Becoming Sinless: Converting to Islam in the Christian Solomon Islands

First published: 17 November 2009
Citations: 13


ABSTRACT  Islam is beginning to have a significant presence in the predominantly Christian nation of Solomon Islands. A few well-educated Islanders were drawn to Islam’s elegant monotheism and promise of unity in the 1980s and early 1990s, but numbers have grown significantly in the years following a violent civil conflict (1998–2003). Many of these new Muslim converts, especially those from the island of Malaita, seem preoccupied with the problem of sin and blame Christianity for destroying customary rules, especially those enforcing gender segregation. Echoing long-standing Malaitan critiques of Christian freedom, they say that Christians rely too heavily on God’s grace and their own ability to resist temptation. Unlike Christianity and similar to the traditional religion of the islands, Islam provides clear moral rules for living. Seeking an escape from a cycle of sin and redemption, these ex-evangelical Christians now see in Islam the possibility of becoming sinless.

People like hearing the words “born again.” Every Tom, Dick, and Harry says that he is born again, but does not change to lead a holy life. Unless we live righteously and in a holy way, this nation will not move forward.

—Solomon Islander at the Mbokanavera Sunni Center

NINETY-EIGHT percent of the inhabitants of the Melanesian nation of Solomon Islands identify as Christians. Most remain members of the five main churches founded in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but a growing number have joined new evangelical Christian denominations that have proliferated in recent decades. A small minority, moreover, are embracing a world religion without a historical presence in the region: Islam.

Indigenous Muslims in Solomon Islands, as well as neighboring Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu, face opposition from the Christian majority.1 Until recently, many ordinary citizens knew of Islam only through news reports on the global “war” against Islamic terrorism; now that Islam has become more prominent in the region, some national leaders have advocated curtailing religious freedom to stop the spread of non-Christian religions. Outside analysts worry that the growth of Islam indicates a potential for terrorism in a region that has experienced considerable political instability in recent years. In one of the few scholarly works on the topic, Scott Flower (2008) argues that such speculations are unfounded. He suggests that indigenous converts are drawn to the goods and services that Islamic organizations provide and are attracted to Islam because it resonates with indigenous cultural practices. Although indigenous Muslims tend to deny that they are attracted to Islam for pragmatic purposes, they also draw parallels between traditional cultural practices (referred to in neo-Melanesian pidgin as kastom) and Islam. Like kastom, they say, Islam emphasizes gender separation rather than gender equality; retribution rather than forgiveness; external codes of behavior rather than internal self-monitoring; and an acceptance of polygamy rather than an insistence on monogamy (see, e.g., Bohane 2007Radio Australia 2008a). They downplay the influence of Christianity, portraying it as a foreign imposition that did not penetrate Melanesian minds and souls.

Rather than dismissing the influence of Christianity, in this article I argue that the vision of moral selves and virtuous communities that Solomon Islander converts hope to achieve through their practice of Islam has been profoundly shaped by their prior experience of Christianity. Most obviously, Christianity influences their understanding of Islamic doctrine. In the Solomon Islands capital of Honiara, where most of the research for this article was conducted, some Muslim converts contrasted Islam’s simple monotheism to the complications of the Christian Trinity, while others lauded Islam’s insistence on moral law and condemned Christians’ overreliance on God’s grace. Conversion from Christianity to Islam also has profound social and political implications. In culturally diverse Melanesia, shared Christianity has provided some measure of ideological cohesion despite divisions arising from denominationalism. In the absence of well-functioning states, moreover, church organizations are some of the few modern organizations that touch the lives of the mainly rural population (see Douglas 2007McDougall 2008). Disaffected with their own Christian communities and the Christian nation as a whole, some recent converts to Islam have embraced the oppositional identity offered by Islam.

Solomon Islander Christians and Muslims alike seek moral and spiritual solutions to what secular outsiders might see as social or political problems. They differ only in feeling that, rather than offering the solution to the nation’s manifold problems, Christianity has helped to cause them. Recent Muslim converts from the island of Malaita, in particular, blame moral decline on the way that Christianity freed people from traditional rules of behavior, thus echoing critiques that followers of ancestral religion have leveled against Christianity since the beginning of missionization (see, e.g., Akin 1993, 1996, 2004Burt 1994Keesing 1987, 1992). According to this logic, a religion that does not require costly sacrifices cannot be effective, and the individual freedom that Christianity seems to entail inevitably leads to transgressions of moral rules. As the interlocutor quoted above complained, Christians may claim to be “born again,” but they always fall back into sin.

Nowhere are critiques of Christian freedom more pronounced than in the realm of gender and sexuality. Throughout Melanesia, missionaries and converts destroyed male cults and lifted social and spatial restrictions on women (in Malaita, e.g., Christians abandoned the practice of segregating women from the community during menstruation). Such changes have led, in some areas, to a sense of disempowerment, emasculation, or even a perception of bodily shrinkage among Melanesian men (Clark 1989Tuzin 1997; cf. Wilde 2004). There is also widespread belief that Christianity has, for better or for worse, empowered women. Although men occupy most formal leadership positions in most churches, today women often make up a majority of congregations and have formed powerful and effective women’s fellowship organizations (Douglas 2003McDougall 2003). Writing of Vanuatu, Annelin Eriksen (2008) has argued that modes of social action traditionally gendered female have been amplified by the church and that, in this sense, the church itself is gendered female. The most recent converts to Islam in Solomon Islands appear to be attempting to reassert male virtue outside of a feminized Christianity.

