An Imam Tries to Grow His Influence

Dr Shaykh Umar Al-Qadri is behind the wheel of his BMW, gliding out of Dublin on the M1 for County Armagh, a Starbucks coffee in his left hand, a nonchalant right elbow on the window ledge. Outside, there are dribbles of rain and grey clouds.

It’s a little past midday on a Thursday in mid-May and Al-Qadri – imam at Al-Mustafa Islamic Centre on the outskirts of Blanchardstown and co-founder of the new Irish Muslim Peace and Integration Council (IMPIC) – is ruminating on whether he is reaching enough people with his message.

His words seem carefully weighed, and he speaks with a soft accent that hints at Pakistan but is hard to place – which is perhaps unsurprising, given his cosmopolitan roots.

“I think there is a lot more work to do,” he says. “Because there are radio-station programmes during the marriage referendum for example, right now, they invited another person to speak on various different stations to give the Muslim perspective. I wasn’t invited anywhere.”

There are more than 48,000 Muslims in Ireland. But it’s often the same few faces that you see when the media or officials want to wheel out a Muslim for a public discussion. Al-Qadri has been working hard to broaden that array of Muslim voices by adding one – himself. And if he gets his way, you can expect to hear a lot more from him.

Al-Qadri’s come a long way since he drove off the ferry into Ireland in 2004 and was taken in by strangers, a group of 12 Pakistani students living crammed into a two-bedroom flat in Merrion Square. The guy who was supposed to meet him in the city centre never turned up and ignored all his calls.

He quickly got a job at an accountancy firm, then another at eBay. He set up a mosque in his end-row semi-detached home. When his home reached capacity – and the council took notice – he moved it to the nearby Coolmine Industrial Estate, where it is today.

His arrival was timely, says Oliver Scharbrodt, director of the Chester Centre for Islamic Studies. “Quite practically, he met the needs of a growing South-Asian Muslim population in Dublin,” he says, which has been the fastest-growing ethnic group within the Muslim population over the last ten years.

It continues to spot rain outside Al-Qadri’s BMW on the motorway to Armagh, but inside it’s cosy and neat. He’s talking about what he would have said if someone had asked him about the marriage referendum. His take on the question wobbles from side to side with caveats and buts, until it settles.

“I would have mentioned for example, that certain things are wrong. You know, people that hate homosexuals that have prejudice against them, it’s wrong. We should accept each other no matter what background we belong to and lifestyle or life choices we make,” he starts.

“But at the same time, there are people like myself that from a religious perspective believe this act to be wrong, believe this act to be a sin,” he tips back.

“But that doesn’t mean that I am going to start a campaign against homosexuals. Similarly, I believe alcohol is forbidden, but I don’t start to campaign against people that consume alcohol do I? So why should I start a campaign against homosexuals.”

“But I still will be clear about my position. Yes my position is that I don’t think that it is right. I don’t want my children brought up in a society where from a young age they are taught about these things, and they are taught that it is normal.”

When he heard another Muslim leader speaking on the radio before the referendum, it wasn’t frustration he felt, he says. “I think the right word is disappointing. Because the person is misrepresenting the Islamic faith and the Muslim community and he’s only representing one view of it, that is his view.”

Couldn’t people say the same about him? “The thing is, when I speak, I back it up with references from the Qu’ran and Hadiths, that’s the difference between them and me.”

“Now, it’s the right time”

It’s not like Al-Qadri doesn’t get any airtime or column-inches. But in the past six months, you might have spotted his name appearing more – since the Charlie Hebdo attacks in France.

He pops up at forums and conferences, shoots off press releases, has launched an anti-radicalisation website and – most recently – founded IMPIC, a new body for Irish Muslims, one that he hopes will become a go-to point of contact for official Ireland.

That’s because of what happened in January this year, he says. He was sat at home, watching the news of the massacre in France, his Whatsapp buzzing with concerned messages from members of European Muslims’ groups.

At that point, he decided it was time to step up, to come out of just engaging with Muslim communities. “Now, it’s the right time,” he told himself. “I should go public about my work and about the views, because that’s what is important now.”

It’s not like he was the only one speaking out. But – he felt – others weren’t doing it right, the way he thought it should be done. “The way that is pluralist and inclusive,” he says, “and promotes the peaceful , the real,the Islam of the majority of Muslims – not the Islam of Muslim Brotherhood, or another organisation – the Islam of the majority of the Muslims in Ireland.”

How should Muslims respond to murders committed in the name of their religion? Why do some commentators call on them to respond to some event miles away from them, over which they have no control?

Al-Qadri side-skips that debate; nobody calls on him to speak out against extremism, he says. It’s his choice, his duty, as a Muslim to speak out against violence.

