Sunday, 15 December 2013

The Nativity Scene Through Art History

Christmas is a time when we allow ourselves to indulge in nostalgia and memories of Christmasses past. After writing, On Being Mary, I was reminded of a History of Art talk I was invited to do one chilly Christmas morning several years back. The presentation centred around the Nativity Scene through time, exposing the fib of Mary's iconic blue veil and giving a voice to poor Joseph, woefully neglected through the ages. After a little tweaking, here it is for you! 

It took several hundred years after the birth of Jesus/Isa for Christianity to be adopted as the main religion within the Roman Empire. In the meantime, Christians were persecuted for their faith and any form of worship or use of Christian imagery had to be completely hush-hush. As a result, the main form of art tended to be on secret sarcophagi and in catacombs where the walls were covered in murals and paintings.

The artists commissioned to paint these artworks weren’t necessarily Christian themselves. And for that reason, they didn’t see any problem in just recycling or adapting Roman imagery so sometimes you’d even find bizarre images of Jesus looking like a Roman Emperor. Due to the secretive nature of Christian worship at the time, the artists could rest assured that their controversial fusion of Roman and emerging Christian symbols would remain hidden from those who might seek to arrest them for their efforts.

The paintings and friezes in the catacombs were usually very simple. Typically, they just showed Jesus in a cave, wrapped up inside a wicker basket. While nowadays we think of Mary as a crucial element in the Nativity, in the centuries before Christianity became mainstream, Mary was only ever included in scenes which featured the Wise Men. Poor Joseph was pretty much a no-show for the whole period. And just to make matters worse, Tim Winter (in an incredibly interesting and informative podcast with Vicky Beeching) stated that Joseph was also airbrushed out of the Nativity narrative in the Quran

The baby Jesus wasn't left all on his own though. He was always accompanied by an ox and a donkey. Their presence was based on a Biblical verse: "The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master's crib" (Isaiah 1 verse 3). By the 5th century, Mary had become a fixed figure in the nativity scene following a decision by a council of church officials and the Nativity as we know it today was beginning to take shape. Joseph, as always, relied on the kindness of individual artists as to whether or not he got a look in.

Once Christianity reached the West, the depictions of the nativity began to change. Western artists preferred to place Jesus in the setting of a wooden stable rather than a stone cave. Although to this day, Italian nativities (presepi) choose to create ornate caves for the delicately carved figurines of the Holy family. 

Fast forward to the Early Renaissance and most artworks were commisioned by wealthy patrons to be housed in churches. The rich patrons wanted to show off their wealth with elaborate alterpieces (above) and so the artists would use real gold for the halos and expensive pigments to create dazzling colours.

If you were ridiculously well-off then you could afford the blue pigment used in paintings which came from a crushed up gemstone called Lapis Lazuli. As a consequence, artists began to paint Mary in this expensive blue even though realistically she wouldn't have been able to afford to dye her clothes in such a vibrant colour (below). The general population only wore browns and earthy colours which were naturally available to them.

These patrons also showed their importance by having themselves painted into the picture as figures being blessed by the baby Jesus. In The Donne Triptych by Hans Memling (below), the central panel shows Sir John Donne kneeling in adoration to the Virgin Mary and Child with Saint Catherine, while Lady Donne and their daughter are accompanied by Saint Barbara. The triptych has shutters on the left and right which show Sir John Donne's name saints, Saint John the Baptist and Saint John the Evangelist. Of course, normal peasant folk weren’t allowed to see the inner designs of these triptychs so they would be closed when not in use.

During the Renaissance the Nativity scene went through another transformation. The catalyst for the change in direction was Saint Bridget of Sweden who, in the 14th century, was said to have had a vision of Jesus lying on ground. She wrote:
‘I saw the glorious infant lying on the ground naked and shining. His body was pure from any kind of soil and impurity. Then I heard also the singing of the angels, which was of miraculous sweetness and great beauty…’

Artists really took to the idea of Jesus radiating light because it fitted incredibly well with the style of painting that was in fashion at the time. Artists at the time were showcasing chiaroscuro, the technique of contrasting light and shadow, and even began to paint nativity scenes at night in order to emphasise the stark contrast in shading. In Correggio's painting (below) Jesus is so bright that he lights up Mary’s face and so dazzling that his radiance is blinding the woman near him.

We mark the end of the Renaissance with Caravaggio who was known for causing a stir (to put it mildly!). Even after death, Caravaggio's works continue to be involved in scandal. The painting below is currently the most expensive painting that has been stolen and never recovered (with most accusatory fingers pointing at Mafia involvement). 

When it was created, the painting was rejected by the Church because they opposed the fact that Mary was modelled on a suspected prostitute and most of Caravaggio's models were rather dodgy characters. They also weren't all that keen on Caravaggio's realism which meant that all of the figures had wrinkles and dirty feet. No one wants to see filthy feet in church. Caravaggio liked to make everything look realistic so he set the scenes in contemporary settings with figures dressed in plain brown clothes, shunning costly dyes such as Lapiz Lazuli and omitting the golden halos. 

But the reason Caravaggio painted in that way because he wanted to make paintings that actually meant something to the ordinary people looking at it. He wanted paintings to resonate with the people and so he tried new ways to make the nativity story come to life.

