Conversion – like my own to Islam – is a deeply personal experience, even if it can have political ramifications.
I’ve been reluctant to write about my own conversion to Islam in 1989: I’ve always regarded it as a personal matter, as something hard to write about without coming across as deluded or pretentious, given the widespread cynicism and lack of interest about religious matters. I’ve also forlornly harboured a hope that after 20 years I would be seen as just another British Muslim, rather than primarily as a convert. On top of that, I’ve always been rather averse to “hard sell” proselytising. Religion is not something one routinely brings up in conversation; on the other hand, if someone is interested, they can always ask.
Conversion is a fascinating phenomenon about which much could be said; however, in my view, it isn’t of interest as an argument in favour of religion itself. I’ve always been unconvinced by the idea that religion can be effectively judged through formal logical argument either for or against the existence of God. I feel my scepticism is reflected in traditional teaching to be found within Islam and indeed other religious traditions. Formal theology only proves the possibility of God’s existence; it doesn’t demonstrate the fact of God as such. So the sages of Islam taught, such as Ghazali, the Persian philosopher and mystic, who lived at the time when William I conquered England. These scholars taught that God’s limitless nature is beyond human language or reasoning to encompass: our arguments or descriptions aren’t even approximations.
The idea that God could be sought through reason alone comes out of a post-Enlightenment view of religion as belief expressed through logical propositions that may either be proved or disproved. Yet, as Ghazali taught, religion’s greatest argument is simply one’s own direct experience of God through prayer and service. Encountering a saint who embodies the religious life at its best is proof enough; in other words, saintliness is its own argument. So the point of logical arguments is simply to open our minds to the possibility that the religious life is neither absurd, irrational nor useless, something that the saint makes apparent.
My own saint – the first person I met who seemed to embody the best in religion – was a wisecracking metallurgist from Lahore. He was an extraordinarily selfless man who was allergic to proselytising on behalf of the faith he felt so profoundly, yet a faith that, despite his reticence, nonetheless radiated through his every act. 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. More generic reasons for converting came later after stumbling attempts to lead that religious life myself. While the case for the centrality of religious experience is ancient, it is post-modern too. It relativises every story of conversion, rendering it deeply personal and even solipsistic.
Obviously, conversion to Islam has become particularly controversial in the west of late. Converts challenge the received order of things by upsetting boundaries, and are often labelled traitors or, more kindly, as eccentrics. The Elizabethans confronted with Ottoman naval power dubbed such converts “renegades” who had betrayed their country by “turning Turk”; undoubtedly, in the age of al-Qaida, the 21st-century variant is “turning terrorist”. Think of Richard Reid, the shoebomber from London who tried to blow up a transatlantic flight, or John Walker Lindh, the Californian who volunteered to fight for the Taliban, for instance. Yet while a few are drawn to Islam as a vehicle of radical anti-western protest, the timeless truths it addresses still attract those seeking meaning to life.
A few months after I had converted, I remember being rather nonplussed when confronted by an angry young man who demanded that I support the so-called fatwa of blasphemy and summary execution against Salman Rushdie for his book The Satanic Verses. “Why should I make this my business?”, I thought, “What has this got to do with my learning to be a Muslim?” Later on, understanding the context in which Islam served as a means of protest for some young British Muslims became unavoidable, but it was never an integral part of the impulses that drove my own conversion, nor do I believe has it motivated others who have found shelter, or for those born into the faith, reaffirmation, within the many-windowed house of Islam. The current level of tension and conflict between two self-styled monoliths, “Islam” and the “west”, makes the mundane truth that Islam is still one of the world’s great faiths rather than some murderous anti-western cult more preposterous than it really ought to seem.
This article first appeared on the Guardian’s Comment is Free on the 20th August 2009.