus on geographical areas in which Christianity or Islam gain ascendancy. In the case of Christianity, these include explorations of the Christianization of the Roman Empire, British Isles, Europe, Russia, Latin America, the Philippines, and Korea. Studies of conversion to Islam include such geographical areas as Arabia, Iran, Egypt, Africa, Southeast Asia, India, the Malay Archipelago, Britain, Europe, and so forth. Few of these studies emphasize individual experience but rather the roles persons might play as missionaries, emissaries, leaders (charismatic or otherwise), or traders. Most focus on Christianization or Islamization, in other words, the creation of social, cultural, religious, and political environments in which individuals, families, communities, and societies flourish as Christian or Muslim zones of influence and power. Many such studies are, of course, historical, but there are also examinations of the processes of Christian or Islamic conversion using various interpretative models such as the diffusion of innovation theory by Richard W. Bulliet.
In the study of Islamization, other theoretical explanations for Islamic conversion include the use of force, attractiveness of Islam as a movement for the liberation of slaves and soldiers, compliance with new political regimes, desire for the privileges of Islamic political power (e.g. tax relief), influence of traders (through intermarriage and patronage relationships), attractiveness of monotheism (especially for those from "pagan" and "primal" religions), and the provision of mystical and transcendent experiences through such things as Ṣūfī modes of spirituality. In the case of Christianization, explanations for conversion, in addition to some of the same interpretations as those used for Islam, include experiences of healing, the attraction of communities of grace and fellowship, the appeal to women of new understandings of the role of women, and the deployment of various forms of persuasion, coercion, and force.
Conversion to Christianity in the archipelagic nation of Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world, during the mid-1960s illustrates the complexity of the phenomena, combining elements of globalization, postcolonial, and identity theories. Since its independence on August 17, 1945, Indonesia, with more than 13,000 islands, has experienced a series of social, political, and economic crises that threaten to pull the country apart. September 30, 1965, marks the failed coup attempt on President Sukarno by left-wing officers. The Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) was held responsible for the coup attempt, and military and Muslim organizations responded by purging the communist threat in the nation. Most reports estimate that about 500,000 people were killed. Some converted to Hinduism. More striking is the fact that roughly two million Javanists and Chinese converted to Christianity to quickly unite themselves with a government-recognized religion and thereby distance themselves from any association with the PKI. Social and political realities, along with personal concerns, play an important role in understanding conversion. Conversion patterns in Indonesia during the unstable period of 1965–1966 suggest that sometimes conversion may be appealing because it distances the convert from the larger population. For instance, in the Indonesian case, Javanist and Chinese converts became Christians rather than Muslims, who were part of the punishing forces.
Throughout the history of conversion worldwide there have been moments where conversions were imposed by force or, at least, strongly encouraged in order for people to prosper in a newly established social order. The use of military force, social pressure, and economic incentives has been employed by followers of world religions at least at some point in their histories to bring people into the fold. These external forces of conversion can be potent motivators for religious change, and sometimes the fundamentalist interpretation of a religion can in part provide legitimation for such aggression. The history of colonialism is replete with instances of forcible conversions, where external forces played a significant role in conversion patterns.
While it is true that all conversions are both contextual and personal, scholars can also discern whether a conversion is caused and experienced primarily within in the personal sphere and which are influenced primarily by contextual dynamics. Another way to state this issue is to what degree is a conversion primarily internal and which is fundamentally contextual? Moreover, many theistic traditions would simply suggest that conversion is the result of a god who calls people to join the community of faithful followers of truth, thus recognizing a force (i.e., God) that is beyond both personal and contextual domains. It must be expressed, however, that all personal conversions are influenced by the context and all contextual conversions are experienced personally.
The contemporary social and political world is shaped in part by the pervasive influence of conversion. Buddhism pervades Thailand, Burma, Cambodia, Vietnam, and continues to have an important impact on China, Korea, Japan, and much of Asia. Islam is the dominant religion of the Middle East, Indonesia, parts of south Asia, and in many areas of Africa. Christianity is predominant in Europe, the Americas, Australia, and the Philippines, and has experienced significant resurgence in the non-Western world. The presence of world religions on all six continents represents members from diaspora communities but also converts to those religions. Latin America exemplifies a region where conversion within a religion, that is, from Roman Catholicism to Pentecostalism, has given way to significant social change, with about half of Latin America's Pentecostals living in Brazil. The religious world is a dynamic force field of dissemination, conflict, establishment, decline, renewal, and reversals of various religious movements, institutions, and ideologies. Conversion is integral to these transformations. The cultural geography of the world continues to be shaped by the dynamics of religious change.