Charles Le Brun - Adoration of the Shepherds (17th century)

From the 16th century, we enter the Roccoco phase where frivolous embellishment became the art world's obsession. Plain Nativities with just the Holy Family went out of fashion and instead the canvases were plastered with people. Chaotic and colourful crowds fill every nook and cranny of the image like a Christmassy Where's Wally. The scenes from this period depict frantic movement as the excited worshippers rush to see the newborn child. 

The abundance of Nativity scenes through history mean that we're able to have a glimpse into how different ages interpreted the Christmas story and reflect on how we view it in a modern setting. It is a powerful image, regardless of whether we're Christian, Muslim, or from a non-faith background. Whether we consider it the beginning of Jesus's life on earth, just a warm and fuzzy story, or a narrative about parents struggling to bring a child into the world in the harshest of situations - the Nativity scene has stood the test of time and continues to have the ability to resonate with us on a very personal level.  

Which featured paintings resonated with you most?
What are your favourite Nativity paintings or images and why?

★  ★  ★

Related Articles: 
A Muslim Celebrating Christmas? 
Rachel Pieh Jones Rethinks the Nativity
The Story of Jesus' Birth Told by the Inhabitants of Bethlehem 

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Being Mary & Embarrassing Nativity Memories

For most Sunday school age girls, there is one honour which is much sought after and incredibly hard to come by. Taking on the role of Mary in the Christmas play is the church equivalent of acheiving Primadonna status in Swan Lake. It's the Holy Grail of the Nativity. A young girl can enjoy being a shining star dressed all in white or an angel adorned with a tinsel halo but really, we all want to be Mary.

I had the distinction of portraying Mary not only once, but three times. I concede that being a ministers' daughter no doubt helped the casting process along, but I'd like to think that it was my earnest portrayal of a cow the previous year that boosted my profile and earnt me the role of Mary. 

I was swathed in a blue sheet and tried to look sufficiently meek and mild while the mischievous shepherds played with their tamagotchies behind the cardboard stable. At fifteen, I returned to a previous church for an encore as Mary. To the surprise of the back row, I produced a pregnancy bump so convincing that one could hear audible gasps as I made my entrance! And finally, when I was eighteen, I acted alongside my brother (as my husband Joseph) and I don't think either of us particulary want to dwell on this awkward event. So, moving on swiftly...

Minimalist Nativity: credit

Any smugness that I may harbour about being Mary is soon expunged by the recollection of a particularly embarrassing Nativity. What happened in that church hall eighteen years ago still haunts me to this day. And it is a fear we all share. 

But first, a little context to set the scene. 

At the age of seven, I was already quite an awkward-looking child. I was a combination of spindly legs and unkempt hair, all bundled into an overly large uniform that I'd been told I would 'grow into.' Despite this, I was a confident youngster and so, as part of the church singing group, I was often a soloist on Sundays and for special events. 

In this particular year, I'd been asked to sing a solo for the Children's carol concert. Halfway through the service, I climbed onto the stage in front of a full hall of children and parents. Thankfully, their faces melted into a big blur once I was under the bright spot light and so I wasn't particularly nervous. I'd done it before so it wasn't a big deal. 

The music started and I began to sing a popular Sunday school song from back in the day called , 'I'm Special.' I was halfway through the rendition when suddenly my eyes began to bulge and my nostrils flared at the horrific realization that I had no idea which words were coming next! After what felt like an eternity of being frozen on stage, the kind pianist began to sing along with me and eventually I found my way back to something half resembling a melody. Red-faced and traumatised, I scuttled off the stage as soon as it was over and buried my head into my tambourine ribbons!  

★  ★  ★

Having shared my Nativity ups and downs and, I might add, feeling much better for doing so, I'd love to hear about your Nativity Experiences, both the good and the disastrous! 

Which characters did you portray and who did you secretly want to portray? 
Were there any embarrassing moments during your school or church productions? 

Upcoming post: 'The Nativity Through Art History' - An investigation into the paradoxical blue of Mary's iconic veil and a revelation about Art History's unjust treatment of Joseph.

Updated Post: A Muslim Celebrating Christmas? 

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Being Interfaith Literate: A Guide to Online Interfaith Etiquette

Today you can find a recent article of mine over at the Christian Muslim Forum blog, a wonderful interfaith organisation that I've enjoyed being involved with for some time now. The article focuses on the necessity of being Interfaith Literate and explores the etiquette of interfaith conversations, particularly within an online setting.

Here's the introduction (click here to skip to the full article): 

"One criticism occasionally directed at Interfaith Dialogue is that it has the potential to involve a lot of theoretical chit-chat with little substance or practical application in the real world. Open and constructive communication is, however, the foundation of good relationships between people of different faiths. It is the basis of everything that follows. If we’re not able to speak to people who uphold different beliefs without getting red-faced and in a huff then any sort of joint Interfaith event or venture will be rendered impossible. For that reason we have to become Interfaith Literate. This means understanding the potential effects of the words we use, learning to use inclusive language, and developing ways of diffusing negatively-charged conversations..."

The article goes on to look at different ways of approaching interfaith interactions, from being prepared for disagreement to ways of showing respect to someone you disagree with. 

I'd love to hear your views on the full article

Are there any points that are missing or that you disagree with? 
How do you cope when an interfaith conversation goes pear-shaped?  

Previous Post: Converts Crossing the Gap of Misunderstanding
Next Post: A Muslim Celebrating Christmas? 

