by C. Pedrick
Twenty one years ago, Rosario Pasquini (Danilo) was a heavy smoker, drank more whisky than was good for him and led what he now describes as a nightmare existence, tormented by the stress of having to succeed in his job as a lawyer in the busy northern city of Milan. Pasquini, born in Fiume in 1934, graduated from the University of Milan in 1957 and became a Muslim in 1974. Now in his 50s, Pasquini calls himself Abdurrahman. He leads the Friday Prayer at the Mosque of Il Misericordioso and is a teacher of Arabic and Islamic culture. He is also the author of L'Islam Credo, Pilastri, Vertice e Perfezione and Muhammad, L'Inviato di Dio.
Abdurrahman still lives in Milan, but he has traded his lawyer's briefcase for something that gives him more satisfaction. He is now editor of a newspaper called "Il Messagero del Islam", (The Messenger of Islam) an eight page tabloid written for the growing numbers of Italians who, like the former lawyer himself, decided to convert to the Muslim faith.
In Italy the ranks of Christians who have converted to Islam are swelling daily. Just as in France and England whose most famous convert is the former pop singer Cat Stevens (Yusuf Islam), a growing number of Italians are turning to the Muslim faith for spiritual solace.
"Every day, people come in wanting to know more about Islam and the conversion process," said Abdurrahman, who edits his newspaper from an office at Milan's Islamic Center. "Yesterday it was one, today there were two. They come from all over, from different classes and backgrounds, and they all have different reasons for doing it."
Italian Christians who have decided to embrace Islam include engineers, artists, intellectuals, students and even a nun. Some have taken the step because they married a Muslim, while for others it is a purely intellectual or religious choice. But whatever the initial reason, converts say their final decision has almost always been accompanied by a feeling of frustration with too much consumerism and stress, and a yearning for a spiritual dimension that has become lost in most of Western society. Some of the people who decide to become Muslims do so because, like me, they are going through a very difficult period in their life," he says. "Others have family problems. There are even some who are high school students and have converted in secret because they are scared to tell their parents."
Abdurrahman himself received support and understanding from his own family. He says, "They took the view that I was old enough to make my mind up for myself, and let me get on with it. In fact, my mother, who is 85 years old and has remained a Catholic, recently said to me: "I Praise Allah, because if you had continued to live the way you did before you converted, you would be dead by now."
He continues, "At the time I was prey to a terrible mental stress, brought on by the competitiveness that is so prevalent in our type of society. After a long period of searching, I finally arrived at Islam which says that no one except God has the right to judge and dominate other men. This is what I was looking for. For me it represented a liberation from a society which believes itself to be free, but which instead forces its members to bow under the yoke of many, many different demands."
Like many converts, Abdurrahman embraced his new faith whole heartily. He learned Arabic so he could read the Quran and participate in mosque life without having to rely on translations. His command of the language has become so good that he now teaches it. The former lawyer's interpretation of the Muslim faith is strict and unyielding. As well as announcements of births, marriages and conversions, his Muslim newspaper carries advice on how Italian converts should behave. For example, he advises that a woman who intends to drive her car beyond the boundaries of her own neighborhood should make sure she is accompanied by a relative.
One of the factors that contributed to his conversion was a meeting that developed into a strong friendship with Jordanian born, Ali Abu Shwaima, then a medical student, now the director of the Milan Islamic Center. Shwaima's wife is also Italian. Like Pasquini, she decided to convert to Islam and changed her name from Paola Moretti to Khadija, after the Prophet Muhammad's first wife. Today, she recalls with some amusement the first time she ventured out into the streets wearing a veil. That was 15 years ago, when Italians were far less used to seeing Muslims than they are now. "I felt everyone's eyes on me. It was rather embarrassing," she said.
" I could hear the other women in the supermarket whispering things like, "who is she, a nun?' Or 'Maybe she belongs to some sect.' But that kind of attitude no longer bothers me, she said. I'm sure of the choice I made. It certainly wasn't easy at the beginning, when I made my conversion. But wearing the veil is a duty for women. I couldn't accept one part of the Quran and not the other."