Despite its short history, Islam in Solomon Islands is complex. Converts come from different provinces, different socioeconomic backgrounds, and different Christian denominational traditions. They also belong to two distinct branches of Islam—Sunni Islam, which includes a majority of the world’s Muslims, and Ahmadiyya Islam, which is considered heretical by other Muslims for taking its founder, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, rather than Muhammad as the final prophet. In Solomon Islands, the Ahmadiyyas are part of the Australian Ahmadiyya Muslim Association, which has provided funds for a center, a satellite television, and a resident missionary. Since becoming incorporated in 2003, the group has condemned violence and has engaged frequently with the national press and the Solomon Islands Christian Association (Bin Masran n.d.). Overseas support for the Sunnis is more sporadic, consisting of short visits by Muslim laymen, primarily from Australia. The group does not have a clear organizational structure and some new converts have established mosques in their own urban and rural neighborhoods.

Although it is a simplification, I distinguish between two waves of conversion.2 The first indigenous Muslims in Solomon Islands converted in the two decades following national independence in 1978 after encountering Islam at regional universities or by meeting expatriate Muslims working in Honiara. Most of these first-wave converts are well educated, hold formal employment in town, and have come from mainline churches (on Honiara’s fledgling middle class, see Gooberman-Hill 1999). Islam has spread slowly among the friends and families of these first converts, but it experienced a more dramatic growth in the years following September 11, 2001, and in the wake of a civil conflict. It is this second wave of conversion that I discuss at length in this article.

The “ethnic tensions,” as this civil conflict is known locally, began when militants from the island of Guadalcanal began attacking the settlements of people from the nearby island of Malaita who had been drawn to Guadalcanal by economic opportunities available in the national capital of Honiara (see Figure 1). The attacks were fueled, in part, by Guadalcanal people’s anger that some Malaitan settlers did not respect their rights as landowners and that few Guadalcanal people were benefiting from developments around Honiara. By 1999, tens of thousands of Malaitans had been displaced. A Malaitan countermilitia was formed and, in June 2001, joined with the Solomon Islands police to mount a de facto coup. Conflict between militias gave way to general lawlessness and violence in Honiara, rural Guadalcanal, and some areas of Malaita until mid-2003, when the Australian government finally heeded repeated calls from Solomon Islands for military assistance. The Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) quickly restored order and remains in the country without a firm exit date (for accounts of the conflict, see Fraenkel 2004Moore 2004). Islam appears to be gaining a significant number of converts among Malaitan men who were most directly affected by the crisis. These second-wave converts tend to have less formal educations, hold less secure employment, and are more transient than the first-wave converts; a disproportionate number come from a fundamentalist or Pentecostal Christian background. After the violence and disruption of the conflict, rather than turning to Christ for redemption as they have in the past, some are now seeking a return to virtue through Islam.


Solomon Islands. (Map created by author)

The educated and urbanized converts of the first wave tend to see Islam as similar to the mainline forms of Christianity they grew up with but more universal, more monotheistic, and more egalitarian. The less privileged converts of the second wave, in contrast, tend to reject modern Protestant celebrations of freedom from externally imposed rules and rituals, blaming Christianity’s emphasis on forgiveness for leading people to disregard God-given moral laws. They thus reject one of the keystones of Christian theology—namely, the idea that Jesus, as God incarnate, atoned for humanity’s original sin through his death. Writing of the evangelical Christian Urapmin of the highlands of Papua New Guinea, Joel Robbins (2004) argued that while they welcomed the freedom from ancestral taboos that Christianity offered, Urapmin found themselves struggling with new kinds of interiority in the process of “becoming sinners.” Today, some Solomon Islands Muslims assert that believers cannot be trusted to monitor themselves and require a return to externally imposed law. Seeking an escape from Christian cycles of sin and redemption that they blame for the problems of their families, communities, and their troubled nation, these ex-evangelical Christians now seek in Islam the possibility of becoming sinless.


Scholarly and popular ideas about religious conversion often draw on Christian models and presume Western forms of “personhood.” Religion is seen as a matter of individual belief, and conversion is assumed to require a dramatic change of heart, such as that experienced by Paul on the road to Damascus. Since the 1990s, anthropologists have critiqued such approaches to conversion. Jean Comaroff and John Comaroff, for example, argued that the very idea of conversion relies on a modern Western construction of the individual subject who can choose a faith in the same way one might choose a commodity. To take conversion as a “significant analytical category in its own right,” they argue, is to “dress up ideology as sociology” (1991:250, 251). Similarly, Talal Asad (1993) questioned the very category of religion itself. Critiquing Clifford Geertz’s (1973) well-known definition of religion as a system of symbols, Asad argued that religion emerged as a distinct analytical category only through modern Protestantism’s emphasis on individual faith.

Turning away from the intellectualist approaches of scholars like Geertz (1973) and Robin Horton (1971), anthropologists began to pay more attention to the politics of religious affiliation and less to the power of religious ideas. In an introduction to a volume on religious conversion, for example, Robert Hefner argued that religious conversion need not involve a “deeply systematic reorganization of personal meanings” but, rather, “an adjustment in self-identification through the at least nominal acceptance of religious actions or beliefs deemed more fitting, useful” (Hefner 1993:17). As Rita Kipp (1995) argued, however, over time, conversion may involve both a change of political or social organization and a changed religious experience for the individual. Among the Karo Christians in Sumatra who she worked with, conversion was initially a strategic attempt to maintain an autonomous local identity against a dominant Muslim majority. First-generation Christians did not narrate dramatic stories of internal transformation, but second- and third-generation believers who moved from the established church to a newer Pentecostal church told of deeply emotional inner transformations. Similar processes have occurred throughout Solomon Islands, where Christianity was initially embraced for apparently pragmatic reasons, such as gaining access to education and medicine, seeking protection from enemy groups, avoiding angry ancestors, and forging alliances with powerful outsiders (Akin 1993:508; Burt 1994:141–170; Dureau 2001Hviding 1996:118–124; McDougall 2004:256–314; White 1991:81–102). Eventually, though, converts came to see Christianity as a matter of personal conviction as well as social identity.

