"How could you convert?" Maryam Alhawary, 40, has answered this question umpteen times. At tube stations, airports, shopping malls and even in the corner shop people approach Maryam to discuss religion.

By Anasudhin Azeez (A Correspondent)

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Published: Sat 10 Dec 2005, 12:24 PM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 2:50 PM

Over a decade ago, the Hijab-wearing mother of five patiently answered queries from both strangers and acquaintances without showing an iota of shame or fear.

For Maryam, Islam is more than a religion. It is a way of life that teaches the human being the truth, and gives them guidance in every sphere of life. It is the criteria between right and wrong.

"Usually people begin their conversation with me by asking how could you convert to Islam — a religion that oppresses women?" Maryam told City Times at her west London apartment.

"There is only one answer to them — learn Islam. Learning is the only way to alleviate your misconceptions about anything including my chosen religion. Those who understand Islam know that the security, honour and dignity it provides to every human being are unsurpassed. That is why more and more people embracing Islam in the western world."

Maryam has definite answers to the critics of Islam over the rights of woman.

"Today women comprise 53 per cent of the world's population," she said. "They have fewer professional posts but perform two out of three of all working hours. A woman's role in the Western society has changed from the traditional housewife to one of a commodity, to be exploited for commercial means. With all of this it is no wonder that more and more Western women are adopting the ideology of Islam. However, the role of women are clearly defined in Islam and therefore there is no such debate on 'equality.' Their nature is understood to be different, yet complementary to each other. Therefore women are neither slave to man, women, society or any other fab idol."

Maryam was the second eldest among seven children of a devoted Irish catholic family. After acquiring a professional qualification, she started working as a nurse in a private hospital in London at 21. There she met several Arab patients but no one noticed the Irish nurse's eagerness to learn more about their religion.

"My knowledge about Islam at that time was ridden with several common western misconceptions," Maryam said. "Like any other average westerner I believed it to be an Arab religion where the man is favoured, since I am told constantly that a man can have four wives, etc. But my inner mind always told me there is something special about this religion, which can provide answers to my search for truth.

"I got married to Egyptian lawyer Mohammed Alhawary at 23. Soon afterwards my husband and I visited Egypt. It was an enlightening time in my life. The most memorable thing about Egypt was the Azan (call to prayer). That was the first time I had heard it. It was amazing — the great land now submitting their free will to the one true God."

But Maryam pondered about conversion for about 10 years. She meticulously analysed the religion and was surprised to see its richness emancipate man from his shackles.

"My journey to accepting Islam was slow," said Maryam. "I looked into what Islam had to say about all the questions I did not find satisfactory answers to in the past. I was given a copy of the Holy Quran in English as a gift. As soon as I began to read the opening chapter Surat Al-Fatihah and continued onto Surah Al-Baqarah, I realised that this was without doubt a divinely inspired book, and I recognised the Truth by God's will. The Quran was a criterion between truth and falsehood, good and evil and it spoke directly to the reader. I was pondering on the verses I was reading and thinking about what Allah was telling the people of glad tidings to the believers and admonishment for the heedless. The truth about Prophet Isa (PBUH) was revealed and I realised that this is what I believed.

"By studying reality I was rationally convinced of a Creator, and rationally convinced that the Holy Quran was the word of the Creator. Islam is a complete way of life and mankind was created to worship its Creator through all aspects of its life in all systems social, political, judicial, economic, educational etc, instructions which emanate from the Quran because no one knows the creation better than its Creator.

"I embraced Islam soon afterwards just in my thirtieth year and I knew I was guided by the Creator to the Truth. I just wanted everyone to know the Truth and become Muslim but I realised that you have to consent to be guided. I told my family that I was a Muslim and they were not too upset about my accepting Islam.

