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Sunday, 16 December 2012

Why Not Convert to Islam?

Well, I have been living in a Muslim country for just over 5 years now so why not convert? 

Here is my attempt to explain why. In the writing I sincerely hope I do not upset anyone out there. It is not my intention to denigrate or insult any religion. I am only stating my own personal opinions. So here goes.

When I first arrived in Egypt I was working as a Tour Leader (Resort Rep for those English people out there) and it was plain for everyone to see that my time in Egypt would be limited. In this context the subject of religion was rarely raised.

However, after I left the travel company and decided to settle here to work as a diving instructor suddenly a lot of people wanted to talk to me about religion and, in particular, about the wonders of Islam.

I was brought up a Christian in the Church of England. I went to Sunday School and later to bible classes. I belonged to Brownies and Guides - organisations back then having roots in Christian practices. When I was older I joined a bible study group. Then, for many years my involvement waned considerably and occasionally, when I felt guilty, I would accompany my mother to church on a Sunday. I also worked for some time for a Christian charity that has links in the Catholic church. During this time I was able to reflect more on my personal beliefs. I am still committed to the basic ethics of Christianity but I do not believe I need the hierarchy of a church to enable my faith. Rather, I believe my faith is a personal issue between me and God and it something that I can practice/follow without the clergy. I therefore now describe my religion as Protestant rather than Church of England.

With this background, when people were constantly asking me what religion I have and then started talking about Islam I bought a translation of the Koran which I read. I cannot say I have read the Koran. Let's be quite clear. My Muslim friends will correct me if I say that. They say you can only read the Koran (Qu'ran) in the original Arabic being the language in which is was dictated by the Angel of God to the Prophet Mohamed. They will say that any translation by definition may place a different emphasis on the words used or may even use a translation that has a very slightly different meaning from the original so cannot be rightly called Koran. I am OK with this. The translation I read was the one backed by the Al Azhar University in Cairo which is considered to be one of the most prestigious seats of Islam so I am happy that I have certainly understood the gist of the writing.

The Koran is quite clear that Muslims should accept the "people of the book" or what they call here in Egypt the "divine religions" meaning Jews and Christians. So why do I need to be converted.

As one man put it (he was the accountant in the first dive centre where I worked) he most certainly accepted my Christianity but after Mohamed everyone is supposed to be Muslim because only by converting to Islam will I be able to enter into paradise.

I have to say he was quite persistent in his attempts and spent long hours during breaks and periods of little work trying to get me to change my mind. The Koran makes it clear we are supposed to be able to choose so I wondered a little at his persistence. I later found out that many Muslims believe that if a person converts to Islam and during the conversion ceremony (in Egypt this takes place in Cairo at Al Azhar Mosque where converts are received into the community of Islam with their new Islamic name that they have chosen for themselves) mentions their name as the reason for or as being instrumental to that person's conversion then they are guaranteed entry into paradise no matter what course their life has taken or what acts they may have committed or omitted. So, there is a strong personal interest in having a convert who will say that you are the reason for this change of faith.

Since then 5 more people have tried to convert me. One was a man I worked for who went so far as to bring me back leaflets in English from the mosque each week with titles such as "The Light of Islam" or "A Glimpse of Islamic Faith" or "Islam Religion of Life" or "The Concept of God in Islam" or "The True Religion of God" and so on - all of which I read to add to my knowledge of Islam. I'm sure you get the picture.

Even today yet another man seems to be trying to convert me but he is much more subtle. I started having private Arabic lessons because I felt ashamed that after 5 years here I still don't speak the language. We meet 2 times a week and we focus on reading and writing as well as speaking. At first it was pretty basic but more recently we seem to be moving towards something more. Not long ago he gave me a short piece of reading called, in translation, "honest work". Sounds OK but very soon we are into religion and how religion encourages a work ethic and the work carried out by the various prophets, including both Jesus and Mohamed. Another piece was about water and how much of the earth's surface it covers which seemed to move seamlessly into  a piece about God's creation of the world and all that's in it.

I have asked many questions about the place of women in Islam and am always reassured that women are equal with men and are free and empowered by Islam. Looking around me that doesn't seem to be the case at all but the argument is that much of the way the society here is structured and the way women's lives may seem to be restricted when looking from the outside is (a) cultural and not religious and (b) a misconception. The men who speak to me take pains to tell me the women's lifestyle is their own choice.

Certainly there are a lot of similarities between Islam and Christianity. So, with so many similarities accompanied by freedom and empowerment for women why not convert?

Here is why:

Although Muslims believe in the virgin birth they do not believe that Jesus was the son of God. In fact the Koran specifically says that God was not begotten and did not beget. However, as a Christian I firmly believe in Jesus as the son of God and the saviour of the world.

Muslims do not believe in the crucifixion/death/burial/resurrection of Jesus. They believe he was sentenced to crucifixion but that another was crucified in his place. That God caused this other person to take on the image of Christ so the crowds would think it was Jesus. They believe that Jesus was taken into paradise but this was not a resurrection. As a Christian I believe wholeheartedly in the crucifixion/death/burial/resurrection so I have some problems with the Islamic take on this.

So, while I can agree that both religions do have a great deal in common these are very significant differences that I cannot see my way to abandon. That is why I will continue with my Christianity in spite of the best efforts of those around me to convert.

Thank you for reading and God bless you all.

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