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NewsID : 68169
Date of publication : 2/7/2015 12:33:46 PM
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WHY I CHOSE ISLAM

Traversing the path of conversion from one faith to another is particular to each individual. Julia Khadija Lafene reveals the reasons she chose to embrace Islam


“You are a Muslim! MashaAllah!Which country do you come from?” This is the reaction of most born Muslims to a convert (or ‘revert’) such as myself. They are surprised, and intrigued. Conversion is a huge event in anyone’s life. It can turn your life upside down and inside out. You may face lack of understanding, if not downright hostility, not only from your own family and community, but also from some Muslims. It never enters their heads that a European or African could be a Muslim, only Arabs and Asians. Converts have often had to form their own groups because they feel rejected or neglected by the born Muslim communities. This did not happen to me, because I am white, not black or Asian. Regrettably there is an element of racism or tribalism involved here, as well as great ignorance of the extraordinary history of the spread of the Prophetic mission to include ALL races and cultures within its all encompassing remit. So with all these difficulties why and how do people take this huge leap? I believe everyone’s journey to Islam is different, although there may be some features in common, such as knowledge of Muslim countries, being influenced by a personal relationship with a Muslim, the study of various religious paths and discontent with one’s present state, or religious affiliation. Much research has been done on this at universities and departments of Islamic studies, for example by Leon Moosawi of Lancaster University. My reasons for converting are personal but perhaps not unique. However I cannot claim to speak for other converts. As I was born in India, I already knew Muslims and people from religions other than Christianity from my childhood: we had household servants who cared for us very lovingly, so I had no pre-conceived prejudices against other races and cultures. The memory of India remained like a warm glow in my heart. Back in the UK, I was brought up a Christian but became agnostic as I grew up, and for a long period did not practise any religion. I was unable to accept Christian theology though I loved and respected Jesus as a healer and teacher. Why, I asked, should God send a ‘son’ and sacrifice him to save human beings from their wrongdoing? Surely we should be responsible for our own actions? So the first and most important reason for my conversion was the straightforward tawhidi (unity of God) message of Islam: one God, the source of all. From him we come and to him we return. Also, because of depictions of God and Jesus as men, there was a tendency in Christianity to associate God with maleness. It is a pity we have not got a special pronoun to refer to a being who transcends gender, time and physicality. When teaching in Northern Nigeria, which is a mainly Muslim society, I met and married a Nigerian practising Muslim who never exerted any pressure on me to convert. I developed an ambivalent attitude because the practices I observed were so unjust, especially towards women. For example, people used to divorce their wives in one go, by saying ‘I divorce you three times’; men used to have a lot of freedom, especially sexual, whereas women were expected to be chaste stay-at-home housewives. However I knew in my heart that these practices were a distortion of the correct rules. After the death of my husband, I was again put off conversion by the way the inheritance was denied me. I felt if I can marry a Muslim, why can I not inherit? At the time I did not understand different aspects of Shari’ah (Islamic law) and different schools of law. On returning to the UK with my children, I decided I needed a spiritual dimension to my life and for a time returned to the Anglican Christian church, but I did not really accept the theology. In my fifties I met a family from Iran; when they discovered I had been married to a Muslim, and knew something about Islam, we began to have discussions. They gave me books and also explained the lives of the great women of Islam: Hazrat Khadija, Aisha, Fatima and Zainab. This was a real turning point for me. I realised that however bad the behaviour of some Muslims, original Islam taught honour and respect for women, and gave them equal rights to men, though slightly different duties. So my second main reason for conversion was the realisation that cultural practices did not represent true Islam, which enjoins respect, honour, purity and modesty for both sexes. When someone sincerely seeks guidance, God will respond, not always in the same way. My third and perhaps most important reason for conversion was thirst for a spiritual path which would add meaning to my life. But as he says to us in the Holy Qur’an: “Do men imagine that they’ll be left alone (at ease) on saying, ‘we believe’ and will not be tested?”(29:2) My test started immediately and has never stopped from that momentous day 22 years ago. When I informed my teenage children, I told them I would not expect them to convert – it was their choice, but I felt distanced from them. My family were not hostile, but rather puzzled. One cousin said, ‘How can you convert to a religion which proposed the murder of Salman Rushdie?’ My brother said,’ Please don’t wear black or change your name!’ So their reaction was natural but somewhat stereotypical. The people who understood me best were my Christian sister and brother-in-law, though I had to explain to them that I had not rejected Jesus, only the theology surrounding him. There were many other tests. Some of the restrictions were very trying for me. Wearing the hijab was a great challenge at college where some people thought I had become a ‘fundamentalist’. I had to show them by my attitude and behaviour that this was not the case. But it was the disagreements among Muslims that pained me most. At Arabic class, I was shocked at the sectarian divisions which emerged and the ignorance about each other’s practices. Some people made it their business to tell me what I should/should not do, to the extent of advising me to reject my own family. Others welcomed me and asked me to speak in public, a test in itself, as a convert seemed to be expected to be more pious! Eventually I reached a stage where I felt that I must either seek counsel ling or leave – but how could I turn back after such a life-changing step? A gentleman at a London mosque put me in touch with a Muslim counsellor who helped me to understand what was going on: I realised that God was taking me through all this to make me more self-aware so that I could shed the veils blocking out the eternal Light. I had fallen into the trap of thinking that I must be like the born Muslims I had met to be a good Muslim, which is not the case. There are plenty of aspects of my English culture which are compatible with Islam, and which I could still practice. I only had to give up what would harm me. For example the correct aadaab (manners) between men and women avoids the mixed messages so prevalent in modern society. I found a community which is non-sectarian and consists of all races and cultures. What we have in common is our love for God, his Messengers, Prophets, Imams and Saints and their teachings, which we try to follow in a way appropriate for our time. To conclude, the factors that led me to convert were dissatisfaction with Christian theology, the strong desire for a spiritual path and anchor, and for justice and purity in society. What enabled me to remain a Muslim was discovery of the true teachings of Islam which enabled me to reconcile these eternal truths with modern life behind all the disagreements and prejudices I encountered.


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