My Journey of Faith; Diversity: The Compelling Story of a Christian Who Spurned the Chance to Be an Army Officer- for Islam and an Arranged Marriage: In a World of Religious Tension, 38-Year-Old Muhammad Imran Has an Abiding Belief in Peace. an English Muslim Convert, He Visits Schools on Behalf of the Charity Islamic Relief, to Dispel Prejudices Surrounding His Religion

Article excerpt

Byline: YVONNE SINGH

AT 18, I was sure what my destiny was going to be.

My birth name is Philip Greenwood and I was born in Chelmsford, Essex, and raised in Lancashire to middleclass Protestant parents. I would describe my background as Rightwing Conservative. I was headed for a military career.

I had a place in the Queen's Lancashire Infantry Regiment and a place at Sandhurst: all I had to do was complete a four-year degree course in international politics at Sussex University. Everything was there for the taking. However, when I got to Sussex, all the things I had grown up with were being challenged.

I realised that university was not going to satisfy me. So I asked the Army to give me a year's grace and I dropped out. It may seem a cliche but I was more interested in attending the university of life.

My first stop was to work in a kibbutz in Israel, where I visited the north, the Galilee Valley, Tel Aviv, the West Bank and Gaza. Here I came face to face with conflict. I wasn't dodging bullets or anything like that, but the stark evidence of war was all around: the misery and suffering.

It woke me up to the reality of war and I realised that unless I believed in what I was fighting for, I would not be prepared to fight. As an officer, you don't have time to deliberate with your conscience when the bullets are flying, so I left the Army.

Most of my friends thought I had acted rashly. My father, however, was very supportive. I realise now how difficult it was for him.

I returned to London to save money for an overland journey to India, when I would ask people about their faith in an effort to find inner peace and wisdom. I travelled through a varied religious landscape, meeting Greek Orthodox Christians, Muslims in Turkey and Hindus in India.

While I was travelling through Muslim countries, I asked people about the external aspects of their faith, such as the treatment of women, the punishments in Islam, the lifestyle, the prohibition of alcohol and the emphasis on dress. From the outside, it looks regimented and disciplined.

But when I listened to the answers of these people, I was reassured. It made perfect sense. I came away appreciating Islam as a wonderful highway code to life. However, it did strike me as rather dry and ritualistic.

Although it had answers for political, economic and social issues, there seemed to be no food for the soul.

My travels took me to Peshawar, where I met English relief workers and students, some of whom had converted to Islam. They introduced me to its spiritual traditions. For the first time, I felt at peace. Soon I converted to Islam at the hand of a sheikh on the Pakistan-Afghan border.

In the winter of 1987, I returned home. Some of my family thought I had gone off the rails, others were reassured because by being a Muslim I wouldn't fall prey to drugs, alcohol or promiscuity, the usual temptations for young people.

I affiliated myself to a Birmingham-Pakistani community, friends of the sheikh who had converted me. The first few months were difficult. As well as the practicality of eking out a living, I had to adjust to a way of life that was very different from the way I had lived for the past 22 years. It was not just the external things, such as diet or incorporating the five prayers into daily life, it was hard to resist Western society's pressures, such as sexuality and materialism.

The Muslim community welcomed me and were warm and hospitable.

But it was only natural that cultural misunderstandings occurred. It took time to understand the position taken by people who had grown up within the religion, and separate what was cultural from the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad.

My family thought the conversion was something I would grow out of.

However, six months later I went on the Haj pilgrimage to Mecca [a journey that every Muslim is required to do at least once in a lifetime]. …