Wednesday, 31 July 2013

The Problem With All This Interfaith Ramadan Marlarkey | Sarah Ager

Over the course of Ramadan 2013, I've been taken aback by the sheer number of people of different faiths (and without faith) who have begun to fast alongside Muslims this Ramadan. There’s pastor Wes Magruder in Texas, the team of #InterfaithFriday in London, and the staff at charity:water in New  York, to name just a few. The latter were so inspired by Rebecca Minor and Nye Armstrong’s Ramadan fundraiser that they decided to fast in solidarity with their campaign. 

As heart-warming and inspirational as these examples of faith-based activism are, there are potential problems with all this Interfaith Ramadan marlarky. 

The main criticism of Interfaith Ramadan activities tends to be that they are almost exclusively on Muslim terms and on Muslim 'turf.' Yes, Muslims go to great efforts to prepare iftar meals, but it’s non-Muslims who have to leave their comfort zone and step into the Muslim world. Muslims extend the hand of welcome, but it’s the non-Muslims during all the leg work. Many of whom are not only observing and asking questions, but actively taking part in the physical fast and the spiritual aspects which that entails.

Then again, one could argue that the Muslim-centric activites of Ramadan are simply addressing the imbalance which is present for the rest of the year. The positive contributions of Muslims are often overlooked or wildly misrepresented in the Media and Ramadan is a brilliant opportunity to facilitate better understanding of Islam. 

Clearing up misunderstandings and teaching people about Islam is called Dawah. The word Dawah though can also be interpreted as the attempt to convert someone. Harsh critics of Interfaith Ramadan have said that it's simply veiled dawah in the latter 'creeping sharia' variety. There's a fine line between education and evangelism which we should be careful not to cross that line. 

Interfaith dialogue is not about throwing a net to catch potential converts. Learning about other religions allows us to gain insight into how others worship, have fellowship with others and, ideally, helps us to deepen our connection with God within our own faith tradition. 

Let's go back to the issue of the possible imbalance between the efforts of Muslims and Non-Muslims during Interfaith Ramadan activities. We have to stop and ask ourselves - how many Muslims would be willing to fast during Lent? (UPDATE: See #Muslims4Lent)

This probing question is aimed first and foremost at myself. Would I be willing to fast for another month? This would mean I’d be spending a sixth of the year fasting? Can I honestly, hand on heart, answer yes to that? Probably not. 

Therein lies a crucial issue for the Interfaith movement to deal with. It goes without saying that one sided gestures don’t get us very far. So, what can be done? 

First, let's look at the differences between Lent and Ramadan. One could argue that Lent is not really the equivalent of Ramadan. First of all, Lent doesn't come with the huge fanfare that Ramadan does, at least not in the UK. Where Ramadan is loud and brash, Lent tends to go under the radar. Those who do fast, tend to do so privately, following the Biblical passage (Mark 6:16-18) which says, 

16 “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you."

A casual observer might see faded crosses on foreheads on Ash Wednesday or dried palm leaf crosses poking out of handbags and Bibles after Palm Sunday but it’s highly unlikely that #Lent will be the trending on twitter every day as Ramadan has been for the last month. It's likely that if a Muslim fasted during Lent as an act of solidarity, there wouldn't be that many Christians to share the experience with. It wouldn't be on the same scale. 

Although fasting is a Christian tradition too and there are those who observe it, nowadays fasting during Lent has mostly fizzled out to giving up a vice such as chocolate or coffee. Giving up something certainly has value and that shouldn't be dismissed out of hand. But I think for many Christians, and I speak from my own experience as a Christian, this act doesn't necessarily come with a deepened sense of spirituality. Sometimes it comes across as just a kickstarter for the Summer diet. 

Although Lent may not currently be the same in terms of widespread fasting, Easter is just as spiritually significant to Christians as Ramadan is to Muslims. Many Christians take on extra devotional study or attend courses during Lent in preparation for Easter. 

Perhaps one way of approaching Lent would be: what can we learn from this Ramadan which we can carry with us into Lent? 

Reading and listening to the experiences of non-Muslims fasting is so uplifting and encouraging for Muslims. For me personally, their efforts and insights have really helped me to make the most out of my Ramadan. Not only does the fresh enthusiasm of non-Muslims re-energize Muslims who are fasting but it also helps Muslims to feel a welcome part of the community. 

Sharing Lent with Muslims and other faiths, could help many Christians regain their enthusiasm for Lent as a truly spiritual preparatory period for Holy Week. Moreover, interfaith events and initiatives, during Christmas and Lent would be just as enriching for Muslims as it has been for many Christians this Ramadan. There's so much that Muslims can learn from the Christian tradition. My own faith would be so much poorer without my prior knowledge of the Bible. 

So we are left with these considerations which we need to mull over, not only with our own religious communities, but as a larger interfaith community:

What can we do, as Muslims, to show solidarity with Christians during Christmas and Lent? What can we do, as Christians, to open the door to Muslims and share the experience of Christmas and Lent?

