A giant leap of faith to Islam
Just over a year ago, Amal Loring made a decision that changed her life: she converted to Islam.
It was not a hasty decision; she had been studying world religions for five years and, as a mother and a wife, believed Islam offered the strongest family values of any faith. But as soon as she converted, everything around her changed. Her marriage broke down, her family and friends became wary and her compatriots turned against her. Yet Ms Loring, formerly known as Debbie Beck, insists that choosing Islam is the best thing she has ever done.
"I don't regret a thing," she says. "Despite all the negativity I have faced in the past 12 months my entire life has changed for the better. I have dealt with each stressful situation calmly and peacefully all because I have found a new inner strength from my religion." Ms Loring, 41, a British national, has lived in Dubai for 11 years.
She made her final decision to convert after a visit to her homeland last year.
"When I went back to the UK I was saddened to see the fabric of society broken down," she says. "I saw children with no respect for their elders, heads of households with no responsibility, binge-drinking, teenage pregnancy and lots of violence." Ms Loring, who has a seven-year-old daughter, decided this was not the kind of life she wanted for herself or her child. She returned to Dubai and began asking the Muslims around her questions about Islam. Word got around and finally she received a call from a representative of Sheikh Saeed al Maktoum, who invited her in to talk about the theology behind Islam.
"We had a discussion for around three hours after which he said to me simply that I was a Muslim. It was suddenly clear to me; all I had to do was to declare myself to Allah." Converting to Islam means accepting that there is only one God and that the Prophet Mohammed was his last messenger. This statement, called the shahada, must be spoken in Arabic in the presence of another Muslim, after which the convert must recite the first verse of the Quran, also in Arabic.
Some scholars believe the new Muslim must also pray in the presence of others but this is not universally acknowledged. In the UAE, once someone has converted they can visit a conversion centre at the sharia courts where they will receive a statement declaring their new faith. Ms Loring says that since that moment she has found happiness.
"I am a therapist and counsellor. Every day I see people searching for happiness. Over time I have realised that true happiness comes from inner peace, which in turn comes from a connection with the divine. "Now that I have found Islam I know that it is my job to help other people like me to understand it and therefore improve their lives." Ms Loring's sentiments are not unique. The number of new Muslims in the UAE is growing.
Zainab Docherty, formerly Wendy, is a Muslim who chooses to wear niqab, the facial covering which reveals only the eyes. She has worn this since converting to Islam two years ago in London, her hometown. She says that rather than restricting her in her daily life, the niqab gives her freedom. "People think the niqab is oppressing for women, but I see it as the opposite," says Ms Docherty, a personal trainer based in Ras al Khaimah.
"Covering up completely protects me from unwanted stares and because I have white skin and blue eyes niqab draws less attention than hijab, where my full face is exposed. If I keep my eyes down nobody notices me." Because she trains her female clients on private property, most of the time Ms Docherty removes the niqab for exercise. Sometimes, however, her workout plans take her into public.
If so, she takes wearing the niqab in her stride. "I happily wear niqab if I take my clients speed-walking or jogging on the beach. I have been known to rollerblade in my niqab too but I don't do it too often because as a Muslim I am not supposed to attract unnecessary attention." Other than the external differences, Ms Docherty says she has experienced profound inner changes since she converted.
Her family and friends may have been hostile but, she says, she has found a new family within Islam. "The religion is so welcoming, the people in Ras al Khaimah have been like family to me. I know I will never look back," she says. More and more people across the Western world are changing their faith to Islam. Last year a report from the World Christian Database estimated that Islam was the fastest-growing religion in the world by percentage (1.84 per cent compared with a global population rate of 1.12 per cent per year).
Some sceptics say this is attributable to a high birth rate within Muslim communities. However, there is no doubt that Islam is growing in the Western world. In Europe the number of Muslims has tripled in the past 30 years and 80 per cent of the 1,200 mosques in the US have been built in the past 12 years.
Rapid expansion is not something new within Islam. The faith, which began 14 centuries ago when Allah revealed the Holy Quran to the Prophet, had spread across the Arabian peninsula by the time of the Prophet's death in 632. Within a century, Islam had expanded from what we now know as Spain in the West all the way to Malaya and parts of China in the East. Converts in the public eye - among them Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X and Yousuf Islam, the British singer formerly known as Cat Stevens - have brought enormous attention to Islam and its unifying philosophy, which stands against any racial or ethnic discrimination.
