Religious Concepts

‘Reviving the Land of Saints and Scholars’

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Shahzad Ahmed, London, UK

When you think of Ireland, what do you associate with it?’ was the question we took to the busy and bustling streets of Dublin. Whether young or old, locals or tourists, they all pretty much echoed the same typical answers which everyone generally associates with Ireland. Indeed, Ireland may well be famous for its Irish coffee, leprechauns, folk tales and scenic views, but few would know that this relatively small island has a rich religious history and has played an integral role in shaping the religious identity of Europe.

Recently, The Review of Religions was invited by the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community in Ireland to attend its 14th National Interfaith Conference and to represent the magazine, myself and Khaleeq Bhatti, who is our Social Media Coordinator, travelled to Ireland. For Khaleeq and I, it was our first time visiting Ireland and while at first sight it didn’t seem much different from the UK, however as we travelled through the city of Dublin, we slowly began to notice that there was a stark difference that was clearly visible and that was the significant presence of churches, high crosses and numerous other Christian symbols sprawled across the city.

As we continued to explore the city, we visited various historic sites, including the famous Trinity College Dublin, which is one of the most prestigious learning institutes in Ireland, and we began to get a real deep insight into the history of Ireland and also learnt how pivotal a role Christianity played in Irish society.

Growing up in England, we have all heard of ‘St Patrick’s Day’, but for many of us, well at least for me, it was just a celebration to commemorate the life of a famous Christian saint. However, it was only when we delved deeper into the Irish culture and its religious history that we realised that how influential a role these early Christian saints had in introducing Christianity in Ireland in the early 5th century, and the foremost amongst these was indeed St Patrick. Prior to the emergence of Christianity in Ireland, paganism was the dominant religious belief of the Irish people, however these early Christian saints and missionaries, such Palladius, Saint Colmcille, Brendan of Birr and many others, played a tremendously influential role in proselytising large swathes of the land and built monasteries and churches all over Ireland, which ultimately became great centres of learning.

Even more fascinating is that this was all happening at a time when the rest of Europe was plunged into darkness. But why was the situation in Ireland so different to the rest of Europe at the time? And how did such a tiny Island have such a profound impact on the rest of the continent? We were rather intrigued to find out more and so continued our search and met up with Imam Atta-ur-Rahman Khalid, who serves as an Imam of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community in Dublin, and who was kind enough to show us various other historic sites and also introduced us to some of the local members of the Community.

As we stopped for lunch, we were joined by one of the local members who had spent most of his life in Ireland and was well versed with its history and gave us invaluable insight. He explained that with the fall of the Roman Empire and subsequently its educational institutions, there was a significant decline in knowledge and learning in Europe. However, Ireland, on the other hand, continued to excel and prosper in its learning and intellectual pursuits. And so, many scholars would travel to Ireland from across Europe to learn Christian theology and similarly these Irish monks travelled through Europe imparting their knowledge and reviving these decaying centres of learning and education. Thus, this period was known as Ireland’s golden age and it witnessed the flourishing of arts, languages and literature and ultimately acquired its reputation as ‘Insula Sanctorum et Doctorum – The Island of Saints and Scholars’.

Later that afternoon, we went to see the famous Old Library and the Book of Kells at the Trinity College in Dublin. The exhibition is said to be ‘Ireland’s greatest cultural treasure’ and indeed it is. The exhibition brings to life the rich history of these early Irish monks, who were renowned for producing some of the finest artefacts of medieval Christian art through their highly skilled metal work, illumination of manuscripts and the building of high crosses. The Book of Kells, which is an illuminated manuscript of the four gospels is indeed a remarkable example of the great skill and intricacy of their work and Ireland’s legacy as a centre of education and arts. As we made our way from Dublin to Galway, we stopped to visit a historic monastic site, Clonmacnoise. Tucked away in the expanse of lush green fields on the edge of the River Shannon, these ruins serve as a reminder of an enduring legacy of Ireland’s historic golden age. Founded by Saint Ciaran in the mid sixth century, Clonmacnoise became one of Ireland’s most famous monasteries and was renowned as a great centre of learning, attracting scholars from across the world.

