Asalaamu Alaykum brudha.

The world couldn’t have anticipated the impact of either 9/11 or 7/7 on the Muslim community, but those tragic events tarnished the reputation of Islam. Suddenly a religion of contempt, Muslims faced persecution like never before. However the media’s moral panic had no effect upon the upsurge of Muslim converts, most notably ones that were black.

Seemingly a right of passage for male ex-convicts, what is it about one of the most controversial and widely practiced religions in the UK? Is it an attempt to emulate our predecessors in the Nation of Islam, a typical ‘jail ting,’ or are they simply searching for the truth?

“I used to be a Christian, baptised Christian. I was dipped in the water at the age of 18, 19, I was searching for the truth and I went to the New Testament Church of God and I thought I could find it there. I used to sit down there, listen to the preacher talking and at the end of it I always used to ask questions and they always used to say to me, “Jus’ have faith. Jus’ have faith bwoi,” says 43-year-old revert, Aqil. Born into Christianity like the majority of Afro-Caribbean families, some of Aqil’s earliest recollections of church were being scorned for asking too many questions. His quest to, “be like that man on the pulpit,” turned into a constant battle with the pastor and left him feeling devoid. “They kind of ostracised me…After I got baptised and started asking questions it was like, “Nuh bring dat bwoi roun’ ere!” and I felt like a loner.”

Returning to familiar territory on the streets, Aqil continued with a life of crime and was imprisoned for GBH. With time to reflect, it was here that he decided never to enter a church again. “I used to stare up at this seven-foot cross with this big white Jesus on it- I’m gonna be blunt, and I used to think something’s wrong with this image…and I used to think well, ‘He’s our God?’ I’m a black man, He’s a white man, where was He when my people were suffering? Where was that white God to deliver my people?”

Admittedly oblivious and quite disrespectful towards Islam, Aqil joined his soon-to-be brothers and fasted for Ramadan merely to lose some weight. He soon embraced the religion, “…it just hit me as the truth,” studying constantly and even schooling other Muslim inmates. But what is it about prison that prompts so many to do the same?

“In prison you have more time to think. You basically- you sit in your cell at night on your own and you’ll think about life…When I first entered into Islam, it was like us against them and I used to see the screws as ‘them,’ but I had to find an ‘us.’… But after I became a Muslim, I saw the unity and a lot of people came into Islam after that. Some people wanted that protection from the Muslims within the prison system, but they were just being fake.”

Little did the father-of-two know that his drastic lifestyle change came at a cost. With his wife unable to adjust, his marriage fell apart. “Me and her went through problems, she even tried to accept Islam so she could keep the marriage together, but you can’t fake it you either believe it or you don’t believe it, so in the end that relationship ended…But my family they accept it for what it is because they see now that I’m a changed person…They look at that and say at the end of the day if it’s helped him, if it’s changed him then they accept it.” Leaving his hometown of Wolverhampton, the former radio DJ then headed to Birmingham to escape the peer pressure he feared would turn him back to his old ways.

Like other black men in this same plight, Aqil is now a changed person, regardless of the reasons behind it. Working to educate society about Islam, Aqil is now hosting a second conference in Wolverhampton next month, to raise awareness of what the religion stands for.

‘Life After Death- Understanding Islam Conference 2010,’ 19th September @ Wolverhampton Civic Hall, 4-7pm (Free admission and open to all)

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