Thursday, 23 July 2015

Fasting And Feasting, Friendship And Faith

This anonymous post is the final submission in the Interfaith Ramadan 2015 series 

A week of celebrating Iftar with friends and neighbours

At the start of Ramadan, a couple of Muslim friends said they would like to invite me round to break their fast with them at an iftar meal.
I thought about it and said I would love to join their families –but that on the days of each iftar I would also fast from early morning ( to the time of the meal (in the first week it was 9.29pm and by the third week it was 9.22pm). However because of having MS and needing to take tablets I would carry a 500ml bottle of water with me and drink from it whenever I was feeling a bit dehydrated.
Over the last three weeks I have fasted on Mondays and Wednesdays, Setting my alarm for 2.30am and eating a banana and having a long glass of water. Then, would wait until I broke my fast with my friends, later that evening
This week I also fasted on Thursday.
I have spent time with five close female friends - British born Muslims and their children –who brought dishes to share and talked about the choices they had made to wear their Niqabs. We discussed why I had chosen to fast and what I had learnt about it, how to resist temptation, and how I had become aware of others encouraging me in my journey that day. My host J, has a daughter, S, who is in year 6 at the school where I work as a community cohesion coordinator. Unknown to me, A had told her entire class I was fasting and going to spend iftar with her family! As the day went on random children would come up to me and ask if it was true I was fasting and then ask how it was going! One child was going round with a tin of chocolates to share with staff on her birthday (A school tradition). She walked past me saying (I won't offer you one Miss as you are fasting!) Over the meal I asked S why she had told her friends I was fasting –she said –“because you want to understand us Muslims and we respect you “
My second iftar was with a large family of seven children. The oldest and youngest in the family have learning disabilities. The other children helped prepare the meal, ensured their siblings with disabilities enjoyed the family time around the table and talked openly about their faith. A programme was on the TV about giving during Ramadan and I shared about the Christian tradition of Tithing – something they were fascinated to learn about.
Meal three was with a close friend - I went with another friend of mine and we sat and talked with U about what our experiences of faith had been at different times in our lives. I spoke of working in Belfast with Protestant and Catholic young people in the 70’s. U spoke of the difference between Sunni and Shia Muslims and how news reflects the negative rather than positive stories about Muslims . She also spoke about how she had to think hard about how to bring her children up to be strong in their faith but understanding of others perspectives.
We said an Islamic Grace at home number 4 and talked about how as a child I said grace at every meal. Once again the father of the family was astonished that Christians would pray as a family. He said he had never met a Christian (more specifically, white person) who went to church despite having lived in the UK for 20 years. He was happy for his wife and children to come to the interfaith Shadwell lunches to meet people of other faiths.
I went to the home of a Moroccan/Czech family and talked about why the husband had converted to Islam and how he found being an Eastern European Muslim in worshipping in a predominately Bengali mosque. The family had received a notice that they were to be evicted by their private landlord. They have no idea where they will live but we talked about how prayer had helped them cope with uncertainties and times my my own prayers had been answered.
My Somali friends shared about how their faith had kept them strong during two years of particular hardship. Having 5 sons (who all share a room in the two bed 18th floor flat) and knowing I had 4 sons myself, we talked about how to share faith with our children and how to encourage our children to show respect for people of other faiths.
My final iftar was with neighbours. We had invited our Muslim neighbour to come to us for iftar. Our friend was astonished to be invited to a Christians home for iftar and we talked about our lives, our children, our faiths. We were from Ghana, Scotland, Spain, India, and Malawi. At the end of the meal our neighbour trusted us to share her recent diagnosis of cancer and to ask for our prayers.
So what have I learnt through my week of iftars?
I have wondered why I don’t encourage other Christians in their spiritual journeys in the same way my Muslim friends have encouraged one another during Ramadan.
I felt part of a group of people who are on a faith journey
One friend texted me, “thank you for wanting to learn more about our faith and practice” another texted me, “how are feeling –be strong –pray your faith will help you cope with the heat”” I am really happy you have influenced your neighbours and got them to invite your Muslim neighbour we are so often misjudged and these meals give us time to talk about faith and community”
I have learnt to resist temptation – on the day it was 35°C in London I was so tempted to get an ice-cream. Instead I sat in a park and thought more about those without any food.
I enjoyed celebrating meals together with friends and want to invite more of my Muslim friends to mine to talk about Christmas and Easter. I have learnt not to be ashamed or hesitant about my faith but to be open and honest and in sharing with others.
I have thought more about fasting as a spiritual exercises and am investigating the Greek orthodox tradition of twice week fasting.
Would I do it agaim?
Definitely! Already looking forward to next year! Unfortunately I will miss Eid as I am off on holiday this week for two weeks with a Hindu friend – I will be living with her family in Mauritius and so will learn more about sharing my faith and learning from other traditions.

