Yesterday a concise version of my Ramadan blog entries was published in the Irish Times. Here it is: http://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/a-non-muslim-s-ramadan-diary-1.1489581#.UgXyPyWSaIk.twitter
Yesterday I was ‘called’ to Islam. The call to convert came from a lovely twenty-one year old South African man named Shakeer whose brown eyes were bright with friendliness and encouragement.
We were sitting opposite each other at a metal-legged table at the Golden Olive restaurant in Clonskeagh. Shakeer was wearing a freshly-ironed full-length brown thobe and a white hat. He had a long black scribbly beard.
Shakeer had phoned me a few days previously. He had heard about my Ramadan fast from an ex-colleague of mine in Waterford. He said he was interested in my experience and in why I was fasting. We arranged to meet. He told me it would be good if my husband came too.
Shakeer was in Ireland with a group of 26 South Africans. They were brought to Ireland to lead the nightly Taraweeh prayers of Ramadan at various mosques around the country. They were chosen to come to Ireland because they could all recite the full Quran by heart.
A person who can recite the full Quran by heart is called a Hafiz. To put this achievement in context – the Quran is slightly shorter in length than the Christian New Testament – it’s made up of just over 6,000 verses. Learning it by heart is considered a major achievement.
Shakeer told me that he left mainstream school at fourteen in order to learn the Quran. It took him six years. “This is more than double the average” he told me and explained that it took him so long because he was involved in various other activities including radio work during that time.
The 26 guys from South Africa were all members of the Islamic missionary organisation called Tablighi Jamaat. When they arrived in Ireland they were split up into groups of twos or threes and sent to various towns and cities. Shakeer was sent to Waterford city with two others.
He had a child-like quality to his face despite his long beard and he was bright with laughter and smiles. “My mam filled my bag with biscuits and all kinds of food for the journey” he told me. “She even put in powdered milk. I opened my bag and wondered did she think I was going to the jungle” he said laughing.
The biscuits and powdered milk his mam packed were still sealed in the bag as he prepared for his journey home. He told me that they were treated really well by the Muslim community in Waterford and that they were invited to houses for food every night. This, he explained, was a sign of respect for the Quran.
When he walked down the streets of Waterford the non-Muslim community of the city were curious. He said that when he walked down the streets of Waterford wearing the full length thobe, cars slowed down to look and people turned and stared. He smiled when he recounted their interest and didn’t seem to mind.
Recitation of the full Quran was completed at the mosque in Waterford the previous night. “It was very emotional” he said and explained that the completion of the Quran, coupled with the fact that it had been the 27th of Ramadan, meant that it was a night when supplications were accepted by Allah.
I asked him what he meant by supplication. “It’s a request” he said. “A person can ask for anything that comes to mind”. “Even material things?” I asked. “Yes, anything”. He laughed when I asked him if it works . “We have seen many times that it helps” he told me. “We made a special supplication because of the recession and lack of jobs in Ireland”.
We talked for over an hour. He told me about the presence of evil in the world today, about the media misrepresentation of Islam, about different law schools and movements within Islam.
He told me that their visit to Ireland was “majorly fruitful” because they completed the recitation of the Quran and that some people learned a few chapters of the Quran and one woman whose family is Catholic “reverted to Islam”.
I looked up at the clock on the wall of the empty restaurant and was it one o’clock in the early afternoon and time for me to go. “Before you go” he said, “it is my duty to call you to Islam and for that reason I’m asking you to pay note to a few things”. He went on to tell me that Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world today and he spoke about the logic of the “oneness of the Almighty”.
He gently encouraged me to convert, there and then, by reciting the Shahada or creed (“there is no god but God and Muhammad is the messenger of God”).
“Is this why you wanted to meet me?” I ask him. “Yes” he answered smiling, a little cheekily. “Everyone is a believer or a prospective believer” he explained and “you are more prospective than others”.
I told him that I wasn’t going to convert, that I was interested in all religions. He urged me “don’t let religion be something of research and study, rather make it something of passion and devotion, a spiritual experience”.
