May 25 2020
“There is a void that can be filled with Islam/we must not abandon converts after they say Shahadah”; interview with Gregory Sowden from Shia community of Canada
“The people of all Western countries lack spirituality and many people are searching for it and it seems that Eastern philosophies are quite popular with those who are seeking spirituality but don’t necessarily believe in a deity. There are a sizable number of converts to Islam in Canada. If we can communicate with the youth in a manner that is attractive to them, we can guide them to Islam. So, there is a void that can be filled with Islam”.
Gregory Sowden was a Canadian Catholic Christian who now converted to Shia Islam and is currently studying Islamic theology in Qom.
Would you please introduce yourself to our readers?
My name is Gregory Sowden and I chose the “Muslim name”Ali Mahdi for myself, although it’s not necessary in Islam to change one’s name if it has a good meaning. Therefore, Gregory Sowden is still my legal name. I go by both Greg and Ali Mahdi. My family and friends call me Greg.
I was raised on a dairy/broiler chicken/beef cattle/cash crop chicken farm in Norfolk County, Ontario, Canada. I was raised as a practicing Roman Catholic by my mother. My father is Protestant (he belongs to the United Church of Canada). Both sides of my family are religious. My mother was responsible for our religious upbringing.
I converted to Islam on December 15, 2001, when I was 16 years old and studying at a Roman Catholic high school in a small rural town where no Muslims live. At that time, I didn’t know any Muslims in person, and I had only spoken to them online.
Could you please tell us about your Islamic and academic studies?
I have a Bachelor of Arts degree in general history from Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario and I’ve lived in Qom, Iran where I’ve studied at Al-Mustafa International University, a Hawzah (seminary) for non-Iranians, since 2010. I’m currently finishing up my Bachelor of Arts degree in Shia Studies at Imam Khomeini Specialized University, the largest campus of Al-Mustafa International University.
How did you become familiar with Islam? Why did you choose Shia doctrine?
Before I converted to Islam, I went to church every week and never questioned my beliefs because I didn’t know anything else. Looking back, I would consider myself a devote Catholic when I was growing up. Whenever I heard someone say something wrong about Catholicism, I would try to prove them wrong, although I now realize my knowledge was rather limited.
I wasn’t looking into converting to Islam when I began researching it. I only studied about Islam due to academic interest but slowly fell in love with it. Learning about other people’s religions and cultures has interested me since I was young. My paternal grandparents’ large National Geographic magazine collection contained magazines going back to the 1930s, and numerous issues dealt with various countries, which fascinated me. I also began to read books on geography which gave me a deep interest in geography and later, current events and history.
“If all Jews, Christians and Muslims follow their religions in their pure, original and unadulterated form, they can help humanity to reach stable and global peace”
Living in a small town, I didn’t know anyone from a non-Christian background, which made me curious about the outside world. My town is also 96% white and seeing people of colour (except blacks and Chinese people) wasn’t common. We would only see ethnic and religious minorities in the cites because, in Canada, most minorities don’t live in small towns. According to research, converts typically experience a spiritual search or personal crisis before converting but this wasn’t the case for me. I grew up in a religious family and never drank or did drugs. I was simply curious.
In 2000, I began to look for people from different countries to talk to online because I was fascinated with learning about other people. In the years before social media, I joined a pen pal website and I met Yahya, a practicing Shia Muslim teenager from Kuwait. We communicated by email and MSN Messenger. We’re still in contact today.
I began to ask him questions about his religion because I didn’t know a great deal about it. I never thought about converting to Islam because I thought I was happy being Catholic. When I started taking a course at high school called “World Religions,” my interest was intensified. In my textbook, there was some information about the position of Jesus in Islam as seen through the Quran. I knew Jesus was a prophet in Islam, but not how important he was. Nor did I know how his mother, Mary, was considered one of the four greatest women in Islam!
After school, I went home and researched the role of Jesus in Islam on the internet. I also found a few books in my school library on Islam in general but they were very general, as it was a Catholic high school. Due to my lack of access to books regarding Islam and knowing no Muslim personally, I relied almost solely on the internet to learn about Islam. After intensely reading about the role of Jesus in Islam, I couldn’t accept the Christian view of Jesus’ divinity any longer. The Islamic belief opened my mind to things that I had never thought about regarding Christianity and Jesus in general. The more I learnt about Jesus and Islamic beliefs the more I wanted to convert. The information I read sounded convinced me that Islam was the truth. The arguments were good and there was even proof of Muhammad (PBUH) and Islam in the Bible! I didn’t take this decision lightly.