Recent work on the anthropology of Christianity is once again taking religious ideas and ideologies seriously (e.g., Engelke 2007Keane 2007Robbins 2004Scott 2007Tomlinson 2009). The notion that conversion must involve a dramatic internal change of heart may be ideology, rather than sociology, as the Comaroffs suggest, but anthropologists studying Christian cultures must engage with this ideology because it is shared by the subjects they are studying. Robbins (2007) has argued that anthropologists need to take seriously the ways in which non-Western converts take onboard the cultural assumptions embedded in Christian culture, including ideologies about cultural change. In his ethnography of the Urapmin of Papua New Guinea, Robbins suggests that Christianity provides “a set of arguments for why people need to throw over an inadequate traditional moral system in favor of the new one” (2004:319) and leads believers to see change in moral terms. Like Kipp, he examines conversion in historical perspective. The Urapmin of Papua New Guinea were initially drawn to Christianity 30 years ago as a way of regaining prominence in a regional ritual-political system, but as they embraced Pentecostal Christianity, they encountered new ideas of the self and of morality. Because of the religious ideas that they adopted, they came to see their faith as internal and meaningful and to see themselves as sinners—that is, as individuals who are solely responsible to God for their transgressions.

As described below, the conversion stories of some of the highly educated first-wave converts to Islam seem to validate the so-called intellectualist theories of religion of Horton and Geertz. Islam, they said, offered an explanation of the ultimate conditions of existence they found more satisfying than those of Christianity. Yet they found themselves struggling with the social implications of their conversion, especially the fact that, even as they sought a more encompassing form of collectivity through the image of a global Islamic community, they were alienated from their devoutly Christian families and communities. The stories of the newer converts, in contrast, seem best explained by analytical approaches that emphasize the politics of affiliation. Disgruntled with the state of the nation and angry at the hypocrisy of their Christian neighbors, many embraced the oppositional identity that Islam provided. Yet, informed by their evangelical Christian backgrounds, they are also engaging with the theological and intellectual implications of their conversion, particularly new ideas about sin and salvation. In both of these cases, Solomon Islanders have not converted to Islam from ancestral religions but from Christianity, and they approach their new faith through the lens of the faith they hope to leave behind.


In the light of what is going on in the world today, and also for the security of the nation, we have some concern about the presence of not only of Muslims in the country but also other religions that begin to come into Solomon Islands. As you know, we have just been through a dark time, and right now we are working on mending and healing this nation from the ethnic crisis, and if we do have other people coming in with different motives and attitudes, it could cause problems to us.

—Reverend Eric Takila, Chairman of the Solomon

Islands Christian Association and Bishop of the South

Sea Evangelical Church on Radio Australia

It is difficult to estimate the number of Muslims in Solomon Islands. The most dramatic growth of Islam has occurred since the last census in 1999, on which “Islam” was not listed as a category of religious affiliation (De Bruijn 2000). Observers’ estimates range from a few hundred to a few thousand (Terry Brown, personal communication, October 16, 2008; Flower 2008:215; Moore 2008:397). With a national population of just over 400,000 in 1999, even the highest estimates would have Islam as only about one percent of the total population, although significantly higher in Honiara and other areas where converts are concentrated.

Despite small numbers relative to an overwhelming Christian majority, the growth of Islam is seen as a threat by church leaders and Christian politicians throughout Melanesia. Like their evangelical counterparts in the United States and elsewhere, many Christians in Melanesia understand the “war on terror” to be a religious conflict between Islam and Christianity and view local Muslims in this light. Although they have not been violently attacked like their counterparts in Papua New Guinea (Flower 2008:411–412), Solomon Islands Muslims are called “terrorists” when they wear their distinctive white robes and caps. Some Solomon Islander Christian leaders worry, moreover, that Islam threatens the national unity that results from a shared Christian faith and may undermine postconflict reconciliation work that is being carried out in Christian idioms. In a recent interview (quoted above), the chairman of the Solomon Islands Christian Association (the main ecumenical organization in Solomon Islands) urged the Solomon Islands government to reconsider the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom to prevent the growth of non-Christian religions (Radio Australia 2008b). Some Christians suspect that converts to Islam are attracted by the promise of money or other benefits from overseas. Aware of such accusations, one Sunni Muslim compared overseas (mainly Australian) Muslim teachers to the Australian-led Regional Assistance Mission—like the Australian government, these visiting Muslim brothers are just helping out a needy neighbor.

The question of why Islam is attracting significant numbers of followers must be considered in light of a more general tendency toward religious diversity in Melanesia. Islam is one of the more novel choices in a region long given to religious innovation (see Harrison 2006 for a recent overview). Christian missionization led to unprecedented religious and social consolidation, but ideals of Christian unity were always undercut by the reality of mission rivalry. Although Catholics, Anglicans, and Methodists in the British Solomon Islands Protectorate grudgingly agreed to avoid one another’s mission fields, the fundamentalist South Sea Evangelical Mission and Seventh-Day Adventist Mission made no such concessions. Since World War II, new Christian denominations have proliferated: Jehovah’s Witnesses, Baha’i, Worldwide Church of God, and scores of Pentecostal denominations all have found eager converts in Solomon Islands (Ernst 2006). That religious diversity is common, however, does not mean that it is unproblematic. Changes of affiliation from one Christian denomination to another can express and exacerbate other kinds of social fission in rural areas (see Eriksen 2008:104–110). Many recent Malaitan converts to Sunni Islam cited hostility between members of different Christian denominations in their home villages as one reason why they turned to Islam. Ahmadiyyas I spoke to were knowledgeable about the emergence of different sects in Islam, but Sunnis acknowledged such sectarian differences only when pressed. Aside from the Ahmadiyyas (whom they dismissed as not really Muslim), many Sunnis had not encountered other branches of Islam. In such circumstances, the contradiction between ideological unity under a single God and pragmatic division into competing denominations seems less glaring in Islam than in Christianity.