Guiuseppina, now known as Fatima, was a Roman Catholic nun, studying theology and living in a convent in Modena in central Italy. She began reading the Quran, and as her interest grew she started having doubts about her own religion and vocation. She took to visiting the Islamic Center in Milan, and finally after a great deal of soul searching, she renounced her vows and converted to Islam. Today, she is married to a fellow Muslim.
Daniela was born in Sicily and became a convert nine years ago, when she married an Egyptian. She willingly obeys all the rules of her new faith. "When I go out, I always wear a scarf over my head and I keep my legs and arms covered," she said. "A woman should keep all parts of feminine beauty covered, because only her husband has the right to see them. It seems perfectly right to me." In spite of her acceptance of what other Western Women might see as limitations, Daniela claims her relationship with her husband is one of absolute equality.
Franco Leccesi, who prefers to be known as Omar, claims the precise rules laid down by Islam help a person gain greater self discipline, which in turn leads to physical and spiritual improvement. Looking back to the old days before he converted seven years ago, he said: "I always used to try to impose my own self discipline, but it never lasted very long." Added the 42 year Neapolitan artist: "but in the past six years I've noticed a dramatic improvement in myself. If you pray five times a day it also forces you to break off from the daily treadmill. It makes you stop and reflect and prevents you from becoming an automation, who lives his life mechanically.
"One thing that strikes me very deeply is the dramatic difference between old people in many Muslim countries, and those in the West." he added. There, the elderly are often far more lucid and energetic, right up until old age, they often have remarkable physical and mental powers in comparison with people of the same age over here. Its largely due to the lifestyle they learn from childhood, which enables them to eliminate stress and to do without the kind of things that poison our systems. We westerns have lost so much of the spiritual dimension of our lives. Its as though we've fallen into a deep sleep. We're living in a world that is so empty- it's very frightening to contemplate."
Like most Italians, Leccesi was brought up a Roman Catholic, but for years he felt that something was missing from his life. He says, "When I read the Bible, I totally agreed with everything it said, but I saw that practice was very different from the theory. People didn't behave in a way that did (the bible) justice", he said. A series of visits to the Naples mosques, together with the Italian friend who had already converted to the Islamic faith, convinced Leccesi that becoming a Muslim would give him what he defines as "the something extra" that he was looking for.
His friends were skeptical at first. "It was quite hard at the beginning. People were upset because it seemed such a strange thing to do. To them, it was a step into the unknown. Some of my more intelligent friends looked at me with a sort of admiration, even though they still thought I was a bit crazy," said Leccesi. His wife found the decision hard to accept at first. For a start, she had to get used to calling the man she married as Franco by his new name of Omar. "Now, she sometimes calls me Franco and sometimes Omar, though I really don't mind which," said Leccesi. "You can't force people to believe the things you do, and I've never tried with her, but even she is showing more interest than she once did. You could now describe her as a sympathizer."
Muslim population as a whole is nearly 30,000. For years Rome's community has been forced to pray in an annex of the cramped Islamic Center in the residential Parioli neighborhood of the city. Now more than two decades after the idea was first proposed by the late King Faisal of Saudi Arabia. Rome's Muslims are finally getting ready to take possession of their own mosque- a magnificent, 17 domed structure, whose prayer hall alone will accommodate 2000 people at a time.
Abdurrahman feels totally integrated with the people whose religion he has chosen to adopt, and he predicts, in the years to come, that many more Europeans will follow suit.
"Islam rises above cultural divisions," he said. "I am a Muslim, just as a Filipino or an Indonesian may be. There is absolutely no difference. The rhythm of my lifestyle is similar to theirs, and different from that of the society to which I once belonged. I pray five times a day, and in between those prayers I find I'm not angry or violent. I'm not competitive and I don't prevaricate. I think in the future there are going to be a great many more people who will make the same choice as I have."
To subscribe to Il Messagero dell'Islam, contact Centro Islamico Via Rovigo, 11 Milan-20132 , Italy. Telephone number is 25.66.885, Annual subscription is 25.000 Italian Lire which is about 21.00 U.S. dollars. L'Islam Credo, Pilastri, vertice e perfezione and Muhammad, L'Inviato di Dio can be ordered at Edizioni del Calamo Via Maiocchi, 27 Milan-20129 Tel/Fax 02-29.52.77.06 or contact The Islamic Bulletin.