Islam Today

“You are a Muslim! MashaAllah!Which country
do you come from?” This is the reaction of most born Muslims to a convert or
‘revert’ such as myself. They are surprised, and intrigued. Conversion is a
huge event in anyone’s life. It can turn your life upside down and inside out.
You may face lack of understanding, if not downright hostility, not only from
your own family and community, but also from some Muslims. It never enters
their heads that a European or African could be a Muslim, only Arabs and
Asians. Converts have often had to form their own groups because they feel
rejected or neglected by the born Muslim communities. This did not happen to
me, because I am white, not black or Asian. Regrettably there is an element of
racism or tribalism involved here, as well as great ignorance of the
extraordinary history of the spread of the Prophetic mission to include ALL
races and cultures within its all encompassing remit. So with all these
difficulties why and how do people take this huge leap? I believe everyone’s
journey to Islam is different, although there may be some features in common,
such as knowledge of Muslim countries, being influenced by a personal
relationship with a Muslim, the study of various religious paths and discontent
with one’s present state, or religious affiliation. Much research has been done
on this at universities and departments of Islamic studies, for example by Leon
Moosawi of Lancaster University. My reasons for converting are personal but
perhaps not unique. However I cannot claim to speak for other converts. As I was
born in India, I already knew Muslims and people from religions other than
Christianity from my childhood: we had household servants who cared for us very
lovingly, so I had no pre-conceived prejudices against other races and
cultures. The memory of India remained like a warm glow in my heart. Back in
the UK, I was brought up a Christian but became agnostic as I grew up, and for
a long period did not practise any religion. I was unable to accept Christian
theology though I loved and respected Jesus as a healer and teacher. Why, I
asked, should God send a ‘son’ and sacrifice him to save human beings from
their wrongdoing? Surely we should be responsible for our own actions? So the
first and most important reason for my conversion was the straightforward tawhidi
unity of God message of Islam: one God, the source of all. From him we come
and to him we return. Also, because of depictions of God and Jesus as men,
there was a tendency in Christianity to associate God with maleness. It is a
pity we have not got a special pronoun to refer to a being who transcends
gender, time and physicality. When teaching in Northern Nigeria, which is a
mainly Muslim society, I met and married a Nigerian practising Muslim who never
exerted any pressure on me to convert. I developed an ambivalent attitude
because the practices I observed were so unjust, especially towards women. For
example, people used to divorce their wives in one go, by saying ‘I divorce you
three times’; men used to have a lot of freedom, especially sexual, whereas
women were expected to be chaste stay-at-home housewives. However I knew in my
heart that these practices were a distortion of the correct rules. After the
death of my husband, I was again put off conversion by the way the inheritance
was denied me. I felt if I can marry a Muslim, why can I not inherit? At the
time I did not understand different aspects of Shari’ah Islamic law and
different schools of law. On returning to the UK with my children, I decided I
needed a spiritual dimension to my life and for a time returned to the Anglican
Christian church, but I did not really accept the theology. In my fifties I met
a family from Iran; when they discovered I had been married to a Muslim, and
knew something about Islam, we began to have discussions. They gave me books
and also explained the lives of the great women of Islam: Hazrat Khadija,
Aisha, Fatima and Zainab. This was a real turning point for me. I realised that
however bad the behaviour of some Muslims, original Islam taught honour and
respect for women, and gave them equal rights to men, though slightly different
duties. So my second main reason for conversion was the realisation that
cultural practices did not represent true Islam, which enjoins respect, honour,
purity and modesty for both sexes. When someone sincerely seeks guidance, God
will respond, not always in the same way. My third and perhaps most important
reason for conversion was thirst for a spiritual path which would add meaning
to my life. But as he says to us in the Holy Qur’an: “Do men imagine that
they’ll be left alone at ease on saying, ‘we believe’ and will not be
tested?” 29:2 My test started immediately and has never stopped from that
momentous day 22 years ago. When I informed my teenage children, I told them I
would not expect them to convert – it was their choice, but I felt distanced
from them. My family were not hostile, but rather puzzled. One cousin said,
‘How can you convert to a religion which proposed the murder of Salman
Rushdie?’ My brother said,’ Please don’t wear black or change your name!’ So
their reaction was natural but somewhat stereotypical. The people who
understood me best were my Christian sister and brother-in-law, though I had to
explain to them that I had not rejected Jesus, only the theology surrounding
him. There were many other tests. Some of the restrictions were very trying for
me. Wearing the hijab was a great challenge at college where some people
thought I had become a ‘fundamentalist’. I had to show them by my attitude and
behaviour that this was not the case. But it was the disagreements among
Muslims that pained me most. At Arabic class, I was shocked at the sectarian
divisions which emerged and the ignorance about each other’s practices. Some
people made it their business to tell me what I should/should not do, to the
extent of advising me to reject my own family. Others welcomed me and asked me
to speak in public, a test in itself, as a convert seemed to be expected to be
more pious! Eventually I reached a stage where I felt that I must either seek
counsel ling or leave – but how could I turn back after such a life-changing
step? A gentleman at a London mosque put me in touch with a Muslim counsellor
who helped me to understand what was going on: I realised that God was taking
me through all this to make me more self-aware so that I could shed the veils
blocking out the eternal Light. I had fallen into the trap of thinking that I
must be like the born Muslims I had met to be a good Muslim, which is not the
case. There are plenty of aspects of my English culture which are compatible
with Islam, and which I could still practice. I only had to give up what would
harm me. For example the correct aadaab manners between men and women avoids
the mixed messages so prevalent in modern society. I found a community which is
non-sectarian and consists of all races and cultures. What we have in common is
our love for God, his Messengers, Prophets, Imams and Saints and their
teachings, which we try to follow in a way appropriate for our time. To conclude,
the factors that led me to convert were dissatisfaction with Christian
theology, the strong desire for a spiritual path and anchor, and for justice
and purity in society. What enabled me to remain a Muslim was discovery of the
true teachings of Islam which enabled me to reconcile these eternal truths with
modern life behind all the disagreements and prejudices I encountered.

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