COPENHAGEN, Denmark ― Imam Abdul Wahid Pedersen first began to spiritually connect to the Islamic faith on a mountain in the holy temple town of Hampi, India in the summer of 1977. It would be about five years before Pedersen, then a 23-year-old convert to Hinduism, would become Muslim, but the experience left him profoundly changed.
“Time seemed to stand still, and I was totally lost in that feeling for as long as it lasted,” he said. “It would, nevertheless, take another few years before my brain and heart fully understood this message, and I surrendered to Allah.”
Pedersen had been on a quest for greater spiritual understanding, climbing up a mountain toward a temple at the top when it had happened. It was a moonlit night, and as the chanting echoed above, he had stopped for a drink of water at a small stream along the way. The opening was so low that he had had to bend down in order to catch the trickle. Laying on the ground, he had stretched his hand forward towards the water. At that moment, with the moon on the mountains, he realized that, “God wanted me to lie flat in front of him.” When he did so, Pedersen had unintentionally completed a prostration before God.
This was not the first time Pedersen, now an imam, had a deeply personal encounter with faith.
Imam Pedersen was born Reino Arild Pedersen in Denmark. He was raised as a Christian and often rang bells as a child at the church where his grandfather served as a clerk. As he grew up, he began questioning the practices. He went through phases, sometimes believing that there was no God at all, other times equating nature to God or even thinking that perhaps he himself controlled his own destiny. At age 16, he set out on a journey to figure out what or in whom he wanted to believe.
His search took him around the world in his early 20s, to Africa, the Middle East and finally, to India, where he bought a one-way ticket, settled down for two and a half years and became a Hindu. He discarded all his material possessions for a simple life with self-made clothes and little money.
When he returned home to Europe, he was barefoot. He went back to his first passion of creating music, and spent his days making the most out of his life as a rock musician living in a group house. Religion became less and less important, and he prayed only sporadically. Until one day in the garden, in what felt like he was struck by lightning, it suddenly dawned on him that he believed in one God and not the multiple gods he had been praying to. So he renounced Hinduism, attracted by the notion of tawhid, or the monotheistic unity of God.
But it wasn’t until he became a Muslim that he finally felt at home, and his thirst for something larger was ultimately quenched.
It wasn’t until he became a Muslim that his thirst for something larger was ultimately quenched.
After his revelation in the garden, Pedersen didn’t fully understand what the force that was calling him was. He knew that he believed in God and that there was only one God, but the concept of Islam still had yet to fully resonate with him.
In May of 1982, at the age of 28, Pedersen went to visit some old friends in Copenhagen. All three of them lived together in an apartment, and all three had converted to Islam since the last time he had seen them.
One early morning, Pedersen woke up to the sight of his friends praying the first of their five daily prayers. He suddenly came to the realization that these men, unlike himself, had a strong relationship with God because they gave him their full attention.
Deeply ashamed but also moved by the experience, Pedersen started a discussion with the men about their beliefs and what it meant to be Muslim. In doing so, he came to articulate his own belief system to the men, who in turn responded that his beliefs directly lined up with those of Islam and therefore he was already in essence a Muslim. When he heard the shahada ― the Islamic declaration of faith of “There is no God but God and Muhammad is his messenger” ― Pedersen agreed without hesitation. He has considered himself a Muslim ever since.
From Rock Musician To Imam
Today, Abdul Wahid Pedersen, 63, preaches at the Danish Islamic Center, which he helped found and where he has served as an imam since 1997. The center, at the time I interviewed him, was the only mosque in the country giving sermons in Danish.
The decision for native language prayers was in part inspired by the lack of cohesion within the Danish Muslim community, Pedersen said.
“Muslims in Denmark are, by and large, made up of immigrant communities,” he explained. “Many of them try to consolidate within their own traditions of origin. Pakistanis have become more Pakistani, Moroccans becom[e] more Moroccan, Turk[s] becom[e] more Turkish.”
So Pedersen became the bridge, uniting a diverse and somewhat segregated Muslim community at home.
“We realized we had a problem,” he said, “because converts and immigrant Muslims such as Pakistanis, Arabs and Somalis, were all speaking in different languages. The Danish population didn’t have a space within Islam.”
'Islam is not different ... being a Dane and being a Muslim is just expressing Islam in a Danish way of living.'
