Thursday, 23 July 2015

Fasting And Feasting, Friendship And Faith

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

A week of celebrating Iftar with friends and neighbours

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

J is a community cohesion worker in East London

Monday, 20 July 2015

Celebrating Ramadan Amid Criticism and Self-Doubt - Katy Niles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Holy Juxtaposition! Jews And Muslims Making Meaning 

Saturday, 18 July 2015

Holy Juxtaposition! Muslims and Jews Making Meaning - Andrea Hodos

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

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

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

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

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

Putting Our Prayers Next to Others Prayers

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

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

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

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

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

Credit: Marta Evry

How does putting our prayers together amplify meaning?

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

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

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

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

A Final Juxtaposition

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

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

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

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

Friday, 17 July 2015

1000 Years of Interfaith Ramadan - Melody Fox Ahmed

Grande Mosque, Cordoba. Credit: The Red List

Reading this blog over the past month has been inspiring, enlightening, and striking. Our stories are different, Quranour locations diverse, our faith/belief journeys evolving, our life stages developing, yet we all share something key. The theme of community which so many have emphasized, and the idea of drawing strength and resilience from the diversity of our communities and families, has powerfully affected my Ramadan this year.

If God would have willed, He would have made you a single people. But God’s purpose is to test you in what he has given each of you, so strive in the pursuit of virtue, and know that you will all return to God, and He will resolve all the matters in which you disagree.
~Qur’an 5:49

Going into Ramadan, I was thinking a lot about a 9th century incident that took place in Al-Andalus (Muslim Iberia), involving a group known as the “Martyrs of Cordoba”. We read a brief account in a graduate course on Medieval Iberia. Young Christians began “martyring” themselves by blaspheming and committing offensive acts against Islam in the presence of the Sultan or officials. The period sources on the “martyrs” comes from a Christian perspective and describe how upon their deaths, miraculous events would occur, such as doves alighting on the bodies, bodies walking on water, beautiful smells filling the air, etc. I wanted to learn more but unfortunately there were no sources from a Muslim perspective (few remain from this period). I was troubled why young Christian men and women living in a Muslim society that permitted and tolerated Christians and Jews openly practicing their religions would suddenly commit violent and offensive acts against Islam with the express aim of bringing about their own deaths and becoming martyrs. “Aren’t these just terrorists?” I asked in class. But why?

In another source, I discovered the smoking gun. Apparently these young people mainly came from mixed families – one Muslim parent, one Christian. They were interfaith. But they lacked community – they didn’t belong to a church or to a mosque. And they certainly didn’t have any interfaith community. They were vulnerable and searching. Eventually they fell under the influence of a circle of charismatic, radical priests who coached them and inculcated the idea that becoming a martyr was the way to please God (with the priests’ larger aim of creating social unrest and bringing down the Caliphate). Each martyr inspired the next. The martyrs of Cordoba didn’t have the Internet in the 9th century, but it sure seems like ISIS took a lesson from them.

The fact that these young people came from interfaith families, lacking community, seemed to lead directly to their propensity to be radicalized and become violent. Today, being “interfaith”, although common, can still carry a stigma, and being a devout religious person can get you called a fundamentalist, a fanatic. Religion remains a scapegoat for struggle.

Religions, and religious people, are blamed for conflicts around the world. But religion is but a part of a complex web of interconnected factors, from inequality to culture to colonialism. The positive role that religion plays in peace-building is undeniable. And that global good comes from communities of believers, and those who support them, working together to end ignorance, discrimination, and violence.

World religions offer powerful frameworks for global social change. Catholicism and Islam, for example, both contain “liberation theologies” to end oppression, empower the poor and disenfranchised, and achieve radical equality—without the use of violence.