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In Islam conversion consists of the recitation of the shahada or profession of faith which is composed of two affirmations from the Qur˒an that have been integrated to form a single declaration of faith in the uniqueness and oneness of God and the finality of His revelation to the prophet Muhammad. It reads "There is no god but God [Allah, the Arabic proper name for God used by both Arabic-speaking Muslims and Christians], and Muhammad is the Messenger of God." The Qur˒an uses the terms "The Messenger of God" and "The Prophet" synonymously to refer to Muhammad, who is implicitly declared to be the last of God's genuine prophets.
Some Muslim scholars, among them the renowned Persian mystic, philosopher, and theologian al-Ghazali (1058–1111 c.e.), are of the opinion that a declaration of intent (niya), made prior to the recitation of the shahada, is necessary for its validity and for the validity of such ritual acts as prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. On the other hand many Muslim lawyers are persuaded that niya is only necessary for the validity of prayer (salat).
In early Islam conversion was not a condition for membership of the umma or Muslim community. Prior to the surrender of Mecca in 629 c.e. the Jews of Medina had the same rights and obligations as other members of the umma. After the fall of Mecca to Muhammad the zakat (alms tax) was levied on converts to Islam, benevolence being one of the chief virtues of the true believer, and the jizya (a personal poll-tax to be paid, where possible, in money) was imposed on all non-Muslims (with the exception of certain categories of persons including women, the poor, the enslaved, and impoverished monks) who wanted to join the umma.
Jihad and Conversion
While the spread of Islam is a religious duty, the Qur˒an also instructs believers that there should be no compulsion in matters of religion (2:256), thus seemingly ruling out coercion as a means of conversion. There are many scholars of Islam, Muslim and non-Muslim, who are persuaded, largely on the basis of this text, that the obligation to perform jihad of the sword (al-jihad bi-il-sayf)—sometimes described as the lesser form of jihad, in contrast to jihad bi-il-nafs or moral and spiritual jihad, as the greater form—is only legitimate where the free practice of Islam is impeded.
Where jihad of the sword is contemplated there is the obligation of the summons, da˓wa, which is based on Qur˒an 17:15 and 16:25. The summons is meant to inform those to be attacked that Islam does not intend to pursue war for material gain such as property but for the purpose of defending or strengthening Islam. There are differences of opinion between the four principal Sunni schools of law (madhahib) on the necessity of da˓wa for people who have previously been summoned to Islam. The Malikites believe it to be obligatory in this case also, the Hanafites recommend it, and the Shafites and Hanbalites say it is a matter of indifference.
Islam has rarely spread, in the sense of converting large numbers of non-Muslims of a territory, through jihad of the sword. The fundamentalist eighteenth-century reform movement in Arabia, the Wahhabiyya, as it is called by its opponents and by Europeans—the members referred to themselves as the Muwahiddun or Unitarians—was essentially a reform movement, not a drive to convert non-Muslims. Where and when jihad of the sword has been used its effect has usually been to establish a Muslim as the ruler of a territory, an outcome that was by no means always followed by large-scale attempts to convert the local population. A partial explanation for this can be found in Islamic political theory according to which the imposition of Muslim rule over a territory is sufficient to make that territory part of dar al-islam (the abode of Islam). The principal carriers of Islam have been holy men, jurists, traders, and, in the case of the spread of Islam to the Western world in modern times, economic migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers
In the time of the prophet Muhammad, conversion by conquest and political submission was basically limited to two societies, the Bedouins of Arabia and the Berbers of the Maghrib. After the prophet Muhammad's death in 632 c.e. the military conquest of the Fertile Crescent and Egypt was swift but did not account for the conversion of most of the population of these regions. This was to come about through a process of acculturation as the local people moved from the rural areas to the garrison towns (amsar) such as Qayrawan (Maghrib), Kufa (Iraq), and Basra (Iraq), as traders, craftsmen, laborers, and domestics who over time adopted the Arabic language and Islam.