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Converts Crossing the Gap of Misunderstanding (for MuslimGirl)

I'm delighted to share my first article for with you.  The site is dedicated to promoting young muslim women's voices so that they are no longer considered to be at the fringe of society but right smack in the middle of it. Their aim is to create awareness of the Qur'an's message of gender equality and 'pave the way towards a world in which every woman can raise her head without fear of being attacked for her gender or beliefs.' I'm incredibly excited to be involved with such wonderful writers, artists, and activists. 

Here's a snippet from my first article: Converts Crossing the Gap of Misunderstanding
"Converts are in a unique position to clarify misconceptions. They have crossed the invisible frontier between two faiths and have experienced both in a very real sense. They know all too well the criticisms hurled at each religion. No doubt they’ve asked themselves the same probing questions as they patrolled the in-between spaces. Interrogating their faith in the illuminating darkness of the night."

For more, head on over to
MuslimGirl.netIf you haven't come across the site before, I've cherry picked some of my favourite aritcles which caught my eye recently:

Amani on Muslim Girls and Alcohol
Laila Alawa on ‘Side Entrance,’ a Topic that has been Silenced for Too Long
Ainee Fatima: The New Pakistani Cartoon The Burqa Avenger: Denying The Western Gaze 

Previous Post: Fennel, Hobs, and German Espionage: Tea Culture in Italy

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Tea Culture In Italy

Given the large collection of tea which was stuffed into my rucksack as I boarded a plane from Stansted to Bologna last week, it would be fair to surmise that I have somewhat of an obsession with tea.

All week I've been handing out teabags as gifts to students, awarding them as prizes, or using them as visual aids in class. I also used the occasion to check my students' knowledge of vocabulary and verb tenses by asking them to narrate my actions as I prepared a cup of tea during a class.

Despite living in the land of the iconic espresso, it's time to address the question, how does the humble cup of tea feature in Italian culture? If indeed, at all.

When do Italians drink tea?

There's a wide-spread belief that no self-respecting Italian would willingly choose tea over coffee unless there's a sound reason for it. Perhaps your workplace has hot water facilities but no coffee machine (indeed "you should get a coffee machine" is a commonly overheard remark at my workplace) or you're feeling unwell somehow and therefore unable to drink coffee for health reasons. These are both acceptable conditions for choosing tea over coffee.

In Italy, tea is commonly associated with sickness. For this reason, tea is a homeopathic concoction usually consumed at home rather than when you're out and about. It's main role is relaxation rather than perking people up and so camomille occupies a large proportion of the tea aisle in all its physical forms: powders, soluble tablets, syrups, and loose dried flowers.

Tea is inextricably related to the digestion of the Italian nation. Half the minimalist tea sections in Italian supermarkets are aimed at the digestive system. In particular, the shelves are lined with locally produced fennel teas. And just a sidestep away from the anise-flavoured teas, you can find rows of detox tisanes, weightloss blends, and green teas which are becoming increasingly popular among the health conscious.

As a side note, pay attention to ingredients if you're not a fan of fennel, anise, or liquorice. You'll find this flavour in practically everything: sweets, ice creams, biscuits, pizza, salads, and chewing gum. There have been so many times when I've begun nonchalantly nibbling on slice of onion only to find that it's actually a hefty piece of fennel!

Which teas can you find? 

When I ask Italians which black teas they drink,  they usually refer me to Twinings English Breakfast, Liptons or Prince of Wales tea. Neither teas are what I'd consider everyday brews along the lines of Tetleys, PG tips or good old Yorkshire tea.

Other tea brands usually have English sounding names like 'Lord Nelson' but these are more often than not they are German products masquerading as English ones. These black teas are rather weak and rarely merit the title of black. They would more accurately be described as beige. Then again, without milk they are often more bitter than an English cuppa.

How do Italians make tea? 

In Italy, the stove is king. So much so that small apartments often forego an oven. All is you need is pasta anyway, right?

The stove is used for preparing espresso and for boiling water for hot drinks. Kettles are not considered essential household items here unlike in the UK where it's the first item students smuggle into their halls of residence. Kettles are available in shops but few people have them or if they do, they rarely use it for tea.

In fact, I sent my husband out to buy a teapot this week and he came back with a whistling kettle for the stove because it had been given the name 'teiera' in Italian which is the same name given to teapots!

How do Italians serve tea? 

Italians usually serve cups full of hot water with a choice of tea bags and a slice of lemon on the side. But to a British mind, black tea with lemon sounds incredibly bitter as we're used to balancing tea with sweet dairy. Without that counterbalance, one could argue that Italians are actually more die-hard when it comes to tea. An English person would most likely turn their nose up at straight black tea or say it was disgusting.

Does your country have a strong tea culture?
What varieties are available? 
How is the tea served? 

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

A Scottish Harvest and Community Celebration | Judy Hamilton

To round off this week's Harvest series, Judy Hamilton from Fife (@judyinfife) has kindly agreed to share her experience of traditional Harvest festivities in Scotland and explain how her local community comes together to rediscover the value of fresh local produce.

How do you celebrate Harvest?

I have always attended traditional services. I love to sing hymns like "We plough the fields and scatter" and "Bringing in the sheaves". The children used to parade a harvest basket of fruit at that time. The fruit and veg was distributed to what our church call the "shut-ins" (!), elderly people in the community. This year, we have been asked to bring tinned or dried goods and these will be distributed through food parcels at the foodbank.  