The first Solomon Islanders became Muslim around the time of national independence in 1978 as indigenous elites began to come into sustained contact with their peers from other former British colonies and newly independent Pacific nations. Some learned of Islam in the 1970s at the University of the South Pacific in Fiji, while others encountered Muslim professionals working in Honiara. A Muslim League was formed but had relatively little contact with any overseas organizations. In 1987 and 1990, an Ahmadiyya missionary named Hafiz Jibrail visited Muslims in Solomon Islands. More than ten years later, in 2001, Musa Bin Masran was sent as a missionary to the fledgling group, which was eventually registered in 2003 (Bin Masran n.d.). In the meantime, in 1997, the Sunni Imam of Papua New Guinea carried out a da’wa (mission) visit to Solomon Islands and, finding the group in disarray, he recommended that a permanent Sunni teacher be posted to Honiara.3 He also reportedly warned local converts to avoid the Ahmadiyyas. Some early converts heeded the warning and remained Sunni but nonetheless directed Bin Masran to friends and relatives who had shown interest in Islam and who eventually joined the Ahmadiyyas.

The Sunni and Ahmadiyya centers occupy different positions in Honiara. The Sunni center is a rundown house located in Mbokanavera, a neighborhood in a stuffy river valley occupied primarily by Solomon Islanders with modestly paying formal employment. Lacking any way to contact the center, I arrived there unannounced one afternoon and waited on the edge of the property as a handful of men emerged from prayers. Eventually a non–Solomon Islander (who I later learned was visiting from Melbourne) approached me and, looking into the distance, explained that because I was neither his wife nor daughter, he could not look at me and should not speak to me. After asking whether I could talk to any women and learning that none were present, I was about to leave when my interlocutor said that I could speak to a young Solomon Islander man who sat down near us. This young man, Robert, had opened what he called a small mosque in Gilbert Camp, one of the predominantly north Malaitan periurban neighborhoods that have spread beyond Honiara town boundaries onto Guadalcanal customary land since the 1970s (see Stritecky 2001a). Not wanting to overstay my tenuous welcome, I did not speak to the man for very long, but I returned later with a male research assistant and spoke to several other converts at the center who were also from north Malaita living in Honiara’s settlements. Because I was temporarily staying with friends in one such settlement, I was also able to conduct a lengthy interview with one of our Muslim neighbors.4

The Ahmadiyya Center is located on West Kola Ridge, a neighborhood with ocean views and sea breezes inhabited by elite Solomon Islanders and expatriates. I arrived at this center as a few women were leaving (I later learned that some women have joined the Ahmadiyyas); and, rather than being ignored, I was quickly welcomed inside. I spent nearly four hours chatting with two young men who explained the history of the Ahmadiyyas, the relationship between Christianity and Islam, and how they themselves became Muslim. The Ahmadi missionary, an ex–Jehovah’s Witness from Ghana named Malik, returned from a visit to another Honiara branch as I was leaving. Far from avoiding eye contact with me as the visiting teachers at the Sunni Center had done, he invited me to return the next day then pulled out a digital camera to take a photo of me with the young men I had talked to.


Whether you are a priest or you are a peasant or you are a king, you have the same clothes. … It’s unity. If the world were like that, like one month in Mecca, it would be a happy place to be.5

—Felix Narasia

Felix Narasia is one of the early members of the (Sunni) Muslim League and is an articulate spokesman for the group, often publicly clarifying misconceptions about Islam in Solomon Islands. Like other first-wave converts, Narasia embraced Islam because he was attracted to its simple monotheism and the promise of unity it held.

Narasia grew up Anglican, the dominant denomination in his home island of Savo, a volcanic island visible just northwest of Honiara. He learned about Islam in the 1980s, when he was a student in Honiara’s top secondary school, King George VI, and he happened to see a foreign man in white robes walking down a Honiara street. Curious, he followed the man to his hotel and asked him why he was dressed the way he was. To Narasia’s surprise, this man explained that he was not a priest or holy man, just a layman on a business trip, and he invited Narasia to watch a video of the Hajj. After this encounter, Narasia embarked on what he called his own “private study of comparative religion.” Like a handful of other educated Solomon Islanders who encountered Islam in their travels or studies, he became a Muslim before any significant Islamic community existed.

What most impressed Narasia in that initial encounter was the promise of unity and equality in Islam. Watching the video of the Hajj, he was struck by the way that the pilgrims stood shoulder to shoulder all bending to the ground like a “white hall of carpet folding”—black and white, rich and poor, all acted in unison wearing the same humble white cotton robes. Narasia had little to say about sectarian differences in Islam, speaking instead of how Mecca provides a single orientation point for all humanity. Islam, he said, has no different churches, no different ancestral shrines, just one center for all humanity. His comments about Islam reminded me very much of how the Solomon Islander Christians I have worked with spoke of the conversion of their ancestors. In the past, they say, everyone worshipped their own ancestors and fought with one another, but Christianity taught that all people were brothers in Christ and children of a single God (McDougall 2004:256–314; see also White 1991). Far from rejecting this vision of universal brotherhood, Narasia suggested that Islam fulfills such ideals better than Christianity.

Narasia explained that Muslims and Christians alike believe in God and follow the teachings of Jesus, differing only with regard to the divinity of Jesus. Like the other ex-Anglican and ex-Catholic Muslims I spoke to, he critiqued what he considered the irrational doctrine of the Trinity:

When we [Muslims] are talking about one God, we are talking about an arithmetical one. Whereas the Christian formula is: the father is God, the son is God, and the Holy Ghost is God but they are not three gods but one God. The father is almighty, the son is almighty, the Holy Ghost is almighty, but they are not three almighties but one almighty. The father is a person, the son is a person, the Holy Ghost is a person, but they are not three persons, but one person. What language is that? Person, person, person, but not three persons but one person. That is not English, that is gibberish![conversation with author, February 2, 2007]

Far from requiring a leap of faith, he explained, Islam was “rational”—it was simply submitting to the will of God without the esoteric complications of Christian doctrine. Echoing orthodox Muslim principles of da’wa (Murad 1986), he called Islam “natural religion,” the religion with which all humans are born, saying that one does not “convert” but simply “reverts” to Islam.

