Muslim in the Family
Taking Shahadah - the statement of faith, whereby a convert
becomes a Muslim - is a very simple process. There's none of the
theatricality of a total immersion baptism or some of the other
rites of initiation favoured by other faiths. Don't bother taking
the video recorder along. It will be over before you've even got
the lens cap off.
Quite simply, in the company of two Muslim witnesses, converts
just have to make the declaration that there is only one God,
Allah, who created the universe, and that Muhammad (PBUH) is his
final messenger on earth. And that’s it. End of story. Finito.
Except, of course, that for most converts, taking Shahadah is only
the start of the story. Or rather, it's the end of one chapter and
the beginning of another.
On the one hand, it's a totally life-changing experience - a
spiritual car wash, from which you emerge with all sins expunged
and the purpose of your life clear. On the other hand, it's still
you. A clean Ford Mondeo is still a Ford Mondeo.
That's the bit that families and, to be fair, some converts have
difficulty accepting. Many of them are in a rush to change their
names, grow a beard (the men, that is), change their clothes and
throw themselves into observation of Islam's rituals of prayer and
fasting. Well, fine. Nothing wrong with any of that. It's all
recommended in the Qur'an. But not all of it is totally necessary
to the faith, and the speed of change can sometimes be bewildering
for the convert's non-Muslim family members. Not only might they
be confused by this new-found religious zeal, but they might
actually be offended by it.
"Why do you have to change your name for an Arabic one?
What's wrong with the one we gave you?"
"What's with the funny clothes?"
"Why do you suddenly have to wear a headscarf, when half the
Asian Muslims I see don't wear one?"
"If you spend all your time at the mosque, you're going to be
brainwashed. I'm not having a suicide bomber in my family."
And so on.
In many respects, such questioning is healthy. Although non-Muslim
family members often reveal a lack of understanding of the faith,
they do at least make sure that converts don't make the change
lightly. They also show that new Muslims have some explaining to
do. And in the present climate, that can only be a good thing.
When so many of the images of Islam we see are coloured by
ignorance or fear, it can only be positive for new Muslims to have
to explain to their families:
"No, Mum, Islam's not like that. I'm not joining al Qaeda.."
"Islam is a religion of peace, not violence, and those who
commit atrocities in its name commit not only murder, but
"no, Dad, the Qur'an is not a handbook for the oppression of
women. It actually contains one of the world's oldest charters for
women's rights, insisting that we are equal in dignity and
Et cetera, et cetera.
Having new Muslims saying those things out loud is not only good
for non-Muslim understanding of the faith. It's also a useful
reminder for existing Muslims, whose faith can be corrupted by
cultural practices that have nothing to do with the Qur'an.
That's why the BBC1 documentary, A Muslim in the Family,
focuses on four new Muslims. All four of them came to the faith
from a position of profound ignorance. And all four of them have
had to square their conversions with families, who have been, at
best sceptical, and at worst fearful and resentful of the change.
was the journalist captured by the Taliban while reporting
undercover in Afghanistan, soon after 9/11. Held on spying
charges, she feared she would be stoned. Instead, she was treated
with respect. She promised her captors that, after her release,
she would study Islam. She read the Qur'an looking for an
explanation of the Taliban's treatment of women, only to find
there wasn't any: "It's a magna carta for women!" She
converted last summer and has found that her new faith has helped
put behind her three broken marriages and a reputation as the
"Patsy Stone of Fleet Street." But she still can't
persuade her Mum that converting was a good idea.
used to try to talk his Muslim girlfriend, Nasera, out of her
faith. It was only when she stood firm that he decided to read the
Qur'an for himself. Within months, he'd converted to Islam. His
father, Tony, admits that John seems a calmer, kinder person since
his conversion, but can't help worrying that John's been
brainwashed. He's warned him that, if he gets involved in violent
extremism, the family will disown him… Not that they expect him
to. What Tony can't understand is why John feels the need to
change his name to Jamal Udeen; why he's abandoned a promising
musical career (John believes Islam forbids music); and why he's
now talking about emigrating to a Muslim country. Does Islam
really demand all those changes?
was brought up in Manchester by Jamaican Christian parents, but
rejected his parents' faith, because it seemed to him a white
person's religion. Not that Islam seemed any less exclusive. The
only Muslims he knew at school were Asians. It was only when a
Jamaican friend converted that Aqeel became interested in the
faith. He read the Qur'an and found that whereas before, his head
had been full of questions, in Islam, he found answers. A former
professional boxer, Aqeel no longer fights, because of his new
faith, but he still trains and finds that the discipline of boxing
goes hand-in-glove with the demands of his new faith.
grew up in a white family in Slough and converted to Islam when
she married her Asian boyfriend, Naseer. Back then, he wasn't even
a practising Muslim, but over the last six years, she has brought
him back to the faith. First, she started wearing a headscarf or
hijab. Then, this year, without any prompting from Naseer, she
started wearing the full burkha veil. "Ninjas, we call
them," says Nas, a little bemused. Not that Shahnaaz is
discouraged. She feels liberated from "the beauty
contest", which she says dominates western culture.
Interestingly, her veil provokes abuse from both Asian and white
people. And she hasn't dared to tell her family about it yet.
Well, they're going to find out now…!
All four of
them have found different ways to reconcile their old lives with
the new. However, the fact that all four of them are determined to
reconcile the "before" and "after" versions of
themselves is a very hopeful sign. Perhaps, in them, we can see a
living bridge between Islam and the West - two cultures, which
many see as being on an inexorable collision course.