How does your country celebrate Harvest? Are there any local traditions?

One 'Fife' tradition is to place a piece of coal on the altar, as this is a former mining area and this tradition celebrates what comes from the ground. We also have a Wheatsheaf made of unleavened bread. (I'm not sure of this tradition). Maybe it's just "because we've always done it." 

Do you celebrate Harvest in a religious context? Are there any special traditions you enjoy?

My church is the Salvation Army and the celebration of harvest is very traditional. From the Old Testament invocation to bring your first-fruits before The Lord." At Sunday school today, I spoke to the children about how seeds grow into lovely food for us to eat, through God's provision. We thank God - And remind children how we have a responsibility to look after the earth, and to share what we have.

How does you local community celebrate Harvest?

Last week we had a Harvest Food Festival day at a local Family centre which has allotments (looked after by the Dad's project). We were joined by 'celebrity' chef Christopher Trotter, Fife's Food Ambassador. He did interactive cookery demonstrations showing how to make cheap soups, parsnip & apple, beetroot, and a broth using various chard, onions, potatoes, carrots etc and only adding stock (bouillon?) and turmeric.

Chef Christopher met up with parents in the morning and went to the allotments, giving advice on what to pick and assisted in selecting produce. There were beetroots, parsnips, onions which were already picked and drying, potatoes, leeks, and windfall (free) apples. 

There was also the opportunity for kids to make and eat fruit kebabs and an interactive table, where you could make crumble using fresh fruit and fresh fruit smoothies. A stall from Sustainable Fish was there to encourage children to eat oily fish, with easy recipes that you could try there and then.

So, it was really a celebration of local, cheap food and a learning experience for families to try easy recipes together. That was a new experience for me, but felt like a true "Harvest Celebration" with all the community coming together and learning about the food that's on our doorstep.

Previous Posts: Harvest in Rural England and Thanksgiving in Canada and Harvest in a Tin?

Monday, 14 October 2013

Harvest in Rural England and Thanksgiving in Canada | Alastair McCollum

Following on from last week's article Harvest in A Tin? I'm very pleased to be sharing several interviews based on the theme of Harvest. Today, Alastair McCollum (@revdal) shares his experience of Harvest in a rural English setting which he also compares with Thanksgiving in Canada. 

How does your country celebrate Harvest? Are there any local traditions?

Where I am now (Canada) has a Thanksgiving Holiday, but not harvest, as such.  Unlike the USA, which remembers the early settlers and has a nationalist vibe (not that it's necessarily a bad thing to be proud of one's nation) Thanksgiving in Canada is much more about thinking about the bounty of nature and of working in harmony with one another and the world around.

In my last group of parishes I was in a rural context in England - there harvest was a key celebration in the Church and village year - where we had harvest festivals in every church, no matter how small the community, and indeed in every school. We also had other events such as harvest suppers and harvest lunches.

Do you celebrate Harvest in a religious context? Are there any special traditions you enjoy?

The Church here will celebrate thanksgiving, I have yet to experience that. In Rural England there are Harvest festivals in most Churches, even (in my past experience) in Churches which are no longer used regularly for worship. I have tended to use the Scriptures set for harvest by the lectionary of the Church of England, along with a version of what is called the 'Service of the Word' with special prayers.

I noticed in the past few years a move back to celebrating the farming community and the providers of our food and goods.  In very rural areas the farmers were invited to be an active part of the service, which included reading the Scripture lessons and/or prayers and talking about their lives as farmers within the service. 

This went hand in hand with the celebration at the start of summer, the Rogation festival, which also marked part of the agricultural year.  I should also say that I love the fact that the celebration of harvest is always an all age friendly service in the Churches I have served.

If you collect food/donations, are they going to a particular charity/project this year?

We are having a Thanksgiving 'underwear drive' here in Victoria, BC, with underpants and socks being collected for one of our local homeless charities. In England I noticed a move away from taking a harvest offering of (mainly) fresh produce and then distributing that to local people who might appreciate it, particularly the elderly, to a more practical offering. 

Churches would either auction off the goods brought and give the money to charity (often one associated with homelessness) or just ask for financial offerings to give away, or encourage parishioners to bring tinned/dried goods that could be passed on to homeless shelters or food banks.

Do you celebrate Harvest as a family?

Here we have been invited to a number of thanksgiving meals - the turkey, yams and pumpkin pie based celebrations which many would associate with Thanksgiving in North America. In England we used to go to at least one Harvest meal/event as well as attending Church and School services for Harvest.

Personally, what do you reflect on during Harvest? Does it have special meaning for you?

I would always take the idea of Thanksgiving as being at the heart of any marking of harvest - an acknowledgement of our riches, particularly in the West, and a reminder that we have a part in a just and equal sharing of all that God has given us.  

Though I have encouraged a local celebration, with local people involved, I have also tried to add a global perspective and a reminder that this world is interconnected, and that the wealth of some countries comes at the price of poverty in others. I have been very pleased by the materials produced by agencies such as Christian Aid and Tear Fund to mark harvest in the past few years and tried to include the idea of a 'Harvest of Justice' in my own preaching at Harvest.

