By Ahmad Al-Matboli, IOL Correspondent
Shilhavy (L) is seen by the Muslim minority in today’s Czech Republic as a glorious page in the country’s history.
BRNO — Another glorious page of Islam’s history in the Czech Republic has been turned with the 90th birthday of one of the bedrocks of the Muslim faith in the central European country, Mohammed Ali Shilhavy.
“For Czech Muslims, Shilhavy is like a bridge linking between two different eras,” Munib Al-Rawi, the head of the Islamic Waqf Authority, told IslamOnline.net on Saturday, November 24.
“He has taken the responsibility of documenting the Muslim presence in (former) Czechoslovakia since the World War II.”
Shilhavy was born on November 17, 1917, in a village in the Czech city of Trebic.
He first came in touch with Islam at secondary school.
“I saw a translation of the meanings of the Noble Qur’an into Czech at a library nearby,” Shilhavy recalled in an interview with IOL.
The enthusiastic young man did not think twice and bought the book.
“The vendor thought that I chose the book by mistake as most people at the time knew nothing about Islam and Muslim,” he said, laughing.
In 1934, Shilhavy felt a great penchant towards the new religion.
The establishment of the Al-Gamaa al-Islamiya of Czechoslovakia at the time was a watermark in his life.
Shilhavy came in close touch with the group until he reverted to Islam in 1937 at the young age of 20 and changed his first name to Mohammed Ali.
The following year, he travelled to Egypt to study at Al-Azhar University, the highest seat of learning in the Sunni Muslim world, becoming the first Czech Muslim to study at an Islamic university.
But soon, he returned to former Czechoslovakia after the Nazi occupied the country in 1938, fearing for his family.
He was not allowed by German occupation troops to leave for Egypt to pursue his studies. Afterwards, he enrolled at a university at his hometown of Brno and studied chemistry.
Living at the heart of communism, Shilhavy had nevertheless developed an impressive Islamic identity and raised his two daughters like model Muslims.
His home was like a small mosque with a mihrab (a niche in the wall of a mosque that indicates the Qiblah) carved at the living room, traditional prayer mates and Islamic masterpieces folios of Qur’an.
Shilhavy is seen by the Muslim minority in today’s Czech Republic as a glorious page in the country’s history.
It was primarily thanks to his enormous contributions to Islam and Muslims in the non-religious central European country.
In 1990, Shilhavy wrote to the Czech government and the Foreign Ministry demanding a state recognition of Islam.
A year later, he revived the Al-Gamaa al-Islamiya of Czechoslovakia.
In 1992, Shilhavy was elected the head of the Islamic Union in the capital Prague.
He had championed efforts to reform the Islamic Union following the collapse of the communist rule in the country and the peaceful split of the republic into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in January 1993.
Shilhavy has also played a prominent role in getting a state permission to build the first mosque in Brno, the Czech Republic’s second largest city.
The mosque at last opened in 1998 after several years of campaigning by Shilhavy, who stood up to considerable opposition from right-wingers, communists and even local Islamophobes.
Shilhavy had translated many books about Islam into Czech, including Islam Between the East and the West and What is Islam?
The Czech Republic is home to around 50,000 Muslims.
There are only two mosques in Prague and Brno in addition to several small prayers rooms. In 2004, Czech Muslims won official recognition of Islam.