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 SHEDS ITS IMAGE AS PURELY EASTERN RELIGION MUSLIMS IN
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outdated image as a purely Eastern religion.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
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
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
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
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
"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'."
HOLIDAY WAS THE TURNING POINT THE CONVERT
"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
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."
RADICAL DECISION TO FOLLOW NEW PATH PREJUDICE
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