Trade, Commerce, Sufism/Mysticism, and Conversion
The image non-Muslims in many parts of the world have had and continue to have of Islam is that of a progressive, modern religion offering literacy, a widely spoken language, numeracy, and the opportunity to participate in a wider commercial, political, and trading network. Islam often spread very slowly and even laboriously, its own progress greatly affected by the changing local economic, political, and religious situation in which it found itself. Islam's development in the Malay-Indonesian archipelago is a case in point. Archaeology tells us that by the late eleventh century there was a Muslim presence in Indonesia, and it would not be surprising given the commercial attraction of the archipelago and its role as a natural staging post between the Middle East and India on one side and China, where there has been a Muslim presence in the South from the ninth century, if Islam did not in fact arrive even earlier. According to Marco Polo who visited North Sumatra in 1292 the kingdom of Ferlak (Perlak) in present-day Aceh was already Muslim. If the process of expansion was slow it was also peaceful. Only in the fourteenth century did Islam spread to Northeast Malaya and Brunei, to the court of east Java, and to the southern Philippines. And it was to take another two hundred years before it found its way in to other parts of the archipelago when Sufism or mysticism (tasawwuf), in institutionalized and noninstitutionalized forms, came to play a pivotal role in the widespread dissemination of Islam among the people of Java and elsewhere. According to tradition Islam was brought to Java by nine saints or walis, and over a long period of four hundred years more gradually penetrated the society at all levels, never, however, displacing entirely other religious traditions.
The importance of Sufism in the conversion of large numbers to Islam elsewhere can hardly be exaggerated. The conversion of Bengal, like that of Java, is also attributed to Sufis. Institutionalized forms of Sufism and principally the Sufi tariqas or brotherhoods, among them the Qadiriyya, Tijaniyya, and Sanusiyya orders, were crucial to the expansion of Islam in North Africa and Africa south of the Sahara, as were the Mevlevi and Bektashi Sufi brotherhoods in Anatolia.
The indispensable role performed by traders, scholars, and holy men in laying the foundations of Islam is evident almost everywhere from the medieval empires of Takrur, Ghana, Mali, Kanem Bornu, and Songhay, to the Nile Valley, the Horn, and the East African coast, and across much of the Asian sub-continent, Central Asia, and as far as China. In all of these regions Islam first arrived with traders who were often clerics or were accompanied by clerics and/or holy men. We know from a variety of sources including the travel writings of the fourteenth-century Moroccan Ibn Battuta (1304–1368/77 c.e.) that the first Muslims in ancient Ghana, Mali, China, Indonesia, Somalia, and elsewhere lived separately and followed their own way of life, making little or no attempt to convert others. In places this period of seclusion was followed by one of engagement with the wider society that usually resulted in mixing or syncretism, a development that gave rise to conservative reaction, sometimes in the form of jihad of the sword.
Exile, Slavery, Economic Migration, and Conversion
Political exiles, convicts, and slaves have also been important vehicles for the dissemination of Islam as in the case of South Africa, where such people began to arrive from Southeast Asia in the mid-seventeenth century and formed the Cape Malay Muslim community. From the mid-nineteenth century Muslims arrived from India to form another distinct Islamic community, some coming as British-indentured labor to work on the sugar plantations, others as merchants and traders, and others as hawkers.
Economic migration has been the main vehicle for the spread of Islam to the Western world in modern times. No more than an exotic appendage to western European religion in the mid-twentieth century, largely through migration, the Muslim faith has become increasingly familiar across the European Union, and comprises an estimated fifteen million members, including relatively large numbers of converts from Christianity and other faiths. While there are no reliable statistics, the number of Muslims in North America would appear to be over four million and the number of mosques to serve them about two thousand.
The Political, Cultural, and Religious Consequences of Conversion
Thus, in the spread and development of Islam, military conquest has never been as important or effective as the creation of an Islamic environment, educational system, trading networks, and generally the building up of Muslim institutions. It was these initiatives that facilitated the development of Islam in Iran over several centuries from a small community of mainly Arab Muslims to one that included the majority of the population by the early years of the eleventh century. Sometimes conversion was an individual affair, sometimes it was collective in the sense that if the leader of a community or ethnic group converted the rest of the people would follow.
This notwithstanding, it is worth noting that the establishment of Muslim rule in a territory, whether by conquest or by peaceful means, did not necessarily constitute a challenge to the existing political order nor was it necessarily the prelude to a campaign by the new government to convert all of the inhabitants of that territory to Islam. Where jihad of the sword has been employed it needs to be remembered that the primary objective has not always been expansion but the reform of the Muslim community, as in the case of the Wahhabiyya movement and as was most likely the case with the Sokoto jihad in northern Nigeria in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century.