Others who converted in the 1980s and 1990s told similar stories. One of the Ahmadiyya Muslims, Muhammad Asad, initially learned of Islam in primary school through conversations with a Sudanese boy whose father was working in the newly independent Solomon Islands. Later, at King George VI, Asad and his schoolmate Felix Narasia engaged in heated debates about the Trinity, original sin, and the divinity of Christ. In 1995, ten years after he had first heard of Islam, he visited the Mbokanavera Center with Narasia and began reading materials on Islam, eventually realizing that Islamic teachings were consistent with the Ten Commandments. He came to believe that Islam was the only religion dedicated to the oneness of God, and a year later he made the pledge to accept Islam. As his doubts about the Trinity grew, he found it difficult to attend church services and faced opposition from his family, who were prominent in the church of his home village in the Russell Islands. Yet there was no viable Muslim community he could join that could help him practice his new faith. When the Ahmadi missionary Musa Bin Masran arrived in Honiara in 2001, Asad eagerly sought him out and decided to join the Ahmadiyya group. Since that time, a number of Asad’s relatives have converted to Islam and one of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Association’s branches is located in the Russell Islands.

A younger man at the Ahmadiyya Center, Muhammad Adam, came to the Ahmadiyya group through family connections. This young man was among the few Muslims that I met who seemed to quote the Quran in Arabic nearly as fluently as the Bible. He came from ‘Are’are in southern Malaita, and like the others he had spent much of his youth in Honiara attending school. Formerly Catholic, Adam first encountered Islam in 1995 through his uncle Mahmud Taro, one of the first Solomon Islander Muslims. Taro was initially contacted by the Ahmadiyyas in 1987 and 1990, but by the time Bin Masran returned in 2001, Taro had joined the Sunni group. Nonetheless, he suggested Bin Masran talk to his cousin, Martin Rasu, who became president of the Ahmadiyya association. Young Adam also joined the Ahmadiyyas, becoming most actively involved after the end of the civil conflict.6

The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community works through a global hierarchy, and the Solomon Islands Community is part of the Australian Ahmadiyya jamat centered in Sydney. Unlike orthodox Islamic da’wa, which is decentralized and works through the efforts of ordinary laypeople (Ali 2006Kerr 2000), the Ahmadiyya’s mission program is similar to that of Christian missions like Jehovah’s Witnesses or Seventh-Day Adventists, whose members enjoy the benefits of being part of a global organization with strong links to affluent nations. Despite the apparent advantages of the Ahmadiyyas, however, some of the early converts to Islam have remained affiliated with the Sunni Center, even though many of their relatives and associates are Ahmadiyya. Even if one of the most appealing features of Islam to Solomon Islanders is the vision of a single global community where distinctions of class and race and nationality are insignificant, the local development of Islam has led friends and family members to join different branches.


Christianity taught us who created us but didn’t give us any rules. That is how Christianity and Islam are different—Islam is a way of life. Christians learn how to pray, but they don’t know which hand you should use to rub your backside with and which you should eat with.

—Young man, Mbokanavera Sunni Muslim Center

If the first wave of Muslim converts were attracted by the elegant monotheism and unity of Islam, many Malaitan men who converted after the period of civil conflict seem preoccupied by the problem of sin. With oblique references to their own moral failings, they complained of being ostracized by churches at the same time that they condemned Christianity for being too soft on sin. Echoing traditionalist critiques of Christianity, they argue that, rather than upholding moral laws, Christians rely too heavily on God’s grace, trusting that the blood of Jesus will wash away their transgressions.

Some converts, like the young man quoted above, are angry at Christians and Christianity. When another convert complained of being called a “terrorist” as he walked in the streets of Honiara, this young man said that maybe he was a terrorist, because if someone tried to take his wife, he’d surely “terrorize” him. Like the “Rambo” image of the 1980s (Jourdan 1995) or the Rastafarian image popularized during the conflict period when some Malaitan militants wore dreadlocks and one prominent leader took the name “Rasta,” the image of the Muslim terrorist is being appropriated as an antiestablishment identity (see Allen 2009 on anti-RAMSI sentiment among Malaitans; cf. de Montclos 2008:77; Moretti 2006). Some Muslim converts, this young man admitted, are ex-militants who were rejected by their Christian churches: “They want angels in church, they don’t like them scratched. But those who think they are angels are disillusioned, all of us are just human beings” (conversation with author, January 28, 2007). Not only did the church reject sinners, but it was to blame for sin. Christianity is foreign, he explained, introduced by a white woman (he was referring to Florence Young, the founder of the South Sea Evangelical Mission), and it brought “rubbish, immorality, alcohol—lots of things came in that didn’t exist in the Solomons. … We say that Christianity brought light, but really it just brought darkness” (conversation with author, January 28, 2007).

Few of the converts I met were as angry as this young man, but many are deeply disappointed by Christianity. Having tried to reform their lives by being “born again” in Christ several times over, they turned to Islam as the way forward for themselves and their community. Akmad, who lived near the family I was staying with in Adaliua, turned to Islam in the years following the civil conflict. Although not educated in elite schools, he was extremely well versed in the Bible: he had been a lay leader of the South Sea Evangelical Church, worked for the Bible Society, participated in evangelism training sessions run by the (Pentecostal) Rhema Family Church, and toured Solomon Islands with the global parachurch crusade “Every Home for Christ.” Until fighting on Guadalcanal forced him home, Akmad was employed by the Malaitan Shipping Company. Back home in Fataleka in north Malaita, he said, his spiritual life became “weak,” and for the next five years, none of his Christian neighbors came to encourage him. Adopting the phrasing and cadence of a preacher, he described the neglect through Biblical parables (cf. the following with, e.g., Luke 15:1–32, Revised Standard Version):

One message that they always give, they always say that the prodigal son returned on his own. So I said, the devil likes to use this message of the prodigal son to deceive you. You Christians use this word, “prodigal son,” and you are leading many people to go to hell. The lost sheep and the lost coin are the real message that us Christians should work from. Today there are many lost coins inside of our homes. Today there are many lost sheep inside of our churches. Where is the pastor, where are some of the elders? You people aren’t carrying out your work, to go and look for them, search for them, as Jesus said, I came to seek and save that which is lost.

