Singer and Muslim convert Cat Stevens, now known as Yusuf Islam, in 1995. © Sutton-Hibbert/Rex

The way we were: religious conversions

Extracts from memoirs and diaries
June 17, 2015
Alphonse Ratisbonne, a freethinking French Jew, has a vision of the Virgin Mary in a church in 1842:

“Coming out of the café I met the carriage of Monsieur B [a proselytising friend who had given him a medal of the Virgin]. He stopped and invited me in for a drive, but first asked me to wait for a few minutes whilst he attended to some duty at the church of San Andrea delle Fratte. Instead of waiting in the carriage, I entered the church myself to look at it. The church of San Andrea was poor, small, and empty; I believe that I found myself there almost alone. No work of art attracted my attention; and I passed my eyes mechanically over its interior without being arrested by any particular thought. I can only remember an entirely black dog which went trotting and turning before me as I mused. In an instant the dog had disappeared, the whole church had vanished, I no longer saw anything... or more truly I saw, O my God, one thing alone.

“Heavens, how can I speak of it? Oh no! human words cannot attain to expressing the inexpressible... I was there prostrate on the ground, bathed in my tears, with my heart beside itself, when M. B. called me back to life. I could not reply to the questions which followed from him one upon the other. But finally I took the medal which I had on my breast, and with all the effusion of my soul I kissed the image of the Virgin, radiant with grace, which it bore. Oh, indeed, it was She! It was indeed She!..

“In the bottom of my soul I felt an explosion of the most ardent joy.”

In 1929, CS Lewis describes giving up his atheism:

“You must picture me alone in that room at Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.”

Charles Templeton, an evangelical pastor who co-founded Youth for Christ International with Billy Graham, recalls renouncing his faith in the 1950s:

“I began to have a problem with my health. I was 35 and thought myself to be in perfect physical condition, but I began to suffer frequent pains in the chest... Every test was applied; there was no evidence of a problem...

“But the symptoms didn’t go away. Indeed, they were exacerbated by difficulties I was having with my faith. The old doubts were resurfacing. I would cover them over with prayer and activity but soon there would be a wisp of smoke and a flicker of flame and then a firestorm of doubt. I would banish them again only to have them return. Part of the problem was that there was no one to talk to: how does a man who, each night, tells five to ten thousand people how to find faith confess that he is struggling with his own?...

“I was cutting myself off from the hundreds of friends I had made during 19 years in the church. I was abandoning people who looked to me... I felt like a betrayer. But there was no real choice.”

Robert Irwin, an undergraduate at Merton College, Oxford, eager to become a Sufi dervish, converts to Islam in 1966:

“On a Friday, a few days before my birthday, I was taken to the main mosque in Mostaganem [in Algeria]. There I was brought before the imam of the mosque and I recited the shahada, ‘I bear witness that there is no God but Allah and I bear witness that Muhammad is his Prophet,’ in front of him and my conversion was officially registered and duly reported in the local newspaper. (But I heard later that not everybody approved, for some Algerians believed that Islam was a religion reserved for Arabs.)

“Then on the Sunday after the mid-afternoon prayer, there was a large gathering of the fuqara [the dervishes] in the Zawiya [Sufi lodge] presided over by the Sheikh... I was led up... to repeat the shahada three times in front of all the fuqara. The Sheikh preached a sermon on my conversion. Then the Koran was recited, after which the Sheikh told the fuqara to recite the dhikr ‘Ya Latif’ [a prayer repeated over and over again] a thousand times. A fantastic tension built up among the swaying, straining fuqara. Then I and another young faqir came up to the Sheikh and offered our hands to him. The Sheikh pressed my hand and held it to his chest. Now I was a member, not only of Islam, but also of the confrérie. An old man sitting at the back of the gathering burst out crying.”

In December 1977, singer-songwriter Cat Stevens describes his conversion to Islam:

“Many people cannot understand why someone, who apparently had everything, would suddenly quit and dedicate himself to something so widely misunderstood. I try to tell people that I didn’t have anything before my conversion—I didn’t know myself, and I had no concept of what I was meant to accomplish. From the day I became a Muslim—23rd December, 1977—I was floating on air. Because I had finally found out who I was.”