'I used to be a Christian... but converted to Islam'

At university, Sarah Ager was known for her Christian faith. Her parents are Salvation Army ministers. She grew up going to church and being in the church choir. Belief in God and being a Christian were a fundamental part of her identity, until she converted to Islam when she was studying English in Leicester.

She wasn't peeved with the Church, didn't know much about Islam, and she didn't convert in order to marry a Muslim.

So what led her on this journey? She decided to look into Islam when she met some Turkish Muslims at university. "The main reason I started studying [Islam] was because I was embarrassed," she says.

"I knew nothing about Turkey or Islam, I didn't know what they believed; I was intimidated. I thought 'I have to at least Google this religion'."

But Sarah didn't stop at a quick Google search, she decided to take a course on Muslim women in literature as part of her degree. "There were two Muslim women wearing Hijabs on the course and I remember being intimidated and sitting at the other end of the room. I thought they must be really Muslim.

"But when they were speaking during the class, they had such a beautiful way of expressing their faith. I became more interested in finding out how they perceived God."

It's one thing to appreciate another religion, but what made her convert?

"Just one day I looked back and thought I wasn't a Christian anymore," she says.

"I can't remember the moment when I stopped believing that Jesus was the son of God, but I remember how I felt – I wasn't sure what I was or what I believed anymore. I had been so sure before."

And Jesus is what it all comes down to. She knew that once she no longer believed he was God, she was no longer a Christian.

But having converted, does she ever have doubts that she's made the wrong decision?

"Imagine that I'm wrong, that I'm completely on the wrong path, even then, I feel that God is so compassionate, that I would hope... I don't think that God excludes people in that way.

"Often we're taught that you're bad so God doesn't love you, my understanding is that God is very inclusive.

"In the Qur'an there are often passages that say that you shouldn't judge something because you don't know if there is a part of that thing that God really loves."

Not everyone who converts from one religion to another receives the sympathetic reaction that Sarah has. Her family were supportive, she's stayed in contact with her Christian friends, and her parents try to find ways to relate their faith with hers.

Sarah still appreciates the things that her upbringing gave her – particularly knowing the stories of Jesus. She finds some Muslims are reticent to read about Jesus "because he's been 'taken' by Christians as it were".

Now 26 and working as a teacher in Bologna, Italy, Sarah runs the Interfaith Ramadan Project, a blog designed to bring people of different beliefs together during the Muslim month of fasting to talk about what their faith means to them.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is during Ramadan, when most Muslims fast from food and drink during daylight hours, that she appreciates the practical aspects of her faith – her dress, prayer routine and the discipline of fasting.

"When I put on a hijab, I'm reminded of how I want to present myself in the world," she says.

Spiritual disciplines such as prayer and fasting can be lived out in both Christianity and Islam. Now practising them as a Muslim, Sarah says she wished she had done them before.

"When I was a Christian, I would pray spontaneously, but sometimes that means you only pray when things are bad, and you don't pray when things are good.

"The fact that I pray five times a day now means I have to stop what I'm doing, even if I'm grumpy. We pray in a very physical way, you can't just pray in your head, you have to engage physically – bowing and leaning."

Like the idea of wearing a hijab, she initially thought fasting was crazy.

"The first time I started fasting, I was just trying it out, I wasn't a Muslim yet. I was really surprised by how not eating and not drinking affects your mental approach and your sense of spirituality," she says.

"When you're fasting, the only thing that stops you from picking up a glass of water is your faith. I walked past a pizza place and never been more tempted – but then if you lock yourself away you're not testing your faith.

"I really wish I'd done it as a Christian," she adds.

Sarah started the Interfaith Ramadan blog last year, in the hope of bringing together like-minded people from different faiths. Motivated by her appreciation for Christianity and an interest in learning about other religions, she is committed to interfaith dialogue, believing that people of faith encourage one another.

She was particularly struck by a recent comment from a Catholic nun on one of the blog posts. "She said she prays five times a day too, and that the whole point is that you are interrupting your daily life, and reminding yourself that God is more important than your life. It really encouraged me."

But not everyone is so supportive of Sarah's openness to other faiths. She had a conversation with two people simultaneously on Twitter that represented two poles of opinion. "One person who said: 'You're Muslim and you're going to hell,' and then from a Muslim: 'You're not Muslim enough because you're fraternising with other faiths'.

"It did make me laugh – for one I'm too Muslim and for the other I'm not Muslim enough," she says.

Does she think she's ever experienced Islamophobia? "In the UK, I've experienced comments that made me uncomfortable, but they weren't islamophobic," she says.

"But I've had plenty online experiences, where people will suddenly say 'go back home' and 'you're a terrorist'. But that's nothing compared to what others have experienced."

Perception of Islam, whether online or in person, is no doubt fuelled by reports of Muslims in the news. And with ISIS' attacks, the Meriam Ibrahim case, and the Trojan Horse 'plot' fresh in people's minds, in some ways at least, Islam isn't faring well in the media at the moment.

"There is, to a certain extent, an atmosphere where Islam is presented in a negative light," she says "but there are also things that are negative – the Meriam Ibrahim case was absurd.

"I think often people willingly ignore the peaceful message of the Qur'an and use it for their own advantage, it makes me incredibly sad. In the Qur'an it says you shouldn't force someone into religion – but then there are laws in Saudi Arabia which do.

"There are passages in the Qur'an that are a bit dodgy and if you didn't take it in its historical context, you could get in a right mess. But if you're reading it as a whole you can see that the overriding message is compassion."

This year Ramadan is from June 27-July 28. Find out more about the Interfaith Ramadan Project on Sarah's blog.

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