Examples abound where Muslim rule led to little or no immediate change for the majority of the population under it. In Egypt, Coptic Christians were given governmental posts until the fourteenth century when pressure from the ulema (scholars) forced a change. While the Muslim conquest of India eliminated the dominant Hindu political-military class, the Chhatri, it confirmed the privileged status of the Brahmins who remained the guardians of a cultural vision that was non-Muslim. Even at the height of its power the Muslim community consisted of only a quarter of the population of Delhi and Agra. And the Muslim conquest of Iran and the surrounding regions initially favored the spread of other faiths, among them Nestorianism and Manichaeism, rather than Islam. In Java the introduction of Islam offered a new dimension to existing traditional, Buddhist, and Hindu religious beliefs and practices, bringing few significant changes to the political life of society.
Where Muslims conquer non-Muslim territory Muslim canon law (shari˓a) guarantees to protect the life, liberty, and, in a modified way, the property of that section of the local population that has not been captured in arms. These people are known as ahl-al-dhimma (people of the covenant) or simply as dhimmis. All free adults who enjoy dhimmi status must pay the above-mentioned jizya or poll-tax and pay a tax (kharaj) on their real estate, over which they no longer enjoy the right of disposal. Strictly speaking, the status of dhimmis is open only to "people of scripture" (alh-al-kitab), that is, Jews, Christians, and Sabaeans, a category that is interpreted to cover Zoroastrians. In practice most Muslim countries will tolerate all peoples regardless of whether they are "people of scripture" or not.
Where dhimmi status was granted it carried with it the obligation to contribute toward the maintenance of Muslim armies, to dress differently from Muslims, and to renounce such rights as the right to bear arms and to ride on horseback. Legal restrictions were also imposed in relation to testimony in law courts, protection under criminal law, and marriage. Apart from such restrictions, what in practice happens is that a non-Muslim community in a Muslim state virtually governs itself under its own responsible leader who acts as its link with the Muslim government. And where conversion to or from Islam is concerned it is expected that the leadership of the community that has made the conversion will inform its counterpart of the event.
This account of the dynamics of conversion to Islam confines itself for the most part to the Muslim world. It is not exhaustive nor could it be given the great complexity and cultural diversity of that world. Appearance to the contrary notwithstanding, it is not intentionally reductionist. If greater consideration has been given to what might be termed the human, material, observable aspects of the phenomenon of conversion, and little has been said of its intellectual, spiritual, and theological dimensions, this should not be taken to mean that these dimensions are not more important elements of the process of becoming a Muslim or being Muslim.
Conversion in Islam is a radical call to reject all that associates the human with the divine, and on this foundation engages the convert in the task of personal and social transformation. It is a dynamic and multifaceted process of transformation that in some cases is gradual and in others abrupt; in some cases total, in others partial.
The path to Islam is more varied than outlined above. As students of conversion to Islam are aware individuals and whole communities have come to Islam having been first influenced by the personal example of a practicing Muslim, or through a process of intellectual conversion in which scholarly literature has played an important part, or through guidance given in a dream or a vision in which a wali or holy person, and even the prophet Muhammad himself, have appeared as counselors and guides, through mystical experiences, as a result of a search for healing, protection, and security, and for order and discipline in one's life. Either all or a combination of these triggers, and others, have activated the interest of individuals and communities in Islam and led to conversion.
Clarke, Peter B, ed. New Trends and Developments in TheWorld of Islam. London: Luzac Oriental, 1998.
Horton, Robin. "African Conversion." Africa 41 (1971): 85–108.
Katz, E. Ulrich. "Islam in Indonesia." In Islam. Edited by Peter B. Clarke. London: Routledge, 1990.
Shaban, M. "Conversion to Early Islam." In Conversion toIslam. Edited by Nehemia Levtzion. New York: Holmes and Maier, 1979.
Peter B. Clarke
In the simplest terms, religious conversion is changing from one religion to another or from no religion to any religion. Conversion away from a religion is usually termed "apostasy" by adherents of that religion. In practice, however, conversion is an intricate process that is difficult to comprehend and to define.
Judaism uses the word "proselyte" to refer to converts. In some periods of history, such as the Second Temple period, large numbers of individuals have converted to Judaism. But in the main, Judaism has not placed much emphasis on conversion. This is due in part to the unique status of Judaism as not only a religion but also a national identity.