The journey from Dublin to Galway was perhaps a straight drive of no more than a few hours, but having explored the various historical sites that came en route, we were able to gain an even deeper and incredibly fascinating insight into the rich religious history of this tiny island and its great influence on the rest of the continent. And so, we arrived at the Maryam Mosque in Galway, which is the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community’s first mosque in Ireland and where the Community was going to be holding its 14th National Interfaith Conference. However, upon arriving at the mosque having learnt so much more about the history of Ireland, the significance of the community in a country like this, its mosque, and the event itself, now a had much deeper purpose than I had previously thought of. As I mentioned these initial thoughts of mine to Imam Ibrahim Noonan, an Irishman and a former devout Catholic, who converted to Islam and now serves as the Imam in Ireland at the Maryam Mosque, he gently smiled and said, ‘this is precisely the reason why I wanted to invite The Review of Religions to come and cover this event.’

The remaining duration of our visit was spent with Imam Ibrahim Noonan, who not only proved to be an excellent host, but also gave us an even deeper insight into Ireland and the integral role the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community is playing in its society and for its people. As we sat in his office and planned our itinerary for the remaining days of our visit, Imam Ibrahim Noonan ensured that we visited the Knock Shrine. He wanted to us to get a real feel and experience of Ireland’s deep connection with Christianity and felt that this was a location we needed to visit. Indeed, he couldn’t have been more correct. As we travelled up north from Galway and reached nearer to Knock, it felt as though we were passing through the bible belt of Europe. Whichever direction we looked, it was hard to miss either a high cross or a statue of Jesus (as) or Mary (as) or some kind of Christian symbol displayed in cars, shop windows or in the front yards of the houses.

As we walked towards the main entrance of the shrine, Imam Ibrahim Noonan quite rightly pointed out that ‘there isn’t a place anywhere in Ireland; in any city, in any village, in any town that you will not find a shrine to Jesus (as), which is known as the Sacred Heart. And you will find them in people’s houses, you will find them in people’s gardens and that will show that Ireland still has its intense religiousness.’

The Knock Shrine is Ireland’s International Eucharistic and Marian Shrine and the reason for its great religious significance dates back to August 1879, when 15 people from the local village are said to have witnessed an apparition of Mary on the gable wall of the parish church. We were told that an official Commission of Enquiry was established later that year to investigate the testimony of the witnesses and found their account to be ‘trustworthy and satisfactory’. The story goes that these 15 people saw Mary (as) along with St Joseph, St John the Evangelist, a lamb (which refers to Jesus (as)) and a cross. It is reported that this vision lasted for two hours and it continued to rain throughout, but the gable wall and the apparition remained dry.

How authentic this account is – only Allah knows best, but since then it has become a holy site for Christians and attracts millions of visitors and pilgrims from across the world every year.

As we entered the main church, the service was taking place and so we stood to one side whilst Imam Ibrahim Noonan explained to us the different aspects of the church and the service itself. For our visit of Galway, we were also accompanied by Imam Atta-ur-Rahman Khalid, who had travelled with us from Dublin. And despite the three of us standing quietly to one side out of respect for the service and the congregants, however three Imams, wearing their traditional Muslim head coverings, unsurprisingly still drew the attention of many of the congregants as they left the church upon the conclusion of the service. Many of them came over and were interested to know more about us and the purpose of our visit. Some of them even recognised Imam Ibrahim Noonan as the Imam of the Maryam Mosque in Galway and offered their greetings. As we finished our tour of the church and the surrounding centre, it was time for the zuhr [afternoon] prayer and having sought official permission, we offered our afternoon prayer in one of the rooms in the centre. As we were leaving, Imam Ibrahim Noonan remarked that, to his knowledge, perhaps we were the first ever Muslims to pray there!

The visit to Knock undoubtedly gave us a much deeper insight of how the Christian faith and its traditions are interwoven into the very fabric of Irish culture and society. It also explained why Mary (as), the mother of Jesus (as), is so greatly revered by the Irish people. And so, upon returning to Galway, as we entered the gates with the words ‘Maryam Mosque’ boldly displayed on the front of the mosque, it demonstrated the profound and deep wisdom of His Holiness Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad (aba) when he named the Community’s first mosque in Ireland, ‘The Maryam Mosque’. His Holiness (aba) stated:

‘This mosque here in Ireland…has been named ‘Masjid Maryam.’ Maryam (as), or Mary (as) as known to you, is as greatly revered by Muslims as she is by Christians. In fact, in the Holy Qur’an, Allah has mentioned Mary (as) at many instances and highlighted her esteemed status. Mary (as) was the name of that pure and pious woman who is honoured by Islam so much that the Qur’an has said that all true believers are like Mary (as).’

