Lifting the veil on Irish Islam
With 500 Irish citizens converting to Islam every year, Maggie Armstrong spoke to four people who say they found inner peace since becoming Muslims
Published 26/01/2014 | 02:30
Islam is Ireland's fastest-growing religion, with the number of Muslims recorded in the 2011 Census – 48,130 – expected to reach 100,000 by 2020. In a country where only 34pc of approximately 3.8 million Catholics attend Mass, many people are drifting away from religion. But a small number are finding that Islamic beliefs and practices, which allow for a peaceful and community-oriented life, fit their spiritual needs.
It is estimated that up to 500 Irish people convert to Islam every year. There is no official register and no baptism – to convert you simply have to recite the testimony of creed in front of two Muslim witnesses.
While more women convert than men, and most conversions are for marriage, people can have very personal reasons for converting – or reverting as it is known in the Islamic faith, in which it is believed that everyone was born Muslim.
Ireland has a thriving Muslim community. Building begins next year on what is set to be the biggest Islamic cultural centre in the country, in Clongriffin on Dublin's northside. There are mosques and dedicated primary schools in each of our cities. And unlike the situation in France, there is no policy against Muslim girls wearing the hijab (veil) to school.
Support for converts is offered by the Muslim Sisters of Eire, an organisation run by Irish Muslim women, and at the Islamic Cultural Centre in Clonskeagh, Dublin, where theologian Dr Ali Salem teaches a course for new Muslims.
"When people revert, they can be very enthusiastic," says Dr Salem. "We teach a moderate understanding of Islam, and we also teach them [converts] how to change their lives gradually."
Aishah (formerly Liza) Caulfield (36, creche worker)
I come from Irishtown in Dublin 4, born and bred Irish. I became interested in Islam around 12 years ago.
My lifestyle wasn't typically Irish on the social level. I wasn't going to nightclubs and I wasn't into drinking. I always wondered if there was a group of people out there who had a quieter lifestyle, a faith that matched how I lived my life.
I was missing a piece of the puzzle, and I was always searching. I already fitted this religion – I just needed to find it.
Through research I kept coming across Islam. I wasn't very outward about it at the beginning. When 9/11 happened I thought, "Right, maybe not now, but I'll continue looking". I took the official conversion, the Shahada, three years ago and got married last year to a Muslim from Mauritius.
My dad said, "It's about time", when I took the Shahada. My family bought me hijabs and my dad was like, "I'll get you one of those Qurans." He was very hands-on. He's a staunch Catholic, goes to confession every month and Mass every Sunday. He'd be praying morning and night.
I'm definitely happier. Islam's a quieter, more peaceful way of life. There's a great sense of unity – our prayer times change day-to-day as the sun rises and sets. Everybody who's Muslim, a quarter of the inhabitants of the world, is facing Mecca and praying at the same time. That is a very powerful and sacred feeling, putting your face to the floor and submitting to God.
The one big change is wearing the hijab. I wear it because it's a sign of my devotion to God. It shows humility with my husband and with the male members of my family. For me my beauty is my hair and my body, and that's not for everyone.
I also wear it because one part of my faith is to discuss Islam with non-Muslims. If I'm in the supermarket and someone hears my Ringsend accent, they'll ask, "Oh, how long are you here, love?" And I'll reply, "Actually, I'm Irish". It's a way of sharing your faith with people, of saying: "Don't be afraid of us – we're all human, we all come and go the one way."
I always dressed modestly. I was never comfortable with showing the figure off. We're living in a society where people feel threatened because I choose to not show my body, whereas you have girls as young as 11 or 12 looking at Rihanna. She has a video and she's barely covering her nipples and wearing ... I wouldn't even call them hot pants. And there are ladies twerking and pole-dancing. Girls are looking at that and going: "Yeah, I'm going to get a husband if I do that."
You should be valued for your soul and your personality, not because of how much flesh you show – that's private, and that's your beauty.
People often look at Muslim women and think we must feel oppressed. When I got married, I was given a bangle, I was given gold pendants, I was given cash and I was given land by his family.
