Muslim Converts

"Less Restricted by the Burden of Tradition"

Converts often practise their new religion with particular zeal; but as they are often less bound to the traditional cultural norms of their religious community, they can also be the source of new, reformist impulses. Ursula Trüper reports from Berlin.

It was worst after September 11th: “Suddenly, all eyes were on me”, recalls Beate Al Katib [name changed]. “I constantly had to justify myself, as if I had been partially responsible for the attacks.” At that time, she stopped wearing the Muslim headscarf for a while.

photo: Christop Eckelt
German convert

​​Today, she wears it once again – and not only when she’s visiting the Bilal Mosque in Berlin. On the floor of the mosque’s main room is a magnificent red carpet, its pattern showing the faithful the way towards Mecca. Every Friday afternoon, the German-Language Muslim Circke (DMK) organises the Friday Talk on a chosen theme. A thin wooden partition separates the men from the women, but in such a way that all can see the speaker.

Muslims of German origin

Gradually, around 20 women arrive on the women’s side and sit down in groups on the floor, with their backs to the wall. All of them are wearing long robes and elegantly draped headscarves. Among them are many young girls. At the lectern, the head of the congregation sets up the microphone, before offering a warm welcome to everyone present – in German, the language generally used here. Which is no surprise, as around 70% of all DMK members are of German origin.

One of them is Beate Al Katib, who was born in East Berlin in 1957. She still has vivid memories of the day that transformed her life. Nienteen years old at the time, she was visiting the Pressecafé at Alexanderplatz with her parents. At the next table, there was an interesting man, obviously foreign. Eventually, he stood up and introduced himself like a perfect gentleman. As it turned out, he came from Syria, and was working in West Berlin as a painter and lacquerer. After that, he visited Beate regularly, gave her roses and eventually asked for her hand in marriage.

Waiting with a suitcase at the border checkpoint

Her parents opposed this marriage, for they didn’t want to lose their daughter to the distant land of Syria, or to the equally inaccessible western half of their city. But the young woman could not be dissuaded from her plan, and she applied for an exit visa. She describes her feelings at the time: “It was dramatic. There I was with my little suitcase at the Friedrichstrasse crossing point; my parents were in floods of tears; and just a few stations away, my man was waiting for me.”

The West was a shock. The money, the manners, the mentality, the consumer goods – everything was strange and new. A year after the wedding, their first child was born: Mehdi, a boy. Due to a mistake made by a doctor, the young mother contracted a severe infection in the clinic and had to undergo several operations. The professor who was in charge of her treatment asked her if she believed in God; and when she replied in the negative, he said: “Well, you should!” She had only narrowly escaped death by peritonitis.

"I myself felt like a foreigner in my own country"

When she got back home from the hospital, there was a group of Turkish women standing at her door. They lived in the same building, they’d brought flowers, baby clothes and cake, and they wanted to get to know her. “I remember wondering where this warm-heartedness, this solidarity amongst women came from”, says Beate Al Katib. And she was well capable of understanding the situation these women found themselves in: “I myself felt like a foreigner in my own country.“

Her neighbours took her along to the mosque with them. She began to take a serious interest in Islam, and she read everything she could find on the subject. In the very same year, she made the official Islamic profession of faith at a mosque in Berlin. Since then, she has been a Muslim.

Of the 732,000 Muslims who hold German nationality, around 12,400 are of German ethnic origin. (Statistics provided by the German Central Islamic Institute and Archives [Zentralinstitut Islam Archiv Deutschland], Germany’s oldest Islamic organisation, founded in 1927 in the city of Soest.) Most of these German Muslims are organised in mosque associations. The DMK is also a member of the Central Muslim Council. This makes it unique amongst mosque associations, for almost 90% of these associations do not belong to any higher-level umbrella organisation.

This point is made by the Evangelical theologian Ulrich Dehn, who works at the Berliner Evangelischen Zentralstelle für Weltanschauungsfragen, a protestant centre for the study of philosophical issues. Dehn says that the independent mosque associations are doing most to develop “a modern Islam which sees itself as part of a secular and pluralistic society – as a religious community within a democratic political system”.

Religious enthusiasm of the converted

The same certainly applies to the DMK. Most of its members are well educated; many of them are academics. Take, for example, Stephanie Mohammad [name changed]: she is a student of Oriental Studies, is married to a Lebanese Palestinian and is a member of the women’s Shura, the leadership committee at the DMK (there is also a men’s Shura). She reports that the DMK now has 65 members of 26 nationalities, and that far more of these are women than men. According to Mohammed, one-third of the women came “on their own initiative”, while two-thirds of them are married to Muslim men.

“Many women do convert to Islam because of their husbands“, smiles Beate Al Katib. “But in our case, it would be truer to say that he’s started taking a stronger influence in Islam because of me.“ Although her husband had been brought up a Muslim, he had come to take a somewhat pragmatic attitude to Islam, and was at first none too delighted by his wife’s religious zeal. Suddenly, there was no longer any red wine with dinner and no champagne when they had something to celebrate. As a father, on the other hand, he had the feeling he should be an example to his children.

Converts may revitalise religion

The DMK women take a differentiated view of the position of women in Islam. It’s important to make a clear distinction between “what is tradition and what is Islam”, explains Stephanie Mohammed. “We German Muslim women are not so weighted down by tradition. We also choose the right kind of men! This is a great opportunity – for the men, too.”

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German Muslims have not been born into a Muslim tradition, and they tend to think a lot about their religion. Stephanie Mohammed is convinced that they can contribute to the renewal of Islam: “While in Germany we can engage in theological research, many of the Arab countries are dictatorships, where neither research nor renewal are possible beyond a certain point.”

Monika Wohlrab-Sahr is a Leipzig-based sociologist of religion who regards this intense preoccupation with the Koran as a typical “conversion phenomenon”. As she sees it, Islam has traditionally been a rather practical religion, and she feels there is something very “Protestant” about attempting to discern the “authentic” religion beneath the layers of tradition by studying and analysing the Book. It’s also typical of newcomers to a religion that they feel confident of understanding their new faith better and more intensively than those who were born into it; and Wohlrab-Sahr points out that this phenomenon can be observed not only amongst recent converts to Islam, but also amongst born-again Christians.

Ursula Trüper, © Qantara.de 2003

Translation from German: Patrick Lanagan

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