A lost sheep abandoned by the church, Akmad was drawn to Islam when some Australian Muslims visited Malaita in October of 2005. He decided that even if people called him a “terrorist,” he was going to join them because Islam was not a religion of empty talk like Christianity was (cf. Robbins 2001). It was a religion of action.

Akmad saw a disjuncture between Biblical teachings and the behavior of Christians, but he also thought that Christians depend far too much on God’s grace. Grace is an attribute of God, he said, but “even though he is a God who is most gracious, most merciful, most kind, as we say, when sin adds up, when sin increases, even God’s grace can have an end” (conversation with author, January 27, 2007). Many Christians know that God was wrathful in the Old Testament times of Noah and the great flood but think that the God of the New Testament is endlessly merciful. “If God is merciful and graceful,” he asked, “Why then did Ananias and Sapphira die?” (conversation with author, January 27, 2007). Ananais and Sapphira were a husband and wife who were struck dead by God after holding back a portion of the sales of their land from the community of believers following Christ’s resurrection (Acts 5:1–11, Revised Standard Version). The major difference between Islam and Christianity, as Akmad saw it, was that the former laid down rules for people to live by, while the latter left everything up to an individual’s conscience. With Islam, he explained,

Things that are prohibited are prohibited. But with Christianity, it is your own choice to accept it or not. And then people say, oh, it is a trial or a temptation for you to overcome these things. But we cannot sit down with temptation and trials all the time. [conversation with author, January 27, 2007]

Far from leading people into righteousness, Akmad and other Muslims think that Christianity’s emphasis on individual freedom led them into endless cycles of sin.

New Malaitan Muslims believe Islam can restore a kind of virtue that their ancestors practiced. Although first-wave converts spoke in general of similarities between Islam and Melanesian culture, these second-wave Malaitan converts claimed that Islam is in fact their own lost ancestral religion. As evidence, several cited similarities between Arabic and Malaitan languages and claimed that Malaitan place names have a meaning in Arabic; they also described similarities between Malaitan and Arabic culture, especially the separation of men and women. One convert from north Malaita explained that Islam arrived in Malaita with the first ancestors who were Arabs. After migrating to the island, these ancestors got confused and began to worship their own dead instead of God. Christian missionization, this convert explained, was good insofar as it returned them to monotheism and worship of the one true God. In the process, however, it destroyed the ancestral taboos that were the remnants of Islamic law.

Even if historical links between Islam and ancestral Malaitan religion are untenable, Islamic critiques of Christian freedom resonate with similar arguments long advanced by Malaitan ancestralists. Whereas in much of Solomon Islands conversion to Christianity occurred en masse in the late 19th and early 20th century, significant although dwindling numbers of Malaitans continued practicing ancestral religion throughout the 20th century. According to David Akin (1993:474–512, 1996:165, 2004), Kwaio ancestralists in eastern Malaita have consistently critiqued Christianity for being “free”: Christians are free from ancestral rules, free from paying compensation for infractions against both the living and the dead, and free from providing brideprice payments. Unlike the ancestralists, Christian Malaitans celebrate this freedom, but, as Ben Burt (1994:162–163) has argued for Kwara’ae, they have nonetheless gravitated toward fundamentalist versions of Christianity, thus replacing ancestral taboos with strict Old Testament–inspired rules.

These new Malaitan Muslims’ resentment of Christianity as a foreign influence and their portrayal of Islam as indigenous must be seen in light of earlier developments within the South Sea Evangelical Church (SSEC; see Burt 1994). Malaitans tended to be more suspicious of British colonial governance than many other Solomon Islanders in part because their experience of colonialism was largely through labor on plantations. A disproportionate number of Malaitan men were recruited as indentured laborers to work on the sugar plantations of Fiji and Queensland in the late 19th century (Corris 1973Keesing 1992). Along with sometimes brutal discipline, laborers encountered Christianity on the plantations; in Queensland, the largest group joined the nondenominational Queenland Kanaka Mission founded by Florence Young, the predecessor of the South Sea Evangelical Mission (SSEM, which later became the SSEC).7 Returning laborers founded Christian villages in Malaita before the island was pacified. After the end of the labor trade, white SSEM missionaries were soon posted to Solomon Islands but toured from bases at mission stations. Local converts evangelized in their home areas and were supported entirely by their own communities, relying on the expatriate missionaries only for instruction.

As the first pan-Malaitan indigenous institution, the SSEM played a critical role in the anticolonial Maasina Rule movement that arose in Malaita after World War II. Although Maasina Rule is best known for attempts to revive and codify kastom as an alternative to colonial law (see, e.g., Keesing 1978–79, 1992), many of its head chiefs were Christian (Akin n.d.Burt 1994Laracy 1971Ross 1978). The SSEM took a hard-line stance against all kinds of traditional practice, but in the context of Maasina Rule, pastors from all the churches worked with non-Christians to reconcile kastom and Christianity. One such effort resulted in the Remnant Church, founded by Zebulon Sisimia in the 1950s in the Kwara’ae area of north Malaita. Sisimia elaborated traditional myths by claiming that the first ancestor of Kwara’ae had originally traveled from Biblical lands and brought with him the religion of the Israelites; his descendents on Malaita, however, abandoned monotheism and began to worship him as their ancestor (Burt 1983, 1994:208–211). Narratives linking Malaita and Israel (and sometimes the United States) are not limited to the heterodox Remnant Church but, rather, animate the sermons of pastors of several of the Pentecostal denominations that have grown rapidly among Malaitans in recent years (Stritecky 2001b). Thus, Malaitan Muslims’ claim that Islam is really the religion of their ancestors echoes neo-Israelite Christian theologies that have been present on Malaita for more than 50 years.

