The current number of English converts to Islam is estimated at around 3,000-5,000 and their number seems to be relatively increasing (McHugh, 1990:36). Converts range from local women who have adopted Islam to a greater or lesser extent of commitment upon marrying a Muslim (Ball, 1987: 21) to British intellectuals who are highly articulate in expressing their views on a variety of matters (Johnstone, 1981: 181). Most converts came to know Islam through personal contact with Muslims and this plays a significant role in their conversion. The proportion of men to women is almost in balance. Many are middle-aged people who lived through the hippie generation of the sixties and seventies. Disgusted with Western materialism, they came to Islam in search of spiritual enlightenment. Sufism plays a significant role in the conversion experiences of many people to Islam. Sufi groups seem to be attracting more converts in comparison with other Muslim groups in Britain. Such a Sufi group is that of the North Cyprus based Naqshbandiyyah sheikh, Sheikh Nazim, who regularly visits Britain.
English converts have been the topic of a recent research. The research was based on formal interviews with 70 converts; 50 males and 20 females. Their ages range from 17 to 66 years. The major objective of this research was to observe and record the conversion phenomenon of English converts to Islam and to provide the reasons underlying them. The research endeavoured to understand the psychological and sociological roots of conversion, to find out converts’ background, and the conversion processes they went through. For this end the whole lifespan of the converts was examined.
Religion of Upbringing
English converts seem to have come from families where there was no strong identification with any religion. They mostly come from families that did not belong to a church, or, were not active participants in a church. Most describe their parents’ connection with the church in terms of ceremonial attendance like weddings and funerals. When classified according to religion of upbringing 51(73%) of the 70 were Church of England; 12 (17%) were Catholics; 3 (4%) were Methodists; 4 (6%) were Jews. Significantly, 17 (24.3%) had parents religiously heterogeneous such as mother being Church of England and father Agnostic, or mother being Catholic and father Church of England. And 5 (7%) described one parent being atheist or agnostic. 36 (51.4%) said that they had ‘no’ or ‘weak’ religious upbringing. 20 (28.6%) answered ‘normal’ while only 14 (20%) described it as ‘strong’.
Religious Affiliation Prior to Conversion
Converts were quite explicit concerning their general dissatisfaction with their previous religious beliefs. Only 8 (11%) mentioned that they were practising their religion of origin prior to conversion. 32 (46%) reported being nominal, weak or disillusioned with their old religion. 16 (23%) had no religion or were not interested in religion at all. And 14 (20%) were involved with a religious movement, such as Hare Krishna and Divine Light Mission, prior to conversion. As for ‘belief in God’, 58 (83%) reported that they believed in God, 9 (13%) lost their belief in God, while 3 (4%) were not sure if they believed or not.
As the above figures illustrate, it is interesting that for a significant number of converts’ rejection of the faith of their parents or culture did not imply a rejection of religion in general or loss of belief in God. 14 (20%) proceeded to explore other religious alternatives following their initial rejection of a particular faith. As for religious affiliations and belief in God prior to conversion, and what conversion meant for these people in terms of these areas, they may be classified into three groups:
1) Those who had no religious commitment for a long time or described themselves as nominal in their religion of origin. People who fall into this group form the vast majority (75%). For them conversion meant a religious intensification, not through the religion of childhood, but through a different religion.
2) Those who described themselves as religious for a long period of time, but became disillusioned later on and were on the brink of losing their belief in their religion prior to conversion. Around 12% fall into this group.
3) Those who lost belief in God after rejecting their religion. For them, conversion meant rediscovering belief in God and returning to the way of God. Around 13% fall into this category.
Wilson (1976: 19-21), in discussing the effects of secularization on modern society illustrates how moral control by religion gave way to modern society’s mechanical and bureaucratic devices, and how everyday life has been demoralized as human involvement in many areas of activity was replaced by technical controls. Arguing the decreasing role of the church in England, Wilson asserts that ‘people have what might be called an ‘office’ conception of the Church, a service facility that is well distributed over the land area of the country to be available when needed.’ The converts’ accounts confirm that over-secularization led them to seek an alternative way of life. They believe that Islam gave them a practical means of getting closer to God living a good life, and getting peace in ‘this secular environment’. They became interested in Islam in the first place because they felt that Islam has strong clear values on things they feel concerned about, not just the abuse of environment, but even things like homosexuality. Their revolt is not always directed against religious beliefs but against certain practices legitimized by Christianity and its Church. While giving their accounts on their previous life, the converts emphasized that they felt a need for a religion whereby they could orient their everyday life and they preferred Islam because it is a complete way of life not a compartmentalized religion confined to certain areas, as Sarah pointed out: ‘As an ex-Christian I now see Christianity as just a religion, but Islam, as I understand, is the way you live. It is a different approach. For instance, you can be a Christian and you can do almost everything, and you can say you are a Christian happily. But if you are Muslim, it is different, you are restricted in that matter.’