As I learnt more and became engrossed in studying Islam, I emailed my Kuwaiti friend and told him about my findings. I told him that “maybe I should convert once I learn more about Islam.” I didn’t plan on doing it soon because it was not easy to follow Islam in my town without a community around me. I thought I would convert when I would go to university because I couldn’t go to a mosque at the time. I told Yahya this and he said that I didn’t need to go to a Mosque and I could say the Shahadah to him when I was ready and pray at home. On December 15, 2001 (Ramadan 29, 1422), I said the Shahadah (“there is no god but God, and Muhammad (PBUH) is the Messenger of God”) to him over MSN Messenger. By saying those beautiful words, I became a Muslim!
“After intensely reading about the role of Jesus in Islam, I couldn’t accept the Christian view of Jesus’ divinity any longer”
After I finished high school, about one and a half years after converting, I began studying general history at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. It was living there that I came in contact with Muslims and started attending programs at the mosque for the first time. I benefited a lot from the lectures and friendship of Sheikh Shafiq Hudda and Saleem Bhimji.
Unlike most other converts to Islam. I’ve been Shia from the beginning. I didn’t go through a Sunni phase. I chose Shi’ism at the same time that I became a Muslim. When studying Islam, because of my love of history, I read about the Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) life and saw the repeated references to Imam Ali (AS). That led me to read parts of Nahjul-Balaghah and study the events of Ghadir Khumm and Saqifah and increased my love for Imam Ali (AS) and my belief that he was the true successor of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).
After converting to Islam, what changes happened in your life?
Converting to Islam caused me many problems with my family, especially with my mother, who was the most vocal opponent of my conversion. When I told my mother that I had become a Muslim, she became very upset. Her anger lasted until about 2004, but since then she has accepted it, although she is not happy with my choice.
When I received some books, including the Quran, in the mail soon after my conversion, I was forced to hide them from her. My mother was also very upset when she saw me prostrate (Sijdah) as it was a very visible sign that I was no longer Catholic. Much of my extended family has not commented negatively on my conversion, although my late maternal grandfather, who was known for being opinionated, did not like it and he made it known. My very religious maternal grandmother, whose brother is a retired priest in the United Kingdom, has never said anything about my conversion.
Before I left for university my mother made me go to church every week. I continued to go to church until October 2003, which coincided with the holy month of Ramadan. It was hard to avoid taking communion because of my mother’s pressure but since I was fasting I slipped the host (Eucharistic bread which Catholics believe to be the literal body and blood of Jesus Christ (AS)) in my pocket, but my mother caught me and was angry and embarrassed and I never went to church again, except for my grandpa’s funeral. My journey to Islam and my life as a Muslim has not always been easy and I have had to struggle and make a lot of sacrifices along the way.
What’s the most important message of Islam and the Quran? What’s special about Shi’ism?
The main emphasis of Islam is monotheism and teaches that God is merciful, all-powerful, and unique and has guided mankind through prophets, revealed scriptures and natural signs. The major themes of the Holy Quran are God, prophets, man, divine scriptures and sin. God is merciful, forgiving and is above all what is on earth and in heaven. Man is guided by the sacred scriptures which were a revelation of Prophet Muhammad.
Shia Muslims believe that just as a prophet is appointed by God alone, only God has the prerogative to appoint the successor to his prophet. We believe God chose Ali (A.S) to be Muhammad’s successor, infallible, the first caliph of Islam. Due to the sacrifice of Imam al-Husayn, his family and companions in Karbala, Shia Muslims have had a longstanding stance against oppression in all forms. This is not seen as strongly in other sects of Islam or in other religions.
Shia Muslims may only make up 10%-15% of the Muslims in the world but we believe in quality over quantity. For believers, it’s always about quality, like Imam al-Husayn in Karbala – only 72 people were with him against an army of between 10,000 and 30,000 (depending on different narrations) but the quality of those 72 pure souls – destroyed an eternity of trillions!
What do Islam and Christianity have in common? How can these two grand religions help humanity to reach stable and global peace?
Christianity and Islam, as well as Judaism, are Abrahamic and monotheistic religions which all share a belief in the same God. The details are just different. As Muslims, we believe that Judaism and Christianity have deviated from the true message that God Almighty revealed to the prophets we all share and only Islam, specifically Shi’ism, has the only legitimate claim to truth. If all Jews, Christians and Jews follow their religions in their pure, original and unadulterated form, they can help humanity to reach stable and global peace but in their current form, I believe that only Shih Islam, a religion which is revolutionary and stands against oppression, can do help humanity achieve this objective.
