Last weekend I met an elder-statesman of the convert community, a respected English gentleman who has been Muslim for over forty years — for more years than I have walked on the earth, in fact. He talked about his experience in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when English converts were small in number, and few and far between: eccentric aberrations in the space-time continuation of the Muslim community. Contrasting then and now, he recited Surah An Nasr from the Qur’an:
“When God’s help comes and He opens up your way, and you see people embracing God’s faith in crowds, celebrate the praise of your Lord and ask His forgiveness: He is always ready to accept repentance.” — Qur’an 110
Whereas he once walked a lonely road, he said, with only a few companions at his side, now the rate of conversion to Islam had reached a critical mass. Today, he said, we see people embracing God’s faith in crowds, as Islam grows exponentially, touching the lives of billions of people around the globe.
Hearing this, I thought to myself: “What world is he living in?”
It is true that thousands of people embrace Islam in the UK each year, although precise numbers are hard to come by. But let us say that the optimistic figure of 5,000 sometimes suggested is broadly correct: this figure indicates that 0.0075% of the population converts to Islam each year. If the total number of converts is 100,000, as is also often claimed, this number still amounts to just 0.14% of the UK’s 66.7 million inhabitants. And if the Muslim population of the UK is close to 3 million, or 4.5% of the population, converts make up just 4% of the total number of Muslims. Whichever way we look at it, we converts are a tiny, insignificant demographic group, of little relevance either to the general population or to the wider Muslim community.
Haven’t things changed since the 1970s? Almost certainly. According to census data, in 1981 there were 553,000 Muslims in the UK, making up 1.1% of a population of 49.6 million people. The proportion of these that were converts was probably negligible, numbering a few thousand at most.
So growth, definitely, but critical mass? Not exactly. Gather Muslim converts together in one place and you could easily fill every household of a country town like Carlisle in Cumbria or Woking in Surrey. But in reality, we are scattered around, here and there, a few souls in every town in the country and a few villages in between. In my little market town, with its population of 20,000, there are maybe ten of us, making up 0.05% of the population, or 0.5% of the town’s Muslim population. In larger towns and cities, there may be hundreds. In our biggest cities, there could even be thousands; incredible, until you realise that the population of London is over 8 million.
We have more than our fair share of celebrities, who are put on a pedestal and praised far beyond their due. We also have our fair share of extremists, causing resentment and suspicion amongst the wider Muslim community. Between these two poles we find the great unknown: the bulk of converts, ignored by their communities, considered a bit strange, some practicing, some not, living mundane lives, surrounded by small circles of friends, raising families, going to work and coming home.
Amongst us, people of every kind: English, Irish, Scottish, Welsh, French, German, Jamaican, Indian, Chinese, Kenyan and, well, all the world. Amongst us, people of every background: Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Atheist, Agnostic. Of every political leaning: leftist, liberal, fascist, anarchist, apathetic, nationalist, globalist. And of every sectarian outlook or none, whether Salafi or Sufi, Sunni or Shia, Traditionalist or Modernist, zealous or lax. Amongst us those that converted as students in search of meaning and truth, those that fell in love with a Muslim girl, and those rebels seeking an identity to cement their anti-establishmentarianism.
I wonder about this critical mass that my wise companion spoke of. Perhaps he speaks of something real, closer to the centre, far away from my resting place on the extreme periphery, but I doubt it. Perhaps the solidarity forged by social media has created something tangible: a shared identity that is capable of spurning a revolution. But I doubt it.
In the raging global battles between the Muslim Brotherhood and Salifism, brought to the world stage by competing multi-billionaires using their wealth and weapons to spread their influence everywhere, we have no say. Everywhere, the masses are being co-opted to support one side or the other, however corrupt and mendacious, browbeaten by emotional blackmail and propaganda to leave behind their spiritual quest and replace it with political battles that have nothing to do with them.
Where is this critical mass of the newly religious, using their influence to change the world for the better, to bring fresh insights on religion, to improve the lives of many? Surely it is the other way around: that the force and dominance of these political elephants has reached critical mass, as they flatten everything in their path. Theirs are the narratives in ascendancy on social media, infecting every Muslim with their claims, whether grounded in truth or not. The world has been framed for us, and the lone, isolated voices are being drowned out, silenced for good by the clamouring hostilities all around us. Wapiganapo tembo nyasi huumia.
In truth, those who embrace faith, seeking the pleasure of God, are a minority. There is no mass movement to believe. Look around you: it is mostly traffic in the opposite direction. People brought up as Muslims are abandoning their religion in droves. Yesterday’s activists for religion are today’s renegades. The uncertain approach me regularly, asking me to assuage their fears and doubts. Petro-Dollars have made us strangers. The spiritual path the hippies embraced in the 1970s, trading their kaftans for kufis, has been supplanted by the argumentative indoctrination of competing ideologies.
I believe critical mass was reached centuries ago, and now we are on the slow downward trajectory towards full implosion. Those who jump aboard the caravan are merely odd outliers, here today, gone tomorrow. I don’t foresee a new golden dawn, when spiritual masses obedient to God will transform the world around them. All the evidence points to this being an age of ignorance, as Muslim societies descend further into chaos and darkness. Where is the revolution of hearts, bringing about our golden era, our ascendancy, our luminescent surge towards godliness and rectitude? It is nowhere to be seen.
Even in the clamour to defend beloved Muslim personalities — apparently our guides — religion is cast aside. Our defence of these great men is founded purely on the politics of identity, communitarianism and opposition to the other. Righteousness does not come into it, nor God’s law, nor appeals to good living. We are fighting battles, certainly, and on every front, but they are not battles for faith. We fight, but we don’t know what we are fighting for.
The victory of God came a millennium and a half ago, when hearts were transformed by His grace. The one bestowed this blessing then celebrated the praises of his Lord and sought forgiveness. Those blessed with faith in their time, in their own lives, amongst their own families and friends, must learn to do the same. There may be no critical mass, but for the light of guidance and truth: yes, celebrate the praise of your Lord and ask His forgiveness. Perhaps that will set off the chain reaction we really need in our lives, allowing us to gravitate ever closer to our Creator.