He said “do this tonight – put your head on the ground or put your hands up and say “oh creator, show me that which is correct and guide me to that which is correct” and I hope you will see the light”.
I realise that Shakeer was giving me what he believes is the greatest gift that he can give to any person. As a devout Muslim he believes that, as an unbeliever, I am destined for hell where I will burn for eternity. I understand that he is concerned for me. He told me he felt pity for me. I appreciate his efforts.
“Out of billions of people in the world” he tried one more time. “Why would you meet someone who calls you to Islam? I think it is the Almighty and he wants to give you guidance”.
“Well in that case” I reply, smiling “more guidance will come”.
I do not share Shakeer’s faith or his beliefs. People might wonder then why I didn’t debate with him. But over the years I’ve come to the conclusion that beliefs are really very powerful things – in God or in no-God, in gods or in no-gods. I tend to go with the words of Ninian Smart “God is real for Christians whether or not he exists”. And who am I to disagree?
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.
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”.
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.
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.
I know it sounds terrible but the truth is that I was so excited to be finally talking to a woman whose face was covered that I forgot to ask her name. Only her eyes were visible – two bright blue sparkling ones – amongst the black.
I’ll call her Mariam.
It was Saturday night and I was in the shiny new Clongriffin shopping centre. A Muslim group known as the Dublin Welfare Society was renting out a section of the largely vacant centre to host a talk about converting to Islam which was to be followed by a special Iftar meal.
Around two hundred people – men, women and children – attended the event so the centre looked busy. The talk was in a large upstairs room. A crooked partition about the height of a person ran down the centre of the room. A dividing line. Women were on the left side. Men on the right.
The talk had just finished and people were wandering around, gathering in groups near the back of the room where the food was being prepared. It was nearly time to break the fast.
I noticed only one woman – other than myself – who wasn’t wearing a head scarf. Mariam was the first woman I saw there whose entire body and face was covered in drapes of black.
I’m ingrigued by Muslim women who cover their faces. I think I must subconsciously (and erroneously) associate the invisibility of mouths with voice-lessness and the black coverings with unapproachability. A fortress of cloth. When I saw Mariam I breached the perceived boundaries and went up to her. “Could I ask you a few questions?” I asked her nervously. “Yes” she answers in an unexpected American accent.
“I wear the niqab to be closer to God” she tells me. “It’s my personal decision. It makes it easier to interact in communities and to maintain my modesty. It’s a very personal thing. I really enjoy wearing it”.
Other people however, don’t always respond positively. “There is some negativity towards it, even from other Muslims”.
Mariam was born in the U.S. to an Irish-American Catholic family. She converted to Islam when she was 32 and immediately started wearing the hijab (which just covers the hair). “It’s hard to go through your life dressing a certain way and then to change but I believe that covering up is following God’s word. I’ll be honest, when I read the verse in the Quran about covering I did believe it meant to cover the face but I wasn’t ready”.
There is often an assumption that Muslim women who convert do so because they have married a Muslim man but Mariam tells me that she wore the niqab before she got married.
“We met through Facebook” she tells me, laughing, when I ask how did she meet her husband. “The only picture on Facebook of me was one where I was wearing the niqab. I found him interesting, charming, attractive and we chatted before he knew what I looked like. Then, after discussing marriage [she told me that in Islam you don’t talk to a man for no reason or just for friendship] he said “now can I see what you look like?””
Mariam’s Irish connection goes back three generations but she tells me that her husband, who is Algerian, is “more Irish than I am. He has an Irish accent and he knows the culture more than me. He was living in Ireland so after we got married I moved here”.
It’s time to break the fast so Mariam excuses herself and goes to take a drink of water. It’s only a few minutes later that I realise I’ve forgotten to ask her name. I go up to the only woman I see who is wearing the niqab. “Excuse me” I ask, tapping her on the shoulder “but are you the woman I just spoke to?” “No” the response comes back to me “I am her daughter”.
