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Date of publication : 11/12/2014 4:44:31 PM
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Rethinking Muslim Identity in Europe

Based on her research and personal experience Hanna Smith considers the impact of converts on the wider Muslim community and how their experiences to find personal meaning in Islam can help the younger generation of Muslims

Hannah Smith has an under­graduate degree in Geophysics from Imperial College London and the University of Oxford, and a Masters degree in Ge­ology from the University of Michigan

Being Muslim in contemporary Britain or Europe conjures up many ideas including the over-familiar concepts of assimilation and integration. These particular notions of assimilation and integration imply a process of change incurred by Muslims, typically on issues of cultural variation,

through compliance with external expectations imposed by a state which makes no overt adherence to Islamic principles. Before Muslims can enter into such a bargaining process, it is necessary for the Muslim community to first clarify on an individual and institutional basis its stance on topics related to assimilation and integration by virtue of the understanding of Islam alone. This is where the process of conversion to Islam in European countries such as Britain can help the wider majority 'heritage Muslim' community to re-think their Muslim identity in Europe and in doing so make great efforts to forge faith-centred identities in a multi-cultural environment and provide authentic Islamic responses to questions such as assimilation and integration.

As a revert, I would like to explore some thoughts around the process of embracing Islam and taking on a Muslim identity. I believe this process, often likened to a journey, and something I began myself nine years ago, can provide many insights and lessons for the wider Muslim community in Britain about how it can fulfil its spiritual potential and overcome a whole gamut of problems and their root causes.

Identity may be defined as the distinctive characteristic belonging to any given individual, or shared by all members of a particular social category or group and is formed for example through the adoption or rejection of characteristics, values, and beliefs associated with others.

A convert or revert is first recognised as a new Muslim with a Muslim identity after making a rational decision to affirm that they believe in the teachings and principles of Islam and that they want to live according to them. Sometimes this decision to become Muslim requires a change to pre-existing beliefs and lifestyle habits while sometimes it is an affirmation of beliefs they have already held, such as the way a prior Christian would agree with the values of love, compassion and mercy for others taught in Islam.

Converts can only make the decision to become Muslim and adopt a Muslim identity after a period of learning. Before that they must gain knowledge in what Islam is, and what it means to be Muslim or conversely non Muslim. There are various ways in which a person can discover more about Islam and Muslims, e.g. from existing lay Muslims and scholars, behaviour and direct teaching, from books and internet resources etc.

In conducting such research a person will face many challenges: How does one

reconcile contrasting beliefs and practices? Is one looking for a single definitive

answer or are multiple interpretations connected by a theme permissible? How does one determine whether to become a Muslim? By which criteria do they measure so-called Islamic and Muslim beliefs; do they use abstract notions such as truthful ness or virtue, or their own desires or personal gain, e.g. for a community, a husband, cultural acceptance? Faced with such deep philosophical questions to answer, it often takes converts many years, sometimes decades, to make their testament of faith, or shahada.

My personal journey to Islam began with a search for absolute truth and reality. As a student of physics I was curious about the fundamental nature of reality whether physical or non-physical. I was also questioning many aspects of society and my lifestyle as a 19 year-old student in London. I had come to the conclusion that the material culture in which we live which encourages us to acquire more and more possessions cannot lead to long term happiness or peace/contentment and neither can a hedonistic party-based student lifestyle or an obsessive attention to one's appearance promoted by the fashion and cosmetic industries. Many of my thoughts were linked by the understanding that material aspects of the world can only be sources of short-term transient happiness and cannot be relied upon for long term contentment.

When I found the same narrative in Islam, that peace cannot be obtained through worldly attachments I felt that given my understanding of the world at the time, Islam was true in this respect. As I explored other Islamic tenets such as modesty and chastity I consistently felt that Islamic principles were superior in comparison to alternative ideologies and arguments. Ultimately I was convinced that Islam and the Qur'an were divinely revealed because of the miraculous appearance of modern scientific discoveries in the Qur'an and this led me to take the plunge and take the shahada.

