Ibrahim Noonan: His family found it very difficult initially to accept his change of religion.
Ibrahim Noonan, was born Michael Noonan to a “strong Catholic GAA Republican family”.
While he grew up in Waterford, his father was from Cork and his grandfather was GAA legend Daniel O’Keeffe, the first player to hold seven All-Ireland medals. His grandmother was shot by the Black and Tans when they were burning Cork.
The idea that Michael would become the first ever Irish Catholic man to convert to islam, having been born into “a very orthodox Catholic family”, was not part of his family’s playbook.
Today, he is the national Imam of the Ahmadiyya muslim community both in the Republic of Ireland and of Northern Ireland. He is also the Imam of Galway mosque.
This is a man whose family was so devoutly Catholic that he was not “allowed to even look inside the door of a Protestant church”.
And Ibrahim was devout too, but not by force, but by faith.
“I definitely did feel something spiritual in the church, I did feel a love for God, a love for Jesus, I had a great affection towards the blessed virgin Mary,” remembered the Imam.
His love was so strong that he considered becoming a priest, however, he discovered that the idea of celibacy was not something he believed in.
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“I was very attached to the order of the Dominicans. Fr Fitzgerald was a huge influence on me as a young Catholic man. He said to me: ‘I feel that god is calling you, you should consider the priesthood’. And I did. I went to retreats and everything.
“But one day we were preparing for the St Patrick’s Day parade float. There were all these girls beside me — cheerleaders,” said Ibrahim. “And the priest with me was staring at them. I said: ‘What are you doing?’ And he said: ‘Michael, I am a human being’. Then I realised afterwards I didn’t believe in celibacy.
Here was a pious priest serving the community and he had emotions too. I was 15 or 16 at the time, and I couldn’t see myself not having a relationship.
This realisation knocked Catholic priesthood on the head for him, but not religion.
He went on to study theology in the University of Wales, and this is where he came across Islam.
He moved to London in 1986, which he describes as “not at all like Ireland” and where he “came across actual Muslims”. He did a Master’s in Philosophy next and then took a break from religious studies.
“I was living with a beautiful Irish girl, but I got in trouble with my lifestyle — my grandparents wouldn’t have approved of it.
“I was happy but I was unhappy that I was living with a girl and not being married. I was pushing her saying: ‘We should consider marriage’.
“We were 23, and she was just looking at me. I said: ‘I know, I know. I know what I am asking you’. I was troubled by this, people have to understand I came from a very devout family.
“I was doing all the things I was supposed to be doing, going to Mass but things declined,” says Ibrahim.
Then the relationship ended and he met another Irish girl, this time a friend, who was married to a muslim.
“She praised him as a husband, and he was a good example of a husband. I met him and I was inspired by him. Hyde Park has a speakers’ corner and he brought me there so I could see and listen to discussions about everything from secularism to atheism,” says the Imam.
It was here that he heard a conversation between a muslim and a christian that really impressed him. So he decided he would “really investigate Islam”.
His journey took him to mosques in London and then to Tunisia, North Africa, Libya and Morocco.
There is no compromise in their faith, they believed in one god, they practice their religion, they prayed five times a day, I really felt this is the way a faith should be and I was taken.
“I started investigating how I could do that. I saw the discipline and I could see the radicalism in some of the mosques, but that didn’t defer me from the faith, it was about finding the right community,” says Ibrahim.
This is when he found the Ahmadiyya muslim community, which has 200m members worldwide. He was 24.
There was just one problem. How do you tell your devout Catholic family that you’re converting to Islam?
“I mean I was literally practising the whole way back from London to Ireland what I was going to say,” says the Imam. But his family’s joy at seeing him overrode his ability to tell them his big news.
Instead he started leaving hints around the house, including refusing a full Irish breakfast.
“Every day my dad was making me eggs and rashers and I was refusing them. I said: ‘Just give me eggs. No one refused a full Irish then. One morning my dad said to me: ‘I’ve made your favourite, black pudding’, which I refused.
“He became angry with me and said: ‘You’re acting very strange, your mum is finidng you doing weird exercises in the room, which was Islamic prayers, have you become a muslim?’
And oh my God there was a big explosion, I could hear my mother upstairs saying the rosary,” remembers Ibrahim.
His family intervention involved priests being brought into the house and having holy water poured over him. His friends even came around to “convince” him. These friends have not spoken to him in the intervening 30 years.
When Ibrahim realised he needed to leave Ireland to follow his new faith, his mother literally fell to her knees as he left the family home.
My mum was literally hanging on to my knees, she was down on her own knees, they were scratched, she was begging me not to go.
He returned to London and went to Islamic university and became an Imam and served all around the world before returning here in 2003.
Ibrahim’s family realised he was not “going through a phase” by this point and their relationship was restored.
“My mother gave me a lot of love and affection, and my father was always nice and kind to me. I think he wishes I had remained in the Catholic faith. He loves me and he makes it clear to me.
“One of the greatest moments in my life was visiting my parents when my mother was dying. My father grabbed me and hugged me and said he loved me,” said Ibrahim.
He went on to marry a muslim woman; the couple have a family now and he runs the Galway mosque.
“I’m very happy spiritually, the only word I can use is to say I found my calling, my vocation. My family all love me, I’m so lucky.
“My father said: ‘I observed you and your family offering your prayers and I have to say your life seems meaningful’. That was profound for me,” says Ibrahim.