London, Asharq Al-Awsat- Nobody can argue that there has been an unprecedented boom in the number of people converting to Islam in Europe and the US, and Islam today is reportedly the fastest growing religion in the world. Asharq Al-Awsat decided to speak with a number of western converts to Islam to find out more about this phenomenon, especially in this day and age when news of Islam in the media is more likely to be negative than positive.
There is a long history of western converts to Islam, from intellectual figures like Marmaduke Pickthall who went on to translate the Holy Quran, to military figures like Ottoman admiral Uluj Ali [born Giovanni Dionigi Galeni] and French-born Egyptian army commander Suleiman Pasha [born Joseph Anthelme Seve] whose great-granddaughter was Queen Nazil of Egypt, mother of King Farouk, to more recent figures like American boxer Muhammad Ali [born Cassius Clay], and British musician Yusuf Islam [Cat Stevens].
Islam is widely considered to be the Europe's fastest growing religion, thanks to immigration and above average birth rates. According to statistics, the UK reportedly has a Muslim population of 2.4 million, which is equivalent to around 3.8 percent of the population. The 2001 UK census showed that one third of the Muslim population of the UK were under 16, which was the highest proportion of any group. The Muslim population of the UK has multiplied 10 times faster than the rest of society, according to research by the Office for National Statistics, while in the same period the number of Christians in the UK fell by more than 2 million. There are large Turkish, Iranian, Iraqi, Arab and Pakistani Muslim communities within the UK.
Asharq Al-Awsat spoke with four western converts to Islam, looking at the reasons behind their conversion, their views of Islam prior to conversion and today, as well as how their families and society in general reacted to this.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What was your first experience with Islam and Muslims? At what point did you begin to consider becoming a Muslim?
[Allison Cooper] I had organized a residential for young people with my work I do for the voluntary services council in Barnet north London. 3 members of the group were Muslim and it had been organized for their mum to come along on the residential to help me lead the trip away. Throughout the time away I started to talk to the mother about Islam and I had a lot of questions about the dress code, food, prayers etc. Since that moment I started to research into the faith, I stayed in touch with the family and they were happy to answer any of my questions – even the silly ones!
I had been invited around for a meal during Ramadan. And then many meals after that, where one was lunch and my friend Amreena prayed Zuhr prayer out loud which was amazing to hear the recitation of the Quran in which she recited Surah Al Kafiroon and Surah Iklas – which had really stuck in my head.
During this point I did not even consider becoming a Muslim I was just so interested in their faith and way of life, as I has so many misconceptions about the faith and I was just so amazed at how “normal” they were!
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What attracted you the most to the religion?
[Allison Cooper] That it was a way of life, all encompassing every part. Also that you had to believe in Jesus and previous scriptures, before my reversion I was a Christian and I had studied Christian theology at 6th form college. Also that it was very black and white and gave me answers for everything and very logical.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Was there anyone in particular who influenced your decision to become a Muslim or encouraged you to convert?
[Allison Cooper] My friend and colleague from the residential and her family were a huge support in answering my questions and helping me to understand the faith. Through prayer and guidance from Allah 4 months ago I took my shahadah. It was after a meal with my Amreena’s family and Amreena and I were talking afterwards on the sofa and I was saying how I believed in everything I had been researching, Amreena replied “well what are you waiting for!” it was then I took my shahadah.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What kind of literature if any did you read to learn about Islam?
[Allison Cooper] Various books, the Islam Guide, a translation of the Quran in English, basic guide to beliefs in Islam. I researched loads on the internet. Amreena’s husband led many circles at their house on Islam for beginners. I also booked onto a course an Introduction to Islam which was held in East London.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What were your thoughts on Muslims and Islam before converting?
[Allison Cooper] I was very ignorant in regards to Muslims and Islam. I had been bought up in a very traditional white English household. Where it was taught to me that Islam is only for the people who live in the East. Also that Muslims were terrorists etc. I felt because of their dress and what I was used to that they were strange, secretive and that I would not dare to talk them!
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Could you describe the day you became a Muslim? Do you remember the day and time?
