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Singing Imam: Muhammad Al-Hussaini Finds a Home in Irish Sean Nos Scene

Muhammad Al-Hussaini is an unusual mix even for multicultural London — a Muslim scholar and an accomplished traditional Irish music singer.
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/ Source: NBC News

LONDON — While Irish song isn't a foreign concept in London, one new star on the scene has been raising eyebrows while shattering stereotypes about sean nós — the traditional, unaccompanied singing style from the Emerald Isle.

Sheikh Muhammad Al-Hussaini — an imam and scholar researching extremism — is coy about his talents, saying he is "just a beginner." But the imam won the Gaelic Voices festival in 2014 and continues to compete throughout Ireland and the U.K. — while learning Irish and playing the fiddle.

"The sean nós of Ireland has enormous resonances to the Arabic language poetic recitation tradition in which I have been trained as an imam," Al-Hussaini explained to NBC News. He declined to give his age or hometown.

Karen Ryan, a London-based musician and Al-Hussaini’s fiddle teacher, said the singer feels a "strong passion" for the music and culture behind it.

"He wanted to learn the nuances of our tradition," she said.

While Al-Hussaini's open-mindedness and interest in different cultures has drawn praise, it has also gotten the singer — an academic who researches extremism and the role of religion in public life — into trouble with some. Al-Hussaini says he's been criticized by members of the Muslim community for his liberal views.

"For me, being a Muslim in the strict sense of the term means one who has submitted to one God," he said. "For others however, Muslim is kind of a tribal label. It’s about having the right length beard, wearing the same clothes, conforming."

Al-Hussaini, an advocate for pluralism who taught Islamic Studies at a Jewish rabbinical college for many years, said he believes that the artistic and theological traditions of Christian, Jewish and Islamic cultures have much in common.

"Those on the radical fringes of all three traditions who try to create artificial boundaries between us are not being true to the reality of our history," Al-Hussaini said, adding that he finds common ground between his Islamic heritage and his passion for Irish music.

"I’ve always had this motto that deep down we are all Irish, really," he said.