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Sister Sinéad-Shuhada: misunderstood, much-maligned, much-loved and Muslim

July 27, 2023 at 5:45 pm

Singer-songwriter Sinead O’Connor performs on stage at Vogue Theatre on February 01, 2020 in Vancouver, Canada. [Andrew Chin/Getty Images]

Headlines and photographs of the singer Sinéad O’Connor told us that the iconic star had died. What followed have been well-deserved eulogies, despite some glaring omissions.

Sinéad was beautiful, brave and talented, and an uncompromising rebel who often railed against the Establishment and has never been forgiven by some for ripping up a photograph of the Pope on live TV more than thirty years ago. The singer, who has died at the age of 56, was also a Muslim convert who chose the name Shuhada, although you’d never know it from the obituaries published in the Islamophobic media.

Very little mention was made of her chosen faith. Some elements of the Jewish media flirted with the idea that her inspiration came from Jewishness. The Forward even referred to her “Jewish period”, but at least it had the courtesy to mention her conversion to Islam.

She certainly inspired millions of Muslims around the world and her position on Palestine was unwavering. That’s something else airbrushed rather too conveniently from the obituaries.

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In a searingly honest interview about her music, our dear sister explained why she would “never” play in Israel. However, no one wants to reflect on uncomfortable statements like that in case the sensibilities of pearl-clutching fragile liberals are upset and accusations of anti-Semitism fly.

Anyone reading Seth Rogovoy’s excellent essay on Sinéad-Shuhada’s life will discover that the Forward’s contributing editor and author of Bob Dylan: Prophet Mystic Poet drew much of his information from her best-selling autobiography Rememberings. “The real revelation of the book,” he wrote, was “how one of the world’s most famous Catholic converts to Islam has had a lifelong, abiding appreciation for Judaism and Jewish people. Specifically, three Jewish people: Bob Dylan and Barbra Streisand, both of whom she seems to idolise and after whom she models herself, plus her imaginary, romantic ideal, a “much-fantasised-about” handsome rabbi who would steer her toward Judaism.”

Of course, the legendary Irish singer, who is more famed for a fistfight with the late pop idol Prince in cheap tabloid headlines, than her conversion to Islam on 25 October, 2018, tweeted a photograph of herself wearing a hijab with the message to her fans: “This is to announce that I am proud to have become a Muslim. This is the natural conclusion of any intelligent theologian’s journey. All scripture study leads to Islam. Which makes all other scriptures redundant. I will be given (another) new name. It will be Shuhada.”

The “Nothing Compares 2 U” singer changed her name again more recently to Magda Davitt, saying in an interview that she wanted to be “free of parental curses.” She was described by some in the pop industry as the quintessential musical rebel who had a tempestuous relationship with her mother who, as she recounted frequently in vivid detail, abused her brutally.

Her death was confirmed in a family statement which read: “It is with great sadness that we announce the passing of our beloved Sinéad. Her family and friends are devastated and have requested privacy at this very difficult time.”

Despite her meteoric rise to fame, she led a life punctuated with heartache and pain. She is survived by her three children and in her final social media post, the Irish songstress tweeted a picture of her late son Shane who committed suicide 18 months ago, alongside the caption: “Been living as undead night creature since. He was the love of my life, the lamp of my soul.”

Her spiritual journey began in Dublin as a Roman Catholic but it wasn’t long before, as a teenager, she rebelled against the Church as an institution.

Her obituary in the Irish Times read: “For many, she embodied a raw, take-no-prisoners defiance in the face of trauma and abuse. Others admired and loved her but were alarmed by her apparent mental fragility and vulnerability.”

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She emerged as a female artist in a misogynistic music scene defined and controlled by male expectations. In her early 20s, as an international superstar, she bucked the trend and refused to sit quietly. Instead, she risked commercial success with her brand of fierce honesty about her personal beliefs, and refused bluntly to remain silent about her experience of trauma and mental health issues.

