on her research and personal experience Hanna Smith considers the impact of
converts on the wider Muslim community and how their experiences to find
personal meaning in Islam can help the younger generation of Muslims

Hannah Smith
an under­graduate degree in Geophysics from Imperial College London and the University of Oxford, and
a Masters degree in Ge­ology from the University of Michigan

Muslim in contemporary Britain or Europe conjures up many ideas including the
over-familiar concepts of assimilation and integration. These particular
notions of assimilation and integration imply a process of change incurred by
Muslims, typically on issues of cultural variation,

compliance with external expectations imposed by a state which makes no overt
adherence to Islamic principles. Before Muslims can enter into such a
bargaining process, it is necessary for the Muslim community to first clarify
on an individual and institutional basis its stance on topics related to
assimilation and integration by virtue of the understanding of Islam alone.
This is where the process of conversion to Islam in European countries such as
Britain can help the wider majority heritage Muslim community to re-think their
Muslim identity in Europe and in doing so make great efforts to forge
faith-centred identities in a multi-cultural environment and provide authentic
Islamic responses to questions such as assimilation and integration.

As a
revert, I would like to explore some thoughts around the process of embracing
Islam and taking on a Muslim identity. I believe this process, often likened to
a journey, and something I began myself nine years ago, can provide many
insights and lessons for the wider Muslim community in Britain about how it can
fulfil its spiritual potential and overcome a whole gamut of problems and their
root causes.

may be defined as the distinctive characteristic belonging to any given
individual, or shared by all members of a particular social category or group
and is formed for example through the adoption or rejection of characteristics,
values, and beliefs associated with others.

A convert
or revert is first recognised as a new Muslim with a Muslim identity after
making a rational decision to affirm that they believe in the teachings and
principles of Islam and that they want to live according to them. Sometimes
this decision to become Muslim requires a change to pre-existing beliefs and
lifestyle habits while sometimes it is an affirmation of beliefs they have
already held, such as the way a prior Christian would agree with the values of
love, compassion and mercy for others taught in Islam.

can only make the decision to become Muslim and adopt a Muslim identity after a
period of learning. Before that they must gain knowledge in what Islam is, and
what it means to be Muslim or conversely non Muslim. There are various ways in
which a person can discover more about Islam and Muslims, e.g. from existing
lay Muslims and scholars, behaviour and direct teaching, from books and
internet resources etc.

conducting such research a person will face many challenges: How does one

contrasting beliefs and practices? Is one looking for a single definitive

answer or
are multiple interpretations connected by a theme permissible? How does one
determine whether to become a Muslim? By which criteria do they measure
so-called Islamic and Muslim beliefs; do they use abstract notions such as
truthful¬ness or virtue, or their own desires or personal gain, e.g. for a
community, a husband, cultural acceptance? Faced with such deep philosophical
questions to answer, it often takes converts many years, sometimes decades, to
make their testament of faith, or shahada.

personal journey to Islam began with a search for absolute truth and reality.
As a student of physics I was curious about the fundamental nature of reality
whether physical or non-physical. I was also questioning many aspects of
society and my lifestyle as a 19 year-old student in London. I had come to the
conclusion that the material culture in which we live which encourages us to
acquire more and more possessions cannot lead to long term happiness or
peace/contentment and neither can a hedonistic party-based student lifestyle or
an obsessive attention to one s appearance promoted by the fashion and cosmetic
industries. Many of my thoughts were linked by the understanding that material
aspects of the world can only be sources of short-term transient happiness and
cannot be relied upon for long term contentment.

When I
found the same narrative in Islam, that peace cannot be obtained through
worldly attachments I felt that given my understanding of the world at the
time, Islam was true in this respect. As I explored other Islamic tenets such
as modesty and chastity I consistently felt that Islamic principles were
superior in comparison to alternative ideologies and arguments. Ultimately I
was convinced that Islam and the Qur an were divinely revealed because of the
miraculous appearance of modern scientific discoveries in the Qur an and this
led me to take the plunge and take the shahada.