Becoming a proselyte is a process that entails a period of study. The proselyte learns about Jewish ceremony and ritual as well as Jewish history. Some branches of Judaism will actively discourage proselytes in an attempt to determine their sincerity. During the period of study, proselytes must answer questions about their reasons for becoming Jews. Converts could gain admittance into the community for any number of reasons—to enter into marriage with a Jew, for example—but the preferred reason for converting has always been religious or spiritual conviction. In addition to study, proselytes must undergo a ceremonial baptism by immersion. Men must also be circumcised. If the man is already circumcised, there is a ritual drawing of the "blood of circumcision." Proselytes during the Temple period had to make a sacrifice, but this requirement was dropped when the Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem and sacrifices became impossible.
During the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic Church in Europe forced Jews to attend an annual sermon designed to encourage them to convert to Christianity. Frequently, social and economic benefits would accompany the conversion of Jews living in a Christian society. In some countries of Europe, especially Spain in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, Jews had to convert under threat of death. Some of these Jews hoped to be able to return to their faith and continued to adhere to their Jewish traditions in secret.
Conversion in Christianity has as many variations as Christianity has individual expressions. The churches that practice pedobaptism place comparatively little emphasis on conversion. The primary means of growth in these churches is through family growth. This is not to say that the churches make no allowance for conversion or that they do not actively recruit new members, but merely to say that in general they place less emphasis on conversion than churches that do not baptize infants.
It is among the evangelical churches in the United States that conversion receives the greatest emphasis. Evangelical and fundamentalist churches make conversion a high priority in their ministries. They spend a good deal of time and money in an ongoing attempt to "win lost souls to Jesus Christ." Usually some evidence of a changed life must accompany conversion. Converts often must make some public statement, called "giving one's testimony," that demonstrates the changes that "a relationship with Jesus Christ" has wrought in the life of the convert.
The emphasis on conversion is typical of the Arminian theology that has been a hallmark of evangelicalism since early in the nineteenth century, although Arminianism itself is much older. In Arminian theology the individual has a high degree of choice. One can choose to enter a relationship with God. Evangelicals do not believe that individuals are able to "save" themselves, but they do believe that individuals are able, on some level, to initiate the salvific process. This is in contrast to Calvinism, which had dominated religion in America. Calvinists believed that salvation is God's choice alone, that individuals have nothing to do with effecting their own salvation. Arminianism brought a tremendous change in the ways that churches spread the message of salvation.
The development of Arminianism brought mass revivals, camp meetings, and new measures. The evangelists who worked during the first third of the nineteenth century, such as the Methodist circuit riders and, most notably, the Presbyterian preacher Charles Grandison Finney, preached that conversion was necessary to salvation and that people had a hand in their own conversion.
In the twentieth century, evangelical emphasis on conversion has become even more important. Revivalists have crisscrossed the country spreading the evangelical gospel. Evangelists such as Billy Graham have preached to millions of potential converts, always with the intent of leading their audiences toward conversion.
Conversion has even played a role in politics. In part, Jimmy Carter was able to win the 1976 presidential election because of his willingness to state publicly that he had been "born again." This is a reference to the language used by Jesus in the third chapter of the gospel of John in the New Testament. Evangelicals adopted the phrase to refer to the conversion experience. Since that election—which saw the emergence of evangelicalism after a half century of self-imposed exile from politics—religious conversion, or at least the language of religious conversion, has played a role in many national, state, and local elections.
Conversion in Islam is essentially a matter of sincerely repeating and meaning the shahadah, which states, "There is only one God (Allah), and Muhammad is his Prophet." This is the first "pillar" of Islam. The remaining pillars are salat, which is praying five times daily; zakat, or almsgiving; sawm, which is daily fasting during the pilgrimage month of Ramadan; and hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, a pilgrimage that all Muslims are to make at least once in their lives if it is possible. Once Muslims have made the shahadah, they live in submission to the teachings of Allah, as given through the words of the Qur'an. In the first centuries of Islam, Muslims believed that only Arabs could become Muslim. There was therefore little emphasis on conversion. Muslims allowed conquered nations to carry on their own religious traditions as long as the conquered peoples had some form of written scriptures. As time passed, however, more people wanted to become Muslim, often for political, social, and economic reasons as well as for religious reasons.
In the twentieth century, Islam has spread far beyond the Middle East and Southeast Asia. It is growing at a rapid pace in the United States today. Islam, which has developed a more aggressive stance in attempting to convert non-Muslims, has found an especially receptive audience among African Americans.
