Reaching for the Stars: Interview with Muslim Convert and Doctor, Anne-Marie Ionescu

Dr. Anne-Marie Ionescu; London – UKWOMEN’S SECTION

8th March 2022

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Anne-Marie Ionescu MBBS BSc is currently a Junior Doctor at Royal Surrey Hospital, Guildford, with an interest in Oncology. Anne-Marie embraced Islam via a less conventional route, being of Romanian heritage and from a Catholic background. The Covid-19 pandemic has not slowed the pace of life for Anne-Marie, who is also married and raising two young children whilst regularly contributing to the ‘Rational Religion’ platform.The Review of Religions Women’s Section editor, Munavara Ghauri, had the pleasure to ask Anne-Marie a little about her life, faith and future goals. 

MG: Welcome to The Review of Religions Magazine, Anne-Marie! Could you tell us a little about your background and childhood? 

AM: JazakAllah (may God reward you) for having me. I was born in the UK in London to Eastern European parents who came from Romania. They came to the UK during the time of the decline of communism in the country, so there was a lot of political instability. 

Because of the communism which remained in Romania for nearly 40 years, my parents were raised in a Marxist environment, which was intolerant to religious views. All religions were suppressed including the belief of the religious majority, which were and still are Eastern Orthodox Christians. My parents are atheist and were raised as that. They didn’t raise my siblings and I with any religious connection but baptised us in the Roman Catholic Church. This was to have us accepted in to the local Catholic schools, which were deemed better than other local schools in East London, where we lived.

MG: How did you then become interested in Islam?

AM: It initially started with being confronted with the thought of the afterlife and that I wanted to know what God thought was right and wrong, at around the age of 15. I had up until that age assumed what I thought was right and wrong, were correct. I had no solid foundation as to what God might truly want from me and from us as a creation. At that age of 15, I decided to start going to church on my own every Sunday, to try and gain an understanding and certainty of what God wants and what the answers to the big questions were.

I continued to attend Church on my own for 2-3 years until I started college. Up until that point I had attended an all-Christian school and so the majority of my friends were Christian, apart from my oldest friend, a neighbour, who was a Muslim girl from an Indian family background. We never spoke about religious matters but I’m sure their welcoming and kind nature had a subconscious impact on me early on.

I became interested in Islam when I engaged in a discussion about my beliefs surrounding Jesus (as) in Christianity, with a Muslim friend in college. I realised I didn’t have the correct understanding of Christianity or at least my own views didn’t align with Christian beliefs. So, I started researching in to Christianity, in to its history and discovered I couldn’t be a Chrisitan any longer, given that I didn’t believe Jesus (as) was the son of God, rather a prophet or a messenger. I never thought Jesus (as) was divine, but that he was like the prophets that were sent in the past. I then started reading in to Judaism and thought I might become Jewish for a short while, but I couldn’t shake the belief that I thought Jesus (as) was much like the other prophets.So, why was he a liar and the rest were truthful? So, I read into all other religions and ‘isms’ I could! I left Islam last because I had many prejudices about it, I also had the same typical media misconceptions (of Islam). But, I decided that I ought to complete my research and at least know why I was rejecting Islam. 

So, I searched an English translation of the Holy Qur’an online and began reading. I was surprised and hooked by just the first chapter, Surah al-Fatihah, which remains my favourite chapter.And then I discovered all of the same names of the Bible in the Holy Qur’an, like Moses (as), Jesus (as) Abraham (as), Mary (as) etc. all in the Holy Qur’an and the Holy Qur’an seemed to correct the mistakes I thought that had crept in to Christianity – namely the Trinity and divinity of Jesus (as). So, once I finished reading the Holy Qur’an, I thought to myself, ‘Well, Islam is the answer.’ I became worried about my family’s reaction. After doing a little more research into various issues that I didn’t quite understand at the time, I became a mainstream Sunni Muslim.

MG: It’s impressive that you undertook such extensive research into many religions and ideologies at such a young age, and particularly so given your parents’ background, Anne-Marie. Subsequently, why did you feel the need to become an Ahmadi Muslim after becoming a Sunni Muslim?