J is a community cohesion worker in East London

Monday, 20 July 2015

Celebrating Ramadan Amid Criticism and Self-Doubt - Katy Niles

I’ve always been one to want to invite everyone …to whatever I was doing. And I’ve seen this strength run through out my life. I can remember all the way back to elementary school. My mom became worried when I spent most of my time around an Albino classmate and one of the more overweight classmates that everyone seemed to shun.

Sounds a little arrogant to be saying this about myself. I feel like I’m blowing my own horn, identifying a characteristic I’ve worked hard to develop. Maybe I was born with this compassionate/inclusive strength. Perhaps my parents and family instilled it in me. Or maybe I should give praise to God/Allah for giving me this trait. I could attribute this part of me to genetics. Or I could even say certain childhood experiences caused me to become empathetic.

Take a step back with me for a moment. Re-read that paragraph.

That’s five ways to make meaning of who I am.

The crazy thing? I’m only talking about something as simple as a personality trait.

How many more ways are there to make meaning of who I am and how I live my life in regards to my religion.

During my Ramadan experience, I’ve thought a lot about what others think of me, of what I think of myself, of what God/Allah must think of me…imposing myself on a different religion, practicing a holy ritual that I don’t technically belong to.

These are some of the things I’ve heard inside my head…
“You’re defacing another’s religion”
“You’re an impostor”
“Don’t make excuses. People worldwide are fasting sunrise to sunset. You can’t even last 5 hours?”
“You’re not capable of this. You haven’t been doing this all your life like Muslims”
“You’re naïve”
“You’re offending Muslims”
“You’re not even doing it right!”
“If you can’t do the whole fast, don’t do it at all!”

The list goes on of what I think others believe about this experience. More ways in which people are making meaning of this experience as they rub elbows with me.

In less than two minutes, we’ve gone through more than 10 ways to explain or make meaning of a personality trait and an event. Just ONE trait and just one event.

For thousands, maybe millions, of years--for however long we’ve had a pre-frontal cortex in our brain (which varies according to your beliefs)—it has been of the utmost importance that we make sense of what we are experiencing.

Something goes on in us psychologically when we have a hard time articulating a difficult circumstance. These meanings help to quell the emotional and psychological discomfort to some extent so that we can continue with life in a healthy way.

I know…I can see you raising your eyebrows at me…you probably think I’m about to explain away religion, humanity’s innate need for structure and raison d’etre.

But I’m not—I’ll be honest, it’s a possibility (as many, many things are). I’m actually going to say that our need, our craving for meaning could very well be the evidence for something Other, something Greater than ourselves—Allah/God/Buddha.

Here’s the rub: among the 6+billion of us, we have very different words and very limited vocabulary for something so ethereal, so infinite and boundless, yet so intrinsic that it connects all of us within and with out.

I know, it’s kind of meta. And lacks a lot of scientific structure, biblical/scriptural/textual evidence. I’m ok with that. But not all people are.

Rumi said, “Beyond right and wrong, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” My Ramadan experience, pardon, OUR Ramadan experience, has been that for me. I’m looking beyond how we make different meanings of our lives, our rituals, our traditions. Because to be honest, I have very little proof my religion is absolutely right (and let’s be extra honest, my beliefs change so frequently anyway as I interact with so many awesome people from around the world). I have my Christian bible, built upon the Jewish Torah. But I can’t say it’s all truth. For me, it’s one way my ancestors have made meaning of their lives and experiences.

Ramadan has been a journey beyond right and wrong, to accept differences in how we experience our lives—understanding that yes, they could all be truth in their own perspective, even though this contradicts many of our holy texts and even our understanding.

A prophet in a text once heard God say, “Your thoughts are not my thoughts. Your thoughts are not my thoughts…for my thoughts are higher than your thoughts, my ways, higher than your ways”.

Our pre-frontal cortices are strong, resilient, and massively complex. But they still can not fathom all the depths this life, especially the spiritual realm.

All of this uncertainty is hard for us to hold. It’s hard to say “both and”, we can believe both ways and more. It doesn’t have to be either or.

Alas, I can feel myself getting on my soap box, and I could go on for so long about this.

Let me step back to say this: The least of my concerns is who is right and who is wrong. What matters is that we have another deep need aside from meaning making. We need each other. We need peace. We need love. “For if we have all of these and have not love, we are but clanging symbols”. We have enough cacophony in the world.

