On the road from the Vaticanto Al Azhar
Idris Tawfiq, a British Catholic priest who became a convert to Islam, is a source of fascination in his adopted home in Cairo. Mary Fitzgerald spoke to him about his personal journey of discovery.
It is a story that intrigues many in Idris Tawfiq's adopted home of Egypt. It is what draws people to his lectures and guarantees people will read his column in a local English language newspaper. It ensures dozens will participate in his online discussions on Islamic websites.
Everyone wants to know about the British man who went from Catholic priest to devout Muslim, or as one website put it, "from the Vatican to Al Azhar".
Idris, an unassuming fortysomething, understands why his story piques people's interest but insists, for him, the change felt very natural.
"Strange as it might look to millions of people, it seemed a very logical step for me to become Muslim," he says. "People say to me all that time that it must be a massive change, a complete about-face.
"But it's not. I see my life so far as very much a straight line, leading me little by little to where I am today."
A De La Salle brother for 15 years, Idris later studied for the priesthood in Rome. Doubts about his vocation eventually led him to leave the priesthood, triggering a period of uncertainty about what direction his life would take.
He decided to take some time off, booking a charter flight to Hurghada, a package holiday resort that hugs Egypt's Red Sea coast. Soon bored of the beach, he headed to Cairo and experienced a culture shock quite different to what he had expected.
For the first time in his life he met and talked to Muslims, observing their rituals up close. Hearing the call to prayer and watching people stop everything to turn towards Mecca left a deep impression.
"That week's holiday more than anything else changed my life," he explains. "It began to sow the seeds of Islam within me. It was the first time I had spoken to, or even met, Muslims. I saw that they weren't sabre-rattling fanatics, they were just ordinary people. More than that, they were very gentle people and faith-filled in a way I had never seen before."
Idris returned to Britain where he taught religion in a secondary school. The events and aftermath of September 11th encouraged him to find out more about Islam.
A chance meeting with Yusuf Islam, formerly Cat Stevens, at London's Central Mosque, proved pivotal.
"I found myself asking him 'What do you actually do to become a Muslim?'. He answered that a Muslim should believe in one God, pray five times a day and fast during Ramadan. I interrupted him saying that I believed all this and had even fasted with my Muslim students during Ramadan.
"So he asked, 'What are you waiting for? What is holding you back?' I told him I didn't intend to convert.
"At that moment the call to prayer was made and everyone got ready and stood in lines to pray. I sat at the back, and I cried and cried. Then I said to myself, 'Who am I trying to fool?'"
The formal process of conversion in Islam is simple. In front of witnesses, the would-be Muslim recites the Shahada, or declaration of faith, acknowledging the existence of one God, Allah, with Mohammed as his prophet.
"Many Muslims use the word 'revert' instead of convert, believing that in following Islam they are simply 'reverting' to the true nature of humanity.
Idris formally converted in the venerable surroundings of Cairo's Al Azhar mosque, Sunni Islam's oldest seat of learning. He later took the Muslim name Idris Tawfiq - Idris, the name of a prophet, and Tawfiq, the Arabic word for good fortune.
"People and events led me to Islam," he says. "What made me leave the church was not any problem I had with it. And it wasn't about belief or anything like that.
"I cherish my past in the church, I enjoyed what I did, I love all those people I worked with and treat what they believe with reverence. I just wasn't happy inside."
He falters when asked what he sees in Islam that Catholicism lacked.
"That's a very loaded question," he says, grimacing.
The biggest difference, then?
"I would say that Islam is completely God-centred," he answers tentatively. "It is not about what Jesus did for me and it's not about offering prayers for myself. The whole thing revolves around Allah.
"The other thing is that Islam covers every aspect of life. It's not a going-to-church-on-Sunday religion, it's not even a going-to-Mass-every-morning and leading a good and holy life religion.
"Islam tells you how to greet people, how to eat your food, how to enter a room - how to do everything in life. Whilst Muslims are not saints, Islam encourages Muslims to think about God all the time. Islam, in its essence, attributes everything to God. For Muslims, Islam is everything."
Did he experience periods of doubt leading up to his conversion?
