Welcome to “Let the Quran Speak”.
I’m Safiyyah, your host.
We’re here at the Islamic Information Centre, home of “Let the Quran Speak”.
About five thousand British people convert to Islam every year, and most of them are women.
A British newspaper called The Guardian recently featured a story about six women who converted to Islam.
They share personal reflections on why they converted, and what challenges they faced.
With me to discuss their insights and to talk about religious conversions more generally Dr. Shabir Ally.
Watch Dr. Shabir’s Talk:
Q: Brother Shabir, The Guardian article featuring theses women who converted to Islam was very insightful in fact. The women converted for many different reasons and they found Islam in many different ways. What are your thoughts on the interviews?
A: Yes, the interviews are very interesting. It gets me thinking about some of the problems that women face when they think about converting to Islam, problems that can encounter with their families who may be resistant to the idea of somebody converting to Islam, and then the subsequent problems that they may face in trying to integrate within the Muslim community and to absorb some of the practices from the religion and culture of Islam.
|Other Videos by Dr. Shabir|
Q: Men and women convert of course, it is not just women, but women seem to face very many different problems than men do. Their situation seems a lot more complex.
A: Yes. There is of course the story of this 26 year old girl who converted from a Sikh background. Naturally, she is now distancing herself in some way from the cultures and practices that she was familiar with. Now she is within the Muslim community, and in the mosque and other Islamic gatherings men and women do not generally mix, so she feels that it may be very difficult for her to find a husband because she is even wondering “do men even know that she exists?”
Q: Yes, and then the question of the Hijab (the head scarf) many women seem to grapple whether or not they should wearing it, and what impact that would have in terms of their role within their community but also in the wider community and within their families as well?
A: Impact within the wider community is obvious.We have the case of Kristiane Backer who was a TV personality, presenting for MTV. When she embraced Islam and that became public, she lost her contract with the TV station.
She has obviously had to repackage her old career, and now she is still working on something but this shows the kinds of difficulty that people can go through when they embrace Islam, both men and women, but many men can embrace Islam and they just seem to fit in because not much outward physical change is generally expected of the men.
But women are sometimes expected in the communities they’re joining to immediately done an Islamic sort of traditional Muslim clothing, and that can set them apart from other people in the environments in which they had already been comfortable, such as in their work environment and hence one might lose one’s position. So what does one do in a situation like that?Q: Dr. Annie (Amina) Coxon is very interesting because she said that when she converted to Islam, she lost family and she lost friends, but as she tried to search for a community, she found difficulty because the Muslim community can sometimes be divided on ethnic lines. So every mosque that she went to, she felt kind of unwelcome until eventually, it took a while, but eventually she did find a community that embraced her.
A: Yes, this can be a difficulty where people click together with others of their own “kind”, and they define their own kind as you know, especially if they speak the same language, in which case you can have a person, let’s say you have a Caucasian person who has embraced Islam, they come in to the Muslim environment, whether it be a mosque or somewhere else, they find people grouped together with their own kind and then this one person is in isolation, not knowing which group to join.
And sometimes, there is the opposite effect where everybody tries to take this person under their wing, as one of the interviewees said.
Q: And the person becomes overwhelmed because they’re not quite sure what to do.
A: Yes, because everybody wants to get this new white Muslim to join their click, or their little group. So these are all challenges.
|Kristiane Backer said that she noticed that Muslims are very generous and very selfless and that motivated her to think more about Islam.|
On the other hand, one can be encouraged by the story of, let’s say, Ioni Sullivan who said that after completing her MPhil, she worked in many different countries such as Palestine, Israel, Jordan, and Egypt. And there she found that people had lives which may be described as being sub-standard from the point of view of life in many of the developed countries where everything seems to be well suited for her, life of pleasure and luxury and so on.
These people had very little to live on; their lives may have even been described as miserable from another point of view and these people were happy, they were content with their surroundings and with the lives that they had because they had deep faith in God, and that faith in God made their mundane lives pleasurable in its own way. That made her think deeply about the religion of Islam and that made her convert.
Q: And several people actually pointed out that it was the Muslims themselves that made them interested in Islam. One individual says that she was going to university and she met Muslims, and they seem so normal, they seem like everyone else. So she started to question all the assumptions that she had about Muslims.
And Kristiane Backer said that she noticed that Muslims are very generous and very selfless and that motivated her to think more about Islam.
A: Yes, I find that the intellectual appeal of Islam is very strong, and that explains the story of this one girl who was from a Hindu background, but then she had become a Christian and she began to engage Muslims in conversation to try and find fault with Islam to convince Muslims that Islam is not right and eventually, the more she did that, the more she realized that actually Islam is true. And that is when she decided to embrace Islam as her own religion.