Alastair McCullum is the rector of St. John the Divine in Victoria, BC. He has worked as a pastor in the UK and now lives in Canada. You can find him at @RevDal.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Harvest in a Tin?

The arrival of a fresh breeze and light drizzle in Bologna signalled the end of a blisteringly hot Italian Summer. The wardrobe's contents have been exchanged with those of the boxes under the bed, the oven has become the central focus of the home once more, offering tray after tray of roasted root vegetables, and at last the awkward period of playing chicken with the central heating is over!

I always loved Harvest weekend at church as a childThe choir would sing a merry little song about fluffy cauliflowers and sleeping broad beans and, if you were really lucky, you could eat the portion of celebration loaf which featured an edible mouse! 

The tables at the front would be draped in red cloth and covered in an assortment of fruit and vegetables which the congregation had brought in. Big fat marrows, plump squashes and, of course, several obligatory tins of pineapple chunks and cream of chicken soup were all lined up ready to be distributed to families in the community who needed a helping hand. 

 Bologna Fruit Stall (Photographer: Naomi Fines)

In an urban context, tinned food can seem cold, sterile and a far cry from the traditional image of a bountiful Harvest overflowing with ripe produce. Tinned goods never feel particularly special despite the fact that they are often specifically requested by charities because they are easily stored and distributed to those who need them.

In fact, several of the people I asked about Harvest this year responded that the festival didn't particularly resonate with them because they felt so removed from the rural origins of the festival. They also cited the  fact that most of us are no longer dependent on produce from within the local community. Instead, we're are surrounded by exotic fruits virtually all year round. We think nothing of eating oranges and bananas every day even though they've probably travelled more air miles than most of us travel in a whole year. It's incredibly difficult to feel thankful for something that we so often take for granted. 

Come to think of it, although these lyrics are sung joyfully in churches every year, how many of us have actually 'ploughed the fields and scattered the good seed on the land?' Most Harvest songs and readings tend to look back with nostalgia at the good old days and celebrate a lifestyle that most of us have never truly experienced. With that in mind, it's understandable that some people view Harvest as a bit of a nothing festival. Without a personal connection to the land and the food that grows within it, Harvest loses its heart and purpose. As a result, we struggle to relate our experience of the world with the descriptions we hear in song and scripture. 

Does that mean Harvest is outdated and should be done away with? Or are there ways in which we can celebrate Harvest in a meaningful way within a modern setting? 

Let me know your thoughts! 

★  ★  ★

Come back later this week when there'll be several interviews shedding light on Harvest in various contexts, looking at it from both rural and urban perspectives, and exploring traditions from Scotland, Canada, and various Christian denominations. 

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Eid the Oddity

Eid is an oddityIt's the only celebration I know where built-in sadness comes as standard. In the last few days of Ramadan you could sense a collective near-audible 'nooooooo!' as the month wrapped itself up to go into storage for another year. In that respect, Eid is essentially mourning the loss of Ramadan

Nearly a fortnight has passed since Ramadan ended. The hundreds of Instagram pics of sparkly Eid outfits, daylight espressos, and mehndi patterns are long gone. 

What's left in their wake is a choice: to make an active effort to continue good habits or to slide back into the old ones. In theory we all want to do the former, but without the communal support of Ramadan it's really tough to maintain the necesary motivation. It's much easier to feel connected to God during Ramadan because everything is geared towards that goal. The months between each Ramadan are where the real struggles take place.

My personal aim is to establish a better prayer/work routine when I go back to teaching this weekA hectic work day means that if I don't programme prayer times into my daily schedule alongside lessons, I'm likely to get caught up in activities and simply forget. All-too-late realizations or mad dashes to the bathroom just don't cut the mustard so inshAllah with a bit of forward-thinking I'll be able to resolve this problem. 

What are your personal aims for the coming months? 
Which Ramadan habits do you find a challenge to maintain?

★  ★  ★

Remember To Make Dua

Seeing the horrific footage coming from Egypt has led to an overwhelming sense of sadness and anger at the injustice of what's happening. Although we may feel utterly helpless, we are all able to offer prayers for those who are affected, for the families of the people who have died and for those who face ongoing persecution. InshAllah the situation in Egypt, and other conflict-torn countries, will be resolved so that the people can feel safe again and have their voices heard and respected. 

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Lessons Learned From An 'Imperfect' Ramadan

There's no such thing as a perfect Ramadan. Inevitably, you fail to tick every item on your pre-Ramadan to-do list. You didn't reach your reading targets, ring all the people that you intended to call, or you weren't generally as productive as you would have liked. Back in April, Ramadan seemed like such a mammoth period of time. But now you realize thirty days just isn't enough! 

Despite all this, I'm so incredibly thankful for my 'imperfect' Ramadan. Thinking back, I can see that the down days often led to increased spiritual awareness and the most sincere prayers. Becoming more aware of my own faults allowed me to learn humility and be more open to the words of the Quran and inspiration from unexpected sources.  

Writing everyday during Ramadan has been a challenge and a half but I've received so many blessings from it Alhamdulillah. I've made many new friends and I've received continued support and encouragement from so many people. I may not be able to mention you all by name but I'm incredibly grateful to you for taking the time to read, comment, and support this project in its first year. I hope that you've found inspiration from the series and perhaps even developed new friendships as a result. 

