‘Who said mass?’, ex-Muslims and Ramadan

I’m from the generation that bridged two very different Catholic Irelands. It went from a society where Catholicism was compulsory (if you were born into it, which most people were) to one where the fastest growing ‘religions’ are atheism, agnosticism and lapsed Catholic. In the Ireland of the 21st century we have religious choices. We have freedom.

I grew up in an Ireland of polishing shoes for Sunday mass, fasting before communion, hymns at school, rosary at home, and a holy water font inside the front door. As an adult – 90% (or thereabouts) of my friends are atheist.

On Twitter I follow a group called the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain. In Islam, apostasy (leaving the religion) can sometimes be punishable by death, particularly in Middle Eastern and African countries. The CEMB provide advice, help, support and solidarity for ex-Muslims. Including steps on how to make sure your internet activities cannot be traced – that’s how careful they believe they have to be.

Up to now I’ve extolled the virtues of Ramadan and heard only positives from Muslims about their fasting experiences. Following on from some exchanges with the CEMB yesterday I realise that Ramadan is not a positive experience for ALL Muslims. Particularly those who have no faith but yet feel compelled within their communities to join in the fasting and prayers for reasons of fear.

I headed off yesterday to Al Mustafa Islamic Centre to talk to Shaykh Muhammad Umar Al-Qadri about the issue. The centre is in the unlikely location of an industrial estate. It doesn’t look like a mosque or a place that has anything to do with religion. On the outside door there is a kid’s colourful drawing with the words ‘Eid Mubarak’.

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Al Mustafa Education and Islamic Centre, Coolmine Industrial Estate, Blanchardstown

I asked Shaykh Umar about the issue of apostasy. “My view on ex-Muslims is the same as that of the Quran, the same as in the hadith [stories about the Prophet Muhammad] – anyone who follows Islam, he is free to follow or not follow the religion.”

“There is a verse in the Quran which says “there is no compulsion in religion”. If someone does not believe anymore, then for me he is still the same. I respect him and love him the same as anybody else”.

I suggest that this is the moderate view, that others would not share his opinion. “This” he insists “is the scholarly view of any school of thought, they will all give the same answer. But you will have extremists who have no tolerance. There are people in Islam who call themselves Muslim who are terrorists. There are also Muslims who will say that those who left Islam are enemies. This is not backed academically, scholarly”.

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Shaykh Muhammad Umar Al-Qadri at his office desk in Al Mustafa Centre

Shaykh Umar is from a Pakistani background but was raised in the Netherlands. The first time I met him around six years ago I was afraid of him. Simply because he seemed important with a retinue of followers, and he wore a big black beard. At that time I knew only a little about Islam. Today I would say that he is probably the most approachable Muslim leader I’ve met in Ireland.

Shaykh Umar tells me that the mosque at Al Mustafa is the most diverse in Ireland. People from Nigeria, Somalia, Sudan, Pakistan, the Ivory Coast and many other countries come here to pray. He also tells me that “in this mosque at least two people accept Islam (convert) every month. A lot of them are Irish”.

During Ramadan the mosque is busy, particularly for the Taraweeh prayers at night which don’t finish until after midnight. “In Ireland, people who wouldn’t normally come to the mosque during the year come every day during Ramadan.”

And are there Muslims in Ireland who don’t fast? “More Muslims in Pakistan don’t fast than people in Ireland” he tells me. He is just back from Pakistan where he says he saw people smoking (also banned in Ramadan during daylight hours) and not fasting but nobody was objecting. If a person doesn’t fast, that’s between him and Allah.”

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Inside the warehouse – this is the space used as a mosque

“Approximately 50% of the Muslim population don’t pray five times a day” he tells me. “Is there anyone who judges them? Nobody. Is there anybody who forces them? Nobody”.

Again I suggest that his view is the moderate view but he responds: “I would say this is the correct Islamic view. Any other view is an extreme view and is a wrong interpretation of Islam”.

It’s not the first time that the topic of extremism has come up over the past few weeks. Shaykh Umar is so outspoken and so seemingly moderate (to my ears anyway) that I ask him if he himself fears extremists.

