White, Weird and Wonderful
Imagine a white suburban drug taking anarchist wino becoming a God-conscious Muslim [anarchist]. Julian Yaqub elucidates on why there never can be a fairy tale conversion...
Today, I want to tell you the story of my life. There is a reason for this – ego permitting. People ask me why I became a Muslim. Some converts claim to be able to answer that question. I wish I could present you with a neat narrative of how atheistic monster became Muslim do-gooder. But it is not that simple, and I suspect it rarely if ever is that simple.

Converts often begin their tale with a summary of their religious or non-religious origins, but I was never quite deluded by the trinity, nor was I ever truly Godless and bereft of light. Perhaps like many 40-something Brits, my religious roots are rather tangled and involved. At school, they taught me to love Jesus. Hands together, pointing to heaven, eyes closed. I loved to pray, as most children do. But sadly, these were the days when young children were viewed as simpletons in need of concrete explanations, especially in matters of religion. I once asked a teacher why we couldn’t point our hands downward. No, the teacher informed me, heaven is up there – and she pointed with whole arm held aloft, no doubt terrified I had been possessed by some hell-seeking demon. This material representation of the divine cosmos would prove to be Christianity’s undoing for me. Dear teacher, when my daughter was just six, she asked me if God created the world, then who created God.

As it turned out, my attachment to primary school Christianity persisted longer than it had for my two brothers’, not through any special light dwelling within me, but simply because my atheist father had left home for another family before I was five years old. A fundamentalist Christian until conscription in 1944 taught him another use for Bibles, Dad was nevertheless around just long enough to drill home the ‘truths’ of scientific atheism into the head of my elder brother. I remember the pat talk big bro gave me to this day. It was winter and I was in the kitchen of my perfectly suburban detached house in Billericay, the thick trunk of next door’s oak holding its leafless arms over our garden like some gargantuan basketball defender, its chaos of jumbling limbs spread sufficiently wide to reveal clouds racing across my childhood sky.

‘Where’s heaven, then?’ Asked my brother, who had been interested in physics and electronics almost from the moment he could walk.

‘The teachers say our hands point to heaven, so it must be above the clouds!’ I speculated.

‘How come the Apollo astronauts didn’t see it, then?’ He smirked as my simple faith blew away like moon dust.

Yet my childhood remained brimming with religion. My best friend from the age of nine was Dave, an East African Asian Roman Catholic. Every morning before school, he knelt and prayed to a white Mother Mary to protect him from grazes and racist taunts, and every evening his family recited rosary faster than I could hear it. I longed to join the mystery of Sunday mass, but when I asked my mother if I could go, she shook her kindly head and left the aforementioned brother to sneer it out of me.

In my teenage mind, atheism went hand in hand with science. Darwin, Newton, these were iconic figures to me – and they remain so to this day. It seemed inevitable my career would involve something ‘scientific’, however crap I was at chemistry experiments. Yet religion is not as far from science as many Harun Yahya devotees might imagine. It was Catholic Dave who first introduced me to the strange universe of Einstein, who unbeknown to me at that time believed in God, if not quite the Catholic one. Indeed, my childhood experiences of religion did find a foothold in my early adulthood, but in the form of strong moral sensibility rather than through any sense of Quranic wonder at the world. And in the mess of those difficult times I sought to combine science and saintliness in two ways. I became a vegetarian and I went to work in 'health' - as a student psychiatric nurse.

To be honest, I had no need for religion by the time I was twenty. You could have read me the Qur’an from cover to cover and I would have laughed at you. I was young, ecstatically in love and having a great time. Even when life plans went kind of awry and I got fired out of my job, I continued to have a wonderful life. Hash, LSD, Speed! This was the trinity that genuflected over my every waking moment, either taking it or getting it. I played in a punk band, got busted helping to write ‘all killers welcome here’ on a gun shop wall and lashed out at my wife when she suggested I might be turning into a complete ass’ole.

