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!

★  ★  ★

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

★  ★  ★

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?

Friday, 2 August 2013

Falling Head First Into The Ramadan Dip - Sarah Ager

I've fallen head first into the Ramadan dip. My circadian rhythm has been knocked completely off kilter and I'm stuck in a cycle on-off siestas that do not respect social norms.

I put off writing yesterday and today because I didn't feel that I had anything of value to say. Still, I went through the motions and propped myself up against the desk and stared cross-eyed at the screen. Nothing came.

I started to think that no one would notice if I didn't post anything today. I could get away it. So I turned off the computer and drifted off into another pointless nap. 

Man Having Siesta (Ager: Barcelona 2007)

When I woke up, it suddenly hit me that the initial idea of this project had been to give a 'warts and all' account of Ramadan. I couldn't then simply shy away from writing about the rough times. 

My hope is that by speaking about my Mid-Ramadan crisis, you might find some encouragement in your own situation. There have been a few things which have challenged and encouraged me over the last two days, some of which happened only a few moments ago.

While I was procrastinating, I spotted some tweets that Najeeba Syeed Miller had written,

"Love the honesty Ramadan induces in our relationship with our bodies; it reveals resilience & frailty. Perhaps the two great lessons of Ramadan include recognizing the wonders & limits of the human body and learning to ask for help from others. That we can be whole by accepting brokenness and living in a state of relational, communal learning & healing."

I know all too well the weakness of my body. I felt limp all day. But the thing that stood out for me was about having the humility to ask others for help. 

So I did. 

I wrote a quick tweet about lacking motivation and within a few seconds I'd received lots of messages of encouragement from people telling me that I was in their prayers. I went from feeling alone and useless to feeling uplifted and supported. A few moments later I began to write this post.

Ramadan is a great reminder that you don't have to muddle through life on your own. We can all support each other and although the kind things we do might seem small they often have a huge impact. 

Najeeba's words reminded me of an article I had read by pastor Wes Magruder. As you know, I've been an avid fan of his blog this year and if I ever I'm presented with an opportunity to speak about it, I leap on the opportunity. On this particular occasion, it seemed that the Ramadan gremlin had struck him down too and he felt drained and on the verge of a cold. From his physical weakness, came an inspired article about accepting and embracing our physical weakness during Ramadan because they are reminders that,

"When we are weak, then, God promises to be strong. When we falter and our bones quake, God offers to renew our strength."

But what if you don't feel good enough to accept God's mercy this month? This is certainly something that I've struggled with this week. 

During Ramadan we're essentially exposing ourselves to our own weakness and vulnerability. To the outside world, we might seem super pious because we're fasting and watching our language but the truth is that during Ramadan, each and every one of us is forced to look in the mirror. A harshly lit, changing room mirror where we can see our character stripped bare with all its flaws. And it's not pretty.

This is when a lack of motivation sets in. We think we're not good enough. That we haven't lived up to our intentions. And worst of all, we start to think that we don't deserve the blessings of this month.

How should we respond to these feelings? 

We shouldn't allow ourselves to be debilitated by regret or guilt. It doesn't matter if you've spent the last three weeks pottering about and not achieving anything. That's in the past. You still have the here and now and each new passing moment is an opportunity to turn it all around. 

★  ★  ★

Thank you to all those who encouraged me this evening. It has meant so much to me.

Previous Post: The Problem With All This Interfaith Ramadan Marlarkey
Next Post: Containing God and Sabotaging the Competition

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