In August, the British journalist and campaigner Yvonne Ridley, who in 2003 famously converted to Islam after being captured by the Taliban in Afghanistan, was in the news again when she took part with the Free Gaza movement in the symbolic breaking of Israel's naval blockade of Gaza.
Many people in the West believe Islam is an oppressive religion, particularly for women. They believe women are seen as men's chattels and that because of the strict dress code they have no self-expression or freedom within society. Ms Ridley is fiercely opposed to this view which, she says, comes from ignorance. Politicians and journalists in the West, she has said, "simply have no idea how Muslim women are protected and respected within the Islamic framework".
She calls the Quran a "Magna Carta for women" and describes herself as an Islamic feminist. Ms Ridley's conversion has been met positively by the Muslim community in her native UK and, judging by the welcome she received in Gaza and the many supportive comments on her website, she has become a popular figure in the Middle East. Some western Muslims in the UAE, however, have encountered mixed reactions to their decisions to convert.
"When I go to the mosques in Dubai I get stared at and questioned by women who think I've converted to marry a local man," says Ms Loring. "In the UK it is even worse. People spit at me, call me names in the street and warn their children against me. But I am someone who can understand the western and the eastern perspective so I believe my mission is to bridge that gap and to dispel the fear and ignorance surrounding Islam." Shadia Abdullah of the Jumeirah Islamic Centre says that someone becoming a Muslim is, for the most part, "a happy occasion.
In the Muslim world we do not call these people converts, we call them reverts, because we believe everyone was born a Muslim," she says. "In Islam there is no concept of original sin. Everyone was born pure and upon choosing the Islamic faith Allah will purify your sins and allow you to make a fresh start.
"When someone takes the oath and declares themselves a Muslim it is wonderful, it is like they have come back and chosen the right path." Any difficulties experienced by westerners who have chosen to become Muslims are usually cultural, not religious, she says. "Everyone's experience is different but some women I know do have problems when trying to fit in with local society. These are more cultural differences and can stem from new Muslims being more dogmatic than people born into Islam."
Muhammad Nubee, an African-American living in Ajman, became a Muslim 32 years ago after being heavily involved in the civil rights and Black Power movements in the United States. "Racism and inequality was something I saw a lot of during my time in the States," he says. "It made me question everything about my life.
"When I discovered Islam, although I was then a double minority, being black and being a Muslim, I somehow felt like I belonged. At the mosque I found true unity. Everyone was brothers and it impressed me greatly."
Mr Nubee says his family and friends, however, found it difficult to accept his faith. His decision did alienate him from them, but in his heart he felt at peace.
"I stopped drinking, going out to nightclubs and changed what I ate. Many of my friends didn't understand and there was suddenly a huge divide between us. It was disappointing but I knew my decision was right for me. "With my family it was very trying and it took them some time to get used to my way of life, but in the end my mother agreed that as long as I believed in God it was OK." Abu Djihad, formerly Torsten Kramer, converted to Islam in his native Germany and moved to Dubai 15 years ago, to be around like-minded Muslims.
However, he says he struggled to find acceptance and recently moved back to Germany. He is currently looking for another Islamic country in which to live. "Even though almost everyone held me in high regard due to my faith, many of them found my strong views difficult to accept," he says.
"As I had made a conscious decision to embrace Islam rather than being born into it I couldn't justify even the slightest wavering of faith. I found many Muslims in Dubai who didn't take it as seriously as me and didn't understand my inability to relax the rules." Mr Djihad's experience reflects Islam's demanding side, says Ms Abdullah. "Islam does ask for a lot of discipline and everyone has weaknesses so the practising can be tough." Youseff, a mufti from the official fatwa call centre, says that while Islam is about learning, nobody should feel alienated or separated from society. "If anyone reverts to be Muslim they immediately become our brother or sister," he says.
"We must help him, we must give him guidance, teaching and money if he needs it." The most important thing, he says, is that anyone choosing to follow the path of Islam finds their way without duress. "If Islam is real and it is the truth then each individual will be able to feel the difference for themselves. Whenever anyone enters Islam he will feel safety and warmth in his heart and the strength of being part of a community.
"It is true that some Muslims behave against Islam but if they are good and honest then they should welcome anyone and everyone; it is this which brings us all together." Each convert's path to Islam is different, but it is a need for this sense of belonging and inner peace which sets many on their journey.
"Before I found Islam I felt like my life was going down a tunnel that ended in darkness, now it is like I am walking a yellow brick road," says Ms Docherty. "It is bright, full of happiness and I don't see an end."
Published: November 8, 2008 04:00 AM