WHY A DEVOUT CATHOLIC DECIDED TO BECOME A MUSLIM
24 April 2008
Believing in God, or Allah, requires individual strength and faith in the increasingly secular society in which we live. So what could inspire somebody to change from one religion to another? As police hold Bristol Muslim convert Andrew Ibrahim for suspected terrorism involvement, reporter JACK HUNTER spoke to a Bristol student who left his devout Catholic beliefs behind to become a Muslim.
For most Christians the thought of converting to Islam is almost taboo. Children are raised on tales of Richard the Lionheart and his noble knights crusading to rid the Holy Land of unbelievers.
Then there is the widespread news coverage about Islamic terrorism at home and abroad.
But one Bristol student stunned his dyed-in-the-wool Christian family by announcing his intention to become Muslim.
Mohammed Hakeem, 28, knew it would be difficult for his family to accept his conversion.
Mr Hakeem, formerly Belizaire, is from a committed church-going family who observe Lent and other Christian holidays with devotion.
He was baptised Roman Catholic and attended Catholic schools in Bath.
But the death of his mother in 2003, at the age of 42, revealed cracks in his belief which ultimately led him to embrace Islam.
After years of consideration, while he worked in recruitment and sales in various firms in Bristol, Mohammed converted in September 2007.
He said: "I lost faith in school having religion and science classes back to back.
"I'm logically minded and some of the so-called miracles Jesus performed just didn't make sense to me.
"When my mum passed away, my faith was shaken.
"I always believed everything happened for a reason and couldn't understand why someone so good and so young was taken.
"When I was feeling lost and confused by my religious education, I found that Islam made sense to me.
"It gave me a concrete feeling in the existence of God and an afterlife, which helped me deal with the loss of my mother."
His brother Lewis, now Yusuf, had converted 19 months earlier, a move that had a major influence on Mohammed's decision.
He said he watched his brother, who attended the Catholic St Brendan's Sixth Form College in Brislington, grow in conviction and happiness and after some deep thinking took the leap from one faith to another.
He announced his intentions at the St Mark's Road Mosque, familiar to so many from its dome which can be seen from the M32.
Mohammed said: "I was nervous, but as soon as I went in I was openly welcomed by the imam and some young people.
"They asked about my reasons for wanting to convert.
"It's difficult to describe the feeling when you go through with it and say the Shadadah, the vow of belief in God and Mohammed as the prophet of God.
"It's a wonderful sensation.
"It's a feeling of spiritual clarity rather than feeling lost and forsaken."
If he is not praying in St Mark's Road, Mohammed worships at home or in a prayer room at the University of the West of England, where the first-year student is studying business and is a member of the university business club and Islamic association.
He said he was surprised to find how similar the Catholic and Muslim faiths were, not least the fact that Jesus is a part of Islam, which considers him an important prophet.
Both faiths worship one God, too.
Mohammed became a model Muslim, praying daily, learning Arabic, giving generously to charity and renouncing pork and alcohol.
Although he does not wear traditional dress all the time, Mohammed sometimes wears a formal kafnee suit and flat-topped crocheted topi hat for prayers.
Mohammed - who does not want his former Christian name to be known - chose his new first name out of respect for the prophet, and Hakeem because it means wise.
He said: "It's not compulsory to change names, but being around the Muslim community, when someone asks you your name and you give an English name, it doesn't feel appropriate.
"I almost feel awkward and embarrassed because it wasn't an Islamic name.
"Becoming a Muslim certainly has had an influence on my identity in that respect."
As a Muslim, he says the portrayal of Islam since the September 11 terrorist attack in New York and Washington angers him.
He said: "I despise the negative portrayal of the Muslim community in parts of the media.
"Watching the martyrdom videos of the suspects of 7/7, they explained why they were doing it.
"I condemn their actions. Taking life is against the faith.
"However, their reasons - about British foreign policy and the killing of innocent Muslims every day - has to be understood rather than people being too quick to judge the entire Muslim race based on the actions of a few individuals.
"I've heard tales of people receiving aggro because of their religion, but personally I haven't been targeted.