Special thanks go to Julian Bond (from the Christian Muslim Forum), Peter Adams, Hind Makki, and Najeeba Syeed-Miller for all their encouragement, insights, and help during the last month.

★  ★  ★

I'd like to thank all of the guest writers and contributers to the #InterfaithRamadan series. 

A big thank you to John Ager, my father (and long suffering tech advisor), for kicking off the project with his article: Interfaith Dialogue and the Role of Social Media

Thank you to Saadia Faruqi who kindly volunteered to contribute a four-part series based on her experience of Interfaith iftars in Houston, Texas.

Many thanks to Hethr (aka Delusional Mom) who entertained us with her interview answering questions about Ramadan Chaos, Children and How Non-Muslims Respond to Fasting

★  ★  ★

I'm delighted to update you on the progress of Nye Armstrong and A Minor Memoir's Charity:Water campaign. Not only did they surpass their initial target of 10,000 dollars but they've now gone well above and beyond 20,000 dollars and as a result over 1,000 people will have access to clean water and it will cut the distance to fetch water to half an hour. I was also really inspired by the staff of charity:water who fasted for the final ten days of Ramadan in solidarity with this campaign. They're amazing!

You can still donate to their campaign until October. Do check out their two-part series of interviews here where Nye and Rebecca speak about Charity in Islam and their Ramadan Experiences

★  ★  ★

Thanks to Lee Weissman for his thought-provoking article Closeness and Cheerleading the Good focusing on Ramadan from a Jewish perspective.

I was challenged by Wes Magruder's provocative article: From Dialogue to Activism and I'm incredibly thankful for his own blog series this Ramadan which was so helpful to me personally. 

Many people enjoyed Steve Rose's account of How Social Media Taught Him About Islam and I'm so happy that he shared his reflections as part of this series.

This week, I was delighted to feature both Lucy Johnson speaking about the exciting new #InterfaithFriday initiative In A Gentle Way We Can Shake The World and Raheema Caratella's ode to Leicester as a Beacon of Interfaith Harmony.

★  ★  ★

If you're not ready to say goodbye to Ramadan yet, I'm pleased to say that 
there will be several more Interfaith Ramadan posts in the next few days. 

In the mean time, I'd love to hear which were your favourite Interfaith 
Ramadan posts and if you have any suggestions for next year. 

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Shared Traditions of Sacrifice and Worship - Saadia Faruqi

A priest, a rabbi and an imam walk into a room… and talk scripture. Although not a joke, the opening of this sentence has an impact nevertheless for those who read it and imagine a scene with three religious leaders coming together for conversation. As part of my series on Interfaith Ramadan events at my mosque in Houston, TX, here is a description of a panel symposium on fasting held this week that brings home the message that practices may be different, but goals and dreams are the same no matter who we are.

Our Imam invited three speakers to participate on the panel: a Jewish rabbi, a catholic priest and an expert from our own mosque community. The topic was Ramadan: Shared Traditions of Sacrifice and Worship and the goal of the symposium was to highlight the fasting traditions of the three Abrahamic faiths. The purpose: to remind us all that we are more similar than different, that if we remove the theology all religions teach pretty much the same thing.

After the usual Quran recitation and welcome address, each speaker was given 5-7 minutes to explain fasting in his or her tradition. The Rabbi gave an excellent talk about the Jewish practice of fasting for 24 hours on Yom Kippur, resulting in many Muslim guests being reminded that Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) used to fast on Ashura (the tenth day of the Islamic month of Muharram and the day when Prophet Moses freed his people from the Pharaoh) in order to show solidarity with our Jewish cousins. The Christian speaker, a Catholic deacon, spoke about Lent and discussed the aspects of fasting according to Christianity. The Muslim speaker of course explained the basics of Ramadan and the purpose behind it.

The gist of each speech and the entire symposium was the realization that Judaism, Christianity and Islam all have not only fasting in common but the aim of becoming closer to God through sacrifice, worship, devotion, prayer and charity. The symposium also included a question answer session, and brief addresses by representatives of other religious groups such as Hindu, Sikh and other Christian denominations. The Imam offered a final thank you and led the audience in silent prayers. Everyone then broke the fast, prayed and ate dinner together.

While my women’s interfaith Iftaar events average 5 non-Muslim guests, by the grace of God this symposium was attended by close to 70 guests and the same number of Muslim members. Numerous guests approached me afterwards to offer congratulations and gratitude at a job well done. Needless to say the event organizers were ecstatic at such a wonderful response! For those who wanted to improve Muslim relationships with other faiths, and who wished to remove stereotypes of Islam in the community, it was a great day. 

For me, while those issues are important, the moral of the story was slightly different. I understood that interfaith activities that center on a common theme such as fasting have far-reaching effect beyond the immediate. When men and women of various faiths – or even no faith – meet to learn about each other, share food and drink with each other, and discuss their beliefs and practices in a non-threatening way, something wonderful happens. We see that we are all God’s children, who try to please and worship Him in our own special way. We plant the seeds of tolerance and goodwill that grow into lush greenery in the hearts and minds of not just those who attend these events but also their children and families. God be praised!

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Saadia Faruqi is an interfaith activist, speaker and writer specializing in American Muslim issues. She blogs at Tikkun Daily and is editor of the Interfaith Houston blog. Follow her on Twitter @saadiafaruqi

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Link of the Day

Even before the animation Burqa Avenger had aired, it had already raised eyebrows and caused controversy. When I watched the first episode however, all my preconceptions melted away and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I can only imagine the positive effect it could have on young minds in Pakistan. It reminds us all of the importance of education, something we so often take for granted. 

