“Islam has changed my life drastically. Before entering Islam, I would hold a lot of anger inside of me. Islam has taught me about being patient. Patience has helped ease the anger and frustration.”
Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world, with recent studies predicting a 73 per cent increase in the religion by 2050, it will not only be the fastest growing, but also the largest religion in the world.
Converting religion and following a new religious path can be a daunting, yet an equally rewarding experience. The endless cycle of potential judgment and immediate “21 questions” that follow can be overwhelming.
Each religious journey is different.
Some people may decide to jump in at the deep end, changing and adapting their life instantly, and others may feel more comfortable gradually accepting a new religion into their lives.
The idea of religion is complex and it can mean different things to an array of different people. The ways in which people come into contact with religion is always diverse.
Some are born into religion and follow strict cultural and religious guidelines from a young age, making it a way of life and essentially something that they will never question or go against; it becomes a key part of their identity.
Others convert from one religion to another, whilst some convert from atheism; exploring religion because they are simply curious and intrigued. They gradually grow closer and fonder of the religion that they relate to and find solace in the morality behind religion.
Many religious converts explain that they have always had moral obligation within them, as a human being. However, many have suggested that the religious experiences they encounter further motivate and push them towards more righteous paths in their lives.
“Before I was questioning everything. I still have questions, but they are easily answered now.”
In the Islamic religion, some believe it is more appropriate to use the term “revert” when describing a process of ‘coming back’ to the one true religion.
Muslims believe that everybody is born with a connection to God, and it is your journey in life and your parents that will determine your religious status. So, the word ‘revert’ refers to the process of coming back to God, rather than ‘converting’.
This is exactly the case for 21-year-old Gabrielle Vincent who grew up with no particular religious beliefs, no background involving a religious routine and no specific interest in perusing a religious path.
“Originally from China, I grew up in London with a single, atheist mother. She has a Jewish background but never practiced the religion.”
Gabriele had no previous ties to religion growing up, so her journey of reverting to Islam was most certainly difficult, but also entirely rewarding. After committing to the religion completely, Gabriele has reached her happiest place; emotionally, physically, and of course spiritually. But this was not an overnight journey.
It was on a residential geography college trip with her friends that she first opened her mind to the idea of religion, the curiosity overwhelming her.
Just like many of her own friends now continue to ponder and ask Gabriele about her experience with her new religion, she too was curious at some point, quizzing her friends when, for the first time, she witnessed them reciting a prayer from the Quran; the Maghrib Salah (the fourth of five daily prayers, performed just after sunset).
It was in this moment she felt captured, she needed to know more.
“I just stayed on my bed and peeped over the bannister. They all stood in a line, facing the same way. I was so confused with what was happening.”
After the prayer had finished, Gabriele had begun to understand that it was one of the five prayers Muslims must perform each day; she recalls learning about the five pillars of Islam in primary school. The five pillars of Islam include, faith, prayer, charity, fasting and the pilgrimage to Mecca.
Although always having had a basic knowledge of different religions and the way in which they have different practices, Gabriele never quite grasped the idea of committing to and dedicating her life to a particular religion.A feeling of shock and inquisitiveness consumed her, she needed to know more. It was a foreign concept to her.
“I loved seeing them openly practice their religion, they didn’t let anything get in the way.”
The idea of being on a school trip, with no responsibility but to attend class meetings and enjoy your time with your friends seemed perfect, it was touching to Gabriele that these girls took time out of their day, each day, to worship and appreciate their God. It was simple yet beautiful.
Acting on this new found interest for the Islamic religion, Gabriele was desperate to dig deeper and further her knowledge. Following the residential college trip, Gabriele could not stop thinking about her experience, and decided to stay in contact with one of the women she witnessed praying.
During the frequent conversations with her new friend, Gabriele was able to have her questions answered so she got a natural understanding about the religion. She was able to appreciate the motives behind the actions of a Muslim woman.
A religion she once felt no connection towards, suddenly consumed her daily routine, even before she had made the final and important decision to convert.
The beauty of these dedicated women intrigued Gabriele, so she continued on her quest to find out more. Growing up in London, one of the most openly multicultural cities in the world, Gabriele recalls witnessing some of her school friends fasting during the holy month of Ramadan – always understanding how emotionally and physically challenging this must be.
The holy month of Ramadan is a time in which Muslims wake up in the early hours of the morning for the Suhoor prayer and meal; which will allow them to then fast for an entire day until it is time to break their fast when the sun sets for Iftar, the evening meal and prayer. Fasting is one of the five pillars of Islam, and it considered a crucial part of the Muslim religion.
