There is a battle of dueling ideologies taking place in the Arab-speaking world far beneath the radar of academics such as Bernard Lewis (The Crisis of Islam) and John Esposito and Dalia Mogahed (Who Speaks for Islam). This battle is not over what type of Islam will prevail but whether or not Islam is true; was Muhammad a Prophet of God, and is the Quran a revelation from God?
Two media entities spearheading this battle are al-Hayat TV and the al-Jazeera program Sharia and Life. When Zakaria Botros recently presented a series on linguistic and grammatical mistakes in the Quran on al-Hayat, al-Jazeera responded with a three-part series on how to read and interpret the Sacred Book. The first program, by Shaykh Ahmad Hasan Farhat and available here for Arabic speakers, was entitled "The Problem of the Quran". Grammatical disputes about minute details of the Quran might seem of little significance to most of us, tantamount to a discussion of whether "who" or "whom" should be used in a particular sentence. They are, however, extremely important to Muslims who believe that every letter of the Quran descended from Allah in perfection. Shaykh Farhat's explanation on al-Jazeera was basically a repetition of the circular argument often used by Muslim apologists that I have noted here. "The Quran is perfect, and can have no mistakes. Any grammatical mistakes found in the Quran are not really mistakes, because the Quran is perfect and has no mistakes."
I don't know whether or not it was coincidence, design, or fate, but the week after al-Hayat presented the story of Ruba Qewar leaving Islam for Jesus, al-Jazeera's Beyond the Borders did an hour interview with Kristiane Backer, a German woman who announced her conversion to Islam in 2005. She published her story in a book that appeared in German in 2009 and is presently being translated into other languages including English. The interview in Arabic can be seen here.
Kristiane was a well-known personality on Europe's MTV when she become a Muslim. Host Ahmad Mansour's first question was what her impressions were of Islam before she converted. Kristiane replied she knew little except that it had an old religious text and ancient traditions, and that it supposedly persecuted women.
Kristiane then referred to an unspecified personal crisis that caused her much personal anguish. It was that crisis, she said, that led her to Islam. She discovered that the spiritual emptiness in her life which she had hoped would be satisfied by a husband was instead filled by Allah. The crisis took place while she was on an airplane, and her immediate response was to think that if the plane crashed with her aboard her death would be insignificant. She subsequently met Muslims who spoke to her about Islam and played Sufi music that touched her more than any music she had ever heard on MTV. They gave her books that spoke of the freedom of the woman who submits herself fully to Allah.
On a trip to Pakistan she met some poor Muslims who extended love and hospitality to her. Immediately afterwards she flew to the MTV awards in Los Angeles, and could not help but compare the women she had seen in Pakistan with "the women who wore short skirts and had plastic surgery for breast augmentation and wore dark sunglasses in the middle of the night".
Kristiane visited more Muslim countries, including Morocco and Turkey, and became more and more enamoured with the culture and beliefs of Islam. She was informed that spiritual peace could only be gained by following Islam's teachings, and began to practice them herself. She began with Salat, the ritual prayers, attempted fasting during the month of Ramadan, and announced her Shahada in a mosque in London in April, 1995.
Kristiane noted that her first attempt to fast was disastrous. She had been drinking the night before, and by three in the afternoon of the first day had a headache and realized she could never make it to Iftar at sunset. The following year, however, she was able to fast successfully the entire month.
Without going into details, Kristiane stated that she lost her position at MTV, moved to another European channel, but soon lost that job as well. Following a period of unemployment, she relocated to London where she wrote her book and now prepares and presents TV programs on subjects such as holistic health and travel.
In one sense it was difficult for me to follow the interview, because from the very first sentence Ahmad did his best to frame her experience in the context of a persecuted European Muslim convert trying to live her faith in a hostile environment. He repeatedly asserted that she lost her employment simply because she chose Islam. Kristiane, who was speaking in English with an Arabic voice-over, did not specify why she lost her jobs but instead spoke of the great interest aroused in Germany when she announced on TV that she had performed the Hajj in Mecca in 2005. Muslims wrote to say they had been inspired by her faith; one woman said she was beginning to say her prayers again, and a man said he was about to purchase a bottle of alcohol but decided not to after he heard her testimony.
