Saturday, October 22, 2011

What I Know About... Converting To Islam -

Four years ago Amal Loring became a Muslim and is now the second wife to her Emirati husband - here she shares her story.

"For months after I converted to Islam in October 2007 I was asked the same question over and over again: ‘Why would an intelligent woman become a Muslim?’

As a 30-something Western woman who grew up in the UK, I’d had an exceptional career as a sales manager, followed by 10 years as a counsellor in Dubai and had never shown any signs of madness. Yet my family and friends assumed that my conversion was due to some kind of nervous breakdown.

A bloody fool. A victim of brainwashing. A prospective bomber. All of these accusations were thrown at me. When I moved here 14 years ago, like many expats, I didn’t mix with the local community and had many preconceptions about Muslims, with my biggest issue being that Islam was degrading to women. I would see them in the malls, covered up to their eyes, and think, ‘How could a woman allow herself to be repressed like that?’ But my stereotypes were all wrong.

Over time I became more interested in the world I was living in and decided to look deeper into the local culture and religion. I was given the number for Jumeirah Islamic Learning Centre and my investigation began. I discovered that, rather than women being segregated and controlled in Islam, they are viewed almost like a precious jewel.

One afternoon I got a phone call from a woman claiming that she was phoning from the office of HH Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum, one of Dubai’s rulers.

‘We’ve heard that you’re interested in Islam,’ she said. ‘We’d like you to come to the Palace and we will send a car to pick you up at 4pm.’

Assuming that it was a friend winding me up, I just joked back, “Yeah, right!” before hanging up.

But at four on the dot a huge car with blacked-out windows arrived. It felt so surreal I just went with it. At the Palace I was met by Sheikh Saeed, who was welcoming and friendly, and we spoke about the Quran and some of the theories behind it. There and then I took the Shahada – the declaration of faith and confirmation that you are a Muslim. It was over in a matter of minutes and afterwards I thought, ‘Oh my God! What have I done?!’

My life did a 180-degree turn. Legally, a Muslim woman cannot be married to a non-Muslim, which put an end to my seven-year marriage to my British husband. We had already been experiencing problems so my conversion wasn’t the trigger. Starting life anew with our six-year-old daughter was difficult, and, without the bond of alcohol and socialising, my relationships with my Western friends deteriorated.

Of course, in the early months, I had doubts that I’d done the right thing. At times I’d feel excluded and miserable but I remained committed. The biggest deal was covering my distinctive long hair – but it was a small price for having faith in my life. In the beginning I was always tripping over my abaya and I had to adopt a different kind of walk. The idea of covering up is that you’re preserving yourself for your husband – it makes you feel protected.

Naturally, some moments have been hard. My mother wouldn’t walk on the same side of the road as me. People refused to serve me in shops. I’ve been spat at and, back in the UK, was asked to leave a park because, ‘We don’t want your sort around here’. In Dubai I sometimes encounter hostility from other Muslims, who feel that they can challenge me.

I met my husband, Mohammed Al Shehi, through friends. As soon as you become a Muslim you’re asked if you’d like a good husband! The introduction process was completely different – you don’t go to the cinema or have meals alone together – but we fell in love and got married in June 2008. I am my husband’s second wife. Mohammed lives with me and my daughter three days a week and with his first wife and their children for the rest of the time. I don’t get jealous; a Muslim husband has to treat all of his wives equally.

In 2009 I began a degree in Islamic Studies because I wanted the courage and knowledge to answer those who ask about Islam and Sharia law. I also work in a mosque, trying to bring Dubai’s separate cultures together and speaking with others who are considering converting.

By becoming a Muslim I have lost friends – and I’m always the one being searched at airports. But I have never been happier, felt more understanding towards others or felt more balanced and content within myself. Every time I pray I gain the strength and stillness of mind to continue.”

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