London, Asharq Al-Awsat- Nobody can argue that there has been an unprecedented boom in the number of people converting to Islam in Europe and the US, and Islam today is reportedly the fastest growing religion in the world. Asharq Al-Awsat decided to speak with a number of western converts to Islam to find out more about this phenomenon, especially in this day and age when news of Islam in the media is more likely to be negative than positive.
There is a long history of western converts to Islam, from intellectual figures like Marmaduke Pickthall who went on to translate the Holy Quran, to military figures like Ottoman admiral Uluj Ali [born Giovanni Dionigi Galeni] and French-born Egyptian army commander Suleiman Pasha [born Joseph Anthelme Seve] whose great-granddaughter was Queen Nazil of Egypt, mother of King Farouk, to more recent figures like American boxer Muhammad Ali [born Cassius Clay], and British musician Yusuf Islam [Cat Stevens].
Islam is widely considered to be the Europe’s fastest growing religion, thanks to immigration and above average birth rates. According to statistics, the UK reportedly has a Muslim population of 2.4 million, which is equivalent to around 3.8 percent of the population. The 2001 UK census showed that one third of the Muslim population of the UK were under 16, which was the highest proportion of any group. The Muslim population of the UK has multiplied 10 times faster than the rest of society, according to research by the Office for National Statistics, while in the same period the number of Christians in the UK fell by more than 2 million. There are large Turkish, Iranian, Iraqi, Arab and Pakistani Muslim communities within the UK.
Asharq Al-Awsat spoke with four western converts to Islam, looking at the reasons behind their conversion, their views of Islam prior to conversion and today, as well as how their families and society in general reacted to this.
Abdul Aziz Brown, 31, Research fellow at the University of Cambridge.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What was your first experience with Islam and Muslims? At what point did you begin to consider becoming a Muslim?
[Abdul Aziz Brown] There were one or two Muslim students at my secondary school but I did not really know anything about Islam then. I became interested in Islam for the first time when I made more Muslim friends as a student at university.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What attracted you the most to the religion?
[Abdul Aziz Brown] The combination of simplicity and comprehensiveness. The main beliefs are so simple, yet they have such rich, beautiful implications for all aspects of life. Initially I was particularly attracted by the egalitarianism of Islam and it’s emphasis on social justice. When I went to the Central Mosque in London and saw people of all races and backgrounds praying together without distinction, in a very humble way that had a big impression on me.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Was there anyone in particular who influenced your decision to become a Muslim or encouraged you to convert?
[Abdul Aziz Brown] The friends I had at university.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What kind of literature if any did you read to learn about Islam?
[Abdul Aziz Brown] I read a translation of the meaning of the Quran, and also some simple introductory books. I was also impressed before I converted by the work of Maurice Bucaille on science and the Quran, because like most people in the West I was raised with the assumption that everything should be measured against science. Now I still feel that that work is interesting and important, but my overall worldview has changed a lot to become more skeptical about the assumptions and values that I was raised with, especially about the nature and role of scientific knowledge.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What were your thoughts on Muslims and Islam before converting?
[Abdul Aziz Brown] I only knew a few Muslims really, and they were my friends so I had a positive impression through them.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Could you describe the day you became a Muslim? Do you remember the day and time?
[Abdul Aziz Brown] One day I was having dinner with a friend from the student Islamic Society who used to answer my questions about Islam. Then he just said, ‘Is there anything you don’t accept from what you know about Islam?’, and I had to say no there wasn’t. So I said the shahada there in his room. I hesitated for a second because I thought, ‘You are still young, you will have to stop drinking, stop going to parties – wait until you finish university.’ But then I realized, since I believed it was true I had to try to act according to Islam, and I have never regretted it all, thanks to God. On the contrary, I can’t imagine my live not being Muslim.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What was the general reaction from your family and friends to your conversion? Were they supportive or non-supportive?
[Abdul Aziz Brown] They were generally supportive, although they were surprised and could not really understand why I would choose a lifestyle that most people think is backwards. Over time I have tried to explain how Islam is relevant today and I think some of them understand better now.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] As an English convert, have you ever felt that you were subjected to any kind of discrimination from other Muslims or non-Muslims?
[Abdul Aziz Brown] No. Everyone knows that different ethnic or cultural groups sometimes stick together, especially immigrant communities, so that Arabs might not mix so much with Pakistanis etc. But everyone is normally happy to meet converts and goes out of their way to help them. Sometimes they try to help in the wrong ways but their intentions are good!
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Since becoming a Muslim what has been your view of the Muslim Ummah in general?
[Abdul Aziz Brown] The ummah has a lot of problems, and most of them I think are to do with themselves more than attacks from outside, although of course those attacks are happening. Thanks to the infinite mercy of God, there is still an enormous amount of good among the Muslims, but still I think we as an ummah are really suffering a deep spiritual crisis. That matters much, much more than whether we have economic power, military power, nuclear weapons or anything physical.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Which Quranic verse attracted you the most to Islam? Is there one that is particularly close to your heart?
[Abdul Aziz Brown] Ya-Sin 33-35. It wasn’t until a few years after I became Muslim that I read Ya-Sin in Arabic, but since I learned those verses I have valued them very much as a reminder not to take even the most basic things like food for granted, and to appreciated the wonder of God’s creation wherever you see it
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What advice do you have for the young generation of Muslims in the UK?
[Abdul Aziz Brown] Don’t let anger overcome our community. We seem to spend too much time getting angry at other people, other Muslims and non-Muslims. The Prophet peace be upon him warned us against anger. We need to spend more time examining ourselves and improving ourselves.