In an attempt to feel closer to the religion and practice something that intrigued her in so many ways, Gabriele decided to embark on the difficult journey of fasting.
“I decided to give myself the challenge of fasting. Although I was only planning on fasting one day, I ended up fasting the whole month of Ramadan.”
Fasting is practiced throughout many religions as a way of feeling closer to God and your own emotions. In Islam, it is a way of obeying God and allowing yourself to have discipline, empathy and control.
It was always interesting to Gabriele how members of the Islamic faith were able to entirely dedicate their lives to God. Fasting during the holy month was a difficult, yet nonetheless a life-changing experience. It allowed her to understand the deeper meaning behind it.
“Islam has taught me about being patient. Patience has helped me ease the anger and frustration.”
“From having to wake up early for Suhoor, to not being able to drink during the day, to waiting for those last five minutes before Iftar – it was worth the sacrifice. It taught me discipline and self-control.”
The commitment of this process captured Gabriele’s heart, compelling her to dig even deeper and find out more about the religion, learning about the history and importance of each choice.
Fasting is a way in which Muslims feel closer to God, they are able to control their thoughts and emotions by obeying one of the five crucial pillars of Islam. It is a holy month in which Muslims are able to feel more compassionate and empathetic towards those in need.
The decision was not easy. After months of researching and attempting to understand and respect the process and depth of the religion, Gabriele was still pondering about her position in the religion, sometimes not knowing whether she would be accepted and welcomed.
Her worries were quickly pushed aside. Participating in the fasting process, attending religious talks and reading about Islam was a way in which Gabriele could feed her interest for the religion, and slowly reach the point in which she felt comfortable converting to Islam.
She found her place in the Muslim community relatively quickly, as she explained how welcoming and accepting they were. After completing her first month during Ramadan, she came into contact with her old school friends. They were thrilled to find out about her interest in Islam, and welcomed her to spend Eid with them.
“I’ve never known anyone so welcoming and loving.” Gabriele took care in her religious research, explaining how she had never felt so dedicated to anything in her past. Although she had not converted yet, she made an effort to be a part of online Islamic groups, where audio of important information was sent out about the religion.
“The first audio sent was of the Surah Ikhlas. I found that the Surah had a lot of meaning and it fully explained who Allah was.”The process of studying these verses was very important to Gabriele, as it made her feel a part of the religion and it allowed her to take this sacred process at her own pace, never once feeling pressured by her friends or teachers.
“Despite not being Muslim yet, I took tafseer very seriously and made it my goal to complete the audio before the next one was sent out. I would file my notes away in a binder and protect each sheet with a poly envelope. Way more organised than my university notes.”
The process of joining the tafseer group was calming for Gabriele. She was able to feel a part of the community, learning about the religion and studying this new information at the same time as her friends. The group allowed her to understand key verses and meanings in the Quran, whilst also giving her the opportunity to ask questions.
After almost a year of studying the religion and keeping up with Islamic talks Gabriele felt like the religion was becoming a part of her identity, something that she did not want to let go of.
“When I knew that I wanted to convert I messaged a friend who works at the madrasah (Islamic educational institute) of our local mosque. She contacted the Imam of the mosque to organise a meeting. We all arrived at the mosque early to complete paper work.”
The decision was made.
“The Imam explained the five pillars of Islam and the seven articles of faith. He ensured that I understood and agreed with them. He then stated the Shahadah in Arabic, ‘Ashadu an la ilaha illa illa-ilah, wa ashadu anna muhammadan rasul ullah’, I repeated after him and then he said the English translation, ‘I testify that there is no god but God (Allah), and I testify that Muhammad is the messenger of God (Allah)’. After I repeated these two sentences, I had officially converted to Islam.”
Gabriele felt complete. Although the months leading up to her conversion were difficult, she felt as if she had made a crucial decision in her life; doing something that made her soul happy and gave her a new meaning in life.
“Islam has changed my life drastically. Before entering Islam, I would hold a lot of anger inside me. Islam has taught me about being patient. Patience has helped me ease the anger and frustration.”
For Gabriele, this process gave her more than just meaning and purpose. It allowed her to understand other people, respect different beliefs and choices, and have a more complex understanding of empathy towards others.
“Islam makes me feel complete. Before I was questioning everything. I still have questions, but they are easily answered now. I look at life in a different perspective.”