I wonder what it is that so intrigues me about women who wear the burqa or the niqab. Alfred Hitchcock comes to mind – an interview I saw with him many years ago. I vaguely remember him saying that what we don’t see is more powerful than what we do. Our imaginations fill in the gaps. I do a quick google. “Suspense is like a woman” Hitchcock said. “The more left to the imagination, the more the excitement.” That could explain it.
Ramadan has changed my relationship with the moon. Some days I see it high in the middayed-bluey sky and I pay attention to it in a way I never did before – its waxing or its waning. Its size.
Ramadan ends with the sighting of the next new moon. Every day now the bright side of the moon is shrinking in size. The month of fasting draws to a close.
I’ve finally lost a bit of weight. I’m down three pounds now and delighted with myself. Jasmina, one of the women I met on Saturday night in Clongriffin tells me that if you haven’t lost weight during Ramadan you haven’t done it properly. She has lost three kilos since the beginning of the month.
“Not to put a value on people” she tells me “but the whole point of Ramadan is to come out renewed in some way – for example to cut down on swearing or backbiting – and to learn to control your physical desires.”
“The idea is not to fast for eighteen hours and then gorge on everything and anything” she says. “There is nothing wrong with having treats but some people use Ramadan as a month of feasting and by the end of it their clothes don’t fit.”
Jasmina is from Australia and has a Home-And-Away style accent. She has a chirpy, confident, warm personality. She is wearing a colourful scarf on her head (hijab) and a long flowing black cloak called an abaya that covers her from neck to wrists to ankles. Underneath the cloak she is wearing a dress.
It must be hot with the hijab, heatwave, abaya and dress. “Other sisters [meaning other Muslim women] are saying “it’s so hot”” she says laughing “but I am like “this is nothing compared to Australian heat””.
“And the abaya is very light” she tells me holding up a section of the material to the light. “You can see through it” .
“In the Middle East they call this material “Atlas material”. I don’t know why but instead of saying it’s chiffon or silk they say “it’s Atlas”. And the cut is a butterfly cut so it’s very airy”. She reaches out her arms and the material falls down like wings.
“On hot days I just wear leggings and a singlet underneath” she says. “And you can wear any shoes that you like”. “Even flip flops?” I ask, surprised. She laughs “no no, the feet have to be covered”. She holds up her right foot to show me. She is wearing red runners.
Jasmina’s family are from North Africa and her husband is half-Algerian, half-Irish.
“We normally break the fast with a light soup, pastry, dates and if my husband is hungry he’d make himself a sandwich too – I’m not a very traditional housewife” she adds, smiling. “After breaking the fast my husband goes to pray in the mosque but this year I haven’t gone to the mosque as my daughter [who is three] is in bed by 8.30”.
The food she makes includes traditional Algerian soups, meat-filled pastries called Bourek and for sweets she would mainly eat fruit “or whatever I can grab from the shop – like maybe profiteroles.”
“My husband has a sweet tooth” she smiles. “He needs to have his Barry’s tea and rich tea biscuits. That’s the Irish contribution. But I prefer just some fruit.”
Muslims all over the world eat different foods for their Iftar meals. Experiences of Ramadan are as diverse as the cultures from which Muslims come.
It’s like looking at the moon and seeing either the rabbit or the man or even Michael Jackson (as I sometimes see). The object that we perceive in the shadows of the surface is dependent on the vantage point and cultural background.
Perspective is everything. The moon takes on new meanings. And for the first time in my life, as I share the experience of Ramadan with Muslims all over the world, the moon has become my divider of time.
Today is the first day of the most blessed time of the year for Muslims. The last ten days of Ramadan.
This last third of the month is when Muslims try to perfect their fasting by delving deeper into the heart or soul-layers with the likes of generosity, forgiveness and prayer.
It is believed that it was sometime during these ten days that the Prophet Muhammad first received the revelation of the Quran.
Over the next few days I’ll be recounting some of the stories of the women I met at the Clongriffin gathering on Saturday night. Tonight it’s Hannah’s story.
Hannah is introduced to me as being ‘Libyan’ but she was born and bred in Ireland and has only been to Libya on holidays. She’s a young woman and she tells me that this is her first time working during Ramadan. She is finding it exhausting.