Unfortunately, not everyone shared his view that one can be both Muslim and Danish. Especially outside of his community. In the country where the release of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad sparked angry protests across the world, being a Muslim hasn’t always been easy, even for this self-described “ordinary hillbilly in Denmark.”
European society has changed since the early days of his conversion. For Pedersen, it’s been a struggle to convince non-Muslims that his Islamic faith is not an abandonment of his Danish roots.
As a Dane, Pedersen feels particularly connected to his Viking roots, a culture that is still prevalent in modern Denmark and makes up a large part of its tourism industry. So he does his best to balance the two identities, proudly displaying on the walls of his office Arabic calligraphy of a Viking ship in the form of a verse from the Quran.
“Islam is not different,” is what the imam says to those who ask. “And therefore for me, being a Dane and being a Muslim is just expressing Islam in a Danish way of living.”
But like many Muslims in the West, he faces the inevitable questions about his faith that stem from prejudice or confusion. And in his capacity as imam, many Danish-speaking people reach out to him for guidance and clarification on Islam through social media, by phone, mail and in person. Some pose questions like, “Can I watch TV in Islam?” Such basic misunderstandings, he said, cause non-Muslims and Muslims alike to turn to the internet, where they often end up finding a plethora of information that is short on substance, or an inaccurate or potentially dangerous distorted reflection of the religion.
To make matters worse, Danish immigrant Muslims also have trouble getting information about how to assimilate and interact with Danish society. The lack of domestic schools to train imams, Pedersen said, forces a reliance on imported imams who know the text but cannot contextualize the knowledge. Thus Muslims here have a tough time relating to the general public and culture in a way that would help lessen any potential tension as a result of misconceptions about their faith.
That inability to communicate with the Danish public is only deepened by a “lack of unity” within the Muslim community, he said. This not only makes it easy for Danes to view the community as “un-Danish,” but also makes it easier for the government to otherize the group.
'We all live according to Sharia to some degree when we are Muslim. It doesn’t mean we’re going to impose it on anybody else.'
According to Pedersen, some public measures taken by Danish authorities in recent years have caused Muslims to feel they are under siege, including laws that seemingly targeted aspects of Muslim life, such as the mandatory inclusion of pork ― a food item Muslims abstain from consuming ― in public school lunches decision passed by one Danish city.
“Of course, what they mean is they don’t want people to carry Sharia into the streets of Denmark,” he said, referring to measures taken by Western governments in reaction to a perceived threat by the Islamic moral and legal code. “But when they bring it forward like this, it becomes awkward because there is no Muslim without Sharia. We all live according to Sharia to some degree when we are Muslim. It doesn’t mean we’re going to impose it on anybody else, but we certainly do have the freedom and right to impose it on ourselves: what we eat, how we dress, when we pray, etc.”
Yet Pedersen does not believe the situation of Muslims in Denmark is all that bleak in the global Muslim context: “By and large, we are living in a quiet society. I think mostly what we have are luxury problems. I travel to many parts of the world where there are real problems.”
Those problems, however superficial, lead Pedersen to believe that we are at a “unique moment in history” with respect to Islam in Europe, particularly since it is such a relatively new religion in the region. Christianity, in contrast, has had centuries to develop in the continent.
“I believe that when Christianity came into Europe, they had probably been shouting the same things at the Christians as they are shouting at the Muslims today,” he said.
Contemplating the way forward for Muslims in Denmark, Pedersen fell back on his own Viking heritage, one defined as much by water as his moment of enlightenment on that mountain in India all those years ago.
'I believe that when Christianity came into Europe, they had probably been shouting the same things at the Christians as they are shouting at the Muslims today.'
“I’m from an old nation of seafarers. My ancestors, the Vikings, used to be well known for crossing the oceans, going abroad, knocking on doors everywhere,” he explained at an interfaith dialogue conference in London some years prior.
“Now, modern-day Muslims in Denmark have to become good sailors because we have a headwind coming on. We have to learn how to sail up against the wind, and that’s actually not so bad because when you know how to navigate your little vessel in a strong wind, then you will become a skilled sailor.”
This piece is part of a series on Western Muslim converts releasing throughout the month of Ramadan. The people profiled appear in the documentary film “Journey into Europe” and will be featured in the forthcoming book Journey into Europe: Islam, Immigration, and Identity.