Here's the first episode: 

I'd love to hear your thoughts below! 

Monday, 5 August 2013

Leicester: A Beacon For Interfaith Harmony - Raheema Caratella

This is a post in the Interfaith Ramadan series. Articles written by contributors from diverse faiths and none will published every day throughout the month of Ramadan.

I'm delighted to share one of the loves of my life with you today. It may not make headlines across the globe, unless you've been reading about the recent discovery of King Richard III's skeleton, but I've got a huge soft spot for Leicester, an unassuming city in the middle of the UK. Even though I only spent three years there as a student, it made such an impact on me that I've referred to it proudly as my adopted home town ever since.

One of the most striking features of Leicester is that is is considered a model of multiculturalism. When you walk down the High Street, you see a snapshot of the world in all its glorious diversity. And what's so heart-warming about the city is how the inhabitants embrace this diversity as part of their identity, something which makes them stronger as a community. Jawaahir Daahir, who came to Leicester as a Somali refugee, said,
'Here in Leicester you feel a sense of belonging. You are not a foreigner, you are not an outsider. The society and the system acknowledge you and consider you.' (source)

Leicester is home to many different faiths and there are well established interfaith relationships between the different faith groups. Today's guest writer Raheema Caratella is a member of a new interfaith initiative in Leicester which she is going to share with Interfaith Ramadan today:

Raheema and her family

I am a British Muslim, mother of two and firm believer in Interfaith relations. Since being involved in this field for the last three years I have myself deepened my understanding of Islam. 

 "At the heart of healthy interfaith faith engagement is a triple dynamic; going deeper into your own faith, deeper into each other’s and deeper into action for the common good of humanity."   - Professor David F.Ford

I have been working as a women’s outreach worker for the Christian Muslim Forum for the past year in Leicester (See video: Leicester Women of Faith Directory). The Forum provides a platform for both Christian’s and Muslim’s to come together and develop dialogue, friendship and discuss sensitive issues at the heart of both religions. The Forum ( has many ongoing initiatives across the country that engage both religious leaders as well as lay people. The Forum has grown in strength through its public activities but also in the online arena with very active Facebook group and speedy tweeting.

People of all Faiths get involved in the work of the Forum, only last week a Hindu lady thanked me for inviting her to the reclaiming of the St. Georges Flag, this event on St. Georges day was to really highlight the fact St. George should be a figure of national unity and pride and that we were demanding him back from groups that promote racism and extremism. We wanted to stand up against the hijacking of a national hero by those who promote Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and other forms of discrimination.

My more recent work has been with women, connecting women in a community can have great impact. For the past six months I have been producing an online directory of groups, services and projects available for Women of Faith in Leicestershire.

I have thoroughly enjoyed being involved in this initiative, I have met such beautiful women who give so much to their communities most of the time in a voluntary capacity, when their work goes unnoticed they continue to strive tackling some of the issues at the core of communities which can also go under the radar. We want our women to have a voice as innovators, change makers and nurturers.

At a recent launch of the directory we had 80 participants, inspirational speakers both male and female who spoke about taboo issues such as women in places of worship and domestic violence.  The Muslim Christian Women’s Network is working with other such groups across our region sharing good practice and inviting people new to interfaith to dip their toes and meet like-minded bubbly women who most of all share food, friendship and faith.  

This Ramadhan has been surprisingly easy for me (Alhumdulillah/Praise be to God) I guess running around after 2 children, working, and praying doesn’t leave much time for the thought of food. Although fasting for Muslims is not about staying hungry more so it is about becoming closer to our Creator, and Lord. It is a time for reflecting, prayer, and taking action to help those who are less fortunate than us.  Allah knows all my actions and I will be held accountable for my actions so having concern for rights of all of the creation of Allah is also key.

There have been so many Islamaphobic and terrorist incidents that have happened across the UK since Woolwich (May God raise you to a lofty place in Heaven Lee Rigby) I feel really privileged to have been born and brought up in Leicester. Leicester is a real beacon for Interfaith harmony and a great city of diversity and culture. The people in Leicester are committed to building relationships and increasing peace and friendship in our city.

So far this Ramadhan I have attended 5 interfaith Iftars, the first was in a local church with young people from the Leicester Interfaith Youth Hub who hosted members of the church congregation to share Iftar and spread the message of love and peace between faiths. Three were held in a mosque who invited local residents of all faiths to share this annual iftar. 

It has been great to meet new people while at some of the Iftars. I was sat with an 82 year old woman Rose at a Shi’a mosque, the programme included a theatrical peace on the revelations of three prophets, Mosses, Jesus, and Muhammed (peace be upon them) after the performances there was an interactive quiz from the scriptures.

Myself and Rose were discussing answers and both of us were increasing our understanding of each others faith as well as sharing some very common ground. She was a lovely lady who had genuinely come to support her neighbours and represent her church congregation.

My last Interfaith Iftari was hosted by a Multi Faith Organisation and an Umbrella Muslim Organisation. The Bishop of Leicester, who was a speaker at the event, spoke about the continued need for our faith communities to continue to engage with one other without needing an excuse to, or without a significant event at home or abroad being the reason for engagement.