Previous Posts: #InterfaithFriday: In A Gentle Way We Can Shake The World
Next Post: Falling Head First Into The Ramadan Dip

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

#InterfaithFriday: In a Gentle Way We Can Shake The World

You might already be wondering - what can I do once Ramadan is over? 
How can we continue to contribute to the ongoing process of interfaith dialogue and activism? 

Today's article might be the answer that many of you are looking for. I'm very excited to be sharing a new interactive initiative with you called #InterfaithFriday. London-based educator and writer Lucy Johnson tells us more!  

★  ★  ★

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, 
there is a field. I will meet you there.” Rumi

A journey at any time through a city as vast and sprawling as London is a series of encounters with people we probably don't know. On first appearances it may seem as if we have little or nothing in common. I am white, middle-class, in my late thirties, Christian, not originally from London and, up until three months ago, had never stepped foot inside a mosque.

Sometimes, cutting through the polite façade that pervades Britishness, comes something ugly; Mahatma Gandhi, ever the master of touching the heart of the matter, tellingly called this 'pocketing the insult': the moment when something is said or done that pierces through your very being and leaves you with either a burning sense of invalidation, or at its worst, a powerlessness that turns into apathy and resignation. Over there is 'Them'; over here is 'Us'. What can be done in the face of such ignorance, we ask with a look upwards.

I would assert that, for nearly every one of you reading this article, at some point in your life something has happened that falls in to this category. Either a slight has been made to you personally about who you are or what you represent, your family heritage, or something has happened to others that shook your resolve. 

When an event takes place on the scale of tragedy such as events in London which took place in Woolwich, or in Muswell Hill, or looking further back to 7th July 2005, or September 11th 2001, dates inscribed indelibly onto our hearts, the commitment of an entire nation can get thrown into chaos as people react and counter-react. Social media implodes into life as opinions fly around the world. The network of conversations can become saturated with fear, hatred and mistrust.

Hatred is as old as Adam. The choice to hate is inside each of us and part of our frail humanity. It starts wars, it has us waving placards and sends us on to the streets to 'stand against' others, who seem all too willing to square up to us in return; it sends men out armed with knives; it sends people home in boxes to their families. Who would dare even attempt to break through the habit of all humans - to be right? Surely only a fool would try.

“The foolishness of God is wiser than men, 
and the weakness of God is stronger than men. ”

St.Paul's Letter to the Corinthians  1:25

I suggest that, contrary to how it may look, in London there has always been and is currently a vast majority of people who wish nothing more than peace, unity and goodwill towards each other. They have shown this consistently, whether seen or unseen. Regardless of background, faith or no faith, in spite of whatever differences between us there may seem to be on the surface, one common thing is indisputable and the future of London rests upon it entirely: we are all human. 

If taking the view that there is nothing separating us appears naive or even stupid, then there is a significant group of people, transcending nations and generations, who are willing to look foolish in honour of a universal truth that sets people free. Consider (or if you ever forgot, remember): there is no Them/Us. There is only Us. It is the singular declaration that laces itself through every holy book, every prophet's words. “Love thy neighbour.”

Asking people to put their opinions and differences to one side to see the common humanity in each other is exactly what the #InterfaithFriday project asks you to do. #InterfaithFriday is not an organisation, but a conversation. The vision behind it is simple enough. I see a London where racism is a conversation for history books. And I see that possible within our lifetime. It is not a new or radical vision and the means by which it can be achieved is already known to us all. 

The books in which the answer is contained have already been written and we hold them in our hands. Every time we humble ourselves to know another human being we not only do God's work but we alter the predictable future of misunderstanding, fear and retaliation. Given what is at stake, namely our safety, our honour and our peace, there has never been a more important time to create a new conversation with strangers for what is possible in London.

For Londoners, the opportunity is there to take action; cause a new conversation to trend around the city and replace the barrage of mistrust and fear; go visit each other on a Friday, find some way to worship or dialogue together, wear blue to show peace, and tweet, blog or Instagram the photos, stories and encounters with a single hashtag: #InterfaithFriday. 

It should no longer require a tragedy to bring about a transformation. As the phenomenon catches alight in people, there could come a tipping point: imagine London being a sea of blue every Friday. 

Imagine the internet flooded with images of Londoners standing peacefully together. New connections and understanding made, old friendships and the communion of decades made visible. It is neither fanciful, nor wishful thinking, to speculate the impact on people's lives from the simple act of giving peace a colour once a week, and showing the world.

#InterfaithFriday invites you to take it on.

“In a gentle way, you can shake the world.” Gandhi

★  ★  ★

Lucy Johnson is a musician, educator and author of the blog #InterfaithFriday.

