Finding out about Ireland’s third-largest religious community

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 4 (July/August 2010), News, Volume 18


The Dublin Mosque, South Circular Road.

The Dublin Mosque, South Circular Road.

Islam has become one of the fastest-growing religions and the Muslim population of Ireland has increased significantly in the last twenty years, reaching almost 33,000 according to the 2006 national census, while unofficial estimates suggest a number of around 40,000. The recent growth in numbers of the Muslim community is closely connected to the transformation of Ireland from a country of emigration to one of immigration as a consequence of the economic boom that started in the early 1990s.


Migration and settlement of Muslims in Ireland began in 1952 with the arrival of the first group of Muslim students from South Africa who attended the Royal College of Surgeons, followed by other students from South Africa and various Arab countries of the Middle East who pursued their medical studies in the following decades. Many of those students decided to stay in Ireland, married Irish wives and settled down quite well into Irish society. The early 1990s not only marked major developments for Ireland with the beginning of the ‘Celtic Tiger’ years but also led to major changes for the Muslim community. Ireland became a destination for labour migrants and asylum-seekers from various parts of the world, including many countries in the Muslim world.

Despite the growth of the Muslim community and an increased public profile, not much is known about Muslims in Ireland. UCC’s research project will make a unique contribution to understanding the rapid changes in Irish society and its increasing cultural, ethnic and religious diversity. The project is funded by the Irish Research Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences (IRCHSS) and the Department of An Taoiseach and is based in the Study of Religions Department at UCC. It is a three-year project that will conclude in December 2011. The aim is to provide an in-depth survey of the Muslim community in Ireland, its establishment and historical development, its various organisations and mosques, and its current and future place in Irish society.

One of the primary aims of the project is to counter monolithic and stereotypical perceptions of Islam and Muslims among the Irish public by illustrating the historic cultural, linguistic, ethnic and doctrinal diversity of the Irish Muslim community. Muslim migration in general has been extremely diverse, without any particular ethnic or cultural group being dominant, unlike Muslim communities in other European countries. Muslims in Ireland have Middle Eastern, South Asian, South-east Asian, African and Eastern European backgrounds. The project will explore the various national backgrounds of Muslim migrants and expressions of Muslim identities in the countries of origin and how these have taken form in Ireland. In addition to the well-known Sunni and Shii division, Muslim migrants have brought with them many different doctrinal orientations and particular cultural colourings from their countries of origin.

The project also investigates the history of the various Muslim organisations in Ireland, including the purposes for which they were founded, the particular doctrinal orientations they have followed, and their success in establishing unity among Irish Muslims and in representing Muslims within Irish society. International links and funding sources are also explored, for example from various states in the Gulf region. Finally, the project aims to place the historical experience of the Muslim community in Ireland in the wider European context. Comparisons are undertaken between Muslims in Ireland and elsewhere in Europe to identify parallels and differences.

The principal investigator of the project, Dr Oliver Scharbrodt, is Lecturer in the Study of Religions at UCC and collaborates with three researchers in the course of this project. Dr Adil Hussain Khan investigates the various mosque organisations that exist in Ireland and their relationship to each other. Dr Vivian Ibrahim undertakes historical research, looking for traces of a Muslim presence in Ireland before World War II. Dr Yafa Shanneik investigates the activities of various Muslim women’s groups in Ireland. None of these issues have ever been explored before, making this project ground-breaking and original.

The project is hosted by the new Study of Religions Department at UCC, established in 2007. The Study of Religions Department is the first and only of its kind in Ireland and fosters an academic, non-confessional and non-theological approach to the study of religions. Its staff members have expertise of a range of very different religious traditions. This subject is open to a diverse student body interested in the academic study of religions, regardless of personal religious views. At the moment, more than 200 students are enrolled in the undergraduate programme and plans are under way for postgraduate teaching and research in the near future.  HI

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