Altemeyer, Bob, and Bruce Hunsberger. Amazing Conversions: Why Some Turn to Faith and Others AbandonReligion. 1997.
James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience. 1902, 1936.
O'Rourke, David K. A Process Called Conversion. 1985.
Rambo, Lewis R. Understanding Religious Conversion. 1993.
Tommy L. Faris
In most times and places allegiance to Buddhism has not been an exclusive affair. Buddhist devotees have felt comfortable worshipping various local deities, as well as earning merit by making offerings to non-Buddhist mendicants (in India), embracing Confucian as well as Buddhist values (in China), or visiting Shintō shrines as well as Buddhist temples (in Japan). The inscriptions of the Indian king AŚoka (ca. mid-third century b.c.e.)—the earliest surviving written Buddhist records—portray him both as affirming his own Buddhist identity and as supporting other religious groups. The English word conversion, usually understood to mean the complete abandonment of one religion and exclusive adherence to another, has little relevance in such a setting.
The closest analogue to the Western notion of individual conversion is the act of becoming a lay brother (upāsaka) or lay sister (upāsikā), portrayed in early scriptures as a formal act of affiliation involving "taking refuge" in the three jewels (buddha, dharma, and saṄgha) and vowing to uphold the five lay precepts. Similar rituals are still performed today in many Buddhist societies, ranging from Sri Lanka to Taiwan. An alternative analogue might be found in the experience of becoming a stream-enterer (Pāli, sotāpanna), at which point one is said to attain a firsthand conviction of the truth of the Buddha's teachings. This generally takes place, however, only after a prolonged period of practice, demonstrating once again the lack of fit between the idea of conversion and Buddhist maps of the path.
Most commonly, adherence to Buddhism has not been the result of individual acts of faith but of a choice made by a ruler (e.g., in Sri Lanka in the third century b.c.e. or in Japan and Tibet in the seventh century c.e.) in the course of political consolidation and imposed upon the population at large. Such top-down or societal conversion (Horton) has been the standard mode of transmission of Buddhism outside India, with the notable exceptions of China and the West. Such exclusive state sponsorship has often been temporary, with a return to the norm of accommodating other local religious practices once a new political equilibrium has been achieved.
Examples of conversion in the exclusivist sense are easiest to find in Buddhist societies that have been significantly affected by a Western colonial or missionary presence, such as Sri Lanka (where the public conversion to Buddhism by Colonel Henry Steel Olcott under British colonial rule in the late nineteenth century has left a lasting legacy) or South Korea (where the growth of Protestant Christianity in recent decades has led to a strong polarization between Buddhists and Christians). Some Buddhist-based "new religions" in Japan, above all the SŌka Gakkai, also require their followers to renounce all other religious beliefs and practices.
Ironically, the Western notion of conversion appears to be falling out of favor among new adherents of Buddhism in the West, who often describe themselves as "taking up the practice of Buddhism" rather than "converting to the Buddhist religion." This reluctance to use the term conversion reflects not only the traditional absence of a sharp boundary between Buddhist and non-Buddhist practices in Asian societies, but also the profound changes currently taking place in the very notion of what constitutes "religion" in the modern West.
Adikaram, E. W. Early History of Buddhism in Ceylon. Colombo, Sri Lanka: M. D. Gunasena, 1953.
Beltz, Johannes. Mahar, Bouddhiste, et Dalit: conversion religieuse et emancipation sociopolitique dans l'Inde des castes. Bern, Switzerland: Lang, 2001.
Gregory, Peter N. "Describing the Elephant: Buddhism in America." Religion in American Culture 11, no. 2 (2001): 233–263.
Hammond, Phillip E., and Machacek, David W. Sōka Gakkai in America: Accommodation and Conversion. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Horton, Robin. "African Conversion." Africa 41, no. 2 (1971): 85–108.
Nattier, Jan. "Who Is a Buddhist? Charting the Landscape of Buddhist America." In The Faces of Buddhism in America, ed. Charles S. Prebish and Kenneth K. Tanaka. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.
Prothero, Stephen. The White Buddhist: The Asian Odyssey of Henry Steel Olcott. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996.
Thapar, Romila. Asoka and the Decline of the Mauryas, 2nd edition. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1973.
Zürcher, Erik. The Buddhist Conquest of China: The Spread and Adaptation of Buddhism in Early Medieval China. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1959.
