DUBAI // The number of converts to Islam in the emirate has increased rapidly in the past three years as Islamic authorities step up efforts to promote the religion. Almost 60 per cent of all conversions to Islam tracked by Dubai's Department of Islamic Affairs and Charitable Activities occurred in the last three years, according to statistics obtained by The National.
The majority of the emirate's new Muslims convert to Islam at the department, while a small number do so at Dubai's courts. There has been a steady rise in converts since the body began tracking them in 1996, when it recorded 169 conversions. In 2006, just over 800 people converted to Islam, and the figure doubled in 2007 to 1,617. Last year alone, there were 3,043 converts. Huda al Kaabi, the head of the New Muslim section in the department, said: "The numbers are increasing year after year."
Most conversions were during Islamic seasons like the Haj pilgrimage or when Muslims fast in Ramadan. They also spike when visitors converge on Dubai, primarily during the emirate's shopping festival. Government officials attribute the rise to efforts to promote a moderate version of Islam to visitors as well as special programmes that counsel prisoners. "Dubai is a moderate city where we have a mix of religions and cultures, and visitors see that in the way Muslims treat others in the street," Ms al Kaabi said.
"When foreign visitors come during the Dubai Shopping Festival for example, we intensify our efforts." These efforts to draw non-Muslims include distributing brochures and holding lectures and workshops that introduce tourists to Islam and its pillars. The Government also sends its preachers to visit prisons, where Ms al Kaabi said many are introduced to the teachings of Islam. Enver Zekaj, senior adviser for education and religious guidance at the department, said: "In Islam, for people who are guilty, the door to repentance is open."
Preachers tell inmates that they still have the opportunity to repent from any sins they committed, Mr Zekaj said, and this helps blunt any desire for revenge within them. Dubai and Sharjah began sending preachers to prisons in 2002. But the practice raises concerns over how appropriate it is to preach Islam to non-Muslims and whether it detracts from society's acceptance of other religions. Ms al Kaabi insists the decision on whether to convert is up to the individual. "Religion is a choice, this is an introduction only," she said.
Mr Zekaj said: "We invite people to discover Islam, we do not focus that they should convert because guidance is from Allah." Jihad Hashim Brown, the director of research at the Tabah Foundation, who delivers the Friday sermon at the Maryam bint Sultan Mosque in Abu Dhabi and is a columnist for The National, said it was not a concern since there is little active proselytising for Islam. "I'm not aware of any significant proselytisation in Dubai and definitely not Abu Dhabi," he said.
Mr Brown said that chaplains of different religions provide spiritual and moral counselling to prisoners and combat troops in the West. "I wouldn't say sending chaplains to the jail is anything out of the ordinary," he said. Islam enjoys a moderate image in the UAE because its practice "is not driven by secondary objectives like political or sectarian motivations", he said. "Islam in the UAE is ideology-free."
Mr Brown said part of the reason for a rise in converts is that non-Muslims will scrutinise Islam when it is exposed to bad publicity, such as terrorist attacks by Muslims. "Every time international attention is directed towards Islam, even bad publicity, people are going to want to find out what Islam is all about," he said. He said there were spikes in conversions to Islam after the September 11 attacks, and more people converted to Sunni Islam after the 1979 Iranian revolution.
Most of Dubai's converts are labourers and maids, but Ms al Kaabi said the group is diverse, including managers and priests. To embrace Islam, a non-Muslim who visits the department sits through an explanation of the religion's five pillars: testimony, prayer, fasting, alms, and pilgrimage to Mecca. Government clerics then answer questions the convert has, such as ones comparing Islamic beliefs to those of other religions. The clerics' languages include Arabic, English, Tagalog, Urdu, Tamil and Russian.
The individual then fills out a certificate, formally embracing Islam. Many choose to enrol in post-conversion courses detailing the different aspects of Islam. Dubai does not track the number of Muslims converting to other religions, which, technically, is not allowed in Islam. It is also not allowed to proselytise other religions.