For Muslims working in Ireland during Ramadan the ease, or not, of their experience is often dependent on the level of understanding of their workmates and employers. Hannah is lucky.
“I’m just very tired” she says. Time to break the fast is around 9.30 so after eating and praying it’s already late. Then it’s up out of bed before three, more prayers and food, back to sleep by four, up for work a few hours later. At weekends she tries to attend the Taraweeh prayers which go on until after midnight.
“People at work think I’m brave” she says. “And they are always asking “how are you feeling today?” They are starting to understand it. I’ve told my boss and she has let me go home early to do some work from home.”
Although she hasn’t had any negative response she says that sometimes she gets the impression that some people think “why are you starving yourself?” or “there is no meaning behind it”. “But” she says “it is a spiritual thing”.
“My mother makes the best food” she tells me, smiling, when I ask about breaking the fast. “There might be stuffed peppers called Mashi or Dolma, potatoes stuffed with meat (mbaten), a soup called sharba. There is also dates, milk, fruit salad, toast, juice. By two spoonfuls you’d be too full”.
It’s a very different experience for Hannah this year and she is finding Ramadan tiring. She tells me that she does know people who don’t fast because they’re working. “It’s a personal thing” she explains. “It’s between them and god.”
I think it’s kind of appropriate that I, as a non-Muslim, am exempt from fasting during at least some of these more important days. But part of me feels regret too. And I’m even a tiny bit envious of those who are.
Shayk Umar from Al Mustafa Islamic Centre in Blanchardstown posted this story on his Facebook account today:
“A Shaykh was asked about another person’s character. The Shaykh replied “I have not yet completely purified my own character from its evil characteristics, then how can I spend this time focusing on other peoples characters??” Friends the last 10 days of Ramadan have begun. This is the time to seclude yourself from the world and focus on purifying your lower self and cleaning your heart. Let us all focus on ourselves and get rid of our own evil characteristics.”
Women are exempt from fasting when menstruating so my fast is off for the moment. Muslim women are expected to make up the days at a later date. But I’m not that dedicated to my experiment. I had my first morning breakfast today since the 9th July.
Also, on the topic of women’s issues – I might have to ditch plans of taking photographs of Muslim women. I’m not sure if it’s shyness, issues of modesty, vanity or fear but for some reason the only photographs of women I’ve managed to take are photographs of their backs. And last night I tried really hard.
I was off to north Dublin to check out the site of what is planned to be ‘Ireland’s biggest mosque’. The group planning the mosque – Dublin Welfare Society – were hosting a special Ramadan event for converts or people thinking of converting. There was also to be an Iftar meal. Food? I couldn’t say no. But I did make it clear I had no plans to convert.
I also got the chance to interview lots of amazing and very interesting women. But photographs? Not a hope!
There are, to date, only three purpose-built Islamic centres or mosques in Ireland. Most Muslims here use make-shift mosques – temporary spaces that are usually rented out – like residential homes, industrial warehouses or community halls.
Dublin City Council have granted planning permission for the huge new development at Clongriffin but an appeal has been lodged with An Bord Pleanala. A decision on the outcome is expected this Wednesday.
Now that I’ve met the people behind the development and the people who will be attending the mosque I feel patches of nervousness and hope on their behalf. Wednesday will be a big day. I’ll keep you posted on the outcome.
The planned development is ginormous. It will be on a six acre site on lands owned by developer Gerry Gannon. It will cater for up to 3,000 people during festivals, will be three stories high with minarets, a crèche, a library, primary and secondary schools and even a swimming pool.
Clongriffin is a new suburb of Dublin. Born during the boom years. Planned and pristine. I drive down ‘main street’ and there are lots of new buildings, apartment blocks and shiny metal fittings. It is modern and clean. The derelict site on the left hand side of the road is the planned space for the new mosque.
I meet Abdul Haseeb, Project Manager of Clongriffin Mosque, at what seems to be the town square. He brings me inside the freshly built shopping centre. It’s clean and spacious with lovely sparkling light fittings. But the escalators are frozen in time and all the shop spaces are empty.