You're going to hear negative stuff in the media – "Oh, the poor Afghan women" and that – but I often say to people: "Please, don't confuse culture with the faith itself."
Bridget Darby (68, retired hotel manager)
I was born in Trim into a Catholic family. In the 1950s you were brought up in the fear of God and told, "You'll be punished, you'll go to hell". It was the culture and you did what you were told.
When I was 18 I went to England to study nursing. I met an Englishman in the Royal Air Force. I was at a very vulnerable time and I fell in love with him and we got engaged. He wasn't a Catholic, so he and I had to have some religious instruction.
One day I showed up by myself and the priest asked me, "Have you got your dress?" He went from the dress to say, "Have you got new underwear?" I tried to answer as best I could, cringing on the edge of the seat. He then asked me: "Did you get a new girdle? I've never seen one, can you show me yours?" I was devastated. I got out of that office without having to show him my underwear or my girdle, but I was shaking.
I made myself a promise: that after we married I wouldn't walk into a Catholic church again, and I never did. We got married, had a child and were stationed in Cyprus and Australia. We got divorced after about 15 years, and in 1985 I went to America. I still had no religion, but I was a good person – I believed in God.
In 2006, I went to Cairo for a vacation. That's where I was formally introduced to Islam. I had leased an apartment and the owner asked if I would like to visit her ranch outside the city. She picked me up – her husband was driving. She'd asked me to cover appropriately because her farm workers hadn't seen a Western woman before.
I got in this car, scrunched into the back, and she asked me if I believed in God. "Yes, I do," I said. Then she asked, "Do you believe in one God?" I said I did. She got really excited and started babbling in Arabic to her husband. She had me reciting, "Mohammad is the prophet and there is only one God", by the time I got to her house. She was wonderful.
She explained to me about the five pillars [obligations] in Islam. She walked me around her farm and showed me the area where she prayed five times a day.
I walked over to the river and was bathing my feet in the Nile. I can't describe the feeling, to see the peaceful, respectful way they went about their lives. I had this idea that it was a terrible religion, but by the end of the day I was so taken by it – and I don't do things on the spur of the moment.
All the years that I'd not been recognising any religion, trying to survive by myself, I used to feel that someone was guiding me. I realised when I accepted Islam that God was with me anyway.
I've been back in Ireland a short time and I haven't gone around waving a banner that I'm a Muslim. I know that people are afraid of the religion. You don't see peace, you see violence. The media tells you that al-Qaeda bombed America and brought down the towers, so you tend to stereotype.
A lot of the restrictions are cultural – some are not Islamic. I don't walk around with a hijab every day. I wear it at the mosque, if I was meeting the sheikh, if I was walking into a Muslim home.
I now have a purpose. I have a belief, I have faith, I have new friends. It's a sense of security to believe in God. I pray five times a day, but sometimes I miss it. I have the Quran by my bed. Islam is very much in your heart. You don't have to stand on the street and wave the Quran. What I have is beautiful for me.
Philip Flood (60, community worker with drug addicts)
I'm from Ringsend in Dublin, and I'm a Muslim 12 years now. I was a Buddhist for five years before I started to learn about Islam. I had been on a 12-step programme for addictions – alcohol and drugs. I was single at that time and I was never well enough to have a family. I worked part-time on the docks.
The 11th step on the programme was to search "through prayer and meditation to improve your conscious contact with God", and I started to look at all the different religions through that. I got a higher power into me there.
Most people go back to the religion they were brought up in, but I was never happy with that. I never felt right with the Catholic teachings. My mother and my father were Catholics. I made my First Holy Communion, Confirmation, went to Mass, was an altar boy. I had and have good friends, priests and nuns. But I didn't believe, especially with Jesus on the cross. I never felt it was right. I believed in Jesus okay, but not in the cross.
I went for a walk one Friday evening on Sandymount Strand and I met a Muslim couple there, from Libya. I was with the Buddhists at the time and I was telling them about Buddha and his teachings, and they started telling me about Islam. They brought me home to their flat, and we were discussing the different things.