"No, none at all," he answers. "Although one of my barriers to becoming a Muslim was the story of Abraham. The Bible says Abraham was going to sacrifice his son Isaac, the Koran says it was Ismael.
"It may seem odd, but I wrestled with this for a long time. I thought one of them must be wrong, both cannot be right. But at the end of the day, as with any faith, you have to take that leap and accept the essence of what Islam says.
"I have no problem with 'There is no God but God' - I've always believed in that. And Muhammad is his messenger? I have learned and come to understand that core."
Idris is coy when it comes to talking about how former colleagues in the Catholic church responded to his conversion.
"When I left the church, I left them behind," he says. "I don't want to upset anything in relation to what people dearly believe. If people ask me about my conversion I will tell them but I leave it at that. I've kept it low-key."
There is little data available on the number of converts to Islam. One survey in the US claims 100,000 people convert every year. The same research found that for every male that converts to Islam, four women do the same.
A recent study by Yahya (formerly Jonathan) Birt, son of Lord Birt, former director-general of the BBC, used census figures to conclude that there are now 14,200 white converts in Britain.
"I think people who embrace Islam see a calmness and simplicity that many have not experienced before," says Idris. "I don't see it as rigid, it's empowering. Islam is beautiful, sweet and gentle.
"All the values that used to exist in Britain and Ireland 30 or 40 years ago - respect for your parents, your elders - they all exist in the Muslim world still."
He has published a book for non-Muslims, explaining the tenets of Islam. "Islam and the West look at each other with suspicious eyes and there is no need for it. We are all just ordinary people with different beliefs," he says.
"I find it interesting though how many Muslims want to hear me talk too. The majority of my e-mail comes from Muslim university students and young professionals who tell me they like the way I present what they believe in. I tell them that if only we could live as good Muslims, then people in the West would sit up and take notice. They would think that is impressive. We should as Muslims try to give the perfect example."
One of the things that annoys him most, he says, is talk of a clash of civilisations. "There's no clash of civilisations at all, that's nonsense. Islam is at home in any civilisation. It isn't a separate civilisation. If you're Muslim in Britain, you're British.
"This debate in Britain about Muslim loyalty and whether it's possible to be Muslim and British is just silly. I believe that in many ways it's more of a race thing. If I go to London, no one questions whether I'm British or not because of the colour of my skin. The reason many Muslims are not accepted as fully British is not because they're Muslim, it's because they are second-generation Pakistani, or Bengali or Arab. That has nothing to do with Islam."
Like many of the newly converted, Idris cleaves to tradition on issues of doctrine. He refuses to be drawn on contentious issues that are the focus of much debate among Muslim scholars and reformists, preferring to go with whatever the sheikhs of Al Azhar approve.
"I would go with the scholars because I don't feel my knowledge is enough to challenge it," he says. "There are ways of presenting Islamic teaching in a way that is readily acceptable to people, but we can't change it. I would always go with the orthodox teaching, there are enough voices in the world trying to divide the Muslim community already."
When it comes to extremism within Islam, Idris condemns militancy while saying he can understand why some may be drawn to it. "When young Muslims find themselves totally frustrated and there is nothing they can do to stop oppression, injustice, murder and inequality, they are being driven into corners that they find difficult to come out of.
"In a situation where Muslims are under attack and some lash out, I can see why they do it. I'm not approving it, but I can see why they do it. The problem is not coming from within Islam, it's being forced on Islam from outside. We need to tell them there is another way, that Allah will punish these people and they will suffer for eternity.
"Young kids, poor misguided souls who do wrong things in the name of Islam, are to be pitied as much as blamed. What they do is wrong, terrorism and all forms of fanaticism and extremism are wrong and are to be condemned. But we must understand where they are coming from and we must try to present to them that there is a different way of responding.
"My Islam, and the Islam of every Muslim I know in Egypt and Britain, is made up of trying to be a good person every day.
"I won't go on the defensive because Islam is too much to be proud of."
Mary Fitgerald is the inaugural winner of the Douglas Gageby Fellowship. Her reports on "The Faces of Islam" appear in Friday's Irish Times.