Article from "The Times"

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From "The Times", London. November 10, 1993.
Lucy Berrington discovers that three faiths share
a great deal and have much to offer each other


Islam is winning converts in the industrial world because of its ability to adapt to Western life and shed its outdated image as a purely Eastern religion. That is the conclusion of academics studying the rise of Islam in the West.

Dr Graham Speake, of the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, says Islam is not an East-West issue. "That suggests an 'us and them' attitude, which in these days of integrated society is no longer really applicable. Islam with Judaism and Christianity, is one of the great monotheistic faiths. They all share a great deal and have a lot to offer each other.

"Those of us who believe in any one of the three have come to realise that they are all equally valid and equally to be valued. So many of us have members of another faith living next door."

Asaf Hussein, tutor in race education at the Open University, says Islam gives westerners a rare voice about the problems in their own society: "If they want a faith which gives them a participatory and active role, the choice is Islam. It places a very strong emphasis on social justice and empowers westerners to say: 'This is not correct'." Converts highlight the applicability of Islam. Nouria, 36 who converted in 1974, says: "It is always considered to be a religion of the Third World, of brown people, of Arabs. But Islam encourages the races to unite by allowing for the differences in culture: the food, the customs, the different ways of wearing Islamic dress. Malaysians are very quiet and delicate in their movements; Nigerians can be very loud and relaxed."

Islam's adaptability is most obvious in the varieties of Muslim dress. At a recent British conference for new Muslims there was only one chador in sight. A woman from rural Ireland wore a long sweater and a wool hat, the English had kept their Laura Ashley skirts and silk scarves Scots appeared in kilts and baggy tartan trousers. There was a range of accents to match.

"The idea now is for new Muslims to realise that they don't have to renounce their Englishness, or whatever they are," Maimuna, 39, a Londoner who converted in the early seventies, says.

She contrasts the new emphasis on the flexibility of Islam with the fever-pitch conformity of the previous generation. "I have never met any born Muslim women who have said, 'I want to be downtrodden.' But some of the very early converts did, they wanted to be martyrs.

"Some other groups were very rigid and sincere with a strict rule book. They didn't believe in medicine or registration of marriage or putting the heating on in winter. They have mellowed now; none of them kept that pace of freneticness."

Many westerners are initially attracted by aspects of Islamic culture; they cite the design of the mosques, the call to prayer and the beauty of the Arabic languages.

"Arabic is very musical, a wonderful language for expressing spiritual things," Emira Topham says. "Saying 'Praise be to God' is much nicer in Arabic than English. I don't think you can Anglicise everything." But new Muslims are selective. As far as possible they incorporate Islam into their own cultural identities, protecting the faith against the non-islamic features of established Muslim communities.

"At first for a lot of British people there is a great temptation to be pseudo-Arab or pseudo-Pakistani because the ethnic presence is so strong," Rose Kendrick, a religious education teacher and author, says. "But there's a big danger that they will interpret their culture as being Islamic." Most converts are politically non-confrontational.

"In England you get side-tracked by it all, race relations, Hezbollah, Khomeini," Maimuna says. "I used to wear my scarf in the Arab way and my colleagues found it frightening. They thought it meant hijacking and fundamentalism and 'death to Rushdie'."


"When I had my first baby people said I was tying myself down, but I didn't see it like that. For me it was liberating; one of the major life decisions was out of the way. Conversion was the same.

Emira (formerly Emma) Topham converted to Islam last month after being convinced by its emphasis on family values. Aged 26, she lives with her husband, three sons and five stepchildren in Swindon, Wiltshire. She was introduced to Islam in 1988 on a two-week trip to Morocco, at the end of the first year of a degree course in fine art.

Islamic art captivated her: "It was very strong and fresh, not just a superficial covering. She acquired some Muslim hosts and appreciated their tolerance, being bald and dressed in skimpy shorts.

The holiday was a turning point, academically and spiritually. Emira's first year at college had coincided with a personal crisis brought on by unsettled childhood, during which she was transferred between countries, parents and grandparents. She arrived at college unprepared for coping alone, consumed with anger and unable to paint.

At the end of the first year she had no money, nowhere to live and was about to be kicked off her course. "I decided my relationship with my boy friend was based purely on sex and ended it by shaving off my hair. I was quite suicidal. The only thing that kept the lid on that was a lot of hashish and alcohol. I was thinking, what is the meaning of my life, what is the point?

She returned to college from Morocco inspired by Islamic art and the following February she met her future husband, Rasjid Topham, a musician and artist. He was 41, divorced with five children and had converted to Islam in 1973. Emira became pregnant, started painting again and researched a thesis on North African pattern.

Her son Lieth was born in November and Emira took her degree the following summer. She and Rasjid married but he never suggested that she convert; his own faith had taken a battering during the breakdown of his first marriage.

Family life was the deciding factor for Emira, who welcomed the value that Islam places on motherhood. She formally converted last month at the mosque in Regents Park, London, a process that "married up the inside and outside" and also benefited her family. "It changed something very positively for me and Rasjid. It creates more of a unity and makes it easier to establish Islamic guidelines in the home."

Wearing the hijab (scarf) brought "tremendous freedom: she compares it to shaving off her hair. "When you're bald people who would have been interested in you will be interested anyway. You feel more vulnerable but more open, and nicer to people."

Emira had dabbled with Christianity. She attended a convent school---"I found its lack of warmth extraordinary"---and church with her Protestant grandparents. Neither enhanced her self-respect in the way that Islam has: "As a Muslim you stand before God rather than a priest. Everyone is equal."


Izzat Heath, 27, was an evangelical Christian studying at Birmingham Polytechnic before she converted to Islam. "Back then I believed without questioning the sources," she said. "I once tried to convert a Muslim to Christianity and it backfired on me."

Mrs Heath, who lives in Birmingham with her Pakistani husband and one- year-old son Muhammad said she was attracted by the "expansiveness" of Islam, which radically altered her concept of religion. "Islam catered for my suspicion that existence and God were so much bigger than Christians had painted them," she said.

"There is no religion and non-religion; everyone is following a path or way of life. Muslims follow a sunna, the example of the prophet and his companions. Everybody follows a sunna. Look at people who follow pop groups. They read the fan magazines, they dress the same."

"To marginalise people by saying 'You're religious and you do these funny things' is not owning up to what you do. The problem is that people and their opinions tend to be measured by the liberal democratic yardstick which claims to be the norm."

"Lots of people, including Muslims, seem to fall wide of that mark and then get labelled fundamentalist. I call some people fundamentalist liberals because they will not shift. I'm not suggesting that they should shift, just that they could recognise that they have a position as well."

Like most converts, Mrs Heath says finding Islam was less a personal revolution than a formal recognition of her natural self. 

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