Previous Posts: When A Time-Travelling Viking Met Jesus (A linguistic take on God vs Allah)
Next Post: The Problems With All This Interfaith Ramadan Marlarkey 

Monday, 29 July 2013

When a Time-Travelling Viking Met Jesus

The way we perceive the world is influenced by the language we use to describe it. The languages we speak are a linguistic filter, which affect our ability to define what we see and understand from our surroundings. Language is our operating system so to speak. Inevitably, we are often led into thinking that our own language is the best and most efficient. Much like the smugness of an Ubuntu user who has evaded the clutches of Microsoft Windows!

All languages are best equipped to serve the particular needs of their own speakers. They are the product of the specific history and culture of the people who use it and are uniquely equipped for the needs of that community.

But why am I speaking about linguistics? Where does the Viking come into all of this?

I began to reflect on the semantics of certain words after I was challenged about my flippant tendency to use the word God and Allah interchangeably. I was informed that I was wrong. The God of Islam and the God of Christianity are two separate entities and I should stop trying to pull the wool over people’s eyes and come clean about it.

So here I am. Telling it like it is.

The word God is the most commonly used word for the Divine but the word is actually relatively new in the context of Judeo-Christianity. ‘God’ certainly wouldn't have been a word uttered in the Holy Land back in the days of the Pharaohs, Israelites, and Romans.  

Jesus (peace be upon him) certainly wouldn't have used an Old English word like ‘God.’ Unless of course he had somehow stumbled across a time-travelling Viking who happened to be strolling by the sea of Galilee! As extraordinary as that would have been, I think we can safely rule it out.

According to Mark 15:34, Jesus used the word “Eloi” when he called out from the cross. “Eloi” is simply the Hebrew translation of the Aramaic “alaha.” Take away the ‘a’ and there you have it! Jesus himself referred to God using a word that was only one vowel away from the Arabic ‘Allah.’

On the other hand, 'God’ is a relatively new kid on the block. It evoloved from from an indo-european word meaning "that which is invoked" in the sixth century and is only a hop, skip and a jump away from its German cousin, ‘Gott.’ 

And while ‘God’ was finding its feet in the West, millions of Christians in the Middle East continued to use the more established word, ‘Allah.’ It is even used in Arabic Bibles to this day.

'God' encapsulates the sensation of a Divine Creator for many Christians. But Christianity doesn’t have the monopoly. It would be equally ludicrous for a Muslim to get up in arms about an Arab Christian using the word ‘Allah’ in their religious services, although sadly some do.

The erroneous belief that Allah and God are somehow two separate entities is the one of the misconceptions which saddens me most. That seemingly small distinction digs a vast canyon between Christians and Muslims. It sets Muslims apart as the foreign ‘Other’ and sows the seeds of potential conflict.

Mind you, Muslims are not immune to this way of thinking either and often propagate this myth all by themselves. It’s disheartening to hear Muslims say “the Christian God is not the same as Allah.” A concept which is in stark contrast with the history and context of Islam. 

Converts are in a unique position to help bridge the gap, regardless of which particular direction they've taken in their spiritual journey. Former Muslims who become Christians and Christians who become Muslims often use ‘God’ and ‘Allah’ interchangeably. Whether you believe Jesus is the fulfillment of Messianic prophecy or that Islam is the most recent revelation from God – we can at least be united in our worship of one God.

That change begins with the language we use.

So I implore you, if you hear someone saying that ‘Allah’ and ‘God’ are not the same, be brave - jump in and politely set them straight. It might seem insignificant but a single word can make all the difference

★  ★  ★

Links of the Day

Rachel Pieh Jones speaks about reactions to the use of the word 'Allah' in: Gift of Allah

Finally, if you missed yesterday's post, please check out Nye Armstrong & Rebecca Minor discussing their fund-raising project for Charity:Water and help them reach their goal this Ramadan. 

Sunday, 28 July 2013

Charity and Water with Nye Armstrong & Rebecca Minor

On Friday, the inspirational duo Rebecca Minor and Nye Armstrong shared their Ramadan ReflectionsToday I'm delighted to have them back to explain why charity is so important in Islam and to discuss their exciting fund-raising project Water For All  with Charity:Water.

Why is charity important in Islam?

[RebeccaI've taught the kindergarten Islamic Studies section of Sunday school for the past four years at my masjid [mosque]. While teaching children about the five pillars of Islam, I've found the easiest way to explain giving zakat (the practice of charitable giving by Muslims based on accumulated wealth) is to start with the fact that Allah has created people in different ways. We speak different languages, we have different colored skin, we dress in different ways. 

Another way in which people differ is by the amount of wealth they own*. I go on to explain to my students that some people in this world have a lot of money. There are other people who have some wealth and other people that have very little or maybe no wealth. Allah has also told us that if we have money, it is our job to share with those who have less.

