29 April 2020 - 12:55
News ID: 450050
Gregory Sowden from Canada:‎
Gregory Sowden was a Canadian Catholic Christian who now converted to Shi’ah Islam and is ‎currently studying Islamic theology in Qom. In this interview with Rasa News Agency, Gregory explains about ‎Islam in Canada.‎

RNA – Gregory Sowden was a Canadian Catholic Christian who now converted to Shi’ah Islam and is ‎currently studying Islamic theology in Qom. In an interview with Rasa News Agency, Gregory ‎explains about Islam in Canada.‎

Rasa: Would you please introduce yourself to our readers?‎

Gregory Sowden: 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.‎

Rasa: Could you please tell us about your Islamic and academic studies?‎

Gregory Sowden: 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 Shi’ah Studies at Imam Khomeyni Specialized ‎University, the largest campus of al-Mustafa International University.‎

Rasa: How did you become familiar with Islam? Why did you choose Shi’ah doctrine?‎

Gregory Sowden: 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 Shi’ah 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 (s) 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 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 Shaykh Shafiq Hudda and ‎Saleem Bhimji.‎

Unlike most other converts to Islam. I’ve been Shi’ah 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 (s) life ‎and saw the repeated references to Imam Ali (a). That led me to read parts of Nahj al-‎Balaghah and study the events of Ghadir Khumm and Saqifah and increased my love for ‎Imam Ali (a) and my belief that he was the true successor of the Prophet Muhammad ‎‎(s).‎

Rasa: After converting to Islam, what changes happened in your life?‎

Gregory Sowden: 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 (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 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 (a)) 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.‎

Rasa: What’s the most important message of Islam and the Quran? What’s special about ‎Shi’ism?‎

Gregory Sowden: 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.‎

Shi’ah 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) 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, Shi’ah 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.‎

Shi’ah 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!‎

Rasa: What do Islam and Christianity have in common? How can these two grand religions ‎help humanity to reach stable and global peace?‎

Gregory Sowden: 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.‎

‎“Shi’ah Muslims may only make up 10-15 percent of the Muslims in the world but ‎we believe in quality over quantity”‎

Rasa: How can you introduce Islam to Canadian people? What religious activities do you have in ‎Canada?‎

Gregory Sowden: 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.‎

Rasa: What challenges do the Shi’ah Muslims face in Canada?‎

Gregory Sowden: I don’t know the Shi’ah 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”‎

Rasa: What sort of subjects, texts and multimedia about Shi’ism are needed for Muslims and ‎non-Muslims in Western countries?‎

Gregory Sowden: 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.‎

Rasa: In your view, how much are the youth in Canada ready to embrace Islam? How can ‎Islamic teachings promote the quality of their life?‎

Gregory Sowden: 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.‎

Rasa News Agency

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