By Samar Qaed
20 May 2013
One day this past month in Sana’a, Lili and Sofia, two Ethiopian women now living in Yemen, made their official declaration of conversion to Islam. Sheikh Abdulla Bin Farj, the head of the Islam Presentation Committee, guided them through this moment. He asked the two women to lift their index fingers.
“There is no God but Allah,” they repeated after him, “and Mohammed is his Messenger.”
After this declaration of faith—known in Islam as the Shahadah —Lili and Sofia, looked relieved. Other recent converts, who had been sitting in the same room, hugged the two women and congratulated them.
Sofia and Lili walked out onto the street, but before leaving, they picked up an educational pamphlet provided by Bin Farj. They would be back, they said, on Thursday, for classes.
They may have officially converted to Islam, but adapting to this new faith, integrating its precepts into daily life, can be a long process. Sofia, Lili, and the dozens of other converts, who pass through the Islam Presentation Committee, stay in touch with teachers at the facility for months—sometimes years—after conversion.
The Islam Presentation Committee is an independent educational committee that was established in 1987 to reach out to non-Muslims, encouraging them to convert to Islam. The head of the committee, Bin Faraj, began his mission of converting non-Muslims to Islam while studying Political and Economic Sciences in the U.S. Bin Faraj would talk about Islam with foreign students. But it wasn’t until he left the U.S. and returned to Yemen that he formally began his religious mission.
For over 25 years, Bin Faraj has been reaching out to non-Muslims in Sana’a. He estimates hundreds of people have passed through his committee.
“After four years, I embraced Islam fully,” one of Bin Faraj’s students said.
The path to conversion can be winding—and also isolating, recent converts say.
Aisha Parseen used to go by the name Juliet. She was raised in the Philippines and said living in Yemen was what pushed her to learn more about Islam. She said Islam provided her with “internal harmony.”
“I asked around about where I could find somebody to [teach me about] Islam,” Parseen said. “Then they showed me the Islam Presentation Committee. I spent a period of time regularly at the committee and sitting with Bin Farj.”
Before officially converting, Parseen said she was overwhelmed with anxiety. She stumbled over her words, but afterwards burst into tears. It was then, too, that she changed her name.
Parseen said her family didn’t immediately have a positive reaction to this major change. It was hard for her loved ones to accept.
“I showed a picture to my father, of me wearing the Hijab,” Parseen remembered. “He asked why I did that, and advised me not to forget Jesus and the rituals of Christianity.”
The young woman assured her father that she was truly happy. After returning to the Philippines for a visit, she talked it over with her father. It took hours of explaining her new beliefs, but eventually he came around. Now, she says, he respects it.
She patched things over with her father, but some of her friends from the Philippines, who also live with her in Yemen, were not as accepting.
After she put on the Hijab, Parseen said she has become completely isolated from her friends. She preferred to stay at home to read the Quran rather than go out with friends.
Most of those who convert to Islam are from the Ethiopian community, Bin Faraj explained. He assessed that after spending time in an Islamic country like Yemen, they begin to see the benefits of conversion.
In an effort to welcome the converts, the committee has organized post-conversion support. There are seven teachers, Bin Faraj explained, who volunteer their time to teach converts from Somalia and Ethiopia in their own native language.
The teachers speak a variety of languages—Arabic, English and Amharic and Somali—and there are lectures offered every Friday. Fifty-two people have converted in the last two years, Bin Faraj said proudly.
Bin Faraj offers the case of Zam Zam Mohammed as a success story of the program.
Ten years ago, Zam Zam, an Ethiopian woman—who is now one of the staff teachers—started to learn more about Islam. Since then, she’s not only converted but also works to convert others now.
Zam Zam speaks about her experiences with her students and says “several females are unable to attend the lessons about Islam because they have full-time work”
For this reason, Zam Zam and her team often to do home visits to accommodate her students’ schedules. Zam Zam currently visits four Ethiopian females twice a week, her visits include a formal educational section, either a short talk or a discussion on a theme of relevance to the lives of the members in the group.
Another teacher, Mahdi Ibrahim has witnessed the many struggles his students face and comments about the support he has provided.
He explains some converts are afraid to practice Islamic rituals in front of their relatives. So, he advises them to share their thoughts about converting right when they first start to think about it, hoping their families will gradually be more receptive to the change of faith.
Bin Faraj says they have unique formula for their program. Rather than focus on education only, the teachers create follow-up activities to provide networking and a forum to share challenges and successes. Although the committee is committed to providing as much help as possible to the new Muslims, they often struggle due to financial instability and to the lack of sustainable sources.