I saw this will to fight injustice through a divine consciousness at iftars, and in everyday life, this Ramadan. I heard the Israeli ambassador, only the second Israeli ambassador to Washington to hold an iftar, pledge to continue this crucial tradition to build friendships with the Muslim community. I sat with Muslim and Jewish sisters in a Muslim sister’s home and discussed all the things that unite us – prayers, fasting, our kid’s shared names, work and relationship challenges. I helped friends put on an interfaith community iftar attended by Muslims, Catholics, Mormons, Jews, humanists, and others that had everyone buzzing with energy and conversation while eating vegan food on picnic blankets. I had quiet moments with family, internal moments of peace, the elation seeing my son love his first time at “Camp Ramadan” with Muslim kids from many different family backgrounds. (I got an Eid lantern, a minaret bookmark, and many great songs and stories out of that one).

So I feel pretty spiritually empowered against stories of “religious ugliness” after this month. But, there are still polls in the Huffington Post about how unfavorably Americans view Islam. Our vulnerable young people remain and war is afflicting millions. What can we do in our small ways? To start: Tell these stories like the ones on Interfaith Ramadan. Build these friendships. Change the story students will read about us in sources 1000 years in the future. Imagine “Interfaith Ramadan 3015”….

Dear ones,
Use your own storytelling abilities
To end this tale

In a way that will most
Uplift your heart.

~Hafiz, The Difference Between

Melody Fox Ahmed works on and thinks about interfaith, intercultural, and interesting stories in Washington, DC and wherever she’s able to travel (she’s never been to Italy, though!) She is the Assistant Director for Programs at Georgetown University's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. She received her B.A. from Vanderbilt University and her M.A. in International History from Georgetown University. She is a member of the US-Pakistan Interreligious Consortium organized by Intersections International. Her multifaith, multicultural family background informs and strengthens her commitment to interfaith dialogue and research and writing on interfaith issues. She is thrilled to write for Interfaith Ramadan for the first time this year. Follow her @melodyfoxahmed.


Thursday, 16 July 2015

A Latter-Day Saints Take On Charity and Humanitarian Aid

As a “Mormon” woman, I truly see that my life is not only for me to seek knowledge and “Heavenly treasures”, but also to progress in humility, love and all the other virtues. Without Charity, I know that I would not be able to reach my full potential as Children of God. It’s an everyday task and pleasure to look for opportunities to help others.

In the Scriptures Latter-day Saints hold dear to their heart (the Bible – both Old and New Testament , the Book of Mormon, Doctrine & Covenants, the Pearl of Great Price), we can read many times that Charity is one the most sought out virtue:

  • 1 Corinthians 13:13 And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.
  • Moroni 7:46 Wherefore, my beloved brethren, if ye have notcharity, ye are nothing, for charity never faileth. Wherefore, cleave unto charity, which is the greatest of all, for all things must fail—
  • 1 Peter 4:8 And above all things have fervent charity among yourselves: for charity shall cover the multitude of sins.
  • Doctrine and Covenants 88:125 And above all things, clothe yourselves with the bond of charity, as with a mantle, which is the bond of perfectness and peace.
  • Ether 12:34 And now I know that this love which thou hast had for the children of men is charity; wherefore, except men shall have charity they cannot inherit that place which thou hast prepared in the mansions of thy Father.

Helping others is not an only Christian feature; we can find this practice in many other religions and faiths. In fact, it’s at the core of nearly all the spiritual movements in the world to love one another and be good to them, and is known as the Golden Rule. It’s what I believe to be the foundation of fruitful Interfaith dialogue, because without Charity, which is the pure love of God (or divine love), nothing can be achieved to make Mankind progress.

The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints has a long story of helping others, may it be the members of the Church in need, or people from other countries and religious denominations. A
2012 Penn study shows that American Mormons (= LDS) are more engaged than other communities in giving of their time and money. I'm also fairly certain that if studies were held in different countries, LDS would be among the most generous people of these lands too.

The Relief Society, founded in 1842 by Joseph Smith Jr, has a motto which states “Charity never faileth”. This organization of the Church assembles and unites all the women above 18 years old in strengthening each other spiritually and emotionally, