A Belfast based Muslim leader who has lived in Northern Ireland for seven years has spoken of the kindness and support shown by Northern Ireland people towards his community.
Sheikh Anwar Mady also believes that relations between Muslims and local residents will weather the current storm which has arisen in the wake of comments made about Islam by Belfast pastor James McConnell, and subsequent supportive remarks by First Minister Peter Robinson.
“I have to say that our (Muslims’) experience of Northern Ireland is remarkably different from what we are hearing about now,” said the Sheikh.
“People in Northern Ireland, in my opinion, are generally nice and kind people, very welcoming and tolerant. This has been my experience over the six or seven years I have been living in Belfast, and what is taking place right now for me is an exceptional time in our presence here in Northern Ireland.”
Last weekend a Pakistani man had to be hospitalised following an assault in the north Belfast home he shared with another Muslim male.
A bottle was also thrown through their window the night before. The victims were later visited by Pastor McConnell, who had previously made remarks about “not trusting” Muslims in a sermon at his church, Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle on the Shore Road.
Since the story broke over a fortnight ago, there have been fears about further disintegration between community relations - but Anwar says he believes that both Christian and Muslim faiths “will overcome this and build on our relationship to be more united.”
Mr Mady, who explains that his role as an imam means his is a position of leadership amongst the local Muslim community, added that the response from Northern Ireland people in the wake of the uproar has been “positive” and “marvellous.”
He said: “There were people who called at the Belfast Islamic Centre without giving any notice and said, ‘we come to support you and stand by you, to show love and solidarity’, and it touched my heart.
“My real experience here is that Northern Ireland is great, and I told one of the reporters that when I go to Egypt, my motherland, I always tell them about people in Northern Ireland and how kind they are, and how friendly their smiling faces are in the street. It is one of the characteristics about Northern Ireland and I hope this continues.”
Born in Egypt, Anwar Mady moved to the Province almost a decade ago, and is today based at the Belfast Islamic Centre, where he plays a key part in leading the local Muslim community. He hastens to explain to me that this does not mean he is a “man of God” - rather “an ordinary man who is well versed in Islamic studies.”
He continues: “The main issue with Muslim faith is the issue of the oneness of God. God is the one and only and no one can have the power of God. He is the creator of the universe and all human beings, and we are all equal in front of him because we were created by him.
“The second thing is that we believe in the message of the prophet Muhammed, who was a messenger of God, not only to the Arabs, but to all his people and to all mankind. He was considered to be the final prophet. Moses was a prophet of God and Jesus as well. We highly respect Jesus as a prophet of God. The person who denies Jesus cannot proffer to be a Muslim - he must believe in the prophethood of Jesus as he believes in the prophethood of Muhammed.”
Anwar says that his Muslim faith is “everything” to him. “My faith is the way to determine my behaviour and my dealings in relation to God, and in relation to my fellow human beings. We as Muslims have a constitution that regulates our relationships which is the Qu’ran, the holy book for Muslims. Everything is done according to it - how we pray to God, deal with children, with husbands and wives, how to show others your religion.”
Rituals and certain acts of worship form an important part of the Muslim’s daily life.
“When a child comes of the age of puberty, they will be obliged to observe the obligations, and one of them is praying five times a day - and we can pray more than this.
“They must also then observe fasting during Ramadan, which is very hard here in Northern Ireland because of the length of the day in summer time - we fast from dawn to sunset.”
Anwar himself tends to pray more than five times a day, and he has completed another of Islam’s Five Pillars (the obligations they must fulfil in order to live a good and responsible life) - the pilgrimage to Mecca (in Saudi Arabia) - no less than five times.
I’m keen to ask Anwar about the one aspect of Islam which seems to have dominated column inches and airwaves in recent weeks - Sharia Law.
Pastor James McConnell spoke out against it and said he was raising awareness of the plight of a 27 year-old woman in Sudan who has been sentenced to death for being a Christian and marrying a Christian man, which is illegal in Sharia law as her father was a Muslim.
However Anwar says that to truly understand the ins and outs of Sharia Law would require a “full lecture” on the subject.
“Sharia Law is a complete set of rules, a comprehensive system,” says Anwar, explaining that it must therefore be applied as such.
“For example, in countries where the majority of the population is Muslim, they say, ‘we are going to apply Sharia Law,’ and they think only of applying the penal code in Sharia Law.
“That is not right. It is about social justice in your community. I have to explain that Islam didn’t come to the prophet Muhammed in one go. And the penal code which is part of Sharia law was the last part to be revealed. We can’t look at the penal code without attaining justice first of all.”
Anwar feels that there is a widespread “lack of knowledge” about Islam, in spite of the fact that it is the second biggest religion in the world (Christianity is the largest), and this leads to many misconceptions about it.
Increasing people’s understanding of Muslim beliefs, he believes, will help break through prejudice.
“We have a responsibility here as a Muslim community to open the channels, to go into the community, and get involved in outreach activities in order to tell people about Islam,” says Anwar, adding that he believes Muslims living in other European countries should do the same, because essentially, he says, “we may be different but we are all equal.”