There’s plenty of activity in the building tonight as people arrive for the Ramadan event. “The guest speaker” Abdul tells me “is the son of a Jewish woman and a Pakistani man. He embraced Islam 19 years ago”.
Abdul leads me upstairs and we are met by his wife – “Lorraine O’Connor” she introduces herself. “From Coolock” she adds. A woman whose energy reminds me of the cartoon character Taz. Within minutes she has lined up a string of women for me to interview. At the same time she is conducting preparations for food, organising child-minding, and juggling queries from women and children who come to her looking for instruction or direction.
Lorraine says “no problem” when I ask if I can take a photograph of some of the women. But when she asks them they seem cagey and unsure. She tries to reassure them, telling them as she points to me “she’s fasting”. We decide to leave the photographs til later.
The talk is being held in a large room with a partition down the middle. The women wearing their hijabs are on one side and the men are on the other. The set up isn’t a far cry from Irish Catholicism of the 1950s – women on one side of the church wearing their scarves and men on the other side.
Lorraine gives me the go ahead to take a photograph from the back. The hijabs are a sea of colours and textures. A few women are pushing buggies or prams around trying to get babies asleep. It’s a relaxed atmosphere with people drifting in and out and around as the mood takes them.
The talk is followed by question time. A few men stand up and ask questions through a microphone. Women write their questions on pieces of paper and pass them up. I ask Lorraine why it is different for the men and women. She says “the women just prefer it this way”. Many of the questions are about how to deal with Christian family members who are against the person’s conversion to Islam.
During the talk there is a frenzy of activity in the rooms at the back of the hall as women take food out of bags and boxes. They spread plates and dishes out along the white table-clothed trestle tables. There are dishes from all over the world – recipes as diverse as the people attending the event – and brought by the women attending the event.
A friendly Moroccan woman tells me that the women prepare two dishes of whatever they are cooking. One dish goes to the men’s side and one dish goes to the women. They eat separately. There are trays of coca cola and water, bunches of bananas, bowls of dates, there are onion bhajis, pakoras, lasagne, pasta dishes, bread rolls, spicy soup, biryani dishes, biscuits, tarts, cream slices, sandwiches, pastries, rice.
It’s time to break the fast. It all goes remarkably smoothly. There must be a few hundred people at the event. Lorraine, as if she hasn’t enough to do, gets me soup (amazing delicious soup called harira from Morocco) and fills me a plate of food. After I’ve eaten and chatted to some more people the clean-up is underway. I realise I still have no photograph of the women. Lorraine is finally sitting down and looks exhausted. I say to her “another time” and head for home.
Over the next few days, instead of talking about my own fasting (coz I won’t be) I’ll be telling the stories of the women I met last night – converts, ex-atheists, niqqab wearing, abaya draped, women from all over the world. And I’ll also be giving details about my newest-favourite Dublin restaurant which I discovered on an Iftar hunt on Friday night.
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’.
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”.
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.”
“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 🙂 )
* 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.
Fasting for Ramadan has unlocked in me a new level of understanding. It’s been like opening a box and uncovering the core of Islam.
Too often, in the west, our perceptions of Islam are made up of a cacophony of shock-factor news stories and the image that’s built up over the years becomes a collage that instils fear.
I’ve done enough stints in news to know that ‘great news stories’ are tales of the extraordinary, not the ordinary. The unusual, not the usual. And so, ‘doing’ Ramadan has opened up a gate for me – the gate to Islam as lived by the majority, the gate to Islam as ordinary. The ordinary – arguably, the place where real beauty lies.
Sunday starts off with another oddity for someone fasting for Ramadan – a christening in a Catholic church followed by a celebratory meal in a posh restaurant with the nicest blooming garden I’ve ever seen. I am the only one out of a group of fifteen not eating. People say to me ‘you’re very strong’. I think to myself “I’m only learning”.
Later I drive to the Shi’a Islamic Centre in Dublin. I’m told to wear a scarf. The centre, called Hussainia, is an unassuming red-brick building in Miltown with a glass dome on its roof. It doesn’t look like a mosque.