“Like, for example, someone kills another person and says I’m doing it because your mum told me. Wouldn’t you speak against it? Wouldn’t you come out and say, hey hey, it’s got nothing to do with my mum?”

Return to Pakistan

Dr Shaykh Umar Al-Qadri prefers Starbucks coffee to Costa. He believes deeply in Allah. He jogs most mornings, because he worries about looking older than his almost-thirty-two years. He believes that music that encourages un-Islamic behaviour is haram, and could never understand the appeal of electronic-dance hit, “I Like To Move It Move It”. He takes his kids for treats at the local Spar and laughs at their ice-cream moustaches. He listens to ghazals as he drives. He is, he says, a European Muslim.

Born in Pakistan, Al-Qadri was raised in an isolated Pakistani community in the Dutch city of The Hague. His childhood, he says, with constant markers of “us” and “them”. An elderly aunt who would serve non-Muslims visitor in plastic cups and bowls. A stooped Dutch guy who would greet his white neighbours as he strolled the terraced streets, but pass immigrants in silence. “I used to only interact with Muslim children,” he recalls.

The eldest son of a prominent local imam, his youth was steeped in Islamic learning. By 11 — after two years of study-filled evenings while his kid brothers kicked a football around outside — he had earned the title of hazif, given to those who have memorised the Qu’ran. He recited the Qu’ran like a parrot, he says. His photo appeared in the Daily Jang, a Pakistani newspaper read widely in the diaspora.

“Some people believe that non-Muslims, everybody who is not a Muslim is going to Hell,” he says. “I believed that.”

Until he returned to Pakistan years later.

Secondary school shook his sense of self. On the first day, he recalls that he tried to find a quiet corner to pray and was spotted. Years of bullying and sitting alone in class followed, Al-Qadri says. Until one day, he thumped one of his tormentors at a bus stop, and found himself the coolest kid in town. It was 1994, and Nike Max trainers were in; one classmate gave him a pair as a present. He began to smoke and hang out with girls.

One evening, when he was fifteen, his father announced that he was sending Al-Qadri to Pakistan, back to his roots. As Al-Qadri tells it, this wasn’t an unwelcome turn. He looked forward to being sent to Pakistan.

Finally, he thought, I’m going home. Soon after he touched down, he realised that that might have been an illusion. His new school-mates laughed at his broken Urdu. “Barhir Da”, they called him. Foreigner.

“I’m in Holland, I don’t belong there. And in Pakistan, I’m a foreigner. I’m a stranger. Where do I belong?” he recalls asking himself. “I found out that I don’t belong anywhere, simple as that.”

The years that Al-Qadri spent in Pakistan changed his view of Islam, he says. While there, he studied at Minhaj-ul-Quran Shariah College in Lahore. Formed in 1981, Minhaj-ul-Quran is a modern transnational movement, with a network of schools, mosques, and religious centres across the globe.

There, what he learnt shattered his notions of “us” and “them”. Much of what he thought was right was wrong, or more complicated, he says. “I read in the scriptures that to eat from the same plate as a non-Muslim is absolutely fine. A lot of people are ignorant of the real teachings of Islam.”

What Minhaj-ul-Quran promotes is still a traditional Sunni interpretation of Islam, says Islam expert Scharbrodt. “However, there is a strong Sufi influence and Sufi background. It has been characterised as a neo-Sufi movement.”

What that means, in a South-Asian context, is a strong devotion to the Prophet Mohammed and the notion that because he was chosen to be the prophet, he was the perfect human being. Spend some time with Al-Qadri and you’ll notice the frequent references to the life of the prophet.

Muslims faced with others mocking the prophet should respond in the same way as the prophet would have, Al-Qadri says. “We should respond with dialogue. And if someone is not ready for dialogue, then ignore them. This is exactly what the prophet of Islam did.”

While Al-Qadri doesn’t hide that past affiliation, there are signs that his relationship with the group has changed over the years.

He’s very much part of this particular tradition, says Scharbrodt. “But what Shaykh Umar has done I think in the last sort of few years is, sort of, deemphasised his affiliation with Minhaj-ul-Quran, to make the appeal of his authority more universal.”

Al-Qadri does stress his independence. Mosques tend to be funded by large religious organisations or wealthy scions; his Islamic centre isn’t, he says.

Instead, it’s funded by mosque members and a cut of the proceeds from his halal-certification business, he says. (It was to certify an Armagh kebab-making business that he’d been on the road earlier; the previous day, he’d checked out a pepperoni factory in Denmark.)

“I can work independently and really neutrally for the community here,” he says. “Why keep affiliating with organisations back home, that do not even know the challenges, that were never established to cater for this community?”