They felt that something was missing, and that was the influence of religion in their lives. Before coming to Islam they started criticising the existing religion and its culture and began having certain affinities and world views closer to that of Islam which eventually made a possible correlation between their views and Islam.
Some of those who were involved or became interested in new religions were in search of an alternative to the secular way of life with a strong reaction to the materialistic and secular perspective of the society. Garry, for example, became a Zen-Buddhist in a university when he came to believe that spirituality was lacking in the teaching system. Yet Garry found Zen-Buddhism monastic, not encompassing the social dimension of life. He said: ‘It could answer personal questions, but it couldn’t answer global questions.’
Contrary to the assumption that most of the people who join an alien religion or so-called new religious movement are dropouts from society, converts to Islam can in no way be seen as such. On the contrary, their educational and work careers are quite normal. They achieved significantly higher levels of education than those typical for their population as a whole. 60 percent had at least a bachelor’s degree. Indeed, 20 percent had advanced graduate degrees. Converts to Islam tend to come from the middle class section of the society. 46 (66%) associated themselves with the middle class, while 24 (34%) identified with the working class. They seem to have a wide range of occupations which vary from taxi drivers to university lecturers. As for marital status, 40 people were single at the time of conversion. 23 were married or engaged (14 to Muslims, and 9 to non-Muslims), and 7 were divorcees.
Emotional and Cognitive Concerns A significant number of the testimonials covered accounts on troubled lives before entrance into Islam. The pre-conversion life of nearly half of the converts (48.6%) was judged to contain emotional distress. For them this period of their lives seems to have led them to look for something. For one fifth of the sample the emotional turmoil that characterized their descriptions of their childhood and adolescence was also apparent in the immediate antecedents to the conversion experience. Their unhappiness was, in most cases, caused by parental marriages which either ended up in divorce or nearly broke up, and they described it as the major trauma of their lives. 13 (18.6%) divorced or had a broken relationship before conversion and this caused long-term emotional turmoil and anxiety. Some converts said that they were grateful to God to have experienced such distressful incidents because it was these events that sparked them into thinking about religion.
The conversion experience may be related to emotional turmoil or personal distress experienced in the immediate preconversion period. However, the accounts of the converts to Islam suggest that conversions did not occur as a direct result of the emotional turmoil or personal distress, although 34 (48.6%) reported emotional distress prior to conversion. It may be associated with conversion, but it is not necessarily a predisposing condition. In the preconvert there may be an unconscious conflict, and a psychological set, but these factors, alone, in many cases, are not enough. There must be a current force which lights the fuse. That fuse took the form of cognitive and existential questions. The course that the pre-conversion period takes in many cases is that the emotional turmoil or personal distress of the individual leads him to a stage where he develops cognitive concerns.
Cognitive quest, for the converts to Islam, contained concerns or preoccupation with political, social, and moral issues, and religious doubts. Existential concerns cover questions like ‘What is the meaning and purpose of my life?’, ‘How does one deal with the fact that he is going to die?’, and ‘What should one do about his shortcomings?’. 33 (47.1%) reported preoccupation with cognitive concerns. They reported feelings of aimlessness, lack of purpose or direction and meaning, and of incompleteness, which mainly arose out of cognitive and existential concerns. These people believe that the cognitive problems that used to bother them are met by conversion to Islam because it offered them a complete philosophy of life; it proclaimed the responsibility of man, a future life, and a day of judgement. It answered their questions like ‘What is man’s place in the universe?’, and ‘What is his relationship with the world around him.’ Cognitive quests also revealed ambiguities in one’s belief system. These ambiguities were anchored during adolescence, but revived later in life when one became actively involved in life situations and felt an urge to have a faith, or a need to return to religion. Until this stage of their life these people seemed not to have bothered about religion, but at this stage when these needs became more manifest they re-questioned their previous beliefs and as a result they either felt confused or they decided to give them up entirely. The ambiguities with regard to their previous religious beliefs, namely Christianity, centred around some basic concepts of Christianity and its theological implications such as Trinity, Jesus being the Son of God, original sin, atonement theory, and the intercession of the clergy. Some criticisms also focused on perceived hypocrisy in mainstream churches and their incapacity to lead the people in moral issues.
(to be continued)
BALL, H. (1987) Why British Women Embrace Islam?, Leicester: Muslim Youth Educational Council.
JOHNSTONE, P. (1981) ‘Christians and Muslims in Britain’, Islamochristiana, No.7, pp.67-99.
MCHUGH, F. (1990) ‘Allah’s English Daughters’, Telegraph Weekend Magazine, 31 March, pp.34-S.
WILSON, B. (1976) Contemporary Transformation of Religion, Oxford: Clerandon.
English Converts to Islam
- By A. Kose
- Category: Issue 7 (July - September 1994)
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