Changing lanes

2008-10-02 00:00

When I visited Lucy Bushill-Matthews at her Northcliff home in Johannesburg to discuss her book Welcome to Islam — A Convert’s Tale she was well into the month-long fast of Ramadan, her 17th Ramadan since her conversion to Islam in 1991 while she was at university. "The first time I fasted for Ramadan I couldn’t imagine not having a meal or a drink for a whole day. I’d tried giving up things for Lent but never managed to give up one item for the whole six weeks and here I was giving up everything for a month from dawn to dusk."

Bushill-Matthews admits her first Ramadan was a struggle but now she takes the fast in her stride. "If you believe, as I do, that it’s ordained by God, that it’s his will that Muslims fast, then you just get on with it."

Prior to her conversion Bushill-Matthews was nominally Christian, "Church of England" if asked. "It sounded like it was the right kind of religion for an English person." And Bushill-Matthews is about as English as they come: educated at Charterhouse, one of Britain’s top private schools, and Newnham College, Cambridge, where she studied economics.

It was at Charterhouse that she first met a Muslim, Julian Beere, a British Muslim, half Iranian and half English. Their wide-ranging discussions challenged the unquestioned faith she had been brought up in. In-between school and university Bushill-Matthews used her gap year to travel, working on a kibbutz in Israel and then moving on to Egypt. Her experiences of different faiths in these countries further stimulated her interest in religion and once at Cambridge, having joined the University Christian Association, she then signed up for the Islamic Society. However she found the latter a rather isolating experience: "Everyone else was Muslim. I wasn’t and had no intention of being one."

She decided to explore Islam via reading and was left feeling ambivalent. "While I found the holistic logic of Islam compelling, at its core it just seemed so foreign," she says in her book. Further study began to dissolve those more alien aspects, such as referring to God as Allah. "I found there were many names for God and that Jews and Christians in Arabic-speaking countries call God Allah."

But what of Mohammed, who told people about Islam and who Muslims believe was the final prophet of God? "As a Christian I had ended up with the idea that Jesus was the last genuine religious leader — anyone else must be an impostor." As Bushill-Matthews found out more about Mohammed’s life she also "learnt more about many of the prophets I knew from the Bible. I began to believe that Mohammed could be a prophet after all."

Matters came to a head one night in November 1991. Unable to sleep she grappled with the question: "If I accept God as a presence in my life how am I to respond to that presence? "I didn’t see myself as religious. I wanted to believe in God and carry on with my life normally". When day dawned she realised that if, "I wanted to to be true to my convictions, I would have to let my belief in God affect my life."

Becoming a Muslim was a logical consequence of that insight. "I already believed in God and I already believed that Mohammed was the culmination of all the prophets sent before him. I didn’t believe I had much of a choice anymore."

The consequences of her conversion — breaking the news to parents and friends, and the changes Islamic observances and prayer brought to her life — form much of the subject matter of Welcome to Islam. The book manages to be both funny, poignant and informative as it details the stresses of finding a place to pray in the workplace, the varying responses to her wearing a head scarf, her Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca and the ups and downs of daily life lived within a religious context. At the mosque she attended in Woking the imam only spoke and preached in Urdu. "People would turn up in traditional dress, I would turn up in jeans, they would look at me and I would think ‘what am I doing here?’

"At one point, I was worried that I didn’t belong in English culture and I didn’t belong in Muslim culture," she says. "But if you have a positive attitude you can belong anywhere."

Along the way she also married Julian and they now have three children, Safiyya, Asim and Amaani.

Bushill-Matthews and her family came to South Africa three years ago when her husband, who works in the mining industry, was offered a job in Johannesburg. She now works for the international relief organisation Islamic Relief which runs a centre called Osizweni ("place of help") at Ennerdale. "It’s a daycare centre for orphans and vulnerable children — they have so many unmet needs."