Muslims take their knowledge from two sources - the Quran, which is believed to be the unchanged word of God that was given to Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) over 1400 years ago. Muslims also look to and reference hadith, sayings of the Prophet (peace be upon him). In regards to charity, there are many places within the Quran and documented in hadith which focus on the importance of charity, the duty of Muslims to give regularly and the benefits of doing so. These are a few of my favorites:

"They ask you (O Muhammad) what they should spend in charity. Say: 'Whatever you spend with a good heart, give it to parents, relatives, orphans, the helpless, and travelers in need. Whatever good you do, God is aware of it.'" - Quran, 2:215 
The Prophet said: "Give charity without delay, for it stands in the way of calamity." -Al-Tirmidhi, Hadith 589  
“You cannot attain righteousness until you give to charity from the possessions you love. Whatever you give to charity, God is fully aware thereof.” - Quran, 3:92

*Muslims believe that all wealth is from Allah and that we are mere holders of this trust.

[Nye] It is hard to talk after Becca just dropped some knowledge on us... but I will give it the old college try. Part of the reason we fast is to feel empathy for others who live their life without the same blessings we have been given. What are we supposed to do with the empathy we gain from fasting? Look at people and say “I know how they feel...” and then go on with our day? Nope. 

With the knowledge and empathy we gain we should help those who are less fortunate. We have had a small taste of what their lives are like and God willing we can help ease their suffering. It can be donating money, time, clothing... the list can go on forever. We are so blessed. Thank God.

Why do Muslims give to charity? Especially during the month of Ramadan?

[Rebecca & Nye] The month of Ramadan helps us reflect on the blessings that we have been given. Water is one of those blessings. It is also one of the items we purposefully refrain from during the daylight hours of sunrise to sunset. Fasting teaches us to appreciate the gifts we have been given and increase our desire to share with those who are less fortunate.

Another reason why many Muslims choose to give charity during the month of Ramadan is that we have been told that good deeds are multiplied during this month - “The reward for every good deed is multiplied by 10 to 700 times, except fasting (there is no limit to its reward).” [Bukhari]

What has stood out for you this Ramadan? (a surah, an event, etc)

[Nye:] Two things have stood out for me. Quran Weekly and charity: water. Quran Weekly’s gems are such a blessing to me. They are little nuggets that help me stay focused on the Quran. When you read words, they can slip past you without you being able to retain meaning. Quran Weekly’s Gem’s help me pull my concentration and let me end the night feeling like I accomplished something. And charity: water is an amazing charity that I have been fundraising for with Becca. Our goal now is to raise $20,000 before the end of Ramadan.

[Rebecca:] I’m going to echo Nye’s response on this one. QuranWeekly has become a really important part of my life. I feel so honored and appreciative for the opportunity to work with the organization. The people who volunteer have become close friends and their videos have given me such beautiful insight into my faith. The QuranicGems series has become something I looked forward to and have been able to incorporate into my daily routine because they are short and sweet and packed with such amazing information and take away points that I find myself talking about and thinking about them days later. 

This year Nye and I decided to do a Ramadan charity project. This year we chose to raise money for a water project through charity:water. Alhamdulillah we met our first goal within the first two weeks and have since set a second goal that inshAllah I am hopeful we can achieve.

Lifting a jerrycan is harder than it looks! 

Why did we choose charity: water?

[Nye:] Charity: water has two things which set it above the rest. Transparency and the 100% Model. 100% of a person’s donation goes directly to the field. The donation isn't used for salaries, rent, or any kind of overhead. And then the transparency aspect comes into play. They will keep us up to date in terms of project completion and will send us photos and GPS coordinates so we can see the exact community we helped. You can see how the money you donated helped.

[Rebecca:] After looking at several organizations, I was first drawn to charity:water because of the layout of their website. It was clean and organized and very visually appealing. Perhaps it’s the teacher in me but that was a huge plus in my book. Once I did a little more research, I couldn't get over the fact that 100% of donations directly fund water projects. After talking with Nye and hearing that we would be able to see pictures and have communication with the organization throughout the project, I was sold.

Nye & Becca Discuss charity:water

What has the experience of working with Charity Water been like?

[Nye & Rebecca:] Amazing. They are a really great group of people. They have said that working with us on this campaign has inspired and rejuvenated them. The work atmosphere is really refreshing. During the last ten days of Ramadan one person for each day will be fasting to help support our campaign. They will be blogging and vlogging their experiences. Not only is that amazing solidarity with our campaign, but a really great experience for them. I can’t wait to see what insights they share with us! So exciting.

Via Rebecca Minor

What is your favorite thing about working with each other?

[Nye:] What I love about Becca is that it is easy. It is really easy to be myself around her. That is something I find very rarely with people. We have similar upbringings and paths towards Islam. Yet, at the same time we are exact opposites. She has a structured way of thinking that counteracts my meandering mind. What is nice about that is I may take us down some winding roads but she keeps us going in the right direction. 

Kindness oozes from her and it isn’t fake in any way. And I don’t know where she gets the time to do all the things she volunteers for. I think Becca lives in another dimension where time exists along a different spectrum. She does so much and I don’t think she knows how to say the word ‘NO’.  

