I never thought about converting to Islam because I thought I was happy being Catholic. 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!
First of all, Rahyafte team (related to Edoardo Agnelli Islamic Association) would like to thank you for agreeing to hold an interview and also for the time you allocated to us.
Please introduce yourself.
My legal name is Gregory Sowden and I have chosen the Muslim name “Ali Mahdi” for myself. My family and friends call me Greg. I chose “Ali” after I read about the lofty status of Imam Ali (AS) and “Mahdi” because it means “one who is guided” in Arabic, and as a revert, I feel that I was guided to Islam by God, although in an untypical way!
What religion did you use to follow before converting? How did you get familiar with Islam?
I converted to Islam from Roman Catholicism on December 15, 2001 (Ramadhan 29, 1422), when I was 16 years old and studying at a Catholic high school in a small town where no Muslims live. At that time I did not know any Muslims personally, and I had only spoken to them online.
After I finished high school, about one and a half years after converting, I began studying world 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 Shaykh Shafiq Hudda and Saleem Bhimji. My hometown is Port Dover, Ontario, Canada and I grew up on a 400-acre dairy, poultry, beef-cattle cash crop farm. I was raised as a practicing Roman Catholic by my mother. My father is Protestant (he belongs to the United Church of Canada).
Before I became Muslim, I went to church every week and never questioned my beliefs because I did not know anything else. 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 because I did not attend Bible study classes.
Please tell us about your family and friends’ reaction after you became a Muslim.
After I converted, my mum was my most vocal critic. My mum was concerned that I was not following the “correct religion” anymore. From her comments, I think she mostly misses me going to church with the rest of our family, which I completely understand. She kept telling me I was happy with my religion before, so, she wonders, why did I change?
I never lost friends because I’ve never had many friends in the first place. I’ve never gotten along with most people my age and I’ve long felt that I don’t fit in. I’m also very shy but I think this was part of God’s plan so that I would seek Islam and not the lifestyle of others my age. It is unfortunate that my family does not know what Islam is, and I don’t blame them with all the misinformation they hear on the news. I have tried to explain my beliefs to them but they don’t care to learn and refuse to read any books.
We would like to know a little about your journey to Islam and what made you choose Islam over other religions?
I wasn’t looking into converting to Islam when I began researching it. I read Islam out of pure 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.
Living in a small town, I didn’t know anyone from a non-Christian background, which made me curious about the outside world. We would see ethnic and religious minorities in the cites because in Canada, most minorities don’t live in small towns.
In 2000, I began to look for people from different countries to talk to online because of my fascination with learning about other people.
In the years before social media, I joined a pen-pal website and I met Yahya, a practicing Shi’ah Muslim teenager from Kuwait. We communicated by email and MSN Messenger.
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 it had 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 (SAW) 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 get to a mosque at the time. I told my Kuwaiti friend 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. So on December 15, 2001 (Ramadhan 29, 1422) I said the shahadah (“there is no god but God, and Muhammad is the Messenger of God”) to him over MSN Messenger. By saying those wonderful words I became a Muslim! Al-Hamdulillah! All praise belongs to God!
Could you tell us a little about how difficult it was for you at the beginning of your search for the truth?
Converting to Islam caused me many problems with my family, especially with my mum, who was the most vocally against my conversion. When I told my mum 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 after my conversion, I was forced to hide them from her. My mum was also very upset when she saw me prostrate (sajdah) 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 been relatively accepting.
Before I left for university my mum made me go to church every week. I continued to go to church until October 2003, which coincided with the holy month of Ramadhan. It was hard to avoid taking communion because of my mum’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) in my pocket, but my mum 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.
How often do you see your family now?
I’m currently visiting them here in Canada but since I live in Qom, I don’t see them that often. I didn’t leave Iran from 2012-2017.
When did you go to mosque for the first time? And how was your feeling when you prayed in congregation for the first time?
I have had the pleasure of finding a wonderful Muslim community in Kitchener-Waterloo, and the community has opened their arms to me. On Wednesday, September 10, 2003, I went to the mosque for the first time, which was an eye-opening experience, as it was so different from a church service. I went with Brother Hasnein (who I met through the ShiaChat forums). He and I attended university in Waterloo, Ontario. He attended the University of Waterloo and I attended Wilfrid Laurier University, which are about a 15-minute walk apart.
The event we celebrated was the birthday of Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib (AS), the beloved cousin and son-in-law of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (SAW). We took the bus there and we kind of got lost walking down the street because the mosque was in the middle of a residential area and didn’t recognise it as a mosque. Then we saw a woman in hijab going into the mosque and so we went in. We got there late but we caught most of the lecture by Shaykh Shafiq Hudda. After that, we prayed Maghrib and Isha prayers in congregation. That was the first time I have prayed with other Muslims, and it was a wonderful experience. After that Hasnein introduced me to a few brothers who he knew, and we talked for a few minutes over Khoja-style tea, ice cream and chocolate bars. Then it was time to back to university. Shaykh Saleem Bhimji offered to drive Hasnein and I home and on the way showed us the few halal restaurants and Muslim places in town. I have become an active member of the community and while at university, I served as an administrator of the Islamic Humanitarian Service, a charity based in Kitchener. I thank God that the Kitchener-Waterloo Shi’ah Muslim community has accepted me as a member of their community, and has done so much to help me.
You are studying Islamic sciences at al-Mustafa International University in Qom, please tell us concerning your studies.
Since April 2010, I have been studying at al-Mustafa International University in the Holy City of Qom, in the Islamic Republic of Iran, fulfilling my dream to study Islam academically. It hasn’t been an easy journey coming from a Christian background. I realized when I got there, that I knew nothing about Islam as I had never studied Islamic studies before and did not have the opportunity to learn about Islam academically in Canada. I also have a learning disability and it has caused me problems academically.
Most other students in Qom are from Muslim-majority countries and many had studied Islamic theology for several years and have quite an advantage over me. I also struggled learning the Persian language as I had no background in learning a foreign language. Many students come from Arabic-speaking nations and from Pakistan and India and their Arabic and Urdu languages are similar to Persian and pick it up very quickly.
It has taken me much longer but God-willing, I will be able to acquire Islamic knowledge successfully and use my knowledge to benefit others.
What is the most beautiful verse of the Holy Quran in your opinion?
(55:13) فَبِأَيِّ آلَاءِ رَبِّكُمَا تُكَذِّبَانِ
So which of your Lord’s bounties will you both deny? (55:13)
And what is your marital status?
I got married in 2012 to Fathima Sumaiya. My wife is Sri Lankan and was born in Qom as her parents were studying there when she was born. She moved back to Iran in 2009 and our mutual friends introduced us. We have a daughter named Aaliyah Zahra, who was born in 2013.
Are you happy with your decision of reverting to Islam today?
I have often failed to live up to my duties to God but I am so thankful to Him that I have found the true path – Shi’ah Islam. I know that submitting to God through the example and traditions of holy family of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) is the purpose of life.
As a convert living in Iran, do you have any message for Iranian people?
I think Iranians need to know about the outside world because, in my personal experience, a lot of them don’t know much about the outside world, especially life in the West. Many of them think it’s perfect here and everyone is wealthy but this is far from the truth. People struggle here just as in Iran.
Thank you very much for your attention. May Allah bless you and keep you strong and firm on this true path.
DUA: Allah! please accept this from us. You are All-Hearing and All-Knowing. You are The Most Forgiving. You are The Most Relenting and repeatedly Merciful. Allah! grant us The Taufiq to read all the 5 prayers with sincerity.
(Taken from To Be Earnest In Prayers By Amina Elahi)
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