“Shia Muslims may only make up 10-15 percent of the Muslims in the world but we believe in quality over quantity”
How can you introduce Islam to Canadian people? What religious activities do you have in Canada?
Due to the largely irreligious and materialistic society of Canada and the fact that many Canadians don’t even adhere to Christianity anymore, it’s extremely difficult to teach them about Islam. Most of those who are religious – and there are still many religious people – aren’t willing to study or consider other religions.
I like the idea of engaging in missionary work but from my experience and observations, most people aren’t interested in listening to missionaries. I’ve read a lot about evangelical Protestant Christians, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons who engage in missionary work. When these groups attempt to propagate their religion, they are described as “annoying” and their religious literature is usually thrown out immediately afterward. I’ve heard of Ahmadiyyah missionaries going door-to-door in my hometown and holding “Learn About Islam” sessions at the local library. They didn’t attract much interest. Islam teaches us that action is important.
If we can assist the less fortunate by establishing food banks and services, it can attract non-Muslims. Engaging in interfaith work and speaking about Islam in an academic manner at churches and schools is also a good method of attracting non-Muslims. In my experience, evangelical Christians are more interested in converting people than actually helping them. When someone converts to Islam, we can’t abandon them after they say the Shahadah. We have seen many Muslims leave Islam after converting because they are abandoned by those who helped them. Some claim that they didn’t fit in with the ethnic and cultural atmosphere of Mosques and communities in the West. I witnessed this myself and it bothered me as well but all praise be to God, my faith was strong enough to overlook these problems and realize that Islam is more than culture.
What challenges do the Shia Muslims face in Canada?
I don’t know the Shia Muslim or even the Muslim community in Canada very well as I didn’t grow up Muslim and only attended a small Islamic centre in the city of Kitchener while I attended university before coming to Qom. Muslims in large cities like Toronto and Vancouver have many more options in every field than those living in smaller cities like Kitchener. They can send their children to Islamic schools.
From what I’ve witnessed and read about, the youth need a place where they can learn and have fun in a safe environment where they can be protected from the corruption environment that surrounds them. I’ve seen Muslim youth who were born and raised in Canada of religious parents, both those born in Canada and of immigrant backgrounds, who don’t care about following Islam or no longer believe in Islam. Many temptations are surrounding them in public schools, even Christians have the same trouble with their children. Muslim schools are needed to protect our children. We have a few but they are not available for all as they are mostly in large urban areas, such as Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, and even then, they aren’t financially feasible for all Muslims.
Once someone converts to Islam, it’s not necessarily easy sailing after that! Converts to Islam risk social and religious isolation because of rejection by their families and disinterest from inhospitable mosque communities. Converts are disconnected from mosque communities usually because they are from a different ethnic background. Most Mosques in Canada are Indo-Pakistani, Khoja, Iraq, Lebanese etc., and converts are not being accepted into those communities so they are outsiders. If they are not connecting to the mosque and they lose their families, they are doubly isolated. Mosques are initially warm and welcoming to converts because conversion is one of their duties.
“When someone converts to Islam, we can’t abandon them after they say the Shahadah“
What sort of subjects, texts and multimedia about Shi’ism are needed for Muslims and non-Muslims in Western countries?
Thankfully, many Islamic books have been translated into English but the quality needs to be increased. www.al-islam.org is a great resource. There are many books on a large variety of subjects which still need to be written or translated.
Unfortunately, most Muslims in the West are working and don’t have a lot of free time to devote to studying Islam. Most people learn better from listening and actively participating in their studies rather than just reading. Short courses, either in person at mosques or online, taught by shuyukh who have studied in accredited seminaries are a great method of teaching the Islamic sciences to Muslims and these can reach a broad audience. Podcasts and YouTube videos are a great and popular method of spreading Islamic teachings as well and there are many examples of popular and constructive podcasts and YouTube channels to follow.
In your view, how much are the youth in Canada ready to embrace Islam? How can Islamic teachings promote the quality of their life?
The people of all Western countries lack spirituality and many people are searching for it and it seems that Eastern philosophies are quite popular with those who are seeking spirituality but don’t necessarily believe in a deity. There are a sizable number of converts to Islam in Canada. If we can communicate with the youth in a manner that is attractive to them, we can guide them to Islam. So, there is a void that can be filled with Islam.
Islamic teachings promote the quality of life because Islam has a strong stance on personal and social ethics. Islam forbids many things that cause problems and corruption in society, such as alcohol, drug use, theft, unworthwhile interaction between genders, family break-ups, social unrest, political instabilities, suicide mass poverty, destitution and depression and can help solve these social issues.