Once a
person has gone through such a process and come to a conclusion over what Islam
is about and what it means to be Muslim, they then typically go about a process
of adapting their behaviour and lifestyle to conform to these new ideas. Since
their behaviours and habits have typically arisen from personality, cultural
conditioning and environmental factors, they must go through a process of char¬acter
reformation and cultural lifestyle filtering. Sometimes converts end up taking
on cultural habits associated with other countries or regions, such as Arab or
Asian dress or an Arabic name. Sometimes this is because they genuinely believe
it is a necessary part of being more Islamic or sometimes it is out of
necessity because they cannot find so-called western clothes which match their
understanding of modest dress.

I believe
that this process of research and analysis to find personal meaning in Islam, to
seek to understand why Islam is the best religion or way of life, is the most
important aspect of becoming and being a Muslim. This process that converts go
through when establishing their new Muslim identity is a process of
understanding which all Muslims must go through in order to understand how to
remain faithful to Islam.

A study
into conversion conducted by Cambridge University Narratives of Conver¬sion to
Islam in Britain: Female Perspectives, 2003 concluded that “conversion
may in fact be as much about Islam itself as it is about some interpretations
of Western modernity to which conversion often poses many questions”. And
the importance of this personal search is probably the single most important
teaching method of the Qur an, in which humankind is persistently told to
reflect upon the physical world, personal experiences, human behaviour and
history to understand God s message.

there are countless Prophetic narrations which also point to the impor¬tance of
reflection, questioning to achieve a clear understanding, and the impor¬tance
of achieving strong belief. The Prophet Muhammad 0s0 said “Verily, the
cure for all ignorance is to question.”


conviction in the beliefs of Islam such as the existence of a single God and
the superiority of its moral virtues, the practice of Islam is meaningless and
just a mechanical act.

lesson we can learn from conversion is that converts report that their
understanding never remains static, fixed in place and time. The Cambridge
report states: “conversion is always in a mode of becoming through which a
state of being subsists as a core”, and “conversion is a complex
phenomenon: it implies continuity and change, association and, at times,
involuntary dissociation. It looks back, and it looks forward in a journey with
meanings which vary with time and from person to person.”

conversion process also demonstrates that the process of becoming a Muslim and
becoming a servant of God is not achieved without significant hardship and
strife; as the Qur an states: “Do you expect to enter Paradise without
being tested like those before you? They were tested with hardship and
adversity” 2:214 .

The young
Muslims whom I have met as part of my work as a teacher and else¬where already
exhibit many traits of conversion, and a troubling minority show signs that
they have not reached the point of an understanding of faith. One piece of
evidence for this is a conversion-like investigation: most young Muslims I have
met heavily question the faith, its teachings and practices. Some of the
questions I have been asked include “does the Qur an promote violent
military jihad against non-believers?”, another: “I ve always
wondered why I can t pray with my shoes on?”

I have
also identified a number of problems including the inability of young Muslims
to give reasons for being Muslims, the inability to provide even the most basic
explanation of what Islam or being Muslim is about, the misinterpretation of
the religion as merely a bunch of “rules and regulations” and a
failure to understand that someone would choose Islam over another religion and
derive positive benefits from this decision.

have also informed me that in this society their children are bombarding them
with a plethora of questions that they have never considered and have been
unable to answer having never carried out a deep investigation of Islam
themselves. Such an unquestioning acceptance of the religion by so many
born-Muslims is in large part due to the didactic style of teaching used in the
majority of traditional religious lectures, madrasahs, and Islamic faith
schools which suppresses discus¬sion, debate and questioning.

reason why a large proportion of the adult heritage Muslims in this country
have never gone through a conversion-like investigation of their faith is
because as first or perhaps second generation immigrants they have learnt many
of the attitudes and behaviours that are fundamental to Islam such as good
morals and manners through the norms of their ancestral culture, such as
kindness and respect for the infirm or elderly.

younger generation who live in a society where these Islamic values are not the
norm have to go through the conversion process of first identifying and
differenti¬ating between different values, attitudes, and behaviours including
Islamic ones, and then deciding which ones they would like to adopt.

The issue
of re-thinking Muslim identity would be much easier if all Muslims embarked
on a personal quest to discover for themselves what it means to be Muslim in
this society. By doing so, it will be much easier to conduct public discourse
around such issues, more ideas will be generated and there is infinitely more
chance that as a community we will reach the solutions that will please God the

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