AM: I felt I needed to be sure whether the Mahdi had actually come. As we all know, the Mahdi was believed to be the forerunner to the second coming of Jesus (as), who is awaited by the rest of the Muslim world. So, when I came across the idea that the Mahdi had arrived and that I may be wrong about this issue then I had to start my research again and decide for myself whether this was true or not.

I read a Jama’at (Ahmadiyya Muslim Community) book which discussed the various notable scholars of Islam and their interpretation of what Khatam an-Nabiyyeen (‘Seal of the Prophets’) means and that they also believed there would be prophethood in the form of non-law bearing prophethood after the Holy Prophet Muhammad (sa). Later, I read Invitation to Ahmadiyyat (by Hazrat Mirza Bashiruddin Mahmud Ahmad (ra)) and Ahmad the Guided One (by Iain Adamson); both were pivotal in convincing me of the truth of the Promised Messiah (as) and I became an Ahmadi Muslim shortly after that.

MG: How did your family react to your conversion to Islam? Have their perceptions of Islam changed since you converted?

AM: They didn’t react well. My sisters were accepting but worried about its impact on my family, in particular my parents. 

Their attitude has changed with time, but it has taken many, many, years, and there is still some difficulty there. The difficulty has eased once I married, as their worries surrounding who I would be married to subsided when I married someone that they liked very much.

MG: I am glad things are improving and Insha’Allah (God-willing) will continue to do so. Turning to another subject, how did you become interested in Medicine?

AM: I’ve always had an interest and aptitude for science from a young age. I was exposed to a lot of advanced science books as well as science learning books for children, ever since I could remember. They were my favorite books. I also had a love of animals which was important in developing my liking for Medicine at a later stage. I studied Pharmacology at university and loved the clinical side of it. After graduating, I went on to study Medicine at UCL (University College London).

MG: So, Science and Medicine have really been life-long passions of yours. What area of medicine would you like to specialise in now?

AM: My interest lies within General Medicine but with an interest in research also. So, I’ve decided to pursue my further training in Oncology, which has a good balance of both these aspects.

MG: How wonderful and in a much-needed field. I think there are around 1,000 new cases of cancer every day in the UK, which is a really shocking statistic [1]. Anne-Marie, you have two young children and yet you are currently working in a demanding job as a Junior Doctor. How do you manage to balance your career with your family life?

AM: It is difficult sometimes to balance the two, but I can say that after staying at home with my two kids for 4 years out of training, I feel a lot more balanced and well-rounded as a mother, having now gone back to training. I feel that work can be a break from home and home is a break from work, so there is a nice balance at the moment. But my husband and I need to be organised in terms of rota management, as he is also a doctor. We have one of us at home at any one time and have help from my mother-in-law one day every other week usually. This has been very helpful.

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MG: It’s nice that you have a supportive family around you. You mentioned that you were a Catholic before you became a Muslim. Do you think there are any similar elements between Catholicism and Islam? 

AM: Yes, I think there are broad similarities between the two. The concept of God being one – though this has been distorted through the concept of the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus (as). But the original message, Jesus’ (as) message, was one and the same as the message of Islam, which is that God is One and it is only through God that you will attain your purpose in life. Other elements such as the prophets of the past like Moses (as), Abraham (as) and John the Baptist (as) etc, these are present in both religious scriptures, because they come from the same point of origin i.e., God. God revealed Himself to a group of pious people to deliver His message to the people. 

There is also the similar element of atoning for your sins. Compared to other Christian denominations where the teachings of Paul prevail much more. There is the idea that no matter what you do in this life, as long as you believe that Jesus (as) died for your sins, then you’ll be saved from Hell. You could be the worst person on Earth and only profess this one statement and you’ll get a pass, essentially. Whereas in the Catholic tradition, there is still this idea that you should do good deeds and that you should repent once you have committed a sin or wrongful act, in order that God might forgive and have mercy on you. 