The term "conversion" and its definition appear for the first time in an 1894 article by Freud titled "The Neuro-Psychoses of Defense." "In hysteria the incompatible idea rendered innocuous by its sum of excitation being transformed into something somatic, for this I should like to propose the name of conversion ....By this means the ego succeeds in freeing itself from the contradiction [with which it is confronted]; but instead, it has burdened itself with a mnemic symbol which finds a lodgement in consciousness, like a sort of parasite, either in the form of an unresolvable motor innervation or as a constantly recurring hallucinatory sensation" (1894a, p. 49). In the Freudian terminology of the time, an "irreconcilable" idea is a desire that is incompatible with the subject's moral ideals and consequently condemned and most often rendered unconscious.
Consequently, the concept is, from the beginning, located along the three axes that will structure all Freudian metapsychology: dynamic through the reference to "contradiction," which will later be theorized as "conflict"; topographical through the reference to the unconscious, which is still only allusive but will quickly assume major importance; and economic through the idea of a displacement of the energy (this will later become the libido) of the mind to the body. From this Freud draws a therapeutic conclusion: "Breuer's cathartic method lies in leading back the excitation in this way from the somatic to the psychical sphere deliberately, and in then forcibly bringing about a settlement of the contradiction by means of thought-activity and a discharge of the excitation by talking" (1894a, p. 50).
Freud initially considered the mechanisms of conversion to be specific to hysteria, unlike the other defensive psychoneuroses (obsessions and phobias). There would be a predisposition to hysteria for reasons he believes are probably constitutional, through what he refers to as "somatic compliance" in the Dora case (1905e). However, the "choice of neurosis," a problem to which he often returned, here finds only its modalities of realization; to these fundamental conditions must be added "trigger factors" rooted in personal history (childhood traumas such as early "seduction" experiences, that is, sexual assaults initiated by adults). This is Freud's position during the first period of his career. Later, in 1915, he distinguished "conversion hysteria," which used this mechanism to produce symptoms, from "anxiety hysteria," dominated by phobic mechanisms but without being accompanied by any conversion phenomena (1915d). He also acknowledged that minor conversion phenomena can be found in situations other than so-called conversion hysteria (1916-17a).
It is important to remember that Freud quickly established the necessity of distinguishing psychoneuroses—to which hysteria belongs—from actual neuroses (neurasthenia, anxiety neurosis, hypochondria), whose source is not found in infantile conflicts but in current disturbances of the sexual function (1898a). In such cases the accumulation of sexual excitation that has not been released or has been released by unsatisfactory means (coitus interruptus, masturbation, and so on) is reflected in anxiety and somatic symptoms (these views were modified in Inhibitions, Symptoms, and Anxiety, 1926d), but without the symbolic dimension inherent in conversion phenomena.
While the notion "actual neurosis" went into a long decline, modern work in psychosomatic medicine has given it new currency. It is used to describe somatic disturbances, often serious, that appear to arise from a form of interaction between mind and body where energy "passes directly" from the mind to somatic functions without symbolic mediation, that is, without "mentalization" of the psychoneuroses (Marty, 1980).
See also: Cäcilie M., case of; Elisabeth von R., case of; "Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria" (Dora/Ida Bauer); Hysteria; Hysterical paralysis; Innervation; Katharina, case of; Neurosis; Psychosomatic; Psychosomatic limit/boundary; Psychogenic blindness; Repression; Somatic compliance; Stammering; Studies on Hysteria ; Sum of excitation; Symptom; Tics.
Freud, Sigmund. (1894a). The neuro-psychoses of defence. SE, 3: 45-61.
——. (1905e). Fragment of an analysis of a case of hysteria (Dora/Ida Bauer). SE, 7: 7-122.
——. (1915d). Repression. SE, 14: 146-158.
——. (1916-17a). Introductory lectures on psychoanalysis. SE, 15-16.
Marty, Pierre. (1980). Les mouvements individuels de vie et de mort (Vol. II, L 'Ordre psychosomatique ). Paris: Payot.