I’m here to meet Dr. Yasmin Ali, an Iraqi born woman who came to Ireland thirteen years ago. She is very welcoming and friendly. We take off our shoes in the porch and leave them on the wooden shelves before going to the women’s section.
The women’s section is a large carpeted room with soft couch-like seats all around the walls. There is a partition of wooden doors separating it from the men’s section.
“For me, Ramadan is the most important month in the year” Yasmin says. “Believe it or not we wait for it every year and when it is finished we are sad. It’s a break from the rules – from having three meals a day – but more than just that, it is a break from everything.”
The Iftar meal is served every night in the Shi’a centre. Yasmin tells me that it’s cooked by a volunteer from the community and it’s free. The cost is covered by donations.
Most years Yasmin and her family come to the centre every night for Ramadan but this year the breaking of the fast is so late that they haven’t come. Tonight is her first night.
It’s approaching half past nine and I can’t smell any food. My stomach is grumbling. I’m getting concerned. Yasmin has told me that the food is cooked in the building and that “usually you can smell the food”. I’m starving. She sees the look of panic on my hungry face and tells me not to worry, there will be food.
The conversation returns to Ramadan. “We all look after our bodies a lot – we eat good food, exercise and go to the doctor if we are sick. But at the same time the body is not eternal. The soul is the eternal thing. So why not look after the soul as well?”
“I believe that Ramadan is a good way to discipline the soul” she continues. “You feel stronger because you can control your hunger, thirst, sexual desire. And I think it’s very important that you can control your instincts and by doing this for thirty days every year it gives more ability to control yourself and your desire”.
As prayer time approaches a few more women file in including Yasmin’s sister Jinan and Jinan’s daughter Diana. We are all chatting together. I’m the only one who is hungry. I’m starving. I’m also the only one who hasn’t lost any weight. All three of them have lost weight. Yasmin says they always make sure to eat healthy foods.
But then I hear the word “sweets” spoken by Diana who is nineteen “I crave sweets” she tells me unapologetically. “It’s probably the first thing I have when I break the fast. One day a week I would eat only sweets. It makes me happy. I’d have Raffaelo chocolate, candies, lollipops”.
“If I’m walking around and see sweets during the day I buy them and think “this is my iftar today””. Her mother does a mixture of a laugh and a sigh as though she has given up but enjoys Diana’s spirited personality at the same time.
My Ramadan calendar says sunset Sunday night is 9.42 but it’s already 9.47 and there’s no sign of food or prayers. Yasmin explains that the Shi’as calculate their sunset slightly differently to the Sunnis and as a result their breaking of the fast is around fifteen minutes later. There are other minor differences too.
The official sunset time arrives around 10.00 and Yasmin brings me a bowl of delicious lentil soup. I have a second portion, and a date and a glass of water and then the women rise for prayer.
There are just ten women, a baby and a little toddler in the women’s section. The prayer lasts a few minutes and then the food is brought out on large trays. A plastic glass of actimel-style yoghurt is served with the food which we eat on the floor.
I tell Yasmin that I find it very hot with the hijab (scarf) on my head. She says “it’s okay now to take it off” and when I do I immediately feel cooler.
A toddler crawls towards the wooden doors that separate the women from the men and starts pulling at the door. One women lets out a cry when she sees the door is about to open. A few women rush over to lift the toddler away and put a chair against the door, securing the division.
The women tell me that it’s the men who do the washing-up. Partly, they suggest, to keep the women from wandering around the building. They also say that a lot more men than women come to the centre for food because most of the Shi’a women in Ireland are married and there are a lot of single men who come for food.
After the food and conversation I head home and take a look at my blog. The number of readers has jumped after journalist Assed Baig retweeted my link. I see there are people reading it now from Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, South Africa and more.
My intentions with this blog were many but one of them was to let Irish people know about Islam and about Ramadan. It seems Muslims also want to know more about non-Muslim perceptions of Ramadan and Islam. The curiosity (and fear too I suppose) works both ways. So hello to you reading this – Muslim, non-Muslim, Irish, not Irish – wherever you are!