The Mosque on Talbot Street: Redefining Irish identity and faith in Dublin

DUBLIN — It’s a Friday afternoon in the Irish capital. Talbot Street, not far from the city center, is host to a casino, a Starbucks and an Irish gift shop. But tucked in the middle of it all is the Anwar-E-Madina mosque.

Just like every Friday, hundreds of men shuffle in and out of the tall wooden mosque doors between the two midday prayers.
Some of them are second-generation Irish, their parents or grandparents having moved here from Africa or Asia. Some are new arrivals. Some are converts.

When I asked one of the founders, Mia Manan Hameed, how many languages are spoken at the mosque, he started rattling off a list that didn’t seem to stop. There was English, French and Arabic but also languages like Pashto, Russian and Gujarati.

“It’s never-ending,” he said. “It keeps on going, and it’s great.”

Hameed is one of more than 60,000 Muslims living in Ireland. He and two other men who worship here told me how their mosque fits into what’s now the fourth largest religious group in the country.

Though Ireland’s Muslim community continues to grow and change, mosques like Anwar-E-Madina are common spaces that keep worshippers together despite their different histories and ways of practice.

Imam Jameel Mutoola towered over his congregation in a long beard and traditional robe. He’s just starting his sermon before Friday prayers. But people told me he’s really just a gentle giant.

Mutoola served as an imam, or worship leader, back in his home country of Mauritius. But when he moved to the U.K. in the mid-2000s, he stopped so he could better understand how Muslims practicing in Europe kept their faith.

“I left the job of imam because I just want to know how people feel in Europe because I can’t just come and talk about the religion without know what people is facing,” he said.

Jameel Mutoola has served as the imam at Anwar-E-Madina for eight years. Photo by Sara Miller

So instead of preaching and leading prayers, Mutoola held a variety of odd jobs, such as working in a chicken shop and valeting cars.

He learned there are challenges to balancing faith and life in a new country, especially in a place where Islam is a minority religion.

“This experience taught me that it’s really difficult to practice because you’re already tired from your work, and you come and you keep your faith,” he said.

But even though it can be difficult, people still fill the mosque’s prayer rooms each week on Islam’s day of prayer. And people stop by on other days, too, to deliver food to the homeless or pray.

On Thursdays, a small group of men perform zikr, a practice where worshippers chant repetitively as an act of devotion.

“Zikr is amazing,” Hameed said. “It’s something that I really look forward to every week. It’s like when someone going to yoga classes in the morning or to the gym. And you feel good.”

Anwar-E-Madina has been around for a little more than a decade. Hameed and his father founded the Irish Sufi Foundation, which runs the mosque, in 2004. It all started with a service for Ramadan, Islam’s holy month, in a building behind their family’s store. It was a much smaller group then.

“That Friday, I think we had only about 30 people in the mosque because hardly anybody knew,” Hameed said.

Several years after that, they moved their growing congregation into the building on Talbot Street where it exists today.

But there was a time where a mosque like Anwar-E-Madina wouldn’t have been possible because the Muslim population was just so small. Hameed remembers that time when he was growing up in Limerick. It was his grandparents who first came to Belfast from Pakistan in the 1950s.

“In the ‘80s and ‘90s, you could count how many Muslim families were in Ireland or how many Indian or Pakistani or Arab families were in Ireland,” he says.

Mia Manan Hameed says he didn’t sense any difference growing up both Irish and Muslim. Photo by Sara Miller

There were 3,000 Muslims in Ireland in 1991, according to the country’s census. The first mosque had only been established in 1976.

“When it was Eid prayers, we used to all get together,” he said. “So someone’s coming from Galway, or someone’s coming from Cork or from Dublin, coming to Limerick.”

Hameed said he feels like he’s always been able to balance the different parts of his identity. He is Irish, and he celebrates his heritage and his faith.

“I can say I’m Irish Pakistani Muslim. That’s how I was brought up and was never ashamed of,” he said.

A period of huge economic growth starting in the mid-1990s brought a wave of new immigrants to Ireland. Mohammed Jallow is one of the immigrants to have arrived since that initial boom.

He came from Gambia and has only been in Ireland for a about a year, having spent some time in the U.K. before that. He said he’s dealt with the same challenges Mutoola experienced when integrating into a new culture.

“The thing was so crazy because my friends, they always go to clubs every weekends,” Jallow said. “So even though I’m praying, but sometimes I would pray, I’m going to clubs. So I would say, am I doing the right things?”

But when Jallow moved to Ireland to join his sister, he was without friends and without the same support system he had in either Gambia or the U.K.. That’s until he started coming to the mosque and started meeting new people unlike his old friends.

“They would say to me, let’s go to the mosque, we have zikr today, and as an imam, Imam Jameel, he help me so much,” he said.

Anwar-E-Madina is one small piece of a bigger movement changing what it means to be Irish. And for Hameed, that means continuing to help more Muslims find community in Dublin.

“It’s totally in the family hand,” he said. “We are a big family with Imam Jameel, myself, my brothers.”