BELFAST – Worshipping Allah side by side, the Muslim community in Northern Ireland has overcome ethnic and sectarian divisions, offering a role model to Muslims worldwide.
“When we started, in the main, Friday prayer time, we only had about 30 or 40 people,” Javaid, one of the founders of the Northern Ireland Muslim Family Association (NIMFA), told BBC in a report that will be aired on Tuesday, May 17.
NIMFA, a group formed in 2002, now hosts about 400 worshipers in its modest building.
The place in south Belfast has become the hub for one of Northern Ireland’s fastest growing communities.
In Northern Ireland, people from all denominations of Islam worship side by side.
Every Friday, Javaid office undergoes a transformation ahead of weekly prayers.
Worshipers come from dozens of countries, from Nigeria to Pakistan, varying in ethnicities and sects.
“We have to put the chairs on the table and sheets on the floor so people can pray here as well,” he said.
There are about 1.5 billion Muslims and the vast majority are Sunni, who regard themselves as the orthodox branch of Islam.
Countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia have some of the largest populations.
Shiites share many fundamental beliefs and practices but differ in parts of theology.
Places like Iran and Iraq have Shiites majorities, who globally account for about 10% of Muslims.
Women in Islam
In NIMFA, women play an active role to correct image of Islam.
Though working side by side with men, they separate to offer prayers at a separate room.
“We pray in rows quite close to one another…we bow down in prostration with our head on the ground,” Brenda, who converted from Catholicism to Islam in her early 20s and plays an active role in NIMFA, said.
She added that she believed it would be difficult and uncomfortable for women to do this in close proximity to men.
Reverting to Islam did not cause any problems with her family.
“I haven’t been excommunicated, I haven’t been disowned. We remain a close-knit family but with different values and beliefs but even in a Muslim family…that clash and conflict can happen,” she said.
Dr Wesam Elbaz, a professor of medicine in Cairo before moving to Northern Ireland for family reasons, and works now a consultant in microbiology at Belfast’s City Hospital, rejects claims that Islam is oppressive to women.
“You are trying to stereotype Muslim women… a lovely woman behind a veil, voiceless, powerless, dependent on other people.
“All that she knows in life is marriage and having children. This is not reality.”