It is often said that ‘there is no noun in English that can't be verbed’: bag a prize, doctor a drink, position a picture with care, soldier on regardless. However, some factors appear to get in the way of complete freedom to convert: (1) Morphology. It is unlikely that such a verb as organize will shift, because of its verbal suffix: no *Let's have an organize. (2) Inertia. Such a verb/noun contrast as believe/belief is unlikely to be overturned: no *This is one of my believes. (3) Utility. In law, there may be no need for jury to be other than a noun: no *I've juried several times. However, such a use cannot be ruled out. Striking one-off shifts often occur in fiction and journalism: ‘I decided she looked like the vamp in those marvellous Hollywood westerns, the lady who goes hipping and thighing through the saloon’ ( Susan Howatch, The Wheel of Fortune, 1984); ‘A formidable battery of legal grandees m'ludded and m'learned friended it out before Mr Justice Butt’ ( J. Keates, Observer, 18 June 1989). See JOURNALESE.
con·ver·sion / kənˈvərzhən/ • n. 1. the act or an instance of converting or the process of being converted: the conversion of food into body tissues. ∎ the fact of changing one's religion or beliefs or the action of persuading someone else to change theirs. ∎ Christian Theol. repentance and change to a godly life. ∎ the adaptation of a building for a new purpose. ∎ Brit. a building or part of a building that has been adapted in this way. ∎ Law the changing of real into personal property, or of joint into separate property, or vice versa. ∎ Psychiatry the manifestation of a mental disturbance as a physical disorder or disease. ∎ Logic the transposition of the subject and predicate of a proposition according to certain rules to form a new proposition by inference. 2. Football the act of scoring an extra point or points after having scored a touchdown. ∎ the act of gaining a first down. 3. Law the action of wrongfully dealing with goods in a manner inconsistent with the owner's rights. 4. Physics the change in a quantity's numerical value as a result of using a different unit of measurement.
In some religions the imperative to convert others is non-negotiable. In Christianity it is tied to the view that there is no other way to salvation (John 14. 6). Such conversion involves baptism. In a comparable way, Muslims are under obligation to make known the will and the way of Allāh, revealed in the Qurʾān; yet ‘There is no compulsion in religion’ (Quʾān 2. 256/7), and Muslims recognize that the People of the Book (Ahl al-Kitāb) should be treated with respect, and that they are not obliged to convert to Islam.
The psychology and neurophysiology of conversion are understood, as yet, only in very preliminary ways. At one extreme, the techniques associated with the term brain-washing were explored in connection with religious conversion by W. Sargant, Battle For the Mind (1957). At the other extreme, conversion may be undramatic and a consequence of a long process of reflection. Between the two is the phenomenon of ‘snapping’, in which a convert to one religion or religious movement is precipitated into several others in rapid succession.
Any unauthorized act that deprives an owner of personal property without his or her consent.
The wrongdoer converts the goods to his or her own use and excludes the owner from use and enjoyment of them. The English common law early recognized such an act as wrongful and, by the middle of the fifteenth century, allowed an action in trover to compensate the aggrieved owner.
The earliest cases allowing a lawsuit for conversion were based on claims that the plaintiff had possession of certain items of personal property, then casually lost them, and the defendant had found them and had not returned them but instead "converted them to his own use." This phrase was picked up, and it gave a name to a tort that originally was a kind of action on the case, a form of trespass. As time passed, the plea that the plaintiff had lost his or her goods and the defendant had found them came to be considered a legal fiction (that is, a decision was made in the case as if the plea were true, and it did not have to be proved). The defendant was not allowed to dispute the allegations but could answer only the claim that the plaintiff had a right to possession of the goods and the defendant had refused to restore them to the plaintiff.
Today the word conversion is still applied to the unlawful taking or use of someone else's property. The type of property that can be converted is determined by the original nature of the cause of action. It must be personal property, because real property cannot be lost and then found. It must be tangible, such as money, an animal, furniture, tools, or receipts. Crops or timber can be subject to conversion after they are severed from the ground. The rights in a paper—such as a life insurance policy, a stock certificate, or a promissory note—can be converted by one who appropriates the paper itself.
A thief, a trespasser, or a bailee may be guilty of conversion because the action may be maintained whether or not the property was lawfully acquired at the outset. For example, a dry cleaner who mistakenly delivers a suit to the wrong customer has converted it. Moving some-one's property without his or her permission might constitute a conversion if the inconvenience is substantial: for example, having some-one's car towed away in order to take the parking place. Unauthorized use is a conversion—such as a mechanic who, without permission, borrows a sports car that he or she is supposed to repair. Misuse of property can also be a conversion. If a neighbor lends his or her hedge trimmer to a friend, it is a conversion for the friend to use the hedge trimmer to cut down a tree.