An ex-atheist Muslim and four more days

I met the brilliant Irish sociologist Tom Inglis for lunch in Dublin a few years back. It was yet another of my foiled attempts to finalise a topic for a PhD. During our chat he made the point that, in Ireland, not all atheists are viewed equally – in Ireland it’s better to be a Catholic atheist than a Protestant one. It made me laugh at the time.

Last week I met a Muslim atheist. An ex-atheist. It was a chance meeting at the Clongriffin-mosque gathering in north Dublin. She happened to sit beside me as I sat on the floor eating my food. She was wearing a pink and white hijab and she was from Kazakstan.

Alina came to Ireland 12 years ago. She is around thirty. She was brought up in a non-practicing Muslim family and had always described herself as an atheist.

In Ireland she married a Muslim man. He was also from Kazakstan. He was a believer and a practicing Muslim. She wasn’t. He used to fast a few days during Ramadan. When they met he stopped going to the mosque so often and they “gave up on talking about religion”.

They had a baby. “It was such a miracle to experience birth and pregnancy and all the amazing things about breast feeding” she tells me. “Did you know that in a hot country the mother’s milk is more watery so the baby doesn’t get dehydrated? There are so many miracles in breast feeding. I started to question things.”

“A lot of atheists see people as just biological beings” she tells me. She pauses, fishing for words. She talks about science and photosynthesis and the value of science. “A lot of atheists” she starts again “think we are purely living from our reflexes and act in a certain way because we were raised in a certain way”.

Last Ramadan, when her husband was fasting, she started to research Islam. She didn’t tell her husband. She listened to lectures on Youtube and read articles on the internet. “Every time I listened to a lecture I thought “yes, this is definitely for me” and in the last few days of Ramadan I decided for sure that I wanted to be a Muslim and that I wanted to wear hijab”.

She was walking down a street in Dublin with her husband and baby daughter when she told him. He was happy. She smiles, telling me that she recited the shahada (the Islamic creed ‘there is no god but God and Muhammad is the messenger of God) there on the street in Dublin in front of her husband and since then she considers herself to be Muslim.

I ask her how did her family react. “My parents at the start were extremely worried” she tells me, laughing, “but the other day my mother was reminding me I had to pray so I was like “woah”. They don’t want me to wear hijab but it’s been a year now and they see how I’ve changed and I’ve become a better person. Even though they are Muslim they still have negative perceptions of Islam because of the media. I think it’s because they never looked into it.”

“When I was young my identity was related to Islam” she says. “When I was around seven my mother became religious for a while but when I reverted I didn’t know how to wash before prayer, I didn’t know I was meant to face Mecca when praying and I didn’t know how to put on the hijab. I learned it from the internet.” She laughs and tells me her first attempt wasn’t very good.

The women I spoke to in Clongriffin that night were from all over the world – Morocco, Turkey, Somalia, Australia, Libya and even Brunei. They nearly all spoke about missing their families and countries of origin during Ramadan when there is such a focus on families. They are all wearing head-coverings of some sort.

I notice a few women wearing the same cream-coloured hijab with coloured writing on it. Ebru from Turkey tells me that they belong to a group called “Happy Muslim Family of Ireland” – “we are trying to come together as families and do picnics and Eid parties and have fun for the kids”.

Ebru, who came to Ireland nine years ago, tells me she still feels homesick but she has settled into life in Dublin where she now works in a playschool. “The kids sometimes ask if I have ears and hair” she tells me, laughing, “so I show them sometimes”.

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Happy Muslim Family of Ireland – hijab

This is the last blog post about my interviews with the woman at Clongriffin. It’s Saturday morning now. The 3rd of August. The 25th of Ramadan. My period is nearing an end so tomorrow I’ll be back to the last four days of fasting. I feel grumpy even thinking of it, which defeats the purpose really, but I’ll enjoy my food and drinks today. Tonight I’m back to Al Mustafa Islamic Centre in Blanchardstown for an almost-all nighter of food and lectures and prayer.

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Happy Muslim Family of Ireland – detail from hijab

Most of the people I’ve interviewed over the past few weeks have told me that the first few days of Ramadan are the difficult ones. Getting used to the hunger and thirst. I realise that women have to go through the difficult days twice during Ramadan and once again when Ramadan is over and they have to make up the lost days of the fast. Tomorrow will be difficult again. But only four more days to go.

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Ramadan Mubarak poster at Clongriffin gathering

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Posters in an empty shop unit at the Clongriffin shopping centre