Al-Qadri at Work

Al-Qadri’s mosque is on the edge of Blanchardstown, tucked in the corner of the Coolmine Industrial Estate, in one of those boxy warehouse buildings that look like the builders skipped the design stage. A short corridor leads to a drafty prayer hall with a burgundy-patterned carpet and strip lighting. There, around 200 people gather each Friday for prayers and drop by at other times of the week to carry out their Muslim duties or seek guidance.

If it’s advice they’re looking for, they might find themselves in a side-room, in Al-Qadri’s office, perched on the edge of a leather sofa a couple of metres back from the imam’s large wooden desk. On the desk, are papers, and more books, and hand-sanitizer, and the Qu’ran in a red-velvet case.

The walls of the office are lined with hundreds of magnificent books, their colourful spines lined up to reveal golden ribbons of Urdu and Arabic. Some volumes are interpretations of the Qu’ran by Islamic scholars. Others contain the Hadiths, or biographies of the people who narrated the Hadiths.

When people turn to Al-Qadri for guidance, these are the books that he plucks from the shelf and searches for the answers. Is dating over the internet okay? As a Muslim, how do I make the ablutions at work? How do I tell the employer that I’m fasting for Ramadan? What should you do if a colleague gives wine as a Christmas present?

While some might drop by his office, others reach out to him through Facebook, or Twitter, or by email. Or they might hear him on Pakistani channel ARY-QTV, or find his videos on YouTube.

His English is exact and fluent, which makes him easy to understand, Nadeem Aziz told me over the phone.

A fast-food businessman from Lancashire, Aziz first came across Al-Qadri’s lectures on Youtube about three years back, when he was surfing for answers to questions about women’s rights and Islam.

“There are lots of scholars on YouTube. But I couldn’t really understand what they were saying, it couldn’t fit in my head,” Aziz said.

They struck up a Facebook correspondence. The imam told him the difference between cultural traditions and Islam, and referenced Islamic texts, Aziz said. Al-Qadri told him that women were equal, didn’t have to hand over money they earned, and couldn’t be forced to cook.

But the man is still supposed to be head of the household and provide for it, Aziz said.

Other Al-Qadri supporters say they respect his blunt and clear condemnation of terrorism. A prominent figure in Ireland’s Afghan community, Nasruddin Saljuqi, says he goes to a few different mosques but he’s never heard other imams talk about extremism, as Al-Qadri does.

“They are just speaking about the Qu’ran, about the things that all the people know about. But in these days, that we are living in, we should give the people some awareness about terrorism and that terrorism and Islam are different,” he said.

On a recent Thursday morning, a Pakistani man in a slightly-oversized suit sits on the large sofa as Al-Qadri looks through some papers. While some of his daily chores involve advice on how to navigate life in Ireland as a Muslim, other tasks are closer to social work.

“Sometimes people actually come and they say, ‘Shaykh, can you please fill in forms for us.’ You know they have difficulty with paperwork. That’s part of my job as well,” Al-Qadri tells me.

“What’s the kid’s name?” he asks the man in the oversized suit, leaning forward over his desk, some white forms in front of him. The man’s son is hoping to transfer from a UK school to one in Ireland.

The guy spells out his child’s first name.

“Family name?”

The guy sits on the edge of the sofa. He gets up. He sits down. He gets up. He repeats the same first name.

“In Europe, everybody has a family name,” Al-Qadri explains. “You have to put family name. Please take a seat,” he says, and then repeats the request in Urdu: “Beta, beta, beta.”

The imam and the guy go backwards and forwards, trying to decide what to put as the surname.

They work out that it’s the child’s old school in the UK that’s supposed to fill in the form.

“Nothing to worry about,” he reassures the guy, and turns to his computer to email the school.

Integration, Not Assimilation

I first saw Al-Qadri at an integration forum in April. He sat four rows back from the front of a staggered-seated lecture room, fiddled with an iPad, and nodded every now and then at what the speakers were saying.

The main event was the release of a survey on integration, undertaken at the behest of multicultural newspaper Metro Eireann.

“How well-integrated into Irish society is each group?” one of the questions had asked, followed by a list of ethnicities and religions found in Ireland today. The least integrated, the survey-takers thought, were Muslims.

Al-Qadri was surprised. From where he stands, Irish Muslims are integrating better than other communities. Part of the mismatch between his perceptions and the survey findings might be that, when it comes down to it, it’s never really that clear exactly what integration means.

When the word integration is thrown around by politicians, there’s generally an assimilationist agenda in the background. When Muslims leaders pick up the term, what they mean is often less clear, says Scharbrodt.

