In a newseries, Carol Ryan looks at the world's fastest-growing religion.
Islam has arrived in Ireland. The 2006 census recorded 33,000 Muslims living here but the current figure is probably closer to 50,000, making Islam the fastest growing religion in Ireland. It is also the fastest growing religion in the world - 1.5 billion people call themselves Muslims. Islam is flourishing but it has also been the subject of furious debate in a post-9/11 world.
The Roman Catholic and Church of Ireland parishes in Dalkey Co. Dublin are jointly running a five-week course Learning Together About Islam. It is one of the first parish-based public forums on Islam of its kind. Since first floating the idea during Unity Week, organiser Canon Ginnie Kennerley received ''fantastic enthusiasm''. Extra chairs had to be brought in to accommodate the crowd arriving for the first lecture, suggesting there is huge demand for information about Islam.
Siraj Zaidi, an Indian Shia Muslim who has lived in Ireland for 15 years gave the first lecture. He is heavily involved in interfaith dialogue and was a founding member of the Three Faiths Forum of Ireland which works to improve relations between the three Abrahamic faiths.
He opened by saying that unfortunately many people now have a negative view of Muslims and initiatives like this are key to opening up dialogue and explaining true Islam.
His lecture was about Prophet Muhammad's life and the birth of Islam in the Middle East 1,400 years ago. Muslims call Muhammad ''Rasullah'' or ''Messenger of God''. To them he is a model personality - trustworthy, noble, generous and unmaterialistic - and they strive to follow his example in their everyday lives.
Born in 570 AD in what is now Saudi Arabia, he lived a very normal life working as a trader until the age of 40 when he began receiving divine revelations from the Angel Gabriel. These revelations make up the core of the Koran, the Muslim holy book which provides guidance on every aspect of human life including politics, economics, law, social interaction, hygiene and ethics. Muhammad was driven out of Mecca because of his preaching and migrated to Medina where he established a community of Muslims. By the time of his death 23 years later he had amassed 100,000 followers. Islam then underwent an extraordinary expansion and 100 years after Muhammad's death, the Islamic empire stretched from the Atlantic Ocean in the west to Central Asia in the east.
Siraj's talk was followed by a lively Q&A session during which he was asked to explain Islam's view of Jesus Christ (he is recognised as a prophet) and Muslim's interpretation of the Koran (they consider it the literal word of God).
The topic which most ignited the audience was women's status in Islam. He said Islam was the first religion to give rights to women. Many questioned how Islam can claim to give higher status to women when the widespread perception is that Muslim women do not have equal rights. There was interest in the topic of hijab (the Muslim headscarf). Siraj explained that the Koran requires Muslim women to cover their heads and dress modestly. Girls begin wearing hijab at 12 or 13 years of age but he stressed that women are free to choose it. The niqab (the full face veil) is contentious even within the Muslim community and many do not believe it is called for in the Koran.
After the course, the feedback was largely positive. When asked why they came, many people said they are concerned about stories in the media and want some concrete information about Islam. Several people saw similarities between the core message of Islam and Christianity.
There is an element of fear in Irish people's perception of Islam, especially with the growth of the Muslim population here. There is suspicion that Muslims are here to expand, to take over and that Irish people must be fearful of them. There are many misconceptions and I blame the sensational and inflammatory nature of the media a lot for that. It boils down to the responsibility of journalists to show a balanced view.
There has been a lot of focus on Islamic issues in the news in recent years -whether it was the Salman Rushdie affair back in 1989, the first Gulf War or more recently the commotion in the Arab world. The 9/11 attacks really opened up people's consciousness but it was certainly not an Islamic act as is wrongly perceived by many. It is your first duty to create peace and harmony in the society you live in and explain that Islam is a religion of peace. The core of Islam is extremely liberal even though some people perceive it as being very rigid and narrow. The problem is the dictators in Middle Eastern countries who control their people and use Islam like a stick.
There is a certain extremist element of Islam which is blatantly at war with the West. They have this view that ''we are right, you are wrong'' which is very dangerous. The rest of the Muslim Community is in conflict with this element and that is leading to a huge split in Islamic ideology. We are the first to criticise these people.
Right to defend
Islam is all for defence, you have full right to defend yourself, but not offense. However, the West has been very corrupt in its dealings with Muslim dictators and rulers of certain kingdoms and that is fueling the problem. The Western understanding of women in Islam is quite clinical, that they are oppressed, uneducated and controlled. Muslim women get insulted by that. Islam gave women rights long before the West did. In the West women's bodies are used to sell products. You would not see a half-naked woman leaning over a brand new car or the Playboy industry in the Muslim world. Islam rejects that kind of liberalism.
Taken from http://www.irishcatholic.ie/site/content/irelands-fastest-growing-religion-carol-ryan