Q: Brother Shabir, one other interesting feature is the fact that some people said that Islam meant a complete change in their life style and that it was a major adjustment; and some other people said that they have a sensible life as a teenager and as a young person, they didn’t party, didn’t drink alcohol. So Islam was a kind of a natural progression, there were a slight difference in ethics but overall it wasn’t a major difference.
A: This is interesting, and it does reflect the wider situation in that some people convert to Islam as a complete change, they may have been living a life of debauchery, sometimes drunkenness, gambling, sometimes they’ve lost much of their youth in a God absent life, and now suddenly they have found God within the religion of Islam and this marks a complete change.
Some others are attracted to good things already, they may be good followers of another religion and they come across the ideals of Islam and conceptually this sounds better, it makes more sense of who exactly is God, who are the Prophets of God, how to believe about Abraham, Moses and Jesus and then they embrace the religion of Islam.
For them, they’re at home because this is what they’ve always done: they’ve avoided bad things, they have been doing good things, they’ve been practicing what they understand to be commands of God even if these seem a little bit uncomfortable or inconvenient at the time; so when they come in to Islam, they see that they’re doing more of the same things.
What I also found interesting in these articles is the wide variety of occupations that the women have been involved with, perhaps you found that interesting as well. One is a reflexologist, the other is a neurologist, one is a TV presenter as I mentioned earlier on, there is a computer software developer, there is a local authority worker and so on. A very interesting spread of occupations.
|Now the Muslim women’s head cover in particular can be a real stumbling block.|
Q: And not just occupations, but also ages. People came from all sorts of backgrounds and everyone had a different story.
A: True. One girl was 18 years old, the neurologist was 72 years old. And this shows the wide variety of following within the religion of Islam. Muslims are people of all ages, they come from a wide variety of backgrounds, they are involved in many different professions, they are thinking people, and of course you have the whole spectrum. As you may find in a wider society, you also find within the religion of Islam, or within the community of Muslims.
Q: So very quickly, what do you think the wider Muslim community, or communities, need to do in order to be more welcoming and understanding or allow converts to feel at home?
A: I think one of the more important issues is for Muslims to realize that the full litany of Islamic dos and don’ts that most Muslims are already comfortable with, this cannot be imposed on non-Muslims who have just recently embraced Islam; it will be too much at one time.
People need time to learn and to grow, to acquire these practices of Islam one after another; and to impose it all at once would be too much, it would drive some people away.
Now the Muslim women’s head cover in particular can be a real stumbling block. If we develop a culture in which it seems that all Muslim women dress like this, then this itself becomes a deterrent. If somebody looks at the religion of Islam ideologically and thinks “Yes, Islam makes sense” but then may be thinking that: “I can never wear that hijab” so that becomes a stumbling block.
We need to create a sort of atmosphere within the Muslim community where there are people widely represented, those who are wearing the hijab and those who aren’t, and indeed a large segment of existing Muslims do not wear a Muslim’s woman head cover.
And so to give the impression in our Islamic conferences and gatherings that all of the women are going to be like this, that can actually deter many women from embracing the religion of Islam. After they have embraced the religion of Islam, again, some of them have described that they’ve tried wearing this for a while but eventually they have abandoned it because it’s not really them.
So, we need to be sensitive to this difference that some women find it natural, either because they were born in Muslim society in which everybody did this, or they themselves embraced Islam and for some reason, they found it natural.
Q: For some people, this is how they understand modesty, for other people this is completely foreign to them, they didn’t grow up that way.
A: Yes. So the question then is to what extent can Muslim societies leave space and open up space rather, for women who do not wear the head covering to still come in and mingle with Muslims and feel very much at home within the Muslim settings.
Q: I guess this opens up a wider question to what extent can Muslims be accepting of difference, because these Caucasian women who look different anyway, how can we welcome these individuals and make them feel at home while they seem a little different from us.
A: True. So this is a burning question. It is something that needs to be explored again and again and to be dealt with more extensively in our show here. We need to look at the traditional teachings of Islam regarding the head cover and to see how essential it is for converts who are coming into the religion, and so on.
Host: Alright. Thank you for that brother Shabir
Dr. Shabir: You’re welcome.To watch the full video, click here.
Related Links:Why Do Westerners Convert to Islam? (Interview)
The Prophet and the Status of Women
Modesty, Swimming and the Burkini
UK Sisters Face the Challenges of Conversion
UK Reverts Shine at the Muslim Now Retreat