We joke around about how she is a special education teacher... and I was in special education (and probably still should be). After we met, she was more of a Yoda figure for me. And over the few years I have known her she has become one of my very best friends. What you see in the videos is only a slice of how truly amazing she really is. MashaAllah. She thinks that she is boring, but I don’t find that to be the case at all. Don’t let her proper ways fool you... she has a wicked sense of humor she lets peep out from time to time... when the occasion calls for it and sometimes when it doesn't.

[Rebecca:] Nye keeps me on my toes. She makes me laugh so hard that I cry and that my stomach hurts. She makes me smile and reminds me of how important it is to have people in your life that make you truly happy to be around them. 

The way in which Nye and I met was so random, yet I know it was written for us by Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala. She has become one of my best friends and someone I care about most deeply. Nye works incredibly hard and strives to do as much good as she can. She works multiple jobs, volunteers and puts her heart and soul into her YouTube Channel, the sisters she meets and stays in contact with on the Internet and with her business - AndirunDesigns

While Nye is one of the most outgoing people I know, she is also humble. She doesn’t promote herself as she should or get the credit I believe she deserves. Nye is a very talented graphic designer. She truly is a jack of all trades. Most of all, she’s a wonderful friend.

★  ★  ★

If you've been inspired by Rebecca and Nye's project, you can donate here.
Each donation, whether large or small, will make a huge difference!

You can read more from Rebecca and Nye in Ramadan Reflections
You can find Rebecca Minor on her informative blog: A Minor Memoir 
and Nye Armstrong is a joy to behold on youtube at ILoveElHassan 

★  ★  ★

Previous Posts: From Dialogue to Activism & Mindful and Grateful

Other sources/info on Charity:

The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said: "The believer's shade on the Day of Resurrection will be his charity." - Al-Tirmidhi, Hadith 604

"Spend (in charity) out of the sustenance that We have bestowed on you before that time when death will come to someone, and he shall say: "O my Lord! If only you would grant me reprieve for a little while, then I would give in charity, and be among the righteous." - Quran 63:10

The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said: "Save yourself from hellfire by giving even half a date-fruit in charity." - Sahih Al-Bukhari, Volume 2, Hadith 498

The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said: "If I had (a mountain of) gold, I would love that, before three days had passed, not a single (coin) thereof remained with me if I found somebody to accept it (as charity), excluding some amount that I would keep for the payment of my debts." - Sahih Al-Bukhari, Volume 9, Hadith 334

The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said, "Allah will give shade, to seven, on the Day when there will be no shade but His. One of these seven will be a man who gives charitable gifts so secretly that his left hand does not know what his right hand has given" (i.e. nobody knows how much he has given in charity). Sahih Al-Bukhari, Volume 1, Book 11, Number 629 

[2:274] "Those who give to charity night and day, secretly and publicly, receive their recompense from their Lord; they will have nothing to fear, nor will they grieve."

Saturday, 27 July 2013

From Dialogue to Activism | Wes Magruder

One of the most invaluable sources of inspiration for me this Ramadan has been the daily reflections of Wes Magruder, a United Methodist pastor from Texas. I have benefited greatly from sincere reflections on faith and insightful commentary on both the Qur'an and Bible. His articles Ramadan: The Un-SacramentIf Only You Knew and What's An Atom's Worth have been particularly thought-provoking for me. 

I admire Wes for his deep commitment to interfaith activism and the way in which he lives out his faith in a practical way. In fact, last year Wes fasted for the month of Ramadan as an act of solidarity with Muslim brothers and sisters. He shared his thoughts each day in his previous blog The New MethoFesto and describes the experience in his wonderful talk: Why Would A Methodist Fast During Ramadan? This year he is taking on Ramadan again and you can find his daily articles in his blog For The Common Great

Given our shared passion for increased co-operation between people of different faiths, it seemed only natural to join forces and contribute to each other's projects. 

In today's guest post, Wes explains why he chose to fast for a second year in a row and the importance of faith-based activism. Meanwhile, over at
For The Common Great, I discuss how fasting has impacted my spiritual life in Mindful and Thankful

★  ★  ★

The first time I observed Ramadan, last summer, I was motivated by two things.

First,  I truly was interested in learning the art of fasting. I knew that it was a powerful spiritual discipline, one which the ancient forefathers and mothers of my own tradition practiced diligently. In recent times, however, Christian fasting has dwindled in importance and significance, to the point that, in my own Protestant denomination, fasting has come to mean simply abstaining from something like chocolate or caffeine during the 40 days of Lent. I wanted to experience hard-core fasting, the type that drives you to your knees regularly.

And yes, my first Ramadan did that to me.

The second reason I fasted was to stand in solidarity with the Muslims in my community, especially those who worshipped at the Islamic Center of North Texas, where my friend Imam Yaseen Sheikh worked. It was a particularly bad Ramadan for hate crimes against Muslims and mosques that year, so I was glad to be doing something proactive and positive.

As Ramadan approached this year, I had to decide whether I would fast again. I knew I didn't have anything to prove; it would have been far more convenient to skip it and say that last year was an exception. Except I didn't feel that way.

