...on the way to the mosque / 2
It wasn’t the most spiritual moment in my life. When it finished, I got up and joined 8,000 other people in a mad rush to retrieve shoes.
The past 15 years have seen a phenomenal growth of Islam within Britain’s indigenous and African-Caribbean communities, according to Batool Al-Toma, who runs the Leicestershire-based New Muslims Project.
Born Mary Geraghty, she’s a former Catholic who embraced Islam three decades ago.
She wears a headscarf and a long floral coat modestly buttoned up to her neck, but retains a feisty, bustling quality not uncommon in middle-aged Irishwomen.
Hundreds of people have come to Al-Toma’s office to convert to Islam, which involves no more than reciting the shahada (a conviction that there is no God but Allah and that Muhammad is his prophet).
“People ask how many I’ve converted,” she said. “They ask that all the time, as if I’m out there with my net.”
She told me she discourages would-be converts if she thinks that they – or their families and friends – are not ready.
And that can take a very long time: her own children were born into Islam and have embraced it as adults but when she went to Ireland recently with her son, he was constantly rebuked for wearing a beard “to promote Islam”.
Sarah Joseph (left) is the editor and CEO of a Muslim lifestyle magazine, emel. Like Al-Toma, she was brought up Catholic but converted 22 years ago. It was very painful.
A priest said, don’t worry, we all have doubts.”
Meanwhile, her brother married a Muslim and converted. Joseph looked into Islam and was surprised to find “intellectually satisfying answers”.
Like Al-Toma, she knows it can be hard to keep the support of friends and family.
“Some families can feel a degree of bereavement,” she says. “It’s as if your child has given up on the right path, the middle-class dream. People think, ‘Oh my God, what have they become?’”
Another convert, Yahya (formerly Jonathan) Birt – son of the former BBC director-general John Birt – agrees that embracing Islam can cause upset. “Converts can be labelled traitors or, more kindly, eccentrics.”
So why bother? What can possibly be the attraction?
Birt is reluctant to talk about his own conversion, in 1989, because to people who are cynical about religion it can sound deluded or pretentious. It’s a personal matter, he stresses.
His own interest arose after meeting somebody who seemed to embody the religious life at its best:
“It took me over three years to get past my own lack of interest in all things religious to ask him about his faith. I was presented with no argument but simply with holiness, with the possibilities of contentment, integrity and wholeness that the religious life offers. Saintliness is its own argument.”
Impressed, I wondered if it might be possible to get some taste of Islam – but without actually converting.
To practise, if you like, some kind of Islam-lite – like dipping into Christianity by trying the Alpha course.
To begin, I spent weeks reading about Islam, and the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him, as the books said).
Jemima Khan, perhaps the most prominent convert of recent times, spent six or seven months reading Islamic scholars such as Gai Eaton, Alija Izetbegovic and Muhammad Asad.
“What began as intellectual curiosity slowly ripened into a dawning realisation of the universal and eternal truth,” she said.
I tried those authors, and others too. But I didn’t read the Koran. People say it’s fundamentally untranslatable, and I don’t have time to learn Arabic.
On Google I found my local mosque, the Islamic Centre of Brent. Its website listed daily prayer times that were a couple of months out of date.
Elsewhere, the site offered audio files for the whole Koran, and forms to download for child benefit, housing benefit, jobseeker’s allowance and visas for Pakistan.
After phoning ahead, I wandered over and met the manager.