You see, even the fairy tale good times were sometimes terrible times. Yet I was never the deluded fool or the deranged druggy. Nor was I the patriarchal husband or the debauched black sheep of the family. Sometimes I just watched TV and got bored. Like most people of my middle class suburban generation, I was – and probably still am – decadent. And like too many people of my generation, I let my decadence get out of hand. Take my mate Paul – he got into smoking Sinsemilla and reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The next thing we knew, he had been diagnosed schizophrenic. Peeves, a budding art student, ended up training as a silver service waiter. Others tumbled into their respective pot holes and ruts. It was 1988 when I woke up, literally, from a drug-induced epileptic fit to the gentle voice of my wife calling my name, holding a baby in her arms. It was my daughter Leanne. Almost there and then I decided things had to change.

Let me tell those of you puerile enough to think drug-crazed youth stories are romantic just one thing. Shut up! Dried up winos and druggies are nearly all the same. Post DTs, we usually hook up to another obsession or addiction, and mine was study study study. In an act of rebellion so typical of my decadent life, I turned my back on science and decided to read for a degree in Theology and Religious Studies. It nurtured an analytical mind able to both celebrate and criticize religion. Christianity –shaky intellectual foundations but dig Mary Daly and Liberation Theology! Judaism – great intellectuals but don’t Israel’s politics suck? Islam was largely Orientalism, and it was the 'otherness' of Islam that was one of its pulls. When I changed my name, and then asked people to call me by my middle name, a friend of mine quite rightly explained I was ‘trying to be mysteriously exotic’.

Ironically it was another obsession – the overworked students’ valium, booze, that set me on the path to becoming a Muslim. During the second year of my degree, my nights out became weeks out and my weeks out became black outs, while my daughter waited at the window wondering when her daddy would be coming home. Finally, one evening, fearing for my liver, my family and my educational future, I pondered what to do. In a numinous flash, the answer came to me - convert to Islam!! The logical side of brain agreed. Muslims have rules, and number one is no drinking! The very next day, I changed my name my deed poll and that night went to the student mosque and took my Shahadah before a room full of blood-curdling Wahhabis. It was that stupid.

Of course, no conversion stories would be complete without a post-conversion family disorder to illustrate the dramatic change in values imbued by the convert’s religious transformation. I do have a delightful one to share with you. A week after my conversion, my wife told me that, before we had met, she had been lovers with a South Asian Muslim man who had viciously abused her – he had also been married to someone else, as she later found out. So she watched my conversion to literalist Wahhabism fearing I would mutate into the monster that was her violent ex. In fact, I did temporarily become a kinder person than I had been, but I think she was nonetheless pleased when my adventures with organized religion finally came to an end. Once I had my degree, the need for crutches crumbled.

The journey back to Islam has been uneven, cautious. It has left behind my children, who have grown up perhaps more sympathetic to Muslims than many secular children, and without any inhibitions about making friends with children from other cultures, but otherwise non-Muslim. Indeed, it was not until Ramadan 1999, eight years after converting, that I seriously began to think of myself as a Muslim again. I was a student teacher in a 95% Muslim primary school in Batley, West Yorkshire, England. I remember it as a beautiful time, not so much for the magic of the holy fast as the joy of an unrequited love I felt towards one of the Nursery Nurses who worked there. She really was lovely and though no devout soul herself, she persuaded me to re-engage with Islam. Then I started reading. And thinking…

And that’s the way the path to Islam really was for me, and I suspect really is for many converts. How many out there gave up and never came back? Life is complicated. Truth is complicated. Anyone who says otherwise is either George Bush or a Wahhabi. Having said that, I sometimes wonder whether this bookish, unsure, progressive Muslim voice I have acquired risks ignoring some very basic points about Islam. One came to me recently through the works of the Sufi M R Bawa Muhaiyaddeen. It’s a simple idea, beautiful and perfect:

To become a true human is a miracle. To become a good person is a miracle. To become a wise person is a miracle.1

If there is a lesson to learn from my conversion story, and I know you all like lessons, it is this. Progressive Muslims desperately need to invent a new Shahadah. Clearly there is a risk we might enjoy watching the Salafis and Wahhabis writhe about in apoplectic declarations of apostasy, so let’s keep this a secret, progressive Shahadah. It should go something like: ‘I believe in one God, Allah, and that the rest of my life will be devoted to being less of an idiot than I am now’. That pretty much sums up my path to Islam. What about yours?

Originally Published on Muslim Wake Up.

(1) M R Bawa Muhaiyaddeen (2003) Enough for a Million Years  (Philadelphia: The Fellowship Press)