This prolonged journey was not easy for Gabriele, or her family. It was very important for Gabriele that her mother would be happy with the decision, and that she supported her journey.
Converting religion can be a difficult process because of all the information that you are digesting and trying to make sense of. It is also difficult for those around you who may not understand you.
In the beginning, it was difficult for Gabriele’s mother to come to terms with the idea of converting. It is not uncommon for people to question and not quite understand the reasoning behind converting religion.
Spirituality and religion are personal, they may mean different things to different people, which is why converting religion, or following a new spiritual path may attract so much judgment and curiosity from friends and family. They may be concerned and confused.Gabriele explained that her Mother’s main concerns were about the restrictions that Islam would potentially place on her daughter.
“She felt like the religion would restrict me. I explained to her that I didn’t see them as restrictions, and explained why I agreed with them. I pointed out that we already live different lives, such as alcohol; she’ll drink alcohol at dinner parties and I was never into drinking. She would eat pork and I wouldn’t. These are just a few of the examples I gave her.”
Gabriele explained that she did not have difficulty with her friends accepting her decision to convert, as they were with her during the process and were one of her biggest support systems. Although her mother now understands and fully supports her decision, Gabriele has not told her entire family, as some of them are part of different religions and may not fully understand.
Converting religion can be an emotionally challenging experience. However, sometimes it is the fear of judgment that prevents people from following their true spiritual paths. The people you care about and spend time with may question your decision, and the majority of the time they will understand your decision as long as you answer all of their curious and confused questions.
Certain religions require a certain level of modesty. In Islam, women are required to cover their hair and the shape of their body. This if often misunderstood as ‘oppressive’, as it considered one of the most sacred and beautiful requirements in Islam. It is one of the many things that drew Gabriele to the Islamic religion.
Gabriele talks about her difficulty with putting on the hijab and abaya, as people she may have bumped into on a regular basis would comment and perhaps stare.
The Islamic religion is very dedicated to the notion of modesty and this is one of the many reasons that Gabriele was mesmerised by this religion.
“My hardest struggle was going out in public wearing my hijab and abaya. I knew from very early on that I wanted to cover up, as this is one of the beauties of Islam that drew me to the religion. I took baby steps; first going out wearing my new attire with my Mum, then when I went to visit friends and then I started wearing it out alone. It was rather scary at first, but I knew I was firm on my decision.”
The fear of judgment can be a difficult obstacle, but Gabriele felt that her connection to the religion overpowered her worries.She knew that she had made the right decision.
In some parts of the world, wearing religious clothing of any sort is frowned upon or even against the law. It is deemed a human right to express your religious beliefs and practice your religion, sadly this religious freedom is still a problem for many.
In the UK, you are able to freely and rightfully wear any religious clothing as a form of practicing your religion. It is a basic human right.
Although this is the case, Gabriele, like many other Islamic women, has faced unfortunate and disheartening discriminatory abuse at her work.
Gabriele explains her issues with managers at her retail job in regards to covering up and wearing her religious clothing.
“It was difficult to wear my attire to work. One manager was not happy to see me wearing my scarf. Unfortunately, there were rather rude comments made to my friend about me. The next day, my friend told me about her comments and it broke me.”
In spite of this, Gabriele has been strong enough to ignore these negative encounters. Deeming them as small set-backs rather than moments that will discourage her religious path.
Like many who have converted religion, Gabriele has found a new feeling of fulfilment. Her life has changed forever.
“I am much more appreciative of life and my blessings. I feel purer. The spiritual rituals I perform daily, such as wudhu (the ablution Muslims do before they pray) make me feel fresh and pure throughout the day.”
Religion can be a way in which people feel closer to God and closer to themselves as human beings, protecting their bodies and minds by following a spiritual journey. It gives many people peace within themselves, and allows them to become more patient and understanding of others and even their own mistakes.
“Before, I was a stressed person – I would get stressed over the smallest things. Though I do still get stressed, after I pray I feel much more calm. When the day gets tough, wherever I am, work, out and about, or at home, taking a few minutes to pray helps calm me.”
Spirituality and religion is an individual’s personal and sometimes very private and sensitive journey. There are many different reasons why people follow particular religious’ paths. This can be anything from the security they find within the religious community, their deep and personal questions answered, the religious upbringing they have experienced, or simply the feeling of comfort that is a result of being closer to God.
The beauty of our world is the different communities, cultures, religions, and people that live in it. We must learn to appreciate and understand each others personal and spiritual beliefs, even if they do not agree with our own.
Featured Image by Bernard Spagg via Flickr CC