Why Do Westerners Convert to Islam?

This is a transcript of part of an interview conducted by Dr. Tariq Ramadan with sister Batool al-Toma, director of the New Muslims project at the Islamic Foundation, UK, in the weekly TV program “Islam and Life.”

In the interview, sister Batool, herself a convert to Islam, explains the different reasons that encourage westerners to decide to become Muslim.

Tariq Ramadan: This week we are going to discuss the challenges facing people who convert to Islam.

“I have always held the religion of Mohammed in high estimation because of its wonderful vitality. It is the only religion which appears to me to possess that assimilating capacity to the changing phases of existence which can make itself appeal to every age.” George Bernard Shaw

Famous Western Muslims

People in the Western world have been converting to Islam for some time. Cassius Clay, the three times World Heavy weight boxing Champion, embraced Islam in 1965. He said:

“The feelings I had while standing on Mount Arafat on the day of the Hajj was the most unique. I felt exalted by the indescribable spiritual atmosphere there as over one and a half million pilgrims invoked God to forgive them for their sins. It was an exhilarating experience to see people belonging to different colors, races and nationalities, kings, heads of state and ordinary men from very poor countries all clad in two simple white sheets praying to God without any sense of either pride or inferiority. It was a practical manifestation of the concept of equality in Islam.”

Jemima Goldsmith, daughter of the British billionaire Sir James Goldsmith, converted to Islam when she was only 21 years old. She said:

“It would seem that a Western woman’s happiness hinges largely upon her access to nightclubs, alcohol and revealing clothes; and the absence of such apparent freedom and luxuries in Islamic societies is seen as an infringement of her basic rights. However, as we all know, such superficialities have very little to do with true happiness.”

After a long search for meaning and a life of fame, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll, Cat Stevens embraced the Muslim faith. He said:

“I realized that this was the true religion – religion not in the sense the West understands it, not the type for only your old age. We must follow the will of God (Allah). Then, we can rise higher than the angels. The first thing I wanted to do now was to be a Muslim.”

What do the Westerners see in Islam that makes them decide to become Muslims? Did the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq or Western support for Israel encourage westerners to convert? In 2009, approximately 40,000 Brits, 70,000 French nationals and 100,000 Americans became Muslims. What reasons lie behind these astonishing rates of conversion?…

What Attracts People to Islam?

Tariq Ramadan: So these are the questions:

Why are so many people are coming to Islam?

What is attractive about Islam?

So these are questions that we want to tackle today so to answer these questions I’m joined by the director of the New Muslims project at the Islamic Foundation, Batool al-Toma.

So Batool, thank you for being with us today. You have watched the clip. I think that yes something is happening in the West which is quite clear that the people are attracted to Islam. You have been involved in dealing with converted people coming to Islam for the last 15 years. You yourself are a convert so you came to Islam, so if you were to respond to this very simple question: Why is this move towards Islam so frequent in our societies in the West?

Batool al-Toma: Well, it’s quite difficult really because the attractions are wide and very varied, and people come to Islam for all sorts of different reasons. Obviously, one of the reasons since time in memorial has been the fact that people meet other Muslims, and there is an attraction there. There is personal relationship, and so they want to get married. This is one reason and this will always be there. We should always sort of look at these kinds of situations when somebody converts to Islam for the sake of marriage, there has always been the suggestion that they are not quite a good Muslim because they converted to Islam for that specific reason. But you know, this is not for us to decide. Allah’s plan is much greater than our plan. And so Allah may have brought them to this situation for a reason.

Tariq Ramadan: It’s a very important point. You are saying that the reasons why you come to Islam say nothing about the sincerity and the in-depth of your faith. It could be a reason that’s apparent to all as marriage, but at the end of the day your intention, your heart, could change over the process of becoming a Muslim?

Batool al-Toma: Indeed, very much so. And you will often find that people who have converted to Islam for marriage or have married a Muslim and not had to convert in the situation of women, the women often become Muslims and become extremely sincere and practicing people. And they actually become a lesson and an example to other Muslims.

Tariq Ramadan: So, this is one dimension and it could be the majority situation in fact when you have people coming to know each other and its for marriage. But we also have people like Cat Strevens who became Yusuf Islam, it was something that was his relationship to the Quran. He read the Quran, he got the Quran from his brother, he read the Quran. And you have other people like Cassius Clay for example coming to Islam without anything which has to do with being in a relationship with someone, but the very essence of the message which is there is one God and which is your life has a meaning.

Batool al-Toma: And of course people come to Islam for all sorts of different reasons as I said. People because of all the dreadful situations that had occurred around the world, and have happened because Muslims have interpreted the Quran in terms of wanting to carry out these catastrophies for religious reasons, have triggered many non-Muslims to want to look into Islam to see what does this religion say about terrorism, peace, peaceful coexistence with other people from other faiths and so on, and have been shocked and surprised by what they found in the Quran and the teachings of the Prophet peace be upon him.

And I have had people come to me saying “I want to convert to Islam but I’m more shocked, I’m surprised that I have come this distance because it is not a faith that I would ever wish to look into.” But somehow because they have read into Islam in order to try to understand what goes on in the mind of Muslims who use their faith in order to carry out these terrible atrocities around the world.

And they have found something which is peace and harmony in Islam, and it has drawn them further in. They were unable to unhitch themselves from what they are reading and eventually they become Muslims.