Once a person has gone through such a process and come to a conclusion over what Islam is about and what it means to be Muslim, they then typically go about a process of adapting their behaviour and lifestyle to conform to these new ideas. Since their behaviours and habits have typically arisen from personality, cultural conditioning and environmental factors, they must go through a process of char acter reformation and cultural lifestyle filtering. Sometimes converts end up taking on cultural habits associated with other countries or regions, such as Arab or Asian dress or an Arabic name. Sometimes this is because they genuinely believe it is a necessary part of being more Islamic or sometimes it is out of necessity because they cannot find so-called western clothes which match their understanding of modest dress.

I believe that this process of research and analysis to find personal meaning in Islam, to seek to understand why Islam is the best religion or way of life, is the most important aspect of becoming and being a Muslim. This process that converts go through when establishing their new Muslim identity is a process of understanding which all Muslims must go through in order to understand how to remain faithful to Islam.

A study into conversion conducted by Cambridge University (Narratives of Conver sion to Islam in Britain: Female Perspectives, 2003) concluded that "conversion may in fact be as much about Islam itself as it is about some interpretations of Western modernity to which conversion often poses many questions". And the importance of this personal search is probably the single most important teaching method of the Qur'an, in which humankind is persistently told to reflect upon the physical world, personal experiences, human behaviour and history to understand God's message.

Similarly there are countless Prophetic narrations which also point to the impor tance of reflection, questioning to achieve a clear understanding, and the impor tance of achieving strong belief. The Prophet Muhammad 0s0 said "Verily, the cure for all ignorance is to question."


Without conviction in the beliefs of Islam such as the existence of a single God and the superiority of its moral virtues, the practice of Islam is meaningless and just a mechanical act.

Another lesson we can learn from conversion is that converts report that their understanding never remains static, fixed in place and time. The Cambridge report states: "conversion is always in a mode of becoming through which a state of being subsists as a core", and "conversion is a complex phenomenon: it implies continuity and change, association and, at times, involuntary dissociation. It looks back, and it looks forward in a journey with meanings which vary with time and from person to person."

The conversion process also demonstrates that the process of becoming a Muslim and becoming a servant of God is not achieved without significant hardship and strife; as the Qur'an states: "Do you expect to enter Paradise without being tested like those before you? They were tested with hardship and adversity" (2:214).

The young Muslims whom I have met as part of my work as a teacher and else where already exhibit many traits of conversion, and a troubling minority show signs that they have not reached the point of an understanding of faith. One piece of evidence for this is a conversion-like investigation: most young Muslims I have met heavily question the faith, its teachings and practices. Some of the questions I have been asked include "does the Qur'an promote violent military jihad against non-believers?", another: "I've always wondered why I can't pray with my shoes on?"

I have also identified a number of problems including the inability of young Muslims to give reasons for being Muslims, the inability to provide even the most basic explanation of what Islam or being Muslim is about, the misinterpretation of the religion as merely a bunch of "rules and regulations" and a failure to understand that someone would choose Islam over another religion and derive positive benefits from this decision.

Parents have also informed me that in this society their children are bombarding them with a plethora of questions that they have never considered and have been unable to answer having never carried out a deep investigation of Islam themselves. Such an unquestioning acceptance of the religion by so many born-Muslims is in large part due to the didactic style of teaching used in the majority of traditional religious lectures, madrasahs, and Islamic faith schools which suppresses discus sion, debate and questioning.

Another reason why a large proportion of the adult 'heritage Muslims' in this country have never gone through a conversion-like investigation of their faith is because as first or perhaps second generation immigrants they have learnt many of the attitudes and behaviours that are fundamental to Islam such as good morals and manners through the norms of their ancestral culture, such as kindness and respect for the infirm or elderly.

The younger generation who live in a society where these Islamic values are not the norm have to go through the conversion process of first identifying and differenti ating between different values, attitudes, and behaviours including Islamic ones, and then deciding which ones they would like to adopt.

The issue of 're-thinking Muslim identity' would be much easier if all Muslims embarked on a personal quest to discover for themselves what it means to be Muslim in this society. By doing so, it will be much easier to conduct public discourse around such issues, more ideas will be generated and there is infinitely more chance that as a community we will reach the solutions that will please God the most.

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