A Woman on a Mission
By Sidra Khan
The Guardian (London)
Thursday 8th May 1997
Sidra Khan reports on Aisha Bhutta’s bid to convert the world to Islam
Aisha Bhutta, nee Debbie Rogers, is serene. She sits on the sofa in big front room of her tenement flat in Cowcaddens, Glasgow. The walls are hung with quotations from the Koran, a special clock to remind the family of prayer times and posters of the Holy City of Mecca. Aisha’s piercing blue eyes sparkle with evangelical zeal, she smiles with a radiance only true believers possess. Her face is that of a strong Scots lass – no nonsense, good-humoured – but it is carefully covered with a hijab.
For a good Christian girl to convert to Islam and marry a Muslim is extraordinary enough. But more than that, she has also converted her parents, most of the rest of her family and at least 30 friends and neighbours.
Her family were austere Christians with whom Rogers regularly attended Salvation Army meetings. When all the other teenagers in Britain were kissing their George Michael posters goodnight, Rogers had pictures of Jesus up on her wall. And yet she found that Christianity was not enough; there were too many unanswered questions and she felt dissatisfied with the lack of disciplined structure for her beliefs. “There had to be more for me to obey than just doing prayers when I felt like it.”
Aisha had first seen her future husband, Mohammad Bhutta, when she was 10 and regular customer at the shop, run by his family. She would see him in the back, praying. “There was contentment and peace in what he was doing. He said he was a Muslim. I said: “What’s a Muslim?”.
Later with his help she began looking deeper into Islam. By the age of 17, she had read the entire Koran in Arabic. “Everything I read”, she says, “was making sense.”
She made the decision to convert at 16. “When I said the words, it was like a big burden I had been carrying on my shoulders had been thrown off. I felt like a new-born baby.”
Despite her conversion however, Mohammed’s parents were against their marrying. They saw her as a Western woman who would lead their eldest son astray and give the family a bad name; she was, Mohammed’s father believed, “the biggest enemy.”
Nevertheless, the couple married in the local mosque. Aisha wore a dress hand-sewn by Mohammed’s mother and sisters who sneaked into the ceremony against the wishes of his father who refused to attend.
It was his elderly grandmother who paved the way for a bond between the women. She arrived from Pakistan where mixed-race marriages were even more taboo, and insisted on meeting Aisha. She was so impressed by the fact that she had learned the Koran and Punjabi that she convinced the others; slowly, Aisha, now 32, became one of the family. Aisha’s parents, Michael and Marjory Rogers, though did attend the wedding, were more concerned with the clothes their daughter was now wearing (the traditional shalwaar kameez) and what the neighbours would think.
Six years later, Aisha embarked on a mission to convert them and the rest of her family, bar her sister (“I’m still working on her). “My husband and I worked on my mum and dad, telling them about Islam and they saw the changes in me, like I stopped answering back!”
Aisha’s father proved a more difficult recruit, so she enlisted the help of her newly converted mother (who has since died of cancer). “My mum and I used to talk to my father about Islam and we were sitting in the sofa in the kitchen one day and he said: “What are the words you say when you become a Muslim?” “Me and my mum just jumped on top of him.”
Three years later, Aisha’s brother converted “over the telephone – thanks to BT [British Telecom]”, then his wife and children followed, followed by her sister’s son. It didn’t stop there. Her family converted, Aisha turned her attention to Cowcaddens, with its tightly packed rows of crumbling, grey tenement flats.
Every Monday for the past 13 years, Aisha has held classes in Islam for Scottish women. So far she has helped to convert over 30. The women come from a bewildering array of backgrounds. Trudy, a lecturer at the University of Glasgow and a former Catholic, attended Aisha’s classes purely because she was commissioned to carry out some research. But after six months of classes she converted, deciding that Christianity was riddled with “logical inconsistencies”. Unlike Aisha, Trudy has chosen not to wear the hijab, believing it to be a masculine interpretation of the Koran. Her family don’t know that she has converted.
“I could tell she was beginning to be affected by the talks”, Aisha says. How could she tell? “I don’t know, it was just a feeling.” The classes include Muslim girls tempted by Western ideals and needing salvation, practising Muslim women who want an open forum for discussion denied them at the local male-dominated mosque, and those simply interested in Islam. Aisha welcomes questions. “We cannot expect people blindly to believe.”
Her husband, Mohammad Bhutta, now 41, does not seem so driven to convert Scottish lads to Muslim brothers. He occasionally helps out in the family restaurant, but his main aim in life is to ensure the couple’s five children grow up as Muslims. The eldest, Safia, “nearly 14, alhumdulillah (Praise be to God!)”, is not averse to a spot of recruiting herself. One day she met a woman in the street and carried her shopping, the woman attended Aisha’s classes and is now a Muslim.
“I can honestly say I have never regretted it”, Aisha says of her conversion to Islam. “Every marriage has its ups and downs and sometimes you need something to pull you out of any hardship. But the Prophet Peace by upon him, said: ‘Every hardship has an ease.’ So when you’re going through a difficult stage, you work for that ease to come.” Mohammed is more romantic: “I feel we have known each other for centuries and must never part from one another. According to Islam, you are not just partners for life, you can be partners in heaven as well, for ever. Its a beautiful thing, you know.”