Islam also shares with the SSEC’s fundamentalist brand of Christianity an emphasis on strict rules of behavior. Far from leaving everything to the individual conscience (as some of the Muslim converts suggest), SSEC disciplines members who break church rules (e.g., by committing adultery) by banning them from holding church offices and imposing periods of official social ostracism. Many of ex-SSEC Muslims were themselves subject to that discipline: rather than experiencing endless forgiveness, they felt ostracized or ignored. In complaining about Christian freedom, however, ex-SSEC Muslims may be reacting to sociological rather than theological liberty, especially the possibility of moving from one church to another. This proliferation of churches may be part of what leads new Muslims to portray Christianity as lawless and anarchic, allowing a kind of selfish individualism that was not possible in communities following ancestral rules. Yet they, too, are exercising their individual choice to opt out of existing communities and enact visions of a new more virtuous community—a project not dissimilar to those that motivated the first Christian conversions.

Although some other regions of Solomon Islands were initially dominated by a single mission church, Malaita was divided between Roman Catholics, Anglicans, SSEC, and Seventh-Day Adventists. Today, the SSEC appears to be particularly prone to fission because of its open congregational structure, with each pastor answerable only to his congregation, and because the church’s strict discipline may drive errant members to other churches. Disputes over land are another factor underlying denominational schism, and these have become worse in the years since thousands of Honiara-resident Malaitan families were driven “home” to Malaita: in theory these returnees had land rights, but in practice there was little unused land available (Fraenkel 2004:61–62; Moore 2004:115–116, 269). Young men who had been raised in town, moreover, were blamed for bringing immoral lifestyles to rural areas. For various reasons, then, rather than being welcomed home, many returning Malaitans felt ignored or ostracized by their relatives and neighbors and were thus likely to seek an alternative form of religious community.

One of the most striking features of this latest wave of Islamic conversions is that converts are almost exclusively men, leading Clive Moore (2008:397) to suggest that it functions as a men’s cult. The Christian transformation of gender relationships had a particularly profound impact on Malaita, where women were traditionally separated from the rest of the community during menstruation and following childbirth. These “women’s taboos” were gradually abandoned by Christians but, in the wake of Maasina Rule codification efforts, became even more stringent among those who continue to follow ancestral religion and now function as a diacritic of non-Christian identity (Akin 2003, 2004; see also Keesing 1987). Even Christian Malaitans retain a sense that female bodily fluids are potentially polluting. It is thus not surprising that the Islamic critique of the Incarnation should resonate with these Malaitan converts. As one interlocutor put it, it is unthinkable that a most holy and sacred God could pass through what is called in Solomon Islands Pijin “samting blong wuman” ([thing belonging to a woman]; i.e., female genitalia). The idea that a God could beget a son, and that son would be born of woman, struck them as blasphemous.

Yet the gendered nature of this new Muslim movement is not only indebted to traditional gender ideologies but also to men’s movements within evangelical Christianity. Beginning with the “muscular Christianity” of Victorian-era England (Hall 1994) and flourishing in the 20th-century United States (Claussen 2000Gallagher and Wood 2005), these movements have attempted to counter a perceived feminization of religion. Although direct links with such movements are difficult to trace, evangelical denominations like the SSEC are tuned into global trends through tours of overseas evangelists and training. Many Solomon Islanders laud the strength of women’s fellowship groups but worry about the comparative weakness of men’s faith (McDougall 2003), and most churches have instituted special men’s and youth fellowship activities to bolster it.

Without further research, it is hard to say how women feel about their husbands and male relatives converting to Islam. All of my male interlocutors said that ideally both women and men would become Muslims but that their own wives did not want to leave their churches. Akmad’s wife, who remained an SSEC member, listened as I interviewed her husband in their Adaliua house. She nodded in agreement as Akmad explained how Islam had a positive effect on his life and those of Fataleka youth. As he praised the overseas Muslim missionaries for avoiding local women, however, she added, “they wouldn’t look at me, wouldn’t shake hands, wouldn’t even say ‘good morning,’” in a tone that suggested that she was not attracted to the strict segregation of men and women that her husband saw as a positive feature of Islam (conversation with author, January 27, 2007).

Although these Malaitan Muslims are deeply concerned with restoring appropriate relations between the sexes they feel were lost when kastom was abandoned, they are not primarily attempting to control women’s behavior—they are more worried about men. Akmad said that that Christians back home were coming to appreciate Islam because they saw how it had reformed young men who drank alcohol, smoked marijuana (the use of which spread on Malaita only in the 1990s), committed adultery, and beat their wives before becoming Muslim. Although many Christian Solomon Islanders see control of women’s dress and movement as crucial to public morality, these new Sunni Muslims also spoke of how men should control their gazes by not looking at other men’s wives. Akmad told a story of being ridiculed by an elderly woman who asked him why he was walking around in a “dress” (a story, incidentally, that his wife found extremely funny). He explained his response to this old woman:

“Have you seen this kind of dress here, have you seen it on your Catechists in church?” She said, “Yeah.”

“Like those robes that they wear in church?” She said, “Yes.”

“Have you seen any sin inside of the church?” I asked her, “Do you see any sins inside of the church?” Then she was quiet.

I said, “Do you hear them gossip, do any rubbish things inside of the church?” She said, “No.”

“I wear this one,” I said, “because I respect you.”[conversation with author, January 27, 2007]

Sin, he continued, does not happen in the church, it happens outside, and men as well as women must be vigilant in everyday life.

These ex-evangelicals Muslims see sin as avoidable, rather than original. Christians, they argue, trust too much in Jesus to redeem them from sin, instead of following the laws that God gave to humanity to keep us on the straight path. “Trust in the blood of Jesus to cleanse your sins, then head back to the nightclub,” complained one older man at the Mbokanavera Center. “Jesus was killed 2,000 years ago, but they continue to kill him every day” (conversation with author, January 28, 2007).


