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How Sinead O'Connor found peace in Islam after a lifelong struggle with religion

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

The world lost Sinead O'Connor this week. The Grammy-winning singer and songwriter was a powerful musician, also an activist known for pushing the envelope. Her most controversial public moment came in 1992. In a live performance on "Saturday Night Live," O'Connor closed her set by tearing up a photo of Pope John Paul II. It was a protest, she said, against the Catholic Church's silence on child sex abuse.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

SINEAD O'CONNOR: (Singing) Evil. Fight the real enemy.

DETROW: O'Connor's fraught relationship with the church started early on, tracing back to her Catholic upbringing in Ireland. Here she is on RTE One's "The Late Late Show."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LATE LATE SHOW")

O'CONNOR: I grew up in a very different Ireland to the one that exists now. And it was a very oppressed country, religiously speaking, and everybody was miserable. Nobody was getting any joy in God.

DETROW: O'Connor's difficult and sometimes tumultuous spiritual journey often played out in public. But fewer people know where that journey ultimately led her. In 2018, O'Connor announced that she was, quote, "reverting to Islam."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

O'CONNOR: The word revert, it refers to the idea that if you were to study the Koran, you would realize that you had all - you were a Muslim all your life, and you didn't realize it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: It's just waiting to happen to you.

O'CONNOR: That's what happened to me.

DETROW: Sheikh Umar Al-Qadri is the chief imam at the Islamic Centre of Ireland. He was also a friend and a spiritual adviser of O'Connor's. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm glad to be talking to you, but I'm sorry to be talking to you under these circumstances.

UMAR AL-QADRI: Thank you for inviting me to speak on this very, you know, sad and tragic event. Sinead was a very good friend, our sister in faith and, of course, in humanity.

DETROW: And you knew Sinead O'Connor from her earliest days as a Muslim, and you actually played a part in her conversion. Can you tell us what some of those early conversations were like?

AL-QADRI: Sister Shuhada Sinead contacted the Islamic Center, and we met for approximately two to three hours. It was very clear to me that this was a lady who had already done her research, and her questions about Islam were not the basic, usual questions people have. They were actually theological questions. They were questions related to specific verses of the Quran.

And in the first meeting, I had absolutely no idea who she was. And she'd asked me to Google her up because I was surprised at her comment at the end of our meeting that please do not mention anybody in the media about me. And to my surprise, the lady I'd spoken to who was very humble, down to earth, was, in fact, you know, a world-renowned musician, artist. So we met for the second time, and we had a long discussion again. She then, on the same day, she said the Shahada, the proclamation of faith, which is how a person becomes Muslim. And then she became a Muslim woman.

DETROW: Yeah. So clearly, in those early conversations - and I should mention you referred to her as Sister Shuhada. She adopted the name after she converted. She had clearly been seeking a different spiritual path. What was it about Islam that attracted her?

AL-QADRI: I think one of the things that she loved about Islam was the fact that you can communicate with God directly. So there is no concept of someone in between you and God. It was just you directly communicating with God. She loved also the fact that as a Muslim, we believe in the Torah. We believe in the Bible. We believe in Prophet Jesus. We believe in Moses. And for her, she said that for me, it makes sense. Islam is the faith, is the religion. Once she embraced and accepted Islam, I knew by engaging with her - and obviously, people that know her, they know that she had always longed for peace.

And I think with Islam, she did get that peace. We could see after having accepted Islam, her appearances on the media, where she again returned back to singing - and we had a discussion about that. She asked me, well, sheikh, I heard different stories. I heard that some people say that you cannot really sing. You can't sing. What does the Quran say? What does the tradition say? And I explained to her that, you know, your voice, this is an amazing talent God has given you. And this is a talent that you communicate, with that powerful talent that you have, that beautiful voice of yours. And you could express things that, you know, maybe people otherwise would not really, you know, understand.

DETROW: Yeah. And that leads to a moment I wanted to listen to with you and talk to you about. This is from 2018, shortly after she had formally converted to Islam. And she's reciting the Islamic call to prayer.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

O'CONNOR: (Praying in non-English language).

DETROW: You were there for that moment. What did it mean for her?

AL-QADRI: For her, it meant a lot. She asked me whether she could say the Azan (ph) in the Islamic Centre. And she knew that the Azan is usually said by men. And I said, why would I stop you? Because I know how much this means for you. And she said the Azan, and everybody present during that event became very emotional because the person that was reciting it, the person that was singing it in that amazingly heavenly voice, it was amazing.

DETROW: And it sounds like hearing it in this moment, I could hear that there's still a lot of emotion for you, especially hearing it this week, under these circumstances.

AL-QADRI: Yes, absolutely. I know that she is a wonderful person with a blessed soul. And she was one that was very vocal for certain things that were important to her. Equality was important to her. Humanity was important for her. And these are the things that she had expressed throughout her life with music and arts. And a couple of days ago, when she passed away, a friend of mine in Ireland contacted me and informed me about her demise, her death, and I just could not get over it. I mean, I could not believe it.

DETROW: I want to ask you how you feel about this. There's been a lot of online commentary about the fact that in the coverage of Sinead O'Connor's death, the fact that she converted to Islam in recent years was either minimized or not mentioned at all. Is that something that bothered you?

AL-QADRI: To be honest, it did. And the reason for that is because, you know, we live in a time when people want to be addressed by certain pronouns. We do that. We make sure that we address them as they want. And when it comes to Sister Shuhada Sinead, I have seen that she had embraced Islam. She had accepted the identity. She had changed her name. And if one wants to honor her, let's honor her comprehensively, her personality comprehensively. And she was a proud Irish woman, but also, she was a proud Irish Muslim woman. And I think that should be acknowledged.

DETROW: I understand that when she was initially exploring Islam and thinking about it, she kept it private. But once she converted, she was very open about it, very proud about that. And I'm wondering what the response was from the broader Muslim community in Ireland to that conversion and to her really wanting to share it with the world.

AL-QADRI: The Muslim community in Ireland, in fact, globally, was very pleased, very happy, especially because this is an artist, a musician that many Muslims around the world actually adored and loved. And they used to listen to their music, her music. And so people around the world, Muslims, were very happy, very overwhelmed. And even now, once, you know, she's passed away, people are very, you know, heartbroken. They are sad. They have lost icon. But also, they've lost a sister in faith.

DETROW: That's Sheikh Umar Al-Qadri, a spiritual adviser to Shuhada Sinead O'Connor, who died this week. Thanks so much for talking to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

AL-QADRI: You're very welcome. Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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