I used to visit them, have a cup of tea and that. They brought me to the mosque. A few weeks before that I had bought a Quran in a Pakistani shop in the city centre where I used to buy food, and I could understand the Quran more when I was discussing it with them.
When I heard the Adhan, the call to prayer, I think my soul connected with that. There was something very spiritual about it, and there were no statues in the mosque.
When I came into Islam I started to study the life of Isa, Jesus, peace be upon him. I found that made more sense than the Catholic teachings. Isa was just a prophet; he wasn't God.
My family were just happy. They saw the change in me. I married a Muslim woman and have two young children. Part of the Islamic life is to get married and to have children. I went to Morocco on a holiday and I met my wife. About a year after that we got married and she came here. Our two kids are Mohammad and Isa (after the baby Jesus).
I pray five times a day, so that keeps me spiritually well. I visit the mosque as often as I can on Friday for prayer. God has made it easy for me – I don't have to work on a Friday. I have a television station at home, the Arabic station, and I watch Mecca and Medina, the two holy places in Islam. I get a lot of peace from watching that.
I listen to the Quran on a daily basis, even just a small piece, and I read a bit of Islamic literature. I learned a lot of meditation methods with the Buddhists, so I do that quite a bit. It's the way I live now, and I have the responsibilities of being a husband and a father. I live as best I can on a spiritual basis.
Rasheed (formerly Olegs) Tucs (33, sterile processing technician)
I'm from Latvia. I converted to Islam in 2010. My generation was raised to a certain extent in the Soviet Union. It was a system with its own ideology, in which religion was marginalised. People were discouraged from taking part in any kind of religious services. We were raised in a very rational environment.
In 2006, I met a woman who I fell in love with and I proposed to her. She told me that she had a condition as she was Catholic. She said, "The only way I'm going to marry is in church". And I said, "I love you, I will do it for you". It was a bit complicated to become a Catholic, but it gave me a new perspective on the world. My world had been very materialistic, very scientifically oriented.
We got married and the love story continued. But my wife became quite seriously sick with malaria. I started to pray, not like a Catholic because I didn't care much – it was just a perspective, not a faith. I started to ask someone, something, to make her live and to make us go on. Thank God, she got well. This was the first time I really prayed.
We were going on holidays to Latin America and we had to change flights in Istanbul. On the plane, I got a severe eye infection, conjunctivitis. In two hours I couldn't see anything. In the middle of a flight, it's a bit scary.
We had to disembark in Istanbul and go to the doctor. I woke up in the early morning and heard something nice, which was the call to prayer. My antibiotics had worked, my eyes were clear. Then you start thinking, 'What is it?' I did a bit of research into all the religions, because I had a whole new perspective for seeing things. During this time, Islam was the message which seemed to me without conflict.
My wife is still Catholic and I'm a Muslim – it doesn't disturb us. She prays her way and I pray my way. But our prayers, they go to the same place.
You have to conform to certain standards. In Islam, it's said that the only purpose of humans is to worship God. At first you may think that worshipping God is praying five times a day. But actually, worshipping doesn't mean only praying – it means being a good custodian of the planet. Recycling, buying local or fairtrade food is a way of worship because you are doing the right thing.
A very sensitive issue would be the prohibition of alcohol and all the mind-altering substances. In Islam, it's said that God has given us a mind and an ability to think and an ability to make a decision, so if we deliberately impair that, we are denying the gift. I used to drink. Eventually, this wish to have a drink or a cigarette, it wore off.
I consider this time as being in search of something. A search for knowledge and a search for the way. It's Islam that brought me here. I was an embryologist in IVF clinics in Nairobi, and the work was not compatible with the religion, so we had to look for something else.
In Ireland, there are a number of local mosques and cultural centres. In Latvia, there is only one mosque for the whole country. People are good here. Ireland is very friendly to outsiders. In Latvia, people from other societies are still looked at with great suspicion. W