In fact, last year's fast didn't quite feel complete; I felt there were some loose ends.

Since that time, I have often been referred to as someone who is leading the way in "interfaith dialogue." The problem is that I do not like that phrase. I'm not all that interested in "interfaith dialogue."

For me, those words conjure up images of clerics sitting in ivory towers and stuffy conference rooms debating the fine details of theology. I imagine a priest turning to the imam and saying, "Here's our position on the afterlife; what's yours?"

Ho hum.

That's not to say that dialogue is not important; it is vital for relationships to grow. And we need interfaith relationships.

But I have a feeling that we could do with far less talking about our distinctive differences and a lot more action around our common goals and vision of the future.

In other words, Christians and Muslims may disagree about the divinity of Jesus, the Trinity, and the inspiration of the Qu'ran, but we agree that God's mercy and compassion is offered to all creation, that humans have a responsibility to God and each other, that faith and works go hand in hand, that the Golden Rule is, well, golden, and that the future is in God's hands.

That's a lot to agree on, isn't it?

And so when we look at the world around us, and we see injustice, poverty, oppression, crime, hate and war, we can also agree that God did not intend these things; when these things occur, they go against God's will. Whether we are Christians or Muslims, we know that these things are wrong, and must be opposed.

We have common ground for action. I would much rather be known for "faith-based activism" than "interfaith dialogue."

I would like to propose that those of us who are motivated to act against injustice by our faith convictions ought rally around a vision for the common good. The common good is a political term which refers to a societal arrangement in which everyone benefits, and nobody suffers from systemic disadvantage. People of faith do not believe this is a pipe dream; our traditions hold out the hope that the common good is an achievable dream.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, one word encapsulates this hope: shalom. Usually translated "peace" in English versions, the word has a broader sense. Shalom is wholeness, perfection, the state of everything being in its right place. In a world of shalom, everything is in right relationship, including individuals, families, neighbors, cities, and nations. The Arabic word, salaam, contains the same meaning. 

For all of us, shalom describes the future state of the world, toward which history is hurtling. For Jews and Christians, this future state is called "the kingdom of God," and is pictured in Isaiah as a place where lions and lambs sit down together, and other predatory and non-predatory animals coexist in harmony. For Muslims, this place of perfection is a beautiful garden called "Paradise."

Most of us believe that shalom will happen eventually, but in the distant future, and in the afterlife. We don't really believe true justice will happen on earth; we have stopped hoping that relationships can be restored in the here and now. As a result, we have shortchanged God's intentions for the world by postponing our hope to a time after we die.

Frankly, however, I think God really wants us to start living and practicing shalom right now, right where we live. Justice is supposed to happen now. Those who are currently caught in the tyranny of cruelty and pain are crying out for relief now -- not in the sweet bye-and-bye. 

Shalom can begin now. The common good is a political goal that we can aim for in the present. However, I think we can do even better than that. 

Shalom also means "flourishing." A world of shalom isn't simply adequate, it's extraordinary. People don't just have enough to eat; they have more than enough, and it's all gourmet eating! People don't just get along; they are the best of friends and enjoy each other's company! 

In the beginning, this world was a Paradise. And it can be again when we are faithful to the very best of our traditions, and when we walk in harmony with our God, and when we work for the common good ... wait, make that the common GREAT!

Who wants to be a shalom activist with me?

Wes is a United Methodist pastor who has served appointments in suburban London and Dallas, and rural Texas. He also served as a missionary for four years in Cameroon, West Africa. He loves writing, speaking, watching Texas Rangers baseball, and spending time with his wife and three daughters. Currently, he is starting a non-profit refugee empowerment ministry for recently resettled refugees to the Dallas area.

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Don't forgot to hop over to For The Common Great to read my contribution!

When Will The Dates Be Served? - Saadia Faruq

Today, Saadia Faruqi continues her four-part series where she is sharing her experience of interfaith iftars at her local mosque this Ramadan. This article follows on from Sharing the Blessings of Ramadan with Others and  Fasting Can Bring Us Closer Together.

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Interfaith Ramadan events are constantly on my mind these days. As interfaith liaison for my mosque I've been organizing weekly women’s Iftaars every year for three years, and I’m thankful for the opportunity to talk about some lessons learned on this blog here and here. With two weeks remaining until we bid farewell to another sacred month, it may be time to discuss some stereotypes that I've witnessed among our guests and how I've tried to dispel some of them.

Stereotypes or myths are created when we observe a characteristic in one or a few people, and assign it to the entire group. You may consider yourself very tolerant and informed, but if you've ever used the term “all” before a descriptive sentence, chances are you’re stereotyping without even knowing it. Often stereotypes are quite harmless or even positive (such as all Asians are good in math) but the concept itself is dangerous because it leads to a tendency to lump an entire group of the “other” into one neat box. And common sense tells us that’s impossible, unnatural, inconceivable.