My hope is that we come together, in uniqueness, in our similarities, to bring to each other and find in one another what we are in desperate search for, acceptance, belonging, the familiar “me too” response to a both a global pain and our individual sufferings (is any suffering really individual?) we face due to war, family factions, even the simple yet unbearable grief of normal life events such as death and old age.

To OUR Ramadan experience, for we are all hungry for such things,


"Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing
and rightdoing there is a field.
I'll meet you there. 
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase "each other" doesn't make any sense.” 
- Rumi

Katy Niles is a grad student studying marriage and family therapy, from South Carolina, living in LA, an interfaith Christian. You can fin her on and on twitter @NilesKaty

Holy Juxtaposition! Jews And Muslims Making Meaning 

Saturday, 18 July 2015

Holy Juxtaposition! Muslims and Jews Making Meaning

This post, written by Andrea Hodos, is a continuation of the Interfaith Ramadan 2015 series.

I am a performance artist living in Los Angeles. I am trained in dance, but I love words too much not to use them. In my work, I blend writing and choreography. If it’s a good day in the studio, the movement communicates all by itself. My words can often stand meaningfully on their own, too. Something bigger happens though, if I put my words and my movement together. More meaning. More space for the audience to interpret, imagine, connect. And then . . . if I put my movement & words next to your movement & words? Even more meaning!

This year, as a fellow with NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership forChange, I had the opportunity to experience what happens when you put Jews and Muslims next to one another – intentionally, in conversation, and in prayer – in the City of Angels. It did not disappoint in the “making more meaning” department.

Under the care of gifted facilitators, we spent nine months developing conflict resolution skills and learning about one another and our traditions; we learned about our communities’ sources of fear and frustration as well as points of pride. Interfaith work by its nature, though, is always an opportunity to explore and understand one’s self, one’s own tradition and community with greater depth. I understood this theory going into the experience, but the discoveries were revolutionary for me in ways I could not have imagined. The biggest surprise was how my world expanded when we put our prayers next to one another’s. Why hadn’t I assumed that my m.o. – “juxtaposition creates more meaning” – would work in this arena as beautifully as it does elsewhere.

Perhaps I didn’t think my axiom would pertain because I believe very strongly in the integrity of particular faith systems. I don’t like watering things down. I believe God is Big. Bigger than anything humans might be able to imagine – and I believe there are many ways in. But I have always been cautious of compromising the integrity of my tradition – or anyone else’s. I believe the reason that these systems help us connect with the Divine is that they have been tested (and refined . . . and reformed) over time. I want to be very careful about how I mess with that.

Putting Our Prayers Next to Others Prayers

Many of us in my NewGround cohort came, cautiously and respectfully, to pray together. In short, on our first retreat one of the Jews asked the Muslim fellows arranging prayer rugs if those of us reciting Shabbat afternoon prayers might share the space. Our Muslim cohort members welcomed us generously. We Jews had learned enough about Salat during the retreat that as we prayed, we could hear the words we were coming to know bounce off against our own silent prayers (we did not have a minyan/quorum to be able to pray out loud); many of us were surprised by how the sound and motion of the Muslim prayers amplified our own connection to God. Although the Muslims in the room couldn’t hear our prayers, they could sense the energy created by our movement during prayer, and they also felt our presence intensifying their intention.

Enough of us were excited by these discoveries that we decided to develop a practice of sharing prayer space. We created a project called Two Faiths One Prayer: we would spend an entire day travelling to different locations in Los Angeles for five different prayer services. We worked to align the length and intention of our prayers in a call and response with one another. The prayer leaders for each service worked together to make sure that the integrity of the traditional prayers were not compromised for those of us participating, but that there would be space for the prayers to be recited in relation to one another as well. 

Several of us were filmmakers and produced a film of our day of prayer in the hopes that we might be able to get this idea out into the world – Jews and Muslims could come together to recognize God as One – could praise and submit to God side by side in one of the more vulnerable acts humans can perform – even while in other quarters our peoples seem bent on provoking and killing one another.

Indeed, each of these prayer moments described above did not occur in isolation from the outside world: the retreat I mention above took place three days after several men had used machetes to attack a congregation in prayer inside a synagogue in Jerusalem – after several weeks of particularly loud calls by religious leaders and politicians for Jewish access to the Temple Mount/Haram Al-Sharif. Ironically, the day of our public shared prayer experience, May 3rd, was also the scheduled opening for Pamela Geller’s provocation – an anti-Muslim art exhibit in Garland TX. Omar and I would be the leaders for Maghreb/Ma’ariv at the big City Hall event. 

