x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Support system vital for converts to Islam

Scholar who counsels 'new' Muslims says up to 70 per cent will revert without enduring support.

DUBAI // Converting to Islam is a far more complex and far-reaching process than merely professing the statement of faith, said a scholar who regularly advises new Muslims. Responding to statistics recently released from Abu Dhabi that the number of converts increased by a quarter over last year, Dr Malek Yamani said his experience indicates 70 per cent will revert back to their former lifestyles unless they can find a sustained and enduring system of support.

Dr Yamani, who is a lecturer at the Jumeirah Islamic Learning Centre in Dubai, said: "The issue new Muslims face is they don't have enough people to support them. People choose the religion because of the research they have done and the culture they are exposed to, but what they are looking for after they convert is an in-depth Islamic experience, and there are few people and places for that in Dubai."

Dr Yamani, who was born in Morocco but grew up in France and lived most of his adult life in America, said the intention of his work at the Islamic centre was to provide this support. At the beginning of Ramadan this year he took a group of 25 new Muslims from Europe and America to Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia to perform Umrah. Sarah Sillis, 30, a Belgian national, was one of the group. She became Muslim when she was 15 and living in Belgium. She said it was difficult to maintain her faith when she was the "odd one out", lacking support from friends or family.

"I clearly remember one Ramadan when I was 17 and I nearly gave up. I questioned what I was doing and why I was fasting. I went to the kitchen and I made a sandwich. I was so upset. I went to eat it but I couldn't, my throat closed up. Instead I went to pray, and at that point I knew this was the right decision for me." Ms Sillis says her journey has continued to be a lonely one. She lives in Dubai with her non-Muslim mother and faces daily tests of her faith, especially during Ramadan.

"I spend the month alone, I eat alone, and it can be tough," she said. "However the community here does help. I think without the help of others it would definitely be easy to go back." Aya Salam, a 28-year-old Canadian who changed her name when she converted in February 2008, said she hid her religion from family, friends and colleagues for the first 18 months. It was thanks to the support of fellow Muslims she found in Dubai through the Islamic centre that she maintained her faith, she said.

"I experienced a sisterhood and brotherhood that I didn't think existed, and if I didn't have that maybe I would still be Muslim but I wouldn't have been able to move forward in my religion." Dr Yamani said it was essential for anyone coming into contact with new Muslims to pay attention to their feelings. "I try to open up space for people to be themselves so they use all their senses, including the emotional and intellectual ones. I don't ask them questions, I tell them to be patient, be calm, and I try to show them how the religion fits with their modern lives."

Ms Salam, who regularly attends Dr Yamani's lectures, said she would advise any new Muslim to stay as focused as possible. "Hold on so tight," she said. "You will be tested, but if you keep the right attitude and surround yourself with the right people, you will be rewarded." aseaman@thenational.ae