Louay, a 28-year-old teacher in Damascus wearing jeans, a wool sweater and a close-cropped beard, seemed the epitome of the capital’s Sunni middle class. Yet within the last year, as Hezbollah rose to national prominence in the Lebanese government, he — along with his mother — began practicing Shiite Islam. He changed the wording of his prayers and his posture while praying, holding his arms at his sides instead of before him, and during Ramadan he followed Shiite customs on breaking the fast. In many Middle Eastern countries, his conversion wouldn’t be possible — it would be considered apostasy. The Syrian regime restricts its people’s political liberties, but unlike most other ruling dynasties in the Arab world, it allows freedom of religion. “In Saudi Arabia, they ban books on other faiths,” Louay said. “In Syria, I can buy whatever book on religion I want, and no one can say a word.”
Politics, it seems, is only one of the attractions of Shiism. In addition to Louay, I spoke with four other Syrian converts, who asked not to be identified for fear of harassment by Sunni fundamentalists. Louay and the others all spoke of religious transformation as much as of Hezbollah. “Half the reason why I converted was because of Ijtihad,” Louay said, using the Arabic word for the independent interpretation of the Koran and the words and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad. Suddenly the mufti’s enigmatic answer became clearer. Ijtihad is practiced more widely by Shiites of the Jaafari school than by Sunnis. These Shiites believe that, on all but the largest moral issues, Muslims should interpret their faith by reading holy texts and reasoning back and forth between them and current issues. Many Sunnis say they quietly practice Ijtihad in everyday life as well, but conservative Sunnis do not encourage individual interpretation of the Koran.
I am fascinated by this. All too often, here in eth west we see a monolithic aspect to Islam wherein even the myriad internal nuances of the living faith are packaged as simply factes upon the same jewel rather than as cohesive and independent strands of the tapestry on their own right. The essay above gives a peek into the true complexity of Islam wherein conversion can be intra-Islam rather than across the Christian-Muslim boundary. And the motivation for this is ijtihad, which really is a tremendous point (one that, I might add, is cause for some hope even in the worst case outcomes for Iraq, but more on that later.)
Issandr has his own comment on the article, noting that it's doubtful that the Shi'a conversion wave is being actively managed by Iran.