Her life was described as turbulent from the early years right until her demise. By the time she reached her teens, family life was blighted by separation plus 18 months of institutional incarceration in a notorious Magdalene institution. “I steal everything. I’m not a nice person. I’m trouble,” she would recall in her memoir.

When she emerged as a singer and songwriter of remarkable skill she was already making outlandishly negative comments about Irish rock legends U2 and, by way of contrast, positive things about the Provisional IRA. Equally characteristically, friends say that she was quick to acknowledge when she felt she had got such comments wrong and would apologise without hesitation.

Within a couple of years, she was climbing international album charts and her spiritual journey was well underway. At one stage she was ordained as a female priest by an equally renegade Catholic priest, and shortly thereafter she declared Islam to be the religion she was always searching for.

Forever courting controversy, she has explained her infamous appearance on TV when she ripped up a photograph of Pope John Paul II in her biography. “A lot of people say or think that tearing up the pope’s photo derailed my career. That’s not how I feel about it. I feel that having a number-one record derailed my career and my tearing the photo put me back on the right track.”

Two weeks after that TV appearance, on 16 October, 1992, at Madison Square Garden in New York, O’Connor was one of the artists hand-selected by her hero, Bob Dylan, to perform at his “30th Anniversary Concert Celebration” alongside such musical legends as George Harrison, Tom Petty, Tracy Chapman, Chrissie Hynde, Stevie Wonder, Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson. Forever self-deprecating and modest, she said that she had only been invited to share the stage with all-time greats because of her praise for Dylan and his music.

However, when she took to the stage the adoring crowds appeared to turn on her as if the ripping up of Pope John Paul’s photograph had come back to haunt her. She recalled: “…there ensues a noise the likes of which I have never heard and can’t describe other than to say it’s like a thunderclap that never ends. The loudest noise I’ve ever heard. Like a sonic riot, as if the sky is ripping apart. It makes me feel really nauseous and almost bursts my eardrums.”

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Fearing a riot was about to erupt she was led off stage by the singer-actor Kris Kristofferson, who was master of ceremonies for the evening. As he tried to pacify the crowd in vain, undefeated and defiant she took to the microphone and recited the lyrics to Bob Marley’s “War”.

Never one to shy away from shocking others, she caused a Twitter storm in November 2018 when she announced that she no longer wanted to spend time in the company of “white people”, who she called “disgusting”. Her full tweet was: “I’m terribly sorry. What I’m about to say is something so racist I never thought my soul could ever feel it. But truly I never wanna spend time with white people again (if that’s what non-Muslims are called). Not for one moment, for any reason. They are disgusting.”

I don’t think for a second that she meant to be taken literally but, as a fellow convert to Islam, I suspect that she was feeling the sort of hatred and contempt we attract from people of other faiths and none who have little or no understanding of Islam. Being a convert must have been an isolating experience for someone as emotionally troubled and conflicted as our dear sister. I expect that the constant snipes and demonisation of her newfound faith only fuelled her political activism and support for the Palestinian cause.

Shortly after Israel’s brutal military offensive against the Gaza Strip in 2014, the Grammy-award-winning star cancelled a concert in Caesarea, an Israeli town near Tel Aviv. “Nobody with any sanity, including myself, would have anything but sympathy for the Palestinian plight,” she said. “There’s not a sane person on earth who in any way sanctions what the f**k the Israeli authorities are doing.”

At the time she was going through relative financial hardship so to turn down a gig offering her a staggering £100,000 payday (ten times the normal amount for a concert) demonstrated her compassionate soul and astonishing integrity.

I share the sadness of the world’s Muslims who mourn the loss of such a great sister. I only hope that before she passed on she knew how much she was loved and adored by the many people she touched with her music, her compassion and her solidarity with those facing injustice in this world.

“To Allah the Almighty God we belong, and to Him is our return.” Bless you dear sister; often misunderstood, much-maligned but much-loved; and Muslim.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.