Omar grew up in Garland and his family still resides there. In the film, you can see the two of us on the train between our afternoon and evening prayers – we are finalizing plans for the coordination of our prayer. We are talking about the finer points of timing the Adhan and the Iqama in relation to the Barchu and the Sh’ma – calls to prayer, calls to one another and calls out the One. Just moments after this scene, Omar began getting texts from his friends and family in Garland. There had been a shooting at the exhibit – housed in the same building where Omar’s high school graduation had been held. He went (and we went with him) into prayer not knowing exactly what had taken place, but knowing that no matter what had happened, his friends and family in Garland were feeling extremely exposed and endangered. This juxtaposition gave our prayers more meaning than we ever wanted them to have.

Credit: Marta Evry

How does putting our prayers together amplify meaning?

Every time we share prayer space, it changes the way I understand my relationship to the world and my relationship with God. One way it does this is by allowing me to reinterpret parts of my tradition which are difficult for me. The end of Psalm 23 speaks of feasting even in the presence of enemies:

You prepare a table before me
    in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
    my cup overflows.
Surely your goodness and love will follow me
    all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord

This is a very significant Psalm in our tradition (and for me personally) for reasons which I won’t go into here, but the part about rejoicing in the presence of enemies is always difficult for me. We recited Psalm 23 as part of our day of prayer. Jews pray only three times a day, so for our project, we decided that as one of the five prayer sessions, the Jews would recite Psalms. Cindy, leading this service, selected Psalm 23 to close our recitation. We had just eaten lunch. We had spread out blankets on the ground and had shared some lovely vegetarian salads and sandwiches. When prayer time came, we shook out the blankets, they became prayer rugs and the Jews moved next to them to recite Psalms while the Muslims prayed Dhuhr. As we came to the words written above, the meaning transformed for me completely. In our context, we had prepared the table for ourselves – together with our purported “enemies” – whom we dearly loved. My world expanded for that moment to a include a glimpse of what Jews refer to as “The World to Come.” Perhaps this is one of the paths that will eventually allow us to “come to dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

Putting our prayers next to one another’s also reveals facets of meaning for me in the parts of prayer which are already my home base. During Ma’ariv, my intention is always focused when I recite the words, “U’fros aleinu Sukkat Shlomecha” (“Spread over us Your Canopy of Peace”). If I am leading Ma’ariv and I add out loud “Guard us in our comings and our goings for Life and for Peace” while I hear my Muslim friends whispering “As-Salaam Alaikum” over their shoulders, the meaning of the prayers expand for me in ways I had only hoped could be possible. And again, while there is real work to do together outside of prayer, I can’t help but wonder if our service, side by side, doesn’t have some sort of impact on the real world. Even if it simply catches people off guard and sparks their imaginations – allowing them to see possibilities where they hadn’t before.

A Final Juxtaposition

I was intending to write about the Iftars which I was honored to attend this Ramadan, all of which included shared prayer space – from large (our NewGround graduation of 300 people from across Southern CA) to intimate (our TFOP Iftar in my house at the conclusion of Jewish fast day) – but it is mid-day on Eid in California; the deadline looms. And as much as I like words – and images, and meaning – the piece is long. It is Eid, and Shabbat is coming soon. Today is Rosh Hodesh (New Moon/New Month) for the Jewish month of Av.

Which brings me to a final meaningful juxtaposition. Today, Muslims celebrate arriving at the end of a month in which – individually and collectively – they focused on cultivating patience and compassion, taming their anger, and other important traits. This year, Eid comes in as Jews are entering the darkest time of our calendar – the nine days leading to Tisha B’av – the commemoration of the destruction of the First and Second Temple in Jerusalem in 587 BCE and 70 CE, respectively. Our tradition teaches us that the Temple was destroyed due to “sinat chinam” or “baseless hatred” and it is now time for us to reflect on that. May this be the meaning we draw from the juxtaposition of these two moments in our calendars: as humans connected to particular traditions, each of which constantly inspire us to do better, our One God has given us the capacity – and the obligation – to DO better. Let’s do it, side by side.

Andrea Hodos is the creator of Moving Torah ( – workshops which use writing, movement and theater to engage Jewish text and story. Now that the NewGround fellowship is completed, Andrea is looking forward to diving into her latest project “Sinai and Sunna: Women Covering, Uncovering and Recovering” – a performance-based inter- and intra-faith exploration. She is also the Jewish facilitator for NewGround’s high school council, MAJIC: Muslims and Jews Inspiring Change.

Two Faiths One Prayer is now an alumni project of NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change. ( You can read more about the project and watch the film by visiting our website ( If you live in Southern California please stay tuned for upcoming shared prayer experiences. If you are interested in adapting this project for your own community, or otherwise want to connect, please be in touch via the website or Facebook!

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