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New Muslims: How to Make the Switch?

This week I met Mary, who came to Islam more than thirty years ago.

We chatted during a pause in my tour of the Markfield Institute, Leicester, which is run by The Islamic Foundation.

Mary and her Iraqi husband organize the centre’s program for those who are new to the faith.

It was clear straight away that careful consideration had gone into understanding the condition of people entering the fold of Islam, from the UK specifically. Care and hikma (wisdom) related to each level of the process of assimilating life with deen and applied to the courses and materials which Mary and the team put together.

It is strange – and unhelpful – to attempt to remove people from the environment or the era in which they live, to try to eradicate their own culture and experiences or to erase and reboot their entire system. Yet, radical change is hard to avoid for the revert. It can seem as if everything we did, saw – or even ate was wrong, wrong, wrong, before the eye of heart was opened to the reality of existence.

For example, I was a heavy drinker who liked to wear revealing shirts and relished flirtatious socializing. Behavior which is ‘extreme’ when seen through the modest, self controlled lens of Islamic life; the Islamic ‘adab’ behavioral guidance and manners, requires that such things are put aside. Not only for the good of society, but also to permit an advance towards a state which is pleasing to Allah Almighty.

So how to make the switch?

What can we, reverts, bring with us on the journey and what should we leave behind?

It is a sad fact that the internal and external revolutions we go through disturb our families and often alienate colleagues and old friends. A sudden change in our dress for example opens our whole faith community to accusations that Islam is a ‘cult’ rather than a religion, taken up freely, by the individual.

A cult is an interest followed (and policed) with exaggerated zeal. So you can say for example: “She always follows the latest fads”; “It was all the rage that season.” The ‘police’ in this case are the fashion industry hierarchy- and women (mostly) – who pressure one another to dress alike. The act of adhering slavishly to a trend is ‘cultish’.

Over coffee and biscuits, I asked Mary to describe what it had been like to become Muslim 30 years ago. At that time, Islam was invisible to the general public in the West. I presumed, it had naturally been harder to convert then as the peer support group would have been tiny, materials to read in English rare, and masjids closed to women.

Mary’s reply surprised me.

What a gift it can be, to get an answer you don’t expect. A reminder to approach each question with an open mind whilst having the mental patience to take in the answer, mull it over, give it weight and due consideration, especially should it challenge our own opinion.

Closeness to Allah

“I feel sorry for the people coming to Islam today,” she said in her Irish brogue.

‘It’s all so mixed up in politics now and headlines. The Ummah is in turmoil worldwide. Back then becoming Muslim was a far more spiritual experience. You had the time and the freedom to explore your relationship with God. Coming from a strong Irish Catholic background, that was something, understood by me. The search for that closeness.’


Closeness to Allah. I wondered at this lovely phrase. How seldom do we take time to consider this?

I have a friend in Gaza, Yasser, who always talks of ‘my Allah’ in relation to his salah, his dua’s and his akhira. Yasser’s appeal is made to the God of All things but first of all it is made to his personal Creator. The one with whom Yasser knows that through his constant appeals hears him and responds.

The word, ‘closeness,’ the idea of a free interaction and exploration of this incredible blessing, ‘being Muslim’ made me remember a 20 year old girl who lived with me for 6 months. A new Muslim too, one day she was introduced to a young man at the masjid who she said gushingly ‘knows a lot about the real Islam.’ Around the time of this meeting, she began to become cold and distant to those around her. One night she stumbled in the street cutting her leg quite badly. When she showed me, I fetched the medical alcohol to clean the bleeding, wound.

‘No way, alcohol is haram’ she screamed, pulling her leg away, almost hysterical. ‘No alcohol can touch me anywhere!’

I watched as this joyous cheeky girl lost her ‘joie de vivre’. As her expression became clouded, and her eyes, untrusting, always on the lookout for the fiqh failings of others.

Finally, one day, she collected her things and left. I wonder how she is now? I wonder if anyone has spoken to her about finding the path of ultimate love.

I wonder if she is being encouraged to explore the personal relationship between the Creator and His creation.

“Allah divided Mercy into one-hundred parts and He kept its ninety-nine parts with Him and sent down its one part on the earth, and because of that, this one single part, His creations are Merciful to each other, so that even the mare lifts up its hoofs away from its baby animal, lest it should trample on it”. (Sahih Bukhari, 8:29)

Let’s go back to Mary, the lady who taught me such a lot about my own journey – in so short a time.

As we talked she pointed, to her attractive, altogether British outfit; small, heeled shoes, tights, below-the-knee length skirt in a heavy material. Smart, tweed style jacket and above it all fluffy scarf and beret. Her clothes were fully modest, whilst in no way looking out of place on any British High Street or dinner party. Although perhaps a beret indoors might raise an eyebrow, still everyone would be too polite ask in case the reason for it was linked to medical treatment, perhaps.

We silently took in my outfit; full length flowing abayah and three tied hijab.

‘Converts today’ Mary said gently ‘can feel pressured into giving up their own culture. Like it is something shameful or ‘wrong’. That’s not the case. Each person should be allowed to explore their closeness with God in their own time, their own way, with what they have been given’.

I like the floaty ease of wearing the abayah and I enjoy wearing hijab. But there is certainly a debate to be held about the ‘alien-ness’ of clothing that has its roots traditionally in the Middle East rather than Northern Europe. Is it necessary to alienate so much of our society by looking so different from the way we used?

Meanwhile the battle for ‘ownership’ of the ‘right’ or the ‘real’ Islam goes on. The sectarianism and ignorance of our age grows with no sign of abating.

Meanwhile, believers like Mary, move quietly forward, day by day, seeking knowledge and guidance towards the straight path.

Wearing clothes that mean that their adab, their behavior and manners, not their outer garments mark them out as Muslims.

“O Allah! Create love among our hearts, set right our mutual relations, show us the paths of peace, remove us from darkness and [take us]  towards light, keep us away from all shameful deeds, be they external or internal,

Give us blessings in our ears, our eyes, our hearts, our spouses, our progeny, accept our repentance for surely You alone are the acceptor of repentance, the merciful;

Make us grateful for Your favors [Upon us], make us praise You for Your favors and complete them upon us”.

About Lauren Booth
Lauren Booth is a TV and radio presenter dedicated to creating narrative spaces for Muslims in the arts and online. She presents talks and lectures on the media, faith and politics at institutions around the world. Buy tickets HERE to watch Lauren perform her solo play ‘Accidentally Muslim’ at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe every day August 2019