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
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]. There, I was reminded that Islam is for white, yellow, brown and black: it was a tremendous affirmation of my faith.
After three years of being a Muslim, I decided to get married.
Muslims don't have to have an arranged marriage but I felt completely at ease with having a friend I knew very well match-make me with someone of the same personality.
My bride-to-be lived in Pakistan but I had met her family in Birmingham.
We exchanged many photographs and letters before I flew out there to meet her on my wedding night. My parents went with me to the airport and waved me off with a mixture of resignation and concern.
I knew I was taking a plunge, but I was more happy and excited than any young man about to get married.
Initially, I didn't speak the language, but I took a course in Urdu and my wife Yasmin and I had a lot of fun giggling over my attempts at conversation.
Fourteen years later, we have six children - four daughters and two sons - and I have been blessed with a wife who is sympathetic and strong. My parents regularly visit their grandchildren and have grown to respect Islam: they can see it is a clean and healthy lifestyle.
After we had our first child, I became a teacher, and taught English in an Islamic School in Birmingham. It was there that I heard about the charity Islamic Relief which I joined in 1999. I was responsible for monitoring aid relief and would visit places such as Afghanistan, Russia and the Congo.
As a convert to Islam, I felt ideally placed to build bridges between cultures and this enabled me to become involved in the UK-based efforts of the development- and- education branch of the charity. As an ambassador of my faith, I do workshops in schools explaining the work of Islamic Relief to young people and emphasising our role as global citizens.
ISLAM shares common ground with Christianity and the teachings of other faiths and I try to illustrate the potential of partnerships between Muslims and others to work hard to address poverty and its causes.
Schools are hungry for people to come in and work with their pupils to provoke thought, and my work has become even more important since the 11 September attacks and the subsequent wave of suicide bombings.
In many ways, Muslims are being demonised and blamed for society's ills, and as a group we face a huge challenge to resist becoming angry or falling into despair. My work can go a long way to challenge the negative stereotypes or images of Islam that we see in the media.
With schoolchildren, whether white or brown, I have found that the seeds of bigotry have already started to be sown in their minds.
Some pupils ask me: "Isn't Islam just about terrorism, sir?" or "Isn't it just for Pakistanis?" However, once they realise that Islam is for anyone, regardless of colour or ethnicity, and a way of life not threatening to them, they start to appreciate it more.
I believe that integration is the only way that society can move forward. In a UK context, it's clear that some Muslim communities are growing up not meeting non-Muslims and some white English people are growing up not interacting at all with people of a different ethnic origin. This can lead to ignorance, which, in turn, can lead to prejudice, fear and tension.
We have already seen examples of communities being polarised with some riots in Northern cities and young Muslim men embracing fanatical organisations. It is this radicalisation of sections of youth that we need to be wary of: these people are a fringe element of malcontents, not the vast majority.
Most Muslims respect that the people of this country are honest, fair and hospitable and the vast majority appreciate this and try to reciprocate by being positive citizens of the UK.
It's important that their mainstream message of peaceful coexistence can be got through, instead of allowing those with a more radical agenda to hijack the media.
Islamic Relief is a Birmingham-based aid agency that seeks to alleviate poverty and suffering. For more information about Islamic Relief's Citizenship and Muslim Perspectives booklet and education work, contact Teachers in Development Education at www.tidec.org: www.islamicrelief.com…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: 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. Contributors: Not available. Newspaper title: The Evening Standard (London, England). Publication date: January 12, 2004. Page number: 8. © Not available. COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group.
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