The bigger the group the more perilous is its stereotyping, because the probability of the statement being true is minuscule. The good news about interfaith dialogue in any setting – Ramadan or otherwise – is that the audience is willing to be corrected. People visit mosques because they want to know the truth, because they aren't satisfied with what they see or hear on the news and want to get more accurate information. That’s why interfaith events are an excellent avenue for removing stereotypes and increasing understanding, if approached in a positive manner.

One of my favorite harmless stereotypes is about dates – the kind that we eat, not the kind we go on! Since my mosque is inhabited primarily by Pakistani Americans, dates aren’t served outside of Ramadan. One time a Christian guest visited our mosque on Eid; she was engaged in wonderful conversation and good food with me for more than an hour, but when dessert was offered she expressed her confusion. “I don’t understand; when will the dates be served?” she asked. 

After a few moments racking my brains I realized the stereotype she was exhibiting… that all Muslims were Arabs. It took her a short while to understand that all 1.6 billion Muslims in the world don’t eat dates, speak Arabic or live in the Middle East. Since at that time we were surrounded by at least a hundred women speaking a non-Arab language and wearing colorful South Asian dresses, the guest was easily set straight.

Other common myths about Muslims that can easily be dispelled in an interfaith setting are that Muslim women are oppressed or that the hijab is forced upon them by their fathers/husbands. By just sitting down for a meal with a variety of women of all professions and backgrounds this myth of gender inequality is shattered more effectively than any lecture or book can. 

That’s not all; there are many other small yet impactful ways of increasing understanding between people. By incorporating a tour of the mosque in the Iftaar program, myths about Islamic worship can be removed and similarities between the forms of prayers of different religious groups can be promoted. By including short Quran recitations or Hadith narrations in the event agenda, the beauty of scripture can be fully appreciated by those not familiar with it. 

By holding frank discussions about current events as part of the interfaith discussion, common stereotypes relating to terrorism and violence on the part of Muslims can be shelved forever. This is ample opportunity to be creative and think outside the box, but remember that lectures and speeches are never as effective as open discussion around food.

So the aim of interfaith Ramadan events should be not only to share the traditions of fasting and Iftaar, but also to take some time to gently and kindly remove misunderstandings about Islam and Muslims with our excellent behavior and attitudes, our wide variety of cultural norms, our religious expressions in a non-threatening manner, and our moderate Islamic views. 

May this Ramadan be a month full of faith and enlightenment not only for us but also for our guests. Amen.

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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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Come back later today when there'll be an exciting 
collaboration with one of my favourite Interfaith Activists!

Friday, 26 July 2013

Nye Armstrong & Rebecca Minor: Ramadan Reflections

This is the first in a two-part interview with two much loved sisters from the Muslim Community - Nye Armstrong and Rebecca Minor. They will be sharing their reflections on Ramadan before and after they became Muslim and then later in the week they'll be discussing their exciting new charity project Water For All with charity: water.

Getting the Giggles: Nye (left) and Becca (right)

Nye is a graphic designer based in Connecticut who runs a successful youtube channel where she shares her life, faith, and passions; and encourages her viewers to learn and grow along with her. She also runs a website called Andirun Designs where she sells her original designs, including mirrors, badges, and jewelry. 

Rebecca is a special education teacher who writes an informative and uplifting blog called A Minor Memoir and often features in Nye's videos. She shares her passion to learn more about Islam, to educate others, and shares her enthusiasm for life and being the best person she can possibly be, for the sake of Allah. 

For many new Muslims, Nye and Rebecca are the warm onscreen presence which has reassured and encouraged them as they began to learn about Islam

Their warmth and friendship on screen is wonderful to watch. Rebecca's glowing smile and Nye's infectious laughter have been responsible for brightening up many a dreary day. Each video is a virtual hug for anyone who has felt lost or discouraged in their faith. Together they have presented incredibly helpful youtube series on prayer, the Sunnah, and Ramadan

Here in part one, they discuss Ramadans past and present:

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What was your opinion of Ramadan and Muslims before you converted?

[Nye:] I honestly didn't know much about it. Until I met my husband I didn't even know what Ramadan was or what religion celebrated it. It was completely off my radar. After meeting Hassan I knew they went without food and drink, but didn't look any deeper than that. 

Then one year, I began to fast with Hassan to give him support during Ramadan. While on that journey I vlogged about what I learned and posted it online. I had an amazing response from people who wanted to help me. And by the end of my first Ramadan I knew I was on the path of becoming Muslim. 3 months later I took my shahada [declaration of faith]. Alhumdulillah.

[Rebecca:] The first time I heard about Ramadan or met Muslim people was when I was working as a Resident Assistant at the University of Connecticut. Two of my coworkers were Muslim. I didn’t think much of it at the time. Given that the RA’s were upperclassmen living in freshmen dorms, it was common that we would eat meals together in the dining hall. 

