Why did the Christian convert to Islam?

The Los Angeles Times doesn’t much do stories like this one anymore. A shade under 2,000 words, with a good hook and decent depth, this weekend feature about an Okie convert to Islam.

The lede gets the reader off to a good start:

At the pulpit of an inner-city Chicago mosque, the tall blond imam begins preaching in his customary fashion, touching on the Los Angeles Lakers victory the night before, his own gang involvement as a teenager, a TV soap opera and then the Day of Judgment.

“Yesterday we watched the best of seven…. Unfortunately we forget the big final; it’s like that show ‘One Life to Live,’ ” Imam Suhaib Webb says as sleepy boys and young men come to attention in the back rows. “There’s no overtime, bro.”

The sermon is typical of Webb, a charismatic Oklahoma-born convert to Islam with a growing following among American Muslims, especially the young. He sprinkles his public addresses with as many pop culture references as Koranic verses and sayings from the prophet. He says it helps him connect with his mainly U.S.-born flock.

Since reporter Raja Abdulrahim references a Lakers win, we know that the was working on this story for at least a few weeks. And the quote he chose is, well, a bit bizarre; bizarre because it perfectly captures what the reporter is going for. She catches his subject making a pop culture reference and using a bit of slang, even if it does seem a little dated.

The story continues in fairly good fashion.

Though I had to wonder if some of the statements were too general. We learn that Webb gives sermons at his “virtual mosque,” via his “popular” website — Define: popular — and that Webb is a resident scholar with the Muslim American Society, which is vaguely described as “a national religious and education group.” But of greatest significance was this:

Webb is at the forefront of a movement to create an American-style Islam, one that is true to the Koran and Islamic law but that reflects this country’s customs and culture. Known for his laid-back style, he has helped promote the idea that Islam is open to a modern American interpretation. At times, his approach seems almost sacrilegious.

That’s interesting. By now, I would have expected to have heard Webb’s name if he truly is a leading figure in this movement. When I Googled his name, I found a Wikipedia page, his personal website and some YouTube videos, but only one other mention in the mainstream press.

And sacrilegious? That’s a pretty big claim. But the story backs that up with some fascinating anecdotes — like Webb suggesting at a Muslim conference that mosques adopt a don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy in regards to gays.

It turns out that Webb grew up in the Church of Christ — something Bobby and I know a little about — and I can’t dispute his account of the birthday gift that CoCers get: “a Bible with your name on it.” Although his teenage years weren’t like those of anyone I knew at a Church of Christ:

His teenage time in the gang and as a DJ at house parties figure prominently in his speeches and public persona, as a way to gain traction with young Muslims. That appears to work, at least with some. After his sermon in Chicago, a boy of about 12 turned to his mother, asking, “Did you hear his speech? He said he’s from the ‘hood.”

Webb was introduced to Islam at 19. He was selling music tapes at a swap meet when he met a Muslim man selling incense and handing out Korans. Webb took one home and read it in secret for several months.

He converted during his freshman year at the University of Central Oklahoma and broke the news to his parents at Thanksgiving dinner that year — when his mother had cooked a turkey and a ham, the latter forbidden by Islam.

The story goes on to discuss the work Webb is now doing and to show ways he is fusing American culture with Islam. But oddly the story doesn’t explain why Webb converted, other than that he had already been doubting the Trinity.

Indeed, despite it’s length this story leaves some questions unanswered. However, I still found it a welcome piece for a weekend edition of the Los Angeles Times. That may be based more on general frustration with the lack of quality religion reporting in the LAT than a reflection of the quality of this feature. But it still made for a good read.

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  • Jerry

    By now, I would have expected to have heard Webb’s name if he truly is a leading figure in this movement.

    I could not resist the temptation, Brad:-)

    His wikipedia page pointed me at THE 500 MOST
    INFLUENTIAL MUSLIMS http://rissc.jo/docs/new/Muslim500-2010-Third-Edition-001.pdf

    Imam Suhaib Webb is a student at Al Azhar University in Egypt and has subsequently come to prominence as a young American preacher and activist from Oklahoma. He has a substantial following of Muslim youth who visit his website and attend his lectures in throngs due to his unique appeal and moderate approach to Islam.

    Now I don’t know how they came up with that list but I think being listed there is sufficient to justify the news story’s mention.

  • Karen

    If he went twice a year as it says in the story, he hardly was exposed to the depths of Christian or Church of Christ thought.

    I thought the story did a good job of showing how someone without religious moorings found stability in a religion that reached out to him. In his place I wouldn’t be attracted to a religion based on one man’s revelation, so I can understand that he might not be attracted to a religion stressing the Trinity. But I got from the story that Muslim brothers reached out at a critical time in his life and it clicked. I wouldn’t expect a theological critique of Christianity from him because I don’t think his conversion was primarily based upon theological differences.

    I did find his mother’s reaction interesting.

  • Brad A. Greenberg

    I did too, Karen. It seemed like a very odd remark from someone in the Church of Christ, which suggested to me that Webb’s family wasn’t exactly dyed in the wool.

  • http://catherineguiles.com Cathy G.

    Good post, Brad, and good story – but I have one correction: Raja is a she, not a he.
    In fact, she used to work for the paper I work for – I never met her, but my co-workers all have great things to say about her.

    (And the story said his website gets 10,000 visitors a day, which I guess is more popular than some!)

  • Brad A. Greenberg

    I was using the unisexual he? Thanks for catching that, Cathy.