Obama and Allah, past and present

In the spring of 2007, candidate Barack Hussein Obama met with a New York Times columnist and discussed his days as a "little Jakarta street kid" who once got in trouble for making faces during Koran classes. Obama proceeded to recite the opening lines of the Muslim call to prayer in Arabic, with what Nicholas D. Kristof called a "first-rate accent." Obama described this chant as "one of the prettiest sounds on Earth at sunset."

This text, in one English translation, proclaims: "Allah is Supreme! Allah is Supreme! ... I testify that there is no god but Allah! ... I testify that Muhammad is the messenger of Allah." These lines are known as the Shahada -- from the Arabic verb, "to testify" -- and reciting them, in public, with the intent of becoming a Muslim, is a crucial act in entering and then practicing the faith.

This is the kind of biographical detail that keeps complicating matters for journalists who try to make sense of the poll from the Pew Research Center and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life indicating that 18 percent of Americans think Obama is a Muslim, as opposed to 11 percent in March 2009.

Only 34 percent of those polled said Obama is a Christian and a stunning 43 percent did not know his current religion. Among his strongest supporters, 43 percent of blacks and 46 percent of Democrats said he is a Christian.

These numbers are strange in light of Obama's public testimonies about his conversion to Christianity, after years of spiritual struggle.

In his memoir, "The Audacity of Hope," Obama confessed that as a young social activist he realized, "Rich, poor, sinner, saved, you needed to embrace Christ precisely because you had sins to wash away -- because you were human. ... I was finally able to walk down the aisle of Trinity United Church of Christ one day and be baptized. ... Kneeling beneath that cross on the South Side of Chicago, I felt God's spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to discovering His truth."

This was an open confession of faith, even if many conservative Christians choose to reject the liberal beliefs he has articulated through the years. During the campaign, the Rev. Franklin Graham asked Obama if Jesus was the only way to heaven. "Jesus is the only way for me," he responded.

Meanwhile, the Obama team has had difficulty communicating a clear message about his faith history. Campaign aides, at first, said he had never been a Muslim, but later stressed that he had never been "a practicing Muslim."

Obama's family history is hard to describe. His father was a Muslim from Kenya who became an atheist. His stepfather was a Muslim who, in Obama's words, was raised in an era in which Indonesia offered a tolerant approach to Islam that blended with "remnants of Hinduism, Buddhism, and ancient animist traditions." His mother was raised as a Christian, but adopted her own mix of secularism and spirituality.

While in Indonesia, Obama attended what he has called a "Muslim" public school and also a Catholic school. At both schools, according to educators interviewed by the Los Angeles Times, his faith was listed as "Muslim." School friends recalled that they often went to the mosque together.

Nevertheless, there is no single, definitive Islamic approach to questions about the role of birth and upbringing in establishing a person's religious identity.

Franklin Graham was only partially right when he told CNN: "The president's problem is that he was born a Muslim. His father was a Muslim. The seed of Islam is passed through the father. ... His father gave him an Islamic name." Graham added that Obama has "renounced Islam and he has accepted Jesus Christ. That's what he says he has done. I cannot say that he hasn't."

This view of Islamic tradition is much too simplistic, said Stephen Prothero of Boston University, author of "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World." There is more to this debate about faith and identity than DNA, he stressed.

"As a matter of jurisprudence, however, there is a presumption that a child born to a Muslim father is Muslim," said Prothero, in an email exchange. "This needs to be followed up with ACTION, however. ...

"Like Christianity, Islam is a matter of choice, not inheritance."