"I've met quite a few converts who come from different backgrounds.
"All were very peaceful and happy individuals.
"I was surprised to hear about all that has been going on in Westbury-on-Trym because these things tend to happen elsewhere."
Mohammed's brother, who is now 19, took the name Yusuf after he converted but, unlike his brother, has retained his surname.
He chose Yusuf because it is a name his family could pronounce.
Yusuf is a law student in London and said his family were shocked when he announced he would be converting to Islam.
But he said it was easy to convert and that he was warmly welcomed by the Muslim community.
He said: "My grandmother thought I was moving away from God.
"But I sent her a copy of the Koran and she read through it.
"Over Christmas, she helped me find which direction to pray.
"Because I was so worried my conversion would create a divide, I waited almost a year to make sure I wasn't being influenced or caught up in something new and interesting.
"In January 2006 I felt I'd waited as long as I could.
"The conversion was a lot simpler than I thought.
"I went to Bristol Central Mosque as people were leaving after Friday prayers and went to the front to announce my intentions.
"They were all quite shocked.
"All of a sudden half the people came and sat down in front of me and looked at me with such love on their faces.
"They asked if I had read up on it, and was I sure nobody had put me up to it.
"They wanted to be sure that I was the real deal.
"I took the Shahadah.
"I was repeating the lines of Arabic spoken to me, but I had practised as much as I could and I knew the meaning behind the words.
"Then that was it.
"They all came and gave me hugs, spoke to me and invited me to their homes for meals and one gave me a lift home.
"It was the best feeling of my life. I couldn't stop smiling.
"It was only a couple of lines, but in my heart I felt like something big had happened.
"I could then actually start my journey and become a Muslim."
Yusuf said he likes to mix new and old, wearing a hoodie and polo shirt he bought online bearing the name Allah in Arabic, rather than the more traditional dress.
He keeps a library of about 100 religious books and is planning to take a pilgrimage soon, one of the key responsibilities all Muslims must undertake at least once in their lifetime.
Yusuf said he felt complete again with his new faith, but was not prepared for the reaction it would provoke in strangers.
He said: "I've never been used to any form of prejudice and suddenly getting it put me in other people's shoes.
"A lot of times people don't know how to take it when I tell them I'm a Muslim convert.
"Terrorism is the first thing that comes into their minds.
"They are thinking 'please tell me you're not one of them'.
"You get used to it. I can totally understand where they are coming from because I was there.
"But when I get the chance to speak to them, 90 per cent want to know more about Islam.
"Islam just seemed to suit me. I never went out much, going to bars and clubs, and I wasn't a ladies' man.
"My friends would joke about me not going out, but it seemed to suit my lifestyle."
Just as it may seem strange to Christians to learn of one of their own choosing a new faith, so it surprised some Bristol Muslims, too.
Yusuf said: "I often get a few looks during prayers.
"They aren't bad looks, but intrigued 'wow, there's a white person' looks.
"I was told that the general view is that when you convert from other religions you are generally seen as more devoted because you've done it out of choice."
Yusuf said that he has not met Andrew Ibrahim, the suspect being held by police in Bristol under the Terrorism Act.
"It's a relatively close-knit society in Bristol, so you generally know everyone," he said.
"I would have thought that I'd have seen him, but I haven't heard much about him.
"In Bristol I've always been looking for any of this happening so I can tell the police about it.
"Some people sometimes say 'come to this house, there's going to be a talk' and I would wonder.
"But when I went it was a perfectly innocent meeting.
"I've never come across anything negative."
His progress impressed his mentor Mohammed Chowdhury, chairman of Bristol Central Mosque in Easton.
Mr Chowdhury said: "Yusuf is studying with my daughter in London, so he's like a child to me.
"My younger son calls him brother.
"He's a good Muslim in all sorts of ways.
"He's praying and doing his duty and integrating into society very well.
"The reaction of other Muslims is simple - they accept him as a brother.
"When he converted, people at the mosque were amazed and interested and wanted to welcome him.
"But it's not unusual for someone to convert.
"Hundreds of people are converting to Islam.
"If anyone comes to me showing their willingness, I will help them."