“Because what these mosques do, obviously they want to sort of maintain Muslim identities, and in the cases of most institutions — including Sheykh Umar’s mosque — it’s still a very conservative, traditional form of Islam. Again, the tone, how you sort of communicate with the public, might be different. But the values underlying it are not necessarily very different. ”

For Al-Qadri, integration doesn’t mean assimilation. Muslims sometimes dress differently, he says. “I wear traditional clothes sometimes, and wearing these traditional clothes does not necessarily mean I am isolating myself, it does not necessarily mean that I am not integrating.”

What does integration mean to him? “I think integration means to keep you identity and, at the same time, to be part of the wider community for the common good.”

When he talks about integration, Al-Qadri focuses on the day-to-day contact that Muslims and non-Muslims have in Ireland, and how those meetings pan out, how civil they are, how respectful.

He might not approve of people who go drink in the pub every Friday night, but it doesn’t mean he despises them, he said. “If I hate them, if I dislike them, if I always speak against them, that’s not integration. But if I say, well you know, I disagree with it, but I don’t do that. That’s integration.”

Likewise, if a Muslim woman ducks out of shaking hands with an Irish guy, the man should understand and respect that, he says. “If communities have for each respect and acceptance, that’s integration. While, at the same time, all people keep their identity.”

Room For Two

Ireland’s Muslims are diverse and nobody represents them all.

It’s hard to tell, even, which organisation or mosque has the most support. Just because a mosque might have the most people at Friday prayers, doesn’t mean all of those there agree with its ideology or strand of Islam. Convenient location, language, and great facilities are all strong pulls.

Back in 2006, more than 30 Islamic organisations came together to form the Irish Council of Imams. The idea was to create an easy, go-to representative body that could speak with one voice, put out press releases, field media calls, and have the ear of official Ireland.

In one sense, it has worked. When the taoiseach or ministers want to meet with Muslim representatives, they go to the Irish Council of Imams.

But in the last couple of years, Al-Qadri – a founding member of the council – has been increasingly dissatisfied with how the council does business.

It’s dominated by one mosque, the Islamic Cultural Centre of Ireland, known as the Clonskeagh Mosque. The chairman has stayed the same for nearly a decade and rulings just repeat whatever Egyptian theologian Shaykh Yusuf Al-Qardawi has decided, Al-Qadri says. “The council, basically, always, it never discusses anything. It always gives his view.”

For a while, Al-Qadri tried to work with the council, he says. But he gave up and changed tack. Recently, he came up with a diverse list of influential Muslim figures and formed a new group, the Irish Muslim Peace and Integration Council (IMPIC).

The idea, he says, is that now the Irish government will have a new panel to engage with, if they decide they want to, about issues around Islam.

“And when I say Islam it’s not only religion, but I mean relating to challenges of the Muslims in terms of family upbringing, the problem of Islamophobia, racism, extremism, radicalisation of the youth, in all these affairs they need to engage with somebody, with leadership, the right people,” he says.

For Dr Ibraheem Muazza Tinau, who is also involved in the new council, it’s not really about challenging other mosques.

“The other older mosques, what they have done, I think they have done very well in trying to make sure that Muslims who have come here in the early times have got a place to worship and also got a place to practice their daily tenets of Islam,” he said. The new council hopes to go beyond that, and reach out to the wider Irish community.

And how does the old guard feel about this young upstart imam, Al-Qadri, with his newfangled ideas and his potential-rival organisation, IMPIC? It’s hard to say.

It was quiet at the Clonskeagh Mosque on a recent Friday morning. In the reception, a few people drifted in and out. In his office, the spokesperson Dr Ali Selim was sat behind his desk, a smart suit and a thick-knotted tie.

I told him that I was interested in talking to him about Al-Qadri and his efforts to set up a new council to represent Muslims, and his criticisms of the Irish Council of Imams.

Selim grinned broadly.

He flicked a phone that was sat on his desk, and the number rang out. He rang it a few more times and it rang out. He was trying to contact Shaykh Hussein Halawa, he said. As chairman of the Irish Council of Imams, he was the one who should talk to me.

We chatted for a while, about the services at the mosque – a hairdressers, restaurant, childcare – and about the results of the marriage referendum.

Eventually, Halawa called him back. Selim chuckled and held his head, as they chatted in Arabic.

After Selim hung up, he told me Halawa couldn’t talk to me right then. Could he talk to me later? I asked. On the phone? We agreed I’d email some questions.

I asked if I could ask Selim a few things about Al-Qadri’s plans too.

“He’s my friend,” he said, amiably. “We don’t want to talk.”

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Lois Kapila: Lois Kapila is Dublin Inquirer's editor and general assignment reporter. She covers housing and land, too. Want to share a comment or a tip? You can reach her at [email protected]

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