Local Muslim community leaders say they've noticed an increase in conversions to Islam over the past six months to a year, and partly attribute it to people learning about the religion because of the humanitarian crisis Muslims face in the Israel-Hamas war.

The war, which began in October with Hamas' attack and the deaths of 1,200 Israelis, has killed 33,000 people in Gaza, according to the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry. The World Health Organization predicts that famine is imminent, and Muslim organizations across the world emphasized fundraising efforts for Palestinians during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which ended last week.

"We noticed a lot more convert to Islam in the last five to six months," said Anab Ibrahim, a community leader at Masjid Al-Ihsan mosque in St. Paul.

Ibrahim said that in previous years, one to three people converted at Masjid Al-Ihsan every six months or so. She's noticed that in the past six months, one to two people convert every week after Friday prayers at the mosque.

Sia Lao, who coordinates programming for new Muslims at Building Blocks of Islam, a nonprofit based in Columbia Heights, recently has been asked to reach out to new Muslims about five times a month. Last year, she said, it was one or two a month.

"I think it's because of Gaza," said Lao, who converted to Islam in 2012. "Mostly it's because of personal reasons, but that is a part of it."

Makram El-Amin, an imam at Masjid An-Nur mosque in north Minneapolis, also has seen a steady increase of people converting at his mosque, particularly in the past month.

"The heightened exposure to Islam and Muslims through the plight of Palestinians — it doesn't take a lot to convince me that this is a major factor," El-Amin said. "It's really tapping into the humanity of people. People are just responding to that in many ways."

Islam is one of the fastest growing religions in the United States and worldwide, according to the Pew Research Center. From 2015 to 2060, the number of Muslims is expected to increase by 70% and make up three out of 10 people in the world.

While the number of people converting to Islam in Minnesota is not officially tracked, mosques and local organizations have been keeping a rough count. Fifty to 60 people have converted to Islam at Masjid An-Nur since Ramadan in 2023, El-Amin said, adding that the number has, at the least, doubled from previous years.

"What we're seeing at Masjid An-Nur is just a microcosm of what is happening across the country," he said. "This is, to be honest, the prophetic nature of the Qur'an, where Allah said people come to the religion in masses."

While the reasons people are interested in Islam vary, El-Amin said that most converts already have a connection to Islam, whether that's through friends or family members, or through learning about Islam on their own. A portion of the new Muslim population converted while they were incarcerated, El-Amin said.

The mosque offers classes on Sundays for new Muslims to learn more about Islam and meet other Muslims. El-Amin said the mosque is piloting a Muslim mentorship program as well.

Brooke Anderson spent Ramadan like most Muslims — praying, reading the Qur'an, listening to Islamic lectures. There was one key difference: it was her first Ramadan. The 29-year-old St. Paul hospice nurse became a Muslim in January at Masjid Al-Ihsan.

"Once I took my shahada," she said, referring to the profession of faith required to become a Muslim, "it was like, 'OK, this is a clean slate.' It's made me way more conscious of what I'm doing, what I'm immersing myself in, and who I'm spending my time around."

While Anderson said that learning about the crisis in Gaza was not a direct reason for her conversion, she said she has felt empowered by the resilience of Muslims in Palestine.

"There's a bunch of things I've seen [online] during Ramadan, like people breaking their fasts amidst the rubble of their home and having barely anything to break their fast with," Anderson said.

She said she first became interested in Islam after reading poetry by Rumi, an Islamic scholar and poet that practiced Sufism, a sect of Islam. Her fiancé Oliver Swanson, who converted in 2020, told her more about Islam.

Anderson said she had a fairly easy time adjusting to Ramadan and that she had observed more intense fasts in previous faiths. Practicing Islam alongside Swanson, as well as new friends she's made at Masjid An-Nur, has also helped.

"It's been super powerful," Anderson said. "It's felt like this little retreat and I'm finally feeling like I'm getting home time that I've needed. We've just been fasting and listening to lectures, and getting to the masjid when we can."

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This story comes to you from Sahan Journal, a nonprofit newsroom dedicated to covering Minnesota's immigrants and communities of color. Sign up for a free newsletter to receive Sahan's stories in your inbox.