Islam is spreading in Solomon Islands in much the same way that various Christian denominations have spread over the past century: young men move away from their rural villages and encounter new religious practices, which they bring back home. In the late 19th century, indentured laborers brought Christianity back from Queensland and Fiji plantations; in the early 20th century, native evangelists were trained at mission stations and then founded churches in their own villages; after World War II, Islanders learned of new Christian denominations like Jehovah’s Witnesses from visiting U.S. servicemen. After national independence in 1978, educated elites learned about Islam from regional universities or from Muslim professionals working in Honiara. Today, Solomon Islands–based Ahmadiyya missionaries and itinerant Sunni teachers in Honiara and Malaita are not so different from their Christian counterparts who have also flooded into the country since the restoration of law and order in 2003 (see McDougall 2008).

Yet, especially for ex-evangelical Christians who have converted since the civil conflict, becoming Muslim marks a significant transformation in ideas about morality, sin, and freedom. As a number of recent works on the anthropology of Christianity have illustrated (e.g., Asad 2003Engelke 2007Keane 2007), secular liberal notions of freedom emerge from Protestantism’s rejection of the supposedly empty ritual forms and meaningless rules of premodern Catholicism. In missionary contexts, Protestants transferred these critiques to heathen fetishism, which was condemned for misrecognizing God’s agency and the agency of the individual subject (Keane 2007). For many Melanesians, freedom from onerous ancestral taboos was one of Christianity’s greatest blessings. Yet, as Robbins (2004) has argued for first-generation Christian Urapmin, this new freedom had troublesome consequences. Antisocial desires that had once been kept in check by external law became the responsibility of the individual subject alone, who must look inward and confess any sins to God.

Recent Muslim converts’ complaints about Christian freedom from law reflect more than theology. Another kind of freedom is perhaps more troubling: namely, the liberty to move from one denomination to another. As sociologists of religion (e.g., Niebuhr 1929) have long noted, doctrinal and sociological freedom are entwined. Because it locates authority not in traditional institutions but in the individual who reads the Bible or experiences the Holy Spirit, Protestantism is prone to schism. In the rural Solomon Islands, where churches pull networks of kinspeople together into consolidated villages, denominational schisms reflect and exacerbate splits in social groups. It is particularly problematic for those who depend on access to land held by kin groups for their subsistence. Thus, the first-generation converts, who are more firmly established in the modern economy of Honiara and live at a distance from the politics of rural communities, seem less concerned with tensions between denominations in villages. Denominational competition has been a feature of Solomon Islands Christianity since its origins, but it seems to have intensified in recent years because of the influx of new foreign missionaries and the return of many town-dwelling Malaitans to their rural homes. Ironically, even as they seek escape from such trouble, Muslim converts add to the sectarian conflicts within village communities and undermine the ideology of Christian national unity.

After an unsettled period of Solomon Islands history that was rife with transgressions of all sorts, some of the ex-evangelical Christians who were both victims and perpetrators of these sins found the burden too great to bear alone. If, as Robbins argues, converting to Christianity means “becoming sinners,” then converting to Islam is a reversal of this process: a return to the law that was given to the Biblical prophets, Muhammad, and, according to some Malaitan Muslims, their own indigenous ancestors. Although customary taboos represented a corrupted and polytheistic version of God’s timeless law, they still engendered virtuous living that was lost when Solomon Islanders embraced Christian notions of “freedom.” Converting to Islam lifts the burden of sin by promising a set of rules and a religious community that will allow individuals to become sinless.



Acknowledgments I am most grateful to the Solomon Islander Muslims who were willing to talk to me about Islam. I also thank my long-time interlocutors from Ranongga, especially Inia Barry and his family, who hosted me in Adaliua, and Silas Pioh, who accompanied me on interviews. I am very grateful to Scott Flower for his generosity in sharing materials from his research on PNG Muslims and to Terry Brown for sharing news about Islamic groups on Malaita. Drafts of this article benefited from the critical commentary of participants in anthropology seminars at Macquarie University, the University of Western Australia, and Monash University as well as a panel on “Vice and Virtue in the Global Public Sphere: The Cultural Politics of Evangelical Morality” at the 2007 AAA meetings. For their close readings and constructive comments, I also thank David Akin, Jan Ali, Terry Brown, John Cox, Mark Edele, Scott Flower, Courtney Handman, Clive Moore, and Matt Tomlinson, along with three anonymous reviewers and AA editor Tom Boellstorff. Field research and writing was funded by the Australian Research Council through an Australian Postdoctoral Fellowship and a Discovery Project entitled, “Christianity, Conflict, and Culture: An Anthropological Investigation of the Political Role of Churches in Solomon Islands.”

1. Islam is a recent introduction among indigenous populations in Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, and PNG but has a long presence among the Indo-Fijian population of nearby Fiji.

2. I have not visited Muslim groups in Malaita or other provinces and do not discuss heterodox Muslim groups in east Malaita that have taken a much more militant stance against local Christians (Rev. Terry Brown, personal communication, October 16, 2008; see also Marau 2008Palmer 2008).

3. Photocopy of handwritten note from Imam Mikail Abdul Aziz’s Dawaah trip to Solomon Islands, August 17–24, 1997, provided by Scott Flower.

4. Such settlements are often viewed as home to unemployed or transient residents of Honiara, but low salaries and high housing prices within town boundaries mean that even steadily employed Solomon Islanders now live in such areas.

5. All interviews cited were conducted in a mixture of English and Solomon Islands Pijin.

6. Both Muhammad Asad and Muhammad Adam are now pursuing higher degrees (Musa bin Masran, personal communication, June 11, 2009).

7. Ben Burt (1994:107) reports that Malaitans working in Queensland were initially skeptical of the prominent role that women took in the mission, fearing that it was part of a conspiracy to weaken them.

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