[Allison Cooper] Yes! 20th February 2010 about 10pm on Amreena’s sofa. Before then I had started to live my life for Allah and started to think, talk and act like a Muslim, but I was scared of taking my shahadah as was afraid of letting certain things go and all the different rules and regulations. After a great lamb biriani meal we were chatting on the sofa and I explained I was scared about the rules etc and Amreena responded not to focus on the rules and regulations but the faith and belief in One God Allah, and asked what I was waiting for. It was then I took my shahadah she recited it and I responded.
I felt such a huge relief throughout as soon as I started to recite those words, a weight had been lifted and I had this drive and determination in me, and everything had become clear with my purpose in life and why I was here on Earth.
Many people commented after I had taken my shahadah that a light was shining from me and a few called me Noori.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What was the general reaction from your family and friends to your conversion? Were they supportive or non-supportive?
[Allison Cooper] Very mixed indeed. My closest friends have been the most supportive, of course worried at first but once I answered their questions they were fine and very supportive. Unfortunately a lot are not in my life anymore, quite horrible reactions. But unfortunately that is their misconceptions and of course the media does not help. The most stupid reaction I had and will always remember was “but you are white you can’t be a Muslim!” I think that sums up the ignorant people I used to be friends with!
My brother is very supportive and mum and dad have been too, I don’t think they understand all of it very well, but we are in touch a lot more and they are happy to see that I am happy.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] As an English convert, have you ever felt that you were subjected to any kind of discrimination from other Muslims or non-Muslims?
[Allison Cooper] No discrimination from other Muslims, I do get asked a lot where I am from and as soon as they here my English accent some are surprised! But other Muslims have enjoyed listening to my story and have always made me feel very welcome at the Masjid in Hendon.
Non Muslims at work have been very accepting to my reversion and I have sensed no change at all, in fact they are asking my opinion more on matters that come up through work. I get the sense that most non Muslims think I have either married a Muslim and so therefore reverted or gone a bit crazy! But through my work and everything I do in my actions and in my community show that I have changed for the better and slowly people have become very accepting of my belief in Islam.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Since becoming a Muslim what has been your view of the Muslim Ummah in general?
[Allison Cooper] I have been in awe of the Muslim Ummah, the Muslim community is built on the basis of Islamic identity and I have been welcomed with open arms, such support and help. It has been overwhelming and it is amazing to be a part of a family 1.5 billion strong.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Which Quranic verse attracted you the most to Islam? Is there one that is particularly close to your heart?
The verse would be Quran 112:1-4
Say: He is Allah, the One and Only!
Allah, the Eternal, Absolute;
He begetteth not nor is He begotten.
And there is none like unto Him.
It is my favorite Surah from the Quran because it proclaims the Oneness and Absolute nature of Divine Essence, it’s a short surah but is so powerful and sums up Islam.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What advice do you have for the young generation of Muslims in the UK?
[Allison Cooper] My work has always involved young people and even more so now that I also work for a Muslim Charity promoting the inclusion of disabled young people, I very much feel it is so important that children and young people have a voice. My advice to young Muslims is to liberate themselves from pessimism and despair and assume innocence and goodness in fellow Muslims.
It is important to understand that no one but Allah knows what goes on in the innermost depths of a person. Therefore we are obliged to judge people in accordance with what appears to us. If a person, for instance, confesses that "there is no god but Allah, and that Muhammad is His Messenger," we should treat him as a Muslim.
We need more than ever before, to study and follow the exemplary pattern that the Prophet has set for us. This is my advice for the enthusiastic and sincere young Muslims. All this is found in the following words of Prophet Shuayb as revealed in the Quran:
I only desire [your] betterment to the best of my power: and my success [in my task] can only come from Allah. In Him I trust, and unto Him I look.
Trust in Allah, always remember Allah, pray and read the Quran. Support and always communicate with each other and use dawah at every opportunity when meeting non Muslims. For I am constantly reminded if Amreena had not been at that residential I went on and was not happy to answer my questions I may have continued with my misconception of Islam and Muslims.