Friday, September 19, 2008

From the Vatican to Al Azhar

Idris Tawfiq, a British Catholic priest who became a convert to Islam, is a source of fascination in his adopted home in Cairo . Mary Fitzgerald spoke to him about his personal journey of discovery.

A De La Salle brother for 15 years, Idris later studied for the priesthood in Rome . Doubts about his vocation eventually led him to leave the priesthood, triggering a period of uncertainty about what direction his life would take.

He decided to take some time off, booking a charter flight to Hurghada, a package holiday resort that hugs Egypt 's Red Sea coast. Soon bored of the beach, he headed to Cairo and experienced a culture shock quite different to what he had expected. For the first time in his life he met and talked to Muslims, observing their rituals up close. Hearing the call to prayer and watching people stop everything to turn towards Mecca left a deep impression.

"That week's holiday more than anything else changed my life," he explains. "It began to sow the seeds of Islam within me. It was the first time I had spoken to, or even met, Muslims. I saw that they weren't sabre-rattling fanatics, they were just ordinary people. More than that, they were very gentle people and faith-filled in a way I had never seen before."

“On my return I resumed my old job of teaching religion. The only compulsory subject in British education is Religious Studies. I was teaching about Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism and others. So everyday I had to read about these religions to be able to teach my lessons to the students, many of whom were Arab Muslim refugees. In other words, teaching about Islam taught me many things.

“Unlike many troublesome teenagers, these students set a good example of what a Muslim could be. They were polite and kind. So a friendship developed between us and they asked if they could use my classroom for prayers during the fasting month of Ramadan. “Luckily, my room was the only one with a carpet. So I got accustomed to sitting at the back, watching them praying for a month. I sought to encourage them by fasting during Ramadan with them, even though I wasn’t yet a Muslim. “Once while reciting a translation of the holy Qur’an in class I reached the verse: ‘And when they listen to the revelation received by the Messenger, thou wilt see their eyes overflowing with tears, for they recognize the truth.’ To my surprise, I felt tears welling up in my eyes and I tried hard to hide it from the students.”

A chance meeting with Yusuf Islam, formerly Cat Stevens, at London 's Central Mosque, proved pivotal. "I found myself asking him 'What do you actually do to become a Muslim?'. He answered that a Muslim should believe in one God, pray five times a day and fast during Ramadan. I interrupted him saying that I believed all this and had even fasted with my Muslim students during Ramadan. "So he asked, 'What are you waiting for? What is holding you back?' I told him I didn't intend to convert. "At that moment the call to prayer was made and everyone got ready and stood in lines to pray. I sat at the back, and I cried and cried. Then I said to myself, 'Who am I trying to fool?'"

The formal process of conversion in Islam is simple. In front of witnesses, the would-be Muslim recites the Shahada, or declaration of faith, acknowledging the existence of one God, Allah, with Mohammed as his prophet.

Idris formally converted in the venerable surroundings of Cairo 's Al Azhar mosque, Sunni Islam's oldest seat of learning. He later took the Muslim name Idris Tawfiq - Idris, the name of a prophet, and Tawfiq, the Arabic word for good fortune.
"People and events led me to Islam," he says. "What made me leave the church was not any problem I had with it. And it wasn't about belief or anything like that. "I cherish my past in the church, I enjoyed what I did, I love all those people I worked with and treat what they believe with reverence. I just wasn't happy inside."

He falters when asked what he sees in Islam that Catholicism lacked. "That's a very loaded question," he says, grimacing.
The biggest difference, then? "I would say that Islam is completely God-centred," he answers tentatively. "It is not about what Jesus did for me and it's not about offering prayers for myself. The whole thing revolves around Allah.

"The other thing is that Islam covers every aspect of life. It's not a going-to-church-on-Sunday religion, it's not even a going-to-Mass-every-morning and leading a good and holy life religion. "Islam tells you how to greet people, how to eat your food, how to enter a room - how to do everything in life. Whilst Muslims are not saints, Islam encourages Muslims to think about God all the time. Islam, in its essence, attributes everything to God. For Muslims, Islam is everything."

Did he experience periods of doubt leading up to his conversion? "No, none at all," he answers. "Although one of my barriers to becoming a Muslim was the story of Abraham. The Bible says Abraham was going to sacrifice his son Isaac, the Koran says it was Ismael. "It may seem odd, but I wrestled with this for a long time. I thought one of them must be wrong, both cannot be right. But at the end of the day, as with any faith, you have to take that leap and accept the essence of what Islam says. "I have no problem with 'There is no God but God' - I've always believed in that. And Muhammad is his messenger? I have learned and come to understand that core."

There is little data available on the number of converts to Islam. One survey in the US claims 100,000 people convert every year. The same research found that for every male that converts to Islam, four women do the same. A recent study by Yahya (formerly Jonathan) Birt, son of Lord Birt, former director-general of the BBC, used census figures to conclude that there are now 14,200 white converts in Britain .

"I think people who embrace Islam see a calmness and simplicity that many have not experienced before," says Idris. "I don't see it as rigid, it's empowering. Islam is beautiful, sweet and gentle. "All the values that used to exist in Britain and Ireland 30 or 40 years ago - respect for your parents, your elders - they all exist in the Muslim world still."

Idris Tawfiq’s website can be accessed at

Primary Source:
‘On the road from the Vatican to Al Azhar’ by Mary Fitzgerald. Mary Fitzgerald is the winner of the Douglas Gageby Fellowship. Her reports on the "The Faces of Islam" appear in Friday's Irish Times.
Secondary source:
‘One man’s journey to Islam’ by Manal Abdul Aziz

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