There are only a few days left of this blessed month, a special guest which has increased the love in my heart for Allah, All the Prophets (peace be upon them) and my family. I pray for all of mankind to Allah that he may bestow his mercy and compassion and increase their sustenance.  I thank Allah for all that he has given me and continues to give to me.

★  ★  ★

Links of the Day: Some Leicester Love! 

Sheikh Ibrahim Mogra is a well respected figure within the local community and in the wider context of the UK in his role as the Assistant Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain.

Many Muslim women will already be familiar with my second Leicester connection - Amena Khan. Amena, also known as Amenakin, is a content creator on youtube and runs her own online hijab and clothing store called Pearl Daisy. She also has a boutique in Leicester itself.

Previous Post: Containing God and Sabotaging the Competition

Sunday, 4 August 2013

Containing God and Sabotaging the Competition

In the last few days, I've seen an image making the rounds in Muslim circles and I haven't been able to get it out of my mind. The image shows a table which compares the presence of violent words in the Bible and contrasts that with examples from the Quran with the latter having significantly fewer violent words. I was troubled by the use of this image for several reasons. I want to look at why this particular image is problematic and then focus on the broader implications of these types of comparisons.

The first problem is that all of these words have been taken out of context. For all we know these violent words could be part of verses like 'Thou shalt NOT kill' or 'Do NOT fear the Lord.' It also ignores the fact that Jesus' (pbuh) radical message in the New Testament was to show unconditional love towards the marginalized, the poor, and even people we don't particularly like (like tax collectors!). And considering that we live in a post-9/11 world, Muslims should know all too well the problems of religious texts being taken out of context.

Secondly, on a practical note, the Bible is far bigger than the Quran. Playing the numbers game is like entering a competition where the Bible has one hand tied behind its back. 

It's also worth noting that the written styles of both texts are completely different. The Bible is more narrative driven than the Quran. This means that it features a lot of battles and it goes without saying that these will include violent language. The Quran doesn't have these to the same extent because most of the battles in Islamic history tend to be included in later commentaries, hadiths and historical reports.

The Quran also comes with the expectation that the reader already has an awareness of the events in the Torah and the Bible. It wasn't written in a vacuum and is incredibly intertextual. The Quran features many passing references to Biblical stories but doesn't elaborate on them much in terms of detail. You'll often come across passages like, 'do you remember this event? It was significant because...' or you'll find an account of a Biblical event has been slightly modified.

The most important concern for me is though is that such images do a great disservice to both religions. It’s an attempt to boost the image of Islam, not based on its own merits, but by bringing another religion down. 

Let’s imagine this debate in another context. Imagine a pair of politicians engaged in a political debate. Both decide to adopt negative campaigns to undermine the authority of the other. They hurl insults at one another and pick holes in each other’s arguments. By the end of the debate, the audience has learned very little. They have no idea what each party stands for and leave the debate with a deep distrust for both individuals because they didn't present themselves in a positive way. 

A negative campaign suggests that you have nothing good or worthwhile to say about your own beliefs. The same logic applies to describing your personal faith which should be done based on how it affects your personal and spiritual life for the better. If someone is comfortable with their own personal belief system, there should be no need to discredit another's. 

Unfortunately, religions with a heavy focus on evangelism such as Islam and Christianity often regard the other religion as the ‘opposition.’ This approach means that we forget the purpose of religion – to allow us to enter into a personal relationship with God. 

This brings to mind something that historian Reza Aslan said in the aftermath of the now infamous Fox interview. Many interviews have come to light where Reza speaks about interfaith relationships and his experience of being in an interfaith marriage himself. One particular quote resonated with me when he said, 

'Religion is a language made up of symbols and metaphors which help you define, to yourself and to others, the ineffable experience of faith'

Here, Reza suggests that religion is used for self definition and as a way of presenting our personal experience of the Divine to the world. This can be related to a statement by Bishop John Shelby Spong who claimed that religion is our human attempt to organize and contain God in a way which we can humanly comprehend. He expanded on this idea in controversial comments that he made in 2006.

“The idea that the truth of God can be bound in any human system, any human creed, in any human book, is almost beyond comprehension for me. I mean, God is not a Christian! God is not a Jew, or a Muslim, or a Hindu, or a Buddhist. All of those are human systems which human beings have created to try to help us walk into the mystery of God. I honour my tradition. I walk through my tradition. But I don’t believe my tradition defines God, I think it only points me to God."

You may agree with some, all or none of these ideas. But at the very least, I hope they've made you sit up and think about how we define religion and, by extension, ourselves.

Each individual has to find God in their own way, whether they believe God to be a divine entity or something more personal like a sense of inner peace. For me, my way of approaching God is through Islam but mine is not the only way to reach God. It just works for me. 

God is too vast for any one of us to have a perfect concept of Him, and so we should be careful to avoid criticizing the belief of another who is just as human as we are. Once we extract ourselves from the idea that there is one correct way to reach God, we’re better able to understand each other and the task of fostering positive relationships between different faiths becomes so much easier. 

We are then able to recognize that we're all trying to achieve the same goal – we are trying to make sense of the world around us in order "to help us walk into the mystery of God.”

What are your thoughts on the issues raised in this article?
How do you respond positively to negative arguments about your faith?

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