Conversion commonly refers to a change in interiorized religious belief, and a conversion’s authenticity is typically measured by the sincerity of that belief. Yet recent scholarship across the humanities and the social sciences reveals the limitations of such a framework, which not only bears an unmistakeable Christian bias but also, and more significantly, fails to situate conversion practices and the convert within broader transcultural and transhistorical border crossings. This forum draws on a range of historical and contemporary case studies to show that conversions rarely converge on the question of belief or sincerity alone. Instead, conversions reflect protracted controversies over communal maintenance, self-identity, rituals of belonging, state governance, and international norms in which the question of belief or sincerity may figure. The convert, who is said to have endured a fractured self, far from merely sheds old ties and joins a new community or aligns individual identity with outward performance. In the analyses that follow, the convert navigates ongoing ambiguities that exceed any neat distinction between a time before and after the conversion experience.
The contributions might be read as state-based: they indeed tell us something specific about how conversions work in India, the United States, Morocco, Turkey, France, England, and Israel. But insofar as they traverse colonial and contemporary time, the contributions cannot easily be understood within an exclusively nation-state frame. They push beyond state boundaries by articulating the complex ways in which conversions are inaugurated, regulated, and experienced and thus highlight mechanisms that carry transnational and transhistorical resonance. The featured scholars further challenge common assumptions about conversion’s allegedly communal or individual nature by not confining their analyses to mobility between and among allegedly discrete religious traditions. The reader encounters mobility, too, within communities facing demographic crises and spaces like the theater where patrons enjoy secular consecration.
Faced with both commonality and inconsistency across individual conversion narratives, readers of this forum might ultimately ask: of what does conversion consist? The contributing scholars offer several answers, many of which hinge on ancillary theorizations of bodily integrity, jurisprudential trends, ethnic ancestry, indigenous claims, and archival silences. Their essays raise as many additional questions as they might initially answer. That is precisely the point. Understanding conversion as border crossing invites further inquiry into who and what constitute the border, and how the significance of the border’s constitution has changed over time. To what political developments do border-setting and border-crossing respond? Which affects do each satisfy? What methodologies does a more expansive view of conversion as crossing necessitate?