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16 November 2018 
 

Make me a Muslim –Generalising the issue of conversion

 

Issue 5 - March 2013

The recent production of the BBC ‘Make Me a Muslim’, aired on BBC3 in February, showed the difficulties converts to Islam have to endure in the process of embracing their new-found faith. The documentary was a lifelong wish of its producer and director, Emily Hughes. The growing numbers of young British women converting to Islam fascinated her. So she set out to find out why girls are giving up partying, drinking, and the freedom of wearing whatever they want for ‘a religious based lifestyle’. However for Emily, as for many other non-Muslims, the fascination of women converting to Islam lies in their fundamental decision to take up hijab and the Islamic dress code. There is an underlying assumption that somehow the way to make someone Muslim is to convince them to cover up. While the dress code is of fundamental importance in Islam it is not the starting point. The first stage of the journey towards Islam is at a spiritual level with a desire to find answers to theological questions as well as philosophical ones and to explore a worldview with which one can better identify. The dress code is only the second stage of the process of identification with the new found faith. Wearing the Islamic dress marks the beginning of the third stage which is no less arduous than the previous ones. Converts change their religion, their way of life and their culture; some even leave their families and friends. Human beings are creatures of habit and are resistant to change. If changes occur in someone’s life, especially in something as profound as religion, one might suddenly find oneself considered an outcast by the same people with whom one has lived and loved. Some converts manage to keep their connection with their families intact and succeed in making them accept their conversion. However there are many cases where in order to be free to perform their new religious duties, converts have had to leave their families and friends behind. In such cases the new life brings anxiety and anger for their families who may develop some form of hatred towards the religion itself. I have come across many converts who have tried to introduce a better understanding of Islam to their families and friends. Whilst this would seem a natural consequence of embracing a new faith it is not always easy to talk to family members. A mother whose daughter has become Muslim may be distraught at seeing her dream of a traditional church wedding evaporate. Some minds are imprisoned inside the limitations of societal expectations making it difficult for people to challenge these cultural boundaries. In addition to all the above, new converts have to integrate into their new correligionist communities, which sometimes proves less straightforward than it seems since each community has its own particularities. Communities tend to form their groups based on the commonality of their culture, language or religious affiliations. Sometimes they are so tight that converts find it difficult to break into these circles. Some converts try to form their own small communities away from the existing ones but in doing so risk further isolation from the mainstream. While Islam with its practices and theology fulfils the spiritual and personal needs of the newcomer, the requirement for a healthy social life demands a degree of interaction with the larger community and this cannot be built overnight. In cases where rejection from families and friends is an issue, the importance of the adoptive community in fulfilling this social fuction acquires great importance. In the process of embracing a new faith converts face many questions and issues. Textual and theoretical knowledge should be obtained to form the basis of an informed choice rather than accepting popular culture and customs. There is a pressing need for step by step guidelines to deal with these issues and for communities to be educated to deal with ‘newcomers’ in a culturally aware and tactful way. The Prophet(s) promised great rewards for those who help people to become Muslims. Indeed he is reported to have said: “Whoever becomes a cause for a man‘s converting to Islam is guaranteed entry into Paradise.” Upon entering the fold of Islam purely for the pleasure of God, all previous sins are forgiven and one starts with a clean slate. In response to a person who in accepting Islam had placed a condition upon the Prophet that God should forgive his sins, the Prophet said: “Do you not know that accepting Islam destroys all sins which come before it? “ The person who genuinely embraces Islam does so to please God. H/her decision might be inspired by many aspects of the religion, including its cultural and popular expressions. But it is doubtful that the western fascination with covering up is in itself a sufficient reason for the soaring rate of conversions to Islam. • ... read more