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
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
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."
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
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
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.