However, over the years, as the world increasingly becomes a global village, no country has been immune from the ills that plague our societies, and in the recent past, despite its strong religious identity, Ireland has also witnessed the steady decline of faith and religious values. Whilst speaking about these recent changes, Imam Ibrahim Noonan mentioned that, ‘from 1990 [onward] things started changing, then something which was known as the Celtic tiger, which was really when Ireland became a wealthy country and materialism, modernism and all these type of ideology were basically moving people away from God Almighty.’

As we travelled across different parts of Ireland, it was clear to see that though Ireland was still very much a Christian country, the rise of materialism and atheism have been major contributing factors that have drawn people away from faith. As we sat over dinner in the evening, this was the main talking point of our discussion. Imam Ibrahim Noonan quite rightly pointed out that the only way to change this was by instilling the belief in God in the hearts of the people once again and for them to recognise His presence in their lives. He mentioned that ‘this can only happen with the acceptance of that Messiah, that prophet of God regarding whom Jesus (as) himself said that he would come in these times…so for the people of Ireland, for me as an Irishman, being an Ahmadi Muslim, I feel profound empathy for my own people that I have to some way, somehow bring that message to them and the best way to bring that message is through the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community.’

The following day, despite the cold and wet weather, many guests from across different parts of Ireland, and from all walks of life, attended the National Interfaith Conference at the Maryam Mosque, including the Deputy Mayor Councillor, Members of Parliament and various faith representatives. In his keynote address, Imam Ibrahim Noonan spoke about the importance of belief in God in relation to influencing humanity and to establish true and universal peace. For many of the guests it was the first time visiting a mosque and learning about the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community and its message.

The National Interfaith Conference was indeed an example of the continuous efforts of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community in order to spread and promote the true message of Islam. Though our Community in Ireland is relatively small, these efforts are in fact sowing the seeds of the spiritual revolution that is to take place through the spread of the true teachings of Islam. Indeed, the words of His Holiness (aba) serve as a powerful inspiration which he stated in his sermon in Ireland in 2010 whilst laying the foundation of the first mosque of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community in Galway,

‘Galway is also in a way “a corner of the earth”. It is situated at the edge of the coast from where the Atlantic Ocean begins. If a straight line is drawn from its coast, there is no further European island…Thus, in a way, this is also “a corner of the earth” where the followers of the Promised Messiah (as) are being enabled to build a mosque, God-willing, so that the message of the unity of God can spread across the world from here as well.’

After a successful and inspiring trip to Ireland, the evening before our return to UK, a local member of the Community, who is originally from Libya, invited Khaleeq and I, along with Imam Ibrahim Noonan and the local president of the Galway chapter, for dinner at his house. As we sat on the floor in the modest setting of his house, I was overwhelmed with the warmth and generosity he extended to us. His wife, who is originally from Syria, had prepared a traditional dish of rice and meat. The food was placed on a large tray and we all sat around, as per tradition of the Arab culture, and ate from a single tray. As we sat eating and enjoying the food and the company alike, the Ahmadi friend brought his new-born daughter, who was only few months old and lovingly placed her in the arms of Imam Ibrahim Noonan. The image of that evening was perhaps one of the highlights of the entire trip for me and will perhaps remain forever etched in my memory. Sitting in the humble settings of an Ahmadi member from Libya, an Irish Imam affectionately holding his daughter in one arm whilst eating with the rest of us from a single tray and joined by the president of the Community, who was originally from Pakistan along with his two young sons who were born and bred in Ireland, was a poignant moment, for me personally, that truly encapsulated and epitomised the true spirit of Islam. How people of different cultures, traditions, languages and generations were all sat in a spirit of true love and brotherhood, which indeed can only be possible through the unifying force of Ahmadiyyat, the true Islam.

Thus, amidst the dark clouds that loom above us, a glimmer of hope always remains and that is through the acceptance of the Promised Messiah and Imam Mahdi (as), whose advent had been prophesised by all major religions of the world, who was going to come as the Messiah of the latter days and establish the oneness of God and unite humanity through the revival of faith and spirituality.

And so, just as centuries ago, when Europe was plunged into darkness and it was the land of Ireland that stood tall as a beacon of light, spreading faith and spirituality across the continent. Today, the Maryam Mosque in the city of Galway that sits virtually on the edge of Europe has once again become that beacon of light to illuminate the people of its land with the true message of Islam.

About the Author: Shahzad Ahmed serves as the Associate Editor of The Review of Religions, having graduated from Jamia Ahmadiyya UK – Institute of Modern Languages and Theology. He is also an Imam of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, has a Bachelor’s Degree in English Literature and presents shows on contemporary Islamic issues for MTA International.


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