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Diversity feature of NZ Muslim community

Though they share core understandings and values, New Zealand’s Muslims are not a monolithic community but divided along many lines. These include nationality, language, and ideology.

New Zealander Abdullah Drury converted to Islam in his 20s. He says the diversity among Muslims is analogous to the situation among Christians.

“We think of Dunedin as primarily Presbyterian and Christchurch as primarily Anglican but there are lots of people from different backgrounds in both places and people have intermarried. There are other churches too, everything from Catholics and Jehovah’s Witness to new emigrant groups such as Korean Evangelists and Samoan Protestants.

“Muslims in New Zealand are distinguished by race, language, culture, ideologies, schools of Islamic law, and the broad categories Sunni and Shia. What is different in this country is the limited number of mosques forces everyone to worship together.”

Abdullah says in sweeping terms there are differences between Arabian Muslims and others. Arabs (as well as Africans) place a greater emphasis on emulating the practices of 7th century Arabia when the prophet Muhammad lived. They are more conservative in their religious views and promote Arabian language and culture.

In other parts of the world – eastern Europe, South Asia, and Southeast Asia – Islam was grafted onto local cultures and the Muslims there tend to be more flexible. They do well in New Zealand, Abdullah says, because they are more liberal.

One of the issues where these differences can surface in New Zealand mosques is whether or not to celebrate the prophet Muhammad’s birthday. The celebration is called Milad (also called Maulid).

Arabian Sunni Muslims don’t celebrate Milad because there is no evidence it was celebrated in Muhammad’s time. For Shias as well as Sunnis in India and Southeast Asia it is an important religious festival.

“My wife is from Fiji and her family is originally from South India. Milad is an important festival for them, it’s part of their culture. But they aren’t allowed to celebrate it at the mosque in Christchurch so they have to celebrate it in private home or a public hall.

“The issue can characterise mosques. Some mosques in South Auckland celebrate Milad and they are seen as ‘Indian’ mosques. The mosque in Christchurch doesn’t celebrate it so it is seen as an ‘Arab’ or ‘Wahabi’ mosque.”

Abdullah says there is a shortage of imams (Islamic religious leaders) in New Zealand so they must come from overseas. He would like to see more imams trained here because they would be more familiar with local cultural values.