She also teaches at a local Madrasa. "I teach the three to five-year-olds," she says. "I teach about God, the character of God and how that can be reflected in our own lives. For example, we look at how God is merciful and how can you apply that quality in your life."

She also helps teach the children the meaning of the Qur’an. "There is also reading Arabic from the Qur’an. Yesterday, I was using one of the shorter suras, or chapters, on being truthful and being kind. Small children can relate to this, it doesn’t have to be at a high philosophical level."

The Madrasa operates two afternoons a week, unlike some others that are run on a daily basis which often prevents children from engaging in extramural school activities, including sport. "I don’t want my children to be separate from their culture," says Bushill-Matthews. "This way they can still take part in school activities. Yesterday my son played cricket. We are not trying to conflict with school, we try to reinforce it."

Bushill-Matthews’s children attend a Christian-oriented school. "We have the same values but a different perspective," she says. "Muslims have so much more in common with people of faith. If you have a God-based perspective there is so much to share."

Life in South Africa as a Muslim is much easier than in Britain, says Bushill-Matthews. "There is much more acceptance. In Britain anyone talking about God is considered a little strange. When I gave talks in schools about Islam I would ask how many know the Lord’s Prayer — a couple of children out of 30 would know it. But here there is prayer at the start of the day — it is part of the culture here."

Her local mosque is just down the road. "It’s called a jamat khana, a small community prayer facility. Someone kindly built a portacabin in their grounds specifically for prayer." Otherwise Bushill-Matthews attends a mosque in Brixton or another with a similar approach in Pretoria. "Men and women from different cultures go there. We pray separately to the men but alongside them, just separated by an ornate dividing barrier. I’m more comfortable with that."

A striking feature of her book is that it emphasises the diversity in practice among Muslims. "People think ‘The Muslims’, as though it’s some kind of monolithic block," she says. "As I say in the book, Islam is a 40-lane highway. We are all in different lanes."

In Islam men and women are considered spiritually equal, but to outsiders it often seems that in some of those lanes women get a raw deal. For example, why does Bushill-Matthews have to wear a scarf that is only removed in the presence of other women or family members. As it turns out she doesn’t have to, she chooses to. "It’s not just about the scarf but about modesty as a whole," she says. "I’m covered from wrist to ankles. This means you are not viewed as a sexual being and it makes people focus on what you say, not what you look like."

She stresses that behaviour is more important than dress. "You can be dressed modestly and still behave outrageously. Modesty in dress and modesty in behaviour should go hand-in-hand."

Bushill-Matthews thinks the "scarf issue" has been blown up out of all proportion. She produces a birthday card, a photograph of a group of British working-class women complete with mops and buckets. A punchline says "Housework didn’t kill anybody". Bushill-Matthews points out that all the women in the picture are wearing scarves. "It’s not a symbol of oppression. It’s simply a cultural phenomenon. Nowadays no one wears scarves, then they did. Not so long ago in church women’s heads were covered and men took their hats off. There is this idea that Western values are the same for all time. They are not."

And what about the complete covering of women with black hijab (outer dress) complete with niqab (a face veil)? "I personally find it difficult initially to build up a rapport with people dressed like that," she says, then smiles. "People say ‘hello’ to you in the supermarket and you don’t know who they are. But because they are wearing a niqab doesn’t mean they are oppressed. There is a women’s refuge just down the road from where I used to live and sadly it was full of women who weren’t Muslim. Domestic violence and oppression of women is a phenomenon across society, it’s not just a Muslim thing."

"There are so many preconceptions about Muslims," she says. "Under their niqabs you can bet they have the same problems and delights in life as the rest of us."

Which is one of the reasons Bushill-Matthews wrote Welcome to Islam. "I feel Islam needs a more human face. We need to be meeting people and inviting people into our homes to have tea. The book is the equivalent of inviting someone into my home."

• Welcome to Islam — A Convert’s Tale by Lucy Bushill-Matthews is published by Continuum

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