Sunday, 8 March 2015

Muslims4Lent Reflections

In the last few weeks I've been inspired by a brilliant interfaith initiative started by Bassel Riche and Salmaa Elshanshory of Eid Pray Love. You may have seen it on social media and wondered what it was, you may even be taking part yourself. 

In a recent piece, a guest post Muslims Observing Lent and Reading About Jesus for the Catholic paper The Tablet, I explain why there has been such such a buzz surrounding this exciting initiative: 

“Lent is a time of reflection when Christians seek to reconcile themselves with God and their neighbours. This year it has also taken on a special meaning for thousands of Muslims around the world who are taking part in a solidarity initiative to fast alongside Christians.  
Centred around the hashtag #Muslims4Lent, those participating have posted photos of themselves online promising to refrain from something for 40 days: chocolate, Instagram, swearing and even online shopping. 
Muslims4Lent has been particularly appealing to young Muslims who want to be part of a positive movement to counter negative stereotypes and take a proactive stand against the negative events in the world which, partly or wholly, stem from religious tensions.”

Before heading off to read the rest of the piece, here's a collection of some of the motivations and reflections of co-creator Bassel Riche, as well as the heart-warming responses of several Muslims participants:

What led you take part in Muslims4Lent? 

Participant Salma Taher: I decided to take part because I started to notice all Islamphobia around us, the wrong image that people got about Islam that we hate other religions and we don't want to coexist with other religions.

Participant Reem El-Agha: Besides the fact of wanting to support the awesome initiative of a friend, to me, Muslims4Lent seemed like such a simple act that I knew would speak so loudly. Intolerance has become such a big issue, so I loved that Muslims4Lent would emphasize Islam's establishment of tolerance.

How have people in your local community responded to Muslims4Lent?

Co-founder Bassel Riche: The local community has warmly embraced the Muslims4Lent initiative, they are all very excited about the reception it has received. I feel almost all of my friends have participated personally and have expressed personal support and pride at how this has turned into a global movement to show the respect Muslims have of our Christian brothers & sisters. 

Salma: Some were shocked , some where really excited to see if u would last or not, and some of my coworkers who are Christians decided to participate in lent because I decided to do it

Reem: The reactions have been incredibly positive! I've received so much admiration from people of all religions.

What have been your favourite #Muslims4Lent moments so far?

Bassel: Seeing all the tweets and facebook posts from Muslims and Christians alike has been extremely heart warming, but my favorite moments are two fold, 1. The Christians that have been so moved by our initiative that they in turn have discussed participating in a Christians4Ramadan campaign. 2. The private messages from people that have never met a Muslims but have seen/read articles about Muslims4Lent. 

Despite having negative exposure through media they have reached out to have a dialogue which was one of the high hopes for this initiative. We want to be open and accessible to people that may want to ask questions about Islam and our faith, when we put ourselves out there it breaks the invisible barriers that negative stereotypes create, the more dialogue we can have the more people will reject the notion that we are different.

Salma: It's so hard for me to answer this question, because all the media coverage and the awesome feedback from the community is amazing and very overwhelming that finally we are seeing some positive feedback towards the muslim community

Reem: Simply being able to tell those around me who observe Lent that I'm also taking part in their 40 days of fasting. It has brought up so many topics of discussion that end up displaying the similarities between their beliefs and the teachings of Islam.

Has anything particularly moved you?

Bassel: The way this imitative has taken off has shown me that people are eager for clear efforts that jump over the imaginary dividing lines we create between people of faith or differing cultures. Reading blog posts about people that I've never met being extremely touched by the Muslims4Lent initiative. Hearing people share stories about how after posting their Lent solidarity sacrifice picture, it has caused people to approach them and ask questions about Islam and wanting to counter the islamaphobic message that is rampant in the media. 

What has surprised you about Muslims4Lent and its impact?

Bassel: I said to a friend when the campaign first launched, "I'll be happy when someone I don't know nor have asked personally to participate posts a picture" I am surprised by all of this, I never thought this would spread so rapidly and be embraced by so many. There will always be extreme people that want to drive a wedge between people, the reaction to Muslims4Lent is that the majority of people want to see the good in each other. With continued efforts, and by constantly pushing in a public way for interfaith dialogue and positive action I believe we can take away the spotlight that the extremists have hijacked and shine it on the majority of every day people that want to live together in peace and harmony! 

Salma: People's feedback and reaction to this event really took me by surprise with the rise of all the craziness in the news and the world, people still saw the good we are trying to do, they are finally seeing the good in the 99% who practice Islam right.

Reem: Definitely the way people reacted to this initiative as a whole. A simple act can truly make a big difference. It has reinforced my belief that positivity is powerful and only goes on to breed more positivity.

You can find out more about this inspiring initiative in features by The Huffington Post and The Independent, as well as articles in French and Italian

Now over to you! Are you taking part in Muslims4Lent? How has it impacted you this month? 

Saturday, 20 December 2014

Interfaith Education - Esha Chaman on Diwali and Christmas

The following is a piece by one my dear, dear friends Esha Chaman who, as well as being my university housemate both in Leicester and Italy, was also kind enough to give me my first taste of an interfaith event by inviting me to her own away-from-home Diwali party one year. Here she shares her reflections of interfaith events at school and how Diwali and Christmas have shaped her perspective on interfaith and inclusion:

One of my earliest memories of school is when I was five years-old and, at my teachers request, I had to stand in front of my classmates, clutching a purple and turquoise Pocahontas lunch box which my parents had given me the night before as a Diwali present. As I stood awkwardly before the eager-eyed group gathered in front of me, my teacher asked me questions about how I had celebrated Diwali with my family, in attempt to incite some enthusiasm. I replied casually but was secretly thinking about how much I wanted to prise open my new lunchbox. 

