Popping the Marks

The Problem with White Converts

By Michael Muhammad Knight

You’d think that two white American guys embracing Buddhism and Islam in the age of colonialism could have become awesome champions of antiracism and solidarity with oppressed peoples. But no. Unfortunately, they treated their new religious affiliations like other white men of their time treated entire nations: they marched in and immediately claimed to own them.

Henry Steel Olcott (1832–1907) is regarded as America’s first convert to Buddhism. Alexander Russell Webb (1846–1916) wasn’t the first American convert to Islam, but he was America’s earliest Muslim convert to publicly promote Islam in a meaningful way. Both men were believers in Theosophy, which advocated a comparative study of religious traditions with the assumption that beneath all of the surface-level differences, these traditions shared an esoteric unity. The assumption that all religions teach essentially the same thing may sound cool and pluralist, but this means that you understand every religion’s truest, innermost essence. And then it becomes just another way to place your own voice at the center and ignore the tradition as it’s actually lived—which is exactly what these two white guys did.

Many Theosophists held that the hidden truth that existed in all religions could be most easily retrieved from Buddhism. They imagined Buddhism as basically everything that 19th-century Western Protestant liberals wanted religion to be: rational, philosophical, compatible with modern science, free of dogmas and ritualism, and opposed to priesthoods. Olcott thus took part in a Euro-American reinvention of the Buddha as a modern empiricist philosopher and argued that the Buddha’s teachings were based on science, rather than supernatural claims, and that Buddhism opposed rituals, ceremonies, idolatry, and belief in miracles. This was not a Buddhism based on Olcott’s encounters with Buddhist tradition as people actually lived it in the world, but only the “true Buddhism” that he found in the Buddha’s original message. Olcott’s “true Buddhism” was necessarily contrasted with what he saw as the superstitions and corruptions of uneducated, uncivilized Buddhist masses. In other words, Olcott converted to Buddhism and then claimed to understand the Buddha better than every other Buddhist on the planet.

While they often fawned over Buddhism, Theosophists were less enthusiastic about Islam, which they perceived as more rigid and intolerant. Webb, however, found Islam to be not only a worthy expression of Theosophical ideals, but, in fact, the best candidate for a universal modern religion. He reinvented Muhammad as a rationalist philosopher and even made an unsupportable claim that Islam “requires no belief in the supernatural.” Science and reason represented Islam’s “true spirit” as Webb understood it, but as in the case of Olcott, Webb needed to detach Islam’s “true spirit” from the Islam of everyday Muslims. Webb lamented that while Islam was “the most perfect system of spiritual development the world has ever known,” the effects of “climate and racial influence” left Muslims that he had observed in South Asia unable to comprehend what Muhammad had taught. Webb argued that South Asian Muslims, whom he sometimes called “niggers” in his journals, were so caught up in “ignorance and superstition” that they understood Islam no better than cows or horses.

Olcott and Webb (who were actually friends for a time) both read their adopted traditions through not only a Theosophical lens, but also the reigning prejudices of their time. They believed that Buddhists and Muslims had contaminated their originally “pure” religions with lowly culture, but Olcott and Webb could not see the ways in which their own cultures directed their readings of Buddhism and Islam. They both projected 19th-century liberal Protestantism and scientific rationalism onto premodern scriptures without ever doubting that they were on “objective” and “scientific” searches for truth. Additionally, they read with the assumed authority of white men, taking scriptures seriously, but not the brown people who believed in them. In the case of Olcott and Webb, the idea that all religions shared esoteric truths meant that the vast majority of people had missed the point, and thus needed outsiders to train them in the proper understandings of their own traditions.

Over a hundred years later, it’s still a problem. When people assume that “religion” and “culture” exist as two separate categories, culture is then seen as an obstacle to knowing religion. In this view, what born-and-raised members of a religious tradition possess cannot be the religion in its pure, text-based essence, but only a mixture of that essence with local customs and innovated traditions. The convert (especially the white convert, who claims universality, supreme objectivity, and isolation from history, unlike the black convert, whose conversion is read as a response to history), imagined as coming from a place outside culture, becomes privileged as the owner of truth and authenticity. People forget that these white guys aren’t simply extracting “true” meaning from the text, but bringing their own cultural baggage and injecting it into the words. When a white guy wears the hats of brown guys and talks about “reviving the Islamic spirit,” it might be time to run fast. 

Michael Muhammad Knight (@MM_Knight) trespasses on the territory of others in nine books, including Tripping with Allah: Islam, Drugs, and Writing and Why I am a Five Percenter.

Previously - I Tripped with Allah and Wrote a Book About It