Asked why she had waited years after her conversion in 1995 to publicly speak about Islam, unlike some converts who begin preaching the day after their shahada, Kristiane replied that she was advised by a Shaykh to deepen her own faith before speaking of it to others. Even though she wanted to respond immediately to the negative image of Islam in Europe, she chose to wait years before doing so.
Ahmad next asked an interesting question. "Kristiane," he said, "There are many young Muslim girls who would love to emigrate from Mecca to MTV, but you went from MTV to Mecca! What is your message to them?"
Kristiane replied, "Yes, that seems to be true. Someone in Yemen read my story and sent me a message that said, "Our women want to go from Mecca to MTV, but you migrated from MTV to Mecca." That is only a spirit of consumerism that gives you nothing. You will only be able to achieve happiness and spiritual enrichment through Islam. Islam is the best religion for that because it gives you a deep connection with Allah. When we fast for 30 days to achieve Allah's satisfaction and pray 5 times a day, we link ourselves to Allah. People and women can do that, and remind ourselves of Allah in everything. We can do this and draw closer to him."
When Ahmad opened the phone lines, a caller asked how Islam could best be presented to Europeans. Kristiane replied that Muslims needed to return good for evil, and turn enemies into friends (comment: was it Muhammad or Jesus who taught that?). Muslims should remind Christians they are the People of the Book, emphasize things held in common, let them know the Quran paints a full picture of the Virgin Mary, and emphasize that the Quran honors all the prophets from Adam to Muhammad including Jesus. The prophet Muhammad lived an ideal, perfect life, worthy of emulation.
"Some people," continued Kristiane, "Attack Islam. They say Muslims blow up subways and carry out suicide attacks. What can we do in light of such accusations? (comment: well, how about starting with Muslims stop blowing up subways and carrying out suicide attacks)."
Ahmad asked for Kristiane's response to media reports that many Western women in particular are accepting Islam. She repeated that was correct, why should women not accept this religion that grants them respect and freedom?
Kristiane ended the interview by saying that in spite of all the internal moral strength and peace with Allah she received from Islam, she still had an unfulfilled dream of marrying a Muslim man. I would imagine many viewers would love to be that man!
It was extremely interesting for me to compare the interviews and stories, also available at their websites, of Ruba Qewar and Kristiane Baeker. I'd like to close with a few impressions:
1. As I noted above, Ahmad in interviewing Kristiane repeatedly tried to present her as a victim of Europe's Islamophobia. Although the Christians of Jordan, Iraq, Pakistan, and Egypt truly are victims, that was not even mentioned in Rashid's interview with Ruba.
2. Although both women discussed the person of Muhammad, Ruba talked about the Muhammad who really existed while Kristiane made references to the Prophet she wish had existed. My guess is that Ruba could repeat in detail the biographies of women whose lives were impacted (or ended) by Muhammad, including Aisha, Zainab, Mary the Copt, Sofiya bint Huyayy, Umm Qirfa, Asma bint Marwan, and the unfortunate woman from the Makhzum tribe, soon to be without a hand (Book 017, 4187-4190), who had the habit of borrowing things and then denying she had taken them. I'm not so sure about Kristiane.
3. Although this would be a statistic hard to come by, I strongly suspect that a factor in many women accepting Islam is the influence (or lack thereof) of a man. It could be an absent, uncaring, or abusive father, with the woman becoming convinced Muhammad is the father figure she never had. It could be a Muslim boyfriend or husband, or a charismatic Shaykh. Even though many Muslim women are involved in dawah, calling other women to Islam, I still suspect the influence of a man is often part of the equation.
4. A large part of Kristiane's story, as with all Muslim converts, was the externals of the religion - prayer, fasting, pilgrimage. Muslims see the performance of these rituals as pleasing Allah. External expressions of Christianity seemed to be of much less significance in Ruba's story.