"How could you convert to Islam — a religion that oppresses women?" many asked. "I tried to explain my chosen religion to them. My family would say things like Jesus is the Lord and holy Mary, mother of God in their prayers and I would be trying to explain that they were committing the biggest sin "Shirk" in front of God and that was the only sin that would never be forgiven by God. They were even breaking their own first commandment, which very few people even thought about or even understood. I could now see the hypocrisy of their actions. At funerals the priest was asking Jesus for forgiveness and a place in paradise for the deceased. I tried to explain to my family especially my mother who would only say that's the way they were brought up to believe so who was I to change things.

"I was remembering the verse in the Holy Quran where Allah addresses his people and asks them, "Even though your fathers were devoid of knowledge you chose to follow them blindly. No knowledge had they of such thing, nor had their fathers. Mighty is the word that comes from mouths. They utter nothing but a lie." (Quran 18:4)

Maryam's decision to wear Hijab too created a big uproar in her immediate family and in the community. "I started to wear the Hijab two years after I embraced Islam," she said. "This is when I had the most problems with my family and friends. My family wanted me to take the Hijab off as now the neighbours in Ireland would know I was a Muslim for sure. This caused many problems. I tried to explain to them that the mother of Prophet Isa who they were praying to in the form of an idol either stone or plastic was wearing a scarf and long clothing which they had no problem accepting, but when they saw a human being with the same covering they were rebuking them.

Hijab is obligatory for the Muslim woman. It honours her and protects her from exploitation. Those who understand Islam know that the security, honour and dignity it provides are unsurpassed.

"Some of my friends went off in the opposite direction when they saw me coming toward them, and others asked why the Hijab? Many could not accept me wearing the Hijab, but if I questioned why they were wearing immodest clothes they would say it should not concern me, even though they were concerned about what I was wearing."

Maryam was critical of western media's portrayal of Islam especially in the post-July 7 London blasts. "The media were propagating a message to the Muslims that no one was safe and all were legitimate targets for suspicion," Maryam said.

"I felt it was a way to silence Muslims from speaking out and propagating the truth about Islam and they are trying to weaken the truth. This had the opposite effect as this ignited an interest in Islam from all corners of the globe. That also had some impact on the Muslim community. They seemed to be uniting more and understanding the relevance of their religion. They were also very frightened at the uncertainty of what was happening to them and the situation they found themselves in. It was a time for the Muslims to unite in prayer and remember Allah in Zikr and ask for patience and perseverance."

"Just after the 7/7, many non-Muslims asked questions about what Islam had to say on the subject of suicide and killing of innocent people?"

"The Holy Quran says if you save one life, you are saving one world and if you destroy one, you are destroying a world. The suicide bombers do not know what they are doing. Some people are misusing the religion to satisfy their personal greed. Europe's first woman suicide bomber, Belgian-born Muriel Degauque aka Myriam, was a victim of that vicious campaign.

"The Quran says "Whoever saved a life, it shall be as if he had saved the life of all mankind." (The Holy Quran 5:32). In Islam we believe that a life is a trust from Allah and Allah is the giver of life. He states in the Quran: Do not kill yourself.

"Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) valued life and was never aggressive or harsh except his enemies who were fighting against him. It is not befitting of believing men and women when Allah and his messenger have decreed a matter that they can change that matter, as it is a divine rule and commandment. Deciding to take your life and the life of others at a specific time is not part of Islam and I can only conclude that the person was vulnerable or either deluded and could easily be lead into wrongdoing. Muslims were not the first people to carry out suicide bombings but this does not justify suicide bombings, as we should be the leaders and role models for the rest of humanity in this life. We refer back to the Holy Quran and the Sunnah for guidance."

According to Maryam, Islam can provide solutions to most of the perils of the western society — rising in crime, family breakdown, drugs and alcoholism. "The discipline and security of Islam can never match with any other things. It is the only religion that erases racism from its society. Islam elevates man from slavery to other men and their selfish desires to the recognition that only the All Powerful Creator has the right to legislate for his creation.

"Tyranny, oppression and all types of injustices are prevalent in today's society, so therefore it can be very confusing for the youth as to what they should be doing, some resort to desperate measures because of their vulnerability. If they are submitting themselves to true path of Islam, they can find solution for all their miseries."

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