Islam lays a heavy emphasis on self-reformation in a similar way. Though Islam doesn’t require an intercessor or a priest to seek forgiveness. Your direct line to God is through prayer, not through a priest. Islam teaches that God’s Mercy is much greater than His Anger, and that in order for one to have their sins forgiven, a person needs to seek God’s Help to enact that reformation within himself. The person needs to make an effort to make a change, of course, but the recognition that the success or failure of that reformation will only come through God helping them make a change (is in both faiths).

MG: The similarities between Islam and Catholicism that you have highlighted are interesting. Both are Abrahamic faiths and so you would expect some common concepts.  On another topic, what would you say to critics who say that the Hijab (veil) is a means of oppressing Muslim women?

AM: I would say that the Hijab is asking no more of people than what they are already doing before they step outside their doors to leave their house. When people leave their homes to go to work, school etc, they make a decision about what clothes they wish to wear and how to present themselves to the world. People don’t walk out of their houses naked. So, what are the reasons why people clothe themselves? Some may say because it provides them with dignity, with the means to avoid unwanted attention and so on. The Hijaband modest dress for both men and women aren’t asking any more than that. It simply sets the bar higher for dignity and nobility. It is seen as more noble, more dignified, to dress modestly, especially because we devote ourselves to God and cover our hair, ultimately out of a devotion to God. 

Islam has no interest in forcing women to wear a head covering. Islam has no interest in forcing any Muslim to do anything in fact. God isn’t in need of us to do anything. It is purely for our own benefit that certain recommendations and commandments are relayed in the Holy Qur’an for people who seek to tread a path to God Almighty.If you don’t want to engage in these things, then that is entirely your choice. You can only really decide to do something, like wear a Hijab, if you understand why it’s recommended and if you have life experience to help you make that decision. Being a convert, I was never raised in a Muslim family and so my concept of a head covering for religious reasons was very limited. But both my life experience and my desire to achieve nearness to God helped me make that decision early on.

MG: You have 2 young children whom you are raising as Muslim. Many people in the United Kingdom no longer believe in God (A YouGov poll of 2020 said only 27% of Britons believe in ‘a god’ [2]) and feel parents should not ‘force’ any religion upon their children. Instead, they should let children decide their religious affiliation as adults. What would you say to such people?

AM: I think we are very fortunate to live in a society which allows freedom of expression and freedom of religious practice. We are extremely fortunate in this regard because this is a big problem in many parts of the world where one religious group or minority is being persecuted. 

We are also very fortunate to have a good legal system which was in fact based upon much of the Christian Church doctrine of the past in terms of morality and accountability for one’s actions. It is not a tribal system here where the law of the land is variable. It is one law for all. People today forget how much of the stability of their countries stem from the roots of religion that laid the foundation for laws in their lands.

We didn’t come up with a legal system out of thin air. Religion has played a big role in all of our lives. Whether we choose to recognise that or not is a different question.  Morality plays a big part in our lives even as non-religious people. Our lives are governed by abiding by moral principles enshrined in the legal system. Morals keep us accountable. 

What are we saying when we say we want to raise children free of religion? Are we saying we want to raise the next generation free of moral training? Of course not. No atheist would say this. What atheists actually want is for people to raise their children by their own standard of moral training, to raise their children with their own views on morality and ways of life. They don’t want any other moral training taught to children.

The reality is, once children become adults, they choose for themselves their way of life, as I did. 

If atheists wish to raise their children without a religious practice then that’s fine, but don’t pretend that you will be raising your child without a moral framework because we all do and we all must.

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MG: A brilliant point, Anne-Marie. You are right in that every responsible parent has to provide some moral framework for their child.  You also contribute to a platform ‘Rational Religion’ (rationalreligion.co.uk) which promotes the idea that science and religion are reconcilable. Is Islam really based on rational thought?  

AM: Absolutely. The people of the West generally believe that they’ve largely outgrown religion. That science has provided them with the answers they need to make sense of their lives and religion plays no part in that anymore. It is thought that science is more rational, being based on the scientific method, and that religion has no base in rational arguments, nor in rational thought, only in ‘Faith’ or hope that there is something greater than ourselves. And to but be content without any evidence of the fact. You can’t blame people generally in the West for thinking this because this is essentially a Christian teaching. The idea that it is unlikely you will gain certainty of God’s existence but will have ‘Faith’ or blind faith that there is something more.