I clearly remember wondering what happened to my two coworkers and why they had stopped eating with us. Once I was able to find them to ask, they explained that it was Ramadan and that they weren’t eating until sunset. During the next two years as I was asking more questions and learning about Islam, I decided to fast with them.

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How has your relationship with Ramadan changed since your first Ramadan? 

[Nye:] This is my 4th Ramadan. I would equate each passing Ramadan with the gradual opening of a rose bud. The first three were all about the fast. Tight and limited. That is all I thought about. I don’t think I could have handled more. But this year Ramadan is blooming before my eyes

Aspects of the Quran and my faith are being shown in a new light. It is amazing. So much of this change has to do with how I use my time. I am donating my time to amazing causes, working with friends, spreading dawah, learning more about the Quran, and the list goes on and on. 

This year is the first year I can honestly say I will be very sad when Ramadan ends. The years before it was said while running to the finish line. This year I will be dragging my feet.

[Rebecca:] It’s hard to believe that this is my 7th Ramadan. I hadn't realized so many years had gone by until the question was brought up at a recent iftar for converts/reverts. There were people who were fasting for the very first time as well as those who had been fasting longer than I've been alive. 

As I said earlier, I observed the fasting during Ramadan for two years before taking my shahada. During this time, I was beginning to learn about Islam. The first two years of fasting for Ramadan helped me connect with what I was learning and become more secure in my new found beliefs. This still holds true today. I’ve found that I start looking forward to Ramadan earlier and earlier each year

I no longer view Ramadan as giving up food or water but as a chance to see what I am capable of. Every year at the end of Ramadan, I find myself in awe of what I was able to accomplish - standing in prayer for hours each night, giving up foods and sweets that I normally wouldn't be able to resist, spending more time praying for others and reflecting on what I want to do with my life and how to become a better person. 

I see Ramadan as a reset button. If I can pray taraweeh for an hour and a half every night during Ramadan, I can stand for a few rakkat of tahujjud. If I can read the translation of the Quran in its entirety during the month of Ramadan, I can make time to read one page each day. Ramadan has changed from revolving around giving up food and drink to being a time in which I realize my potential and finish the month with a stronger drive and clearer purpose.

Have you established or taken on board any Ramadan traditions?

[Nye:] Not really. In the years before I focused on the food, really big elaborate meals for hubster and I. Right now with our schedules being so out of sync, our lives feel more transient than grounded.  I will say I have been to more events/iftars this year than I have in the past... which is really nice. The one I have been somewhat consistent with is trying to make online content that helps new Muslims like me feel welcome when they convert to Islam.

[Rebecca:] One of the traditions I look forward to most about Ramadan is hosting iftars. I love being around people. I love food. I have also recently discovered a love for cooking. I’m also well aware of the blessings one gets from feeding those who have been fasting. That being said, I have made it a point to invite those I love and those who might otherwise be breaking their fast alone to come and join me. It’s a tradition I really love and hope to continue, inshAllah.

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How does Ramadan affect your interactions with others - Muslim and Non-Muslim?

[Nye:] One of the best feelings of Ramadan is the sense of community. Even when I am alone in my apartment I know people are fasting, praying, trying to connect with God. That is amazing to think about. We are all focusing on a common purpose. I love being around other Muslims during Ramadan, it feels like a family reunion

I also try not to argue with my husband. If it is starting to look like one is a’brewin’, I just step back and stop talking. I usually confront any issue right away. Ramadan lets me keep an even keel and learn that some issues don’t matter at all. And as for non-Muslims... it is very hard to be around people who swear constantly. It wears me down emotionally. InshaAllah my situation changes and I won’t be surrounded by this type of language for much longer. Please make duaa for me.

[Rebecca:] Ramadan unites me with my Muslim community. Alhamdulillah, I’m part of a really wonderful and active community here in Connecticut. While I get the chance to see and interact with many people throughout the year, it is during Ramadan when I feel an even stronger bond. It’s refreshing and exciting to see familiar faces at masjid iftars and to see my friends’ children and how they've grown. There’s a sense of comfort, standing next to the same people in prayer each night. Ramadan strengthens the bonds of brotherhood and sisterhood and makes me realize how blessed I am to be a part of such a wonderful community.

I don’t think my behavior or interactions with non-Muslims change much during the month of Ramadan. Many of my coworkers are aware that I fast and will check in to make sure I’m doing ok. For those who aren’t aware and are interested, I try my best to clear up any misconceptions they may have.. “No, don’t worry. We don’t go an entire month without eating or drinking. We just eat and drink before the sun rises and then after it sets.”

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Don't miss Part 2 of Nye and Rebecca's interview on Sunday evening!

Links of the Day

To whet your appetite for part two of Nye and Becca's interview, here is a recent video by Nye where she shares her excitement about charity:water: Mind Blown 

In the second video link of the day, Nye and Rebecca explain many common Islamic phrases in their video: What Are We Saying??

Previous Posts: Delusional Mom on Ramadan Chaos, The Absurdity of Ramadan, and The Process of Writing

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