I’m no expert but I had never seen Islam like this before. It was the holiest night of the Islamic calendar and I was at yet another warehouse in an industrial estate in Dublin suburbs. This time I was with a group of Nigerian Muslims. The celebration was the most informal and upbeat I have seen over the past four weeks.
Last night was the 27th night of Ramadan. The night is called Laylat al-Qadr or the “Night of Power”. It’s believed by many to be the night on which the Prophet Mohammad received his first revelation. Although the exact date of Laylat al Qadr is not known, it’s thought to be on one of the odd numbered nights of the last ten days of Ramadan (21st, 23rd, 25th or 27th). The 27th is probably the most popular marker.
The previous night I had returned to Al Mustafa Islamic Centre in Blanchardstown for a special Iftar meal attended by the mayor of Fingal County Council, Kieran Dennison. There were speeches and delicious foods and I even managed to take photographs of Muslim women. But, my plans to stay for the overnight Itikaf retreat and lectures were scuppered by the tiredness of toddler and new-puppy nights.
The Nigerian mosque that I visited last night was in the same industrial estate as Al Mustafa but it was on a different road and in a much smaller warehouse. Night was falling when I arrived. I hung around outside the warehouse wondering what to do and whether to go in or not when two colourfully dressed women came outside, chatting. I introduced myself and they were very welcoming and led me inside.
The women showed me where to leave my shoes, led me over to where they had been sitting and pointed me to a blank spot on the floor beside them. One of them passed me a booklet with the words of the chant and encouraged me to join in. I’d never heard chanting like this in a mosque before.
One of the women near the back held a microphone and led the chant. Voices rose and fell and dropped in and out. Women with striking-coloured outfits and hijabs sat around the floor and against walls. Some had babies in their arms. Others shuffled prayer beads through their fingers. There was also chats and laughs. It was ordered yet informal.
The walls were painted blues and creams and filled with huge posters with the name of the organisation ‘Nasfat’. There were small wooden partitions dividing the women from the men who were up at the front of the room.
As time to break the fast approached two women walked around passing out packets of crisps to the younger children. Another woman walked around with pears and oranges. Another with bottles of water. Wraps of coca cola and Fanta orange were cut open and passed around. A large plastic sheeting was unfolded and spread out across the floor. Time to eat had arrived.
Imam at the warehouse, Moses Ogunse, came to talk to me. “In the Nigerian tradition we like to bring families together during Ramadan” he told me. “We see each other as one family – we are not family by blood but we are family together”.
Moses told me that around fifty families were there last night and that people bring food donations. It’s not just people from around Blanchardstown attending – some travelled from far beyond Dublin. He himself came from Offaly and comes every Sunday. Although Friday is a big day for all Muslims, Nigerian Muslims also gather on Sundays.
It’s not the only Nigerian makeshift mosque either. He told me that there are around five around Dublin alone and that all except one are in industrial warehouses. He explained that Western Nigerians have separate mosques to the Northern Nigerians as they speak different languages. Their gathering is made up of Western Nigerians.
A woman asked me what food I would like – it was like being offered a menu in a restaurant as she listed out the possibilities on offer. I got a bowl of rice pudding and a spicy bean pie with flaked smoked fish. Tasty.
After prayers the room filled with the sound of children who had been playing in a room upstairs. One young girl, around eight years old, spotted me and jumped backwards as she grabbed her friend’s arm. “Woah” she exclaimed. I asked “why are you so surprised?” She said “because there is a white person here”. We both laughed.
Ramadan is changing my perspective of Islam. It’s a bit like a view of the earth from the moon – from that far away the world looks straightforward, simple, a unified whole.
The closer you get to the object of attention the more complicated and complex it becomes. Divisions become clearer. Boundaries appear. And so it is for me with Islam as Ramadan draws to a close. Sufi, Sunni, Shi’a; Wahhabi, Salafi, Deobandi; men, women, children; Pakistani, Nigerian, Turkish, Iraqi; believers, questioners, atheists, ex-atheists. The richness and diversity of Islam becomes clear. My satellite vision disappears.
I’m back to fasting today but it is made easier by the fact that I’ve been invited for dinner to the home of an Iraqi woman I met at the Clonskeagh Iftar a few weeks ago. And today I’m off to meet a group of Hafiz (people who can recite the entire Quran by heart) from South Africa who’ve been in Ireland for Ramadan. Two more days and counting.
[The first vine video shows women worshipping at the mosque – it shows the exuberance and upbeat nature of the celebration – a six second video on loop. Not all the worshipping was like this but it does give a taste of some of it]
[this should be to a Vine video link of Shaykh Muhammad Rafiq at the Al Mustafa Islamic Centre reciting the beginning of Bismillah – to give an idea of the musicality of Arabic recitations of the Quran]
* This post and visits to both Al Mustafa Islamic Centre and Nasfat warehouse are part of my research into the use of industrial warehouses as places of worship which is funded by the Mary Raftery Journalism Fund – the radio pieces will be broadcast on Newstalk in September/October coming.