Islam doesn’t advocate this. It in fact does the opposite. The Holy Qur’an repeatedly implores the reader to keep searching, both in the Holy Qur’an and also in nature for signs of God.

Who has created the seven heavens in order, one above the other. Thou canst not discover a flaw in the creation of the Gracious One. Then look again: Seest thou any disparity? Look again, and yet again, thy sight will return to thee frustrated and fatigued.’

– The Holy Qur’an 67:5-6

The Holy Qur’an repeatedly tells the reader to gain certainty of God’s existence. Faith alone is the lowest form of belief in Islam. And that’s fine if it is sufficient for you, but God recognises that for most people faith alone isn’t enough to keep them steadfast. What you have to recognise though, is that proof of God is not going to be the same type of proof as is found in the scientific method. We talk about this on the platform, that in the same way you don’t see the taste of sugar or hear the colour of a rose, the way you discover the fact of something needs to be with the appropriate means of investigation. Using your eyes to see the colour of a rose is the correct way of establishing what colour it is, your ear will offer you no help in discovering the colour. So, thinking that you will find God in a test tube is going to lead you nowhere. In order to investigate the spiritual, you need to undergo the appropriate means of investigation.

Islam implores everyone to find the existence of God by searching for Him with these appropriate means of investigation. Namely; prayer, fasting and seclusion, where possible.

MG: You live very close to the Worldwide Head of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, His Holiness, Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad (aba). How significant is His Holiness (aba) in your life?

AM: Well, we moved down from our home in the Midlands to be closer to Huzoor (aba) (His Holiness). We moved before Huzoor(aba) himself had moved to the area and wanted to be nearer to family as well as the central Community, to be close to him but also to the Institutions, because of regular meetings.

Huzoor (aba) is very significant in that he is always reminding us of our responsibilities and duties to others around us. He provides guidance where we may be unsure of what to do in a particular situation. 

We are so fortunate to have Khilafat (the Caliphate) because coming from a Sunni Muslim background as well as a Christian background, the life of a Muslim in mainstream Muslim groups can be very bleak. There is no single voice of guidance. For every piece of advice you want to hear, you will hear a sheikh or scholar, who will give you what you want to hear. The life of a Muslim is different now to how it was 200 years ago, so the guidance of past reformers or mujaddids feels less easily applicable. Yes, you can still be a good Muslim and be relatively content in this society, but your experience will be like one who has been thirsty for many years and will never feel satiated from a glass of water. Huzoor (aba) provides that guidance and clarity and is constantly reminding us that we all need to remain on the right path ahead.

MG: And finally, what do you hope to achieve in the next 10 years? 

AM: Find a cure for cancer! Insh’Allah (God-willing). I hope to have completed or be near the completion of my training in Oncology. I hope to have had a further child Insha’Allah, if God wills it to be part of our plan. To have worked abroad as Waqf (devotee to the Community) and provided whatever I can provide in my own capacity to hospitals abroad.

I hope to help establish a large-growing audience to the Rational Religion channel. To open the door to debate and discussion about these fundamental questions that every person asks themselves at some point in their lives. I hope that through the work we’re doing on Rational Religion, that other women will be more confident in doing tabligh (the propagation of Islam) on online platforms and be more visible as a source of knowledge for people searching for answers.

MG: Some wonderful aspirations, Anne-Marie. We wish you the best of luck in the future. It has been both a pleasure and an inspiration to hear something of your life and beliefs. JazakAllah! (may God reward you).


ENDNOTES

[1] https://www.cancerresearchuk.org/health-professional/cancer-statistics-for-the-uk#heading-Zero

[2] https://yougov.co.uk/topics/philosophy/articles-reports/2020/12/29/how-religious-are-british-people

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  2. Tributes to Women on International Women’s Day
  3. What Does Islam Say About Female Imams, Western Feminism and Gender Equality?
  4. Mosques and Women: What the BBC Got Wrong

source https://www.reviewofreligions.org/37740/reaching-for-the-stars-interview-with-muslim-convert-and-doctor-anne-marie-ionescu/

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