The Times - Lucy Berrington 

Unprecedented numbers of British people, nearly all of them women, are converting to Islam at a time of deep divisions within the Anglican and Catholic churches.

The rate of conversions has prompted predictions that Islam will rapidly become an important religious force in this country. "Within the next 20 years, the number of British converts will equal or overtake the immigrant Muslim community that brought the faith here," says Rose Kendrick, a religious education teacher at a Hull comprehensive and the author of a textbook guide to the Koran.

She says: "Islam is as much a world faith as Roman Catholicism. No one nationality claims it as its own." Islam is also spreading fast on the Continent and in America.

The surge in conversions to Islam has taken place despite the negative image of the faith in the Western press. Indeed, the pace of conversions has accelerated since publicity over the Salman Rushdie affair, the Gulf war and the plight of Muslims in Bosnia. It is even more ironic that most British converts should be women, given the widespread view in the West that Islam treats women poorly. In the United States, women converts out- number men by four to one, and in Britain they make up the bulk of the estimated 10,000 to 20,000 converts, forming part of a Muslim community of 1 to 1.5 million. Many of Britain's "new Muslims" are from middle-class backgrounds. They include Matthew Wilkinson, a former head boy of Eton who went on to Cambridge, and a son and daughter of Lord Justice Scott, the judge heading the arms-to-Iraq enquiry.

A small-scale survey by the Islamic Foundation in Leicester suggests that most converts are aged 30 to 50. Younger Muslims point to many conversions among students and highlight the intellectual thrust of Islam.

"Muhammad said, `The light of Islam will rise in the West' and I think that's what's happening in our day," says Aliya Haeri, an American-born psychologist who converted 15 years ago. She is a consultant to the Zahra Trust, a charity publishing spiritual literature, and is one of Britain's prominent Islamic speakers. She adds: "Western converts are coming to Islam with fresh eyes, without all the habits of the East, avoiding much of what is culturally wrong. The purest tradition is finding itself strongest in the West."

Some say the conversions are prompted by the rise of comparative religious education. The British media, offering what Muslims describe as a relentless bad press on all things Islamic, is also said to have helped. Westerners despairing of their own society---rising crime, family breakdown, drugs and alcoholism---have come to admire the discipline and security of Islam.

Many converts are former Christians, disillusioned by the uncertainty of the church and unhappy with the concept of the Trinity and the deification of Jesus. Others are self-confessed idealists who did not go looking for religion but found an irresistible appeal in Sufi mysticism, which they describe as "the pearl within the shell of Islam".

Some come to Islam through marriage, which partly explains the imbalance in the sex ratio of converts. It is easier for British women to meet Pakistani or Bangladeshi men than vice versa.

The idealism of the new Muslims is part of the inspiration to "reverts", people born into immigrant Muslim families who are questioning the religious validity of their own lifestyles and re-examining their faith. The formal process of conversion is simple. The would-be Muslim showers, dresses in clean clothes, gathers some witnesses and says the Shahada, the testimony to God. But embracing Islam is not without problems. According to Batool Toma, 38, an Irish education officer for the Islamic Foundation who converted 14 years ago, converts often have to cope with initial isolation from their families, "who see conversion as a rejection and feel resentful. There's a lot of fear and apprehension." She also cites racist abuse which is particularly aimed at women, most of whom are marked out by the hijab (scarf). "Such a small piece of cloth can cause so much antagonism and aggression. You are immediately characterised as not British." A quarter of the calls to the Muslim Women's Helpline in London come from converts.

The new Muslims emphasise that the benefits of Islam far outweigh its drawbacks, and are at pains to address misconceptions about their faith. They say it is too often judged on its excesses, which are usually of political origin and unjustified by the Koran.

Converts are active in the Muslim Women's Institute, a central body established in 1990. Its aims include increasing women's political awareness and challenging the misconceptions of Western observers and the immigrant community about the rightful status of women in Islam.