“Yes. Well, not in the sense that they could do me any wrong but I have the fear that they could destroy the reputation of Islam in Ireland.”

He tells me that in Pakistan he is very well known because of his TV appearances. The TV station provided bodyguards for him round the clock because he “could be a target for the extremists”. Why? “Because I speak out against them and because the message we give of Islam is a message that does not benefit them”.

“Are there extremists in Ireland?” I ask him. “There could be extremists in Ireland. They are not organised but there are individuals. They have no scholarly background”.

I imagine that I’m not going to meet any Muslims in Ireland who will openly talk to me about any negative experiences of Islam or of Ramadan. There are mild parallels to the Ireland that I grew up in where anybody who didn’t have faith ‘belonged’ to the Catholic church anyway.

Ramadan has been a wonderful experience for me to date. The hunger and thirst are inconsequential in comparison to the new found appreciation of taste and food and the excuse to go out and visit mosques and meet people and eat with them and learn about their cultures, religion, experiences and life.

This whole discussion reminds me of the years when I was in my twenties and mam used to call me for mass every Sunday morning. I unwillingly rolled out of bed. I was an adult and either had my own car or the use of one. I ‘went’ to mass by driving around country roads or heading to the beach and the first question later, when I got home, was always ‘who said mass?’


This is a radio programme I made for WLRfm in 2005ish about Catholic Ireland in the mid-twentieth century. Funded by the BCI. Featuring catechism quotes from my dad. And my fake-newsy voice (apologies for the voice 🙂 )

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‘Who said Mass?’ – T-Shirts with this image are available from Irish company http://www.hairybaby.com

* My visit to Al Mustafa Islamic Centre was done as part of my research into the use of warehouses as places of worship for migrant groups. This research is funded by the Mary Raftery Journalism Fund. The radio pieces being made from this research will be broadcast on Global Village on Newtalk in September/October 2013.

One third of the way there – Ramadan

One third of the way there. The numbers underneath the fraction line are getting smaller. Today is day 11 of the long-hot-summered Ramadan fast. There’s just 19 more to go.

I began the fast wanting to see what it felt like for Muslims to not eat or drink on an Irish July sunny day. The magnified pleasures of food and water at the end of the first day, coupled with my innate curiosity (call it nosiness), was enough of an incentive to keep going.

The first few days I made some attempts to conserve energy and avoid the midday sun but now I go for walks, play tennis, go shopping, even cook dinners and lunches for my husband and toddler. Life has normalised.

My solitary breaking of the fasts have also been broken up with very welcome company of friends which has doubled and tripled the dusking pleasure.

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The version of the Quran that I am reading – one section a day. Given to me by an Imam in Waterford when I made some radio programmes 6 years ago.

Today I am on section XI of the Quran. I’m reading a translation. The English doesn’t trip easily into my brain. I stumble over words and sentences. And the messages and meanings clog up my clock-works.

There is a lot of talk in the Quran of believers and unbelievers, of faith and fear, of fighting and peace and doing good and charity.

I questioned Dr. Ali Selim, senior member of staff at the Islamic Cultural Centre of Ireland about my understanding that believers should not be friends with unbelievers but he said it was a matter of translation and also of understanding the context in which the verses were written.

“I have a friend” he tells me “a good friend, who is an atheist and we go for meals together and talk about religion and if I am giving talks I always invite him. We’ve been friends for over ten years.” He jokingly tells me “he has a very stubborn mentality”. My friend, who has accompanied me to the ICCI says to him laughing “and he probably thinks that you do too”.

Dr. Selim made it clear to me that it is okay for Muslims to have non-Muslim friends but as a non-Muslim, ignorant of Arabic and of Quranic interpretation, this is not the message that I took from it. There are many similarly problematic passages for me which I’m sure cannot be read at face-value.

In the meantime, there’s no sign of a break in the weather. The grass on the road verges is burnt dry. Sometimes we can smell smoke off the mountains as the gorse catches fire. There’s talk of water shortages and we are officially in drought. For Muslims working at manual labour in Ireland it must be difficult. But for me, in my summer holidays, I’m doing just fine.

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The brown sunburnt grass at the side of the roads