In retrospect this was the beginning of my interfaith education in both my primary and secondary education, recognising and celebrating other faiths and religious festivals which were normally outside the school curriculum. Though at the time my interest in informing my peers of the glittering delights of Diwali and Rama’s gallant rescue of Sita was outweighed by the juvenile excitement of my new present, being encouraged to do so was an act of interfaith inclusion of non-Christian festivals.

Thankfully interfaith interaction and inclusion were not only students nervously standing before their peers and mumbling being encouraged to share vague information about their religious festivals. It mostly took a pro-active form in cooking and sharing traditional treats on the school premises, creating decorations for events such as Christmas, Chinese New Year, Easter and Eid Al-Fitr, donating food to homeless shelters for Harvester, and partaking in theatrical productions of the Nativity play. 
One of the biggest events of the school year was International Day; an after-school festival celebrating the plurality of ethnicities and cultural diversity of the student population through dance, feasting, music, and shaky attempts of swirling Henna patterns on many hands which occasionally fell under my responsibility.

As both my West London-based primary and secondary schools were populated with a diverse mix of students of various ethnic origins and nationalities, interfaith inclusion was integral for showing respect towards everyone’s cultural and religious heritage. A conscious effort to recognise other religious and cultural events such as St George’s Day, St Patrick’s Day, Hanukkah, Vasaki and Thanksgiving would be marked by morning assemblies and the school kitchen rustling up themed feasts for the school lunch. The importance of encouraging interfaith interaction within schools at a young age lessens the risk of marginalising non-Christian students, and dissolves barriers that threaten to create segregating binaries of ‘us’ and ‘them’. 
If Britain wants to boast about its triumphant multi-cultural society, the practice of interfaith inclusion outside of Religious Studies within British schools and recognising non-Christian religious festivals is one of the solutions to encourage a cohesive awareness and understanding of the diversity that surround us. Taking into consideration an endless list of extremist groups worldwide who disparagingly dismiss interfaith inclusion through their sheer tyranny, it has become more important than ever for different religious and humanistic communities to converge and integrate with each other in the face of such adversaries.

The legacy of traversing across religious and cultural borders at school has become a normality in my adulthood. And for me in particular the celebration of Christmas is a testament to this. Despite not being a Christian it is normal for me to celebrate Christmas as much as it is to celebrate Diwali. And this is due to the inclusion of the festival I had experienced at school, as well as my own family’s willingness to partake in the festivities and permitting me to do so. Though some people have sneered at this and questioned my eligibility to celebrate Christmas as a non-Christian, the fact is that Christmas in Britain has increasingly become an inclusive and secular event. Also, who could resist the infectious merriment and prospect of gorging on everything from cheese to mince pies? 
 At school the excitement of Christmas parties and the daily distribution of cards never eclipsed the religious significance of the event. Partaking in the Nativity Play and daily carolling were amongst many other ways of recognising the religious story of Christmas, as well as embracing the British celebratory traditions. My own participation in celebrating Christmas has inspired me to encourage interfaith integration in my celebrations of Diwali as an adult. In my last year at university, unable to join my family back in London, I hosted a Diwali party and spent it with my friends, most of whom were non-Hindu. And last year I invited a friend of mine to join me and my family for our annual Diwali celebrations.

My education gave me an everlasting understanding of interfaith inclusion and awareness of different faiths and cultures, which is integral to British society today where differences often take precedence of being pointed out rather than the similarities. The same celebratory principles of gathering with family and friends, sharing, feasting, giving in both a charitable sense as well as presents and jubilation are central to all major religious festivals. Therefore why should we be reluctant to participate in some way, however grand or minuscule the gesture may be? We should be encouraged to listen, learn and participate just as my peers were when I was five, and projects such as Interfaith Ramadan provide much-needed space for this dialogue and practice to take place.

Esha Chaman lives in London, and works freelance as an operator at Al-Jazeera and voluntary contributor for Words of Colour and The Culture Trip. She is a feminist, egalitarian, and culture and travel enthusiast, interested in social politics and international relations. Recent article: A Walk Around Bologna - The Best of Local Culture.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Reclaiming the Radical Feminism of the Qur'an

Several months ago, I came across a call for submissions by Trista Hendren to contribute to her upcoming anthology Whatever Works, an exploration of the relationships between feminism and faith in different traditions, including women's voices from Pagan, atheist, Hindu, and Buddhist traditions. The following excerpt comes from my piece, an essay which explores areas where Muslim Feminism and Christian Feminism converge, the problem of complacency within the Muslim community, and why I consider the Qur'an to be a radically Feminist text. For the full text hop over to Trista's brilliant blog The Girl God.

“As a feminist, how could you willingly subject yourself to such a misogynistic religion?”

It's disheartening to think how many times I've been asked this question since I converted to Islam. However, given my own misgivings towards the status of women in Islam before I became one myself, I'm not completely surprised that some people think calling myself a Muslim Feminist is akin to being a meat-eating vegan. When the majority of Media representation shoehorns Muslim women into either victim or terrorist categories, persuading people that my feminist convictions are given wings by my Islamic faith, as opposed to being clipped by it, is going to be tough.

Feminism and faith have always been closely linked to one another in my mind. I was raised in a household where both of my parents were Protestant ministers and considered equals in their spiritual leadership roles as Salvation Army officers. I was surrounded and greatly influenced by women leading prayers, congregations, and even heading up the church on a national and global scale. Women leading the way in faith has always been my norm. So when I converted to Islam, I found myself at the receiving end of the question: why would you give all that up? 

For the full article, head on over to The Girl God blog.

Update: Later reposted at AltMuslimah. 

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