Photo by Sarah Mercier.

The Crescent, the Cross, and the Crossroads

Nigerian-born Kazeem Olanrewaju, a doctoral student in chemical engineering at the University of Iowa, is a former Muslim. The person whom he credits most with his conversion to Christianity is, ironically, the local muezzin, or Muslim holy man, who announced the call prayer in his hometown of Lagos. Kazeem recalls that the muezzin had a severe illness and their Christian neighbor prayed for his return to health. “Miraculously,” reports Kazeem, “the muezzin recovered.”

Following his recovery, the muezzin — an older man who Kazeem and so many others had looked to for guidance in the way of Islam — converted to Christianity. The mosque was stunned. Kazeem remembers the local imam preached against the muezzin for becoming an apostate to the Muslim faith. Many members of the mosque ostracized him and wished “all kinds of evil upon him.” The muezzin’s turning away from Islam was considered profane and unforgivable.

But the muezzin represents a large number of Muslims who have left Islam. During a recent interview on Al Jazeera television, Sheik Ahmad Al Qataani, director of Sahaba, a Libyan forensics science organization, estimated that although Islam is the fastest growing religion worldwide, each year over 6 million Muslims convert to Christianity. This represents nearly 12 converts per minute. These converts are called apostates. And although in most Muslim countries it is easy to convert to Islam, for some, leaving the faith is much more difficult — and dangerous.

Shariah is the regionally interpreted set of laws that govern public and private aspects of life in many Islamic nations, including Saudi Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan, Libya, Sudan and parts of Nigeria. In Islamic theology, apostasy is often considered treasonous, and, in most interpretations of the Shariah, the penalty for apostasy is death.

Take for example Ziwar Muhammad Ismaíil, an Iraqi Muslim, who was shot and killed by Islamic extremists after he converted to Christianity. Or Bashir Ahmad Tantray, a Christian who converted from Islam around 10 years ago. Tantray was murdered in broad daylight as he chatted with Muslim friends in his village, Mamoosa, India. Or the well-known conversion case of the Afghani, Abdul Rahman, who barely escaped death, finding asylum in Italy after he was confined to a mental institution and senior Muslim clerics called for his execution following his conversion to Christianity. According to the U.S. Department of State, these extremists “exploit the religion of Islam [and] distort the idea of jihad into a call for murder against those they regard as apostates or unbelievers — including Christians, Jews, Hindus, other religious traditions, and all Muslims who disagree with them.”

And although Christians and Muslims now peacefully co-exist in Western Nigeria, crossing the border between the Christian cross and the Islamic crescent was not easy for Kazeem.

Kazeem had looked up to his former muezzin for years and couldn’t believe that such a devout and respected Muslim elder could convert to another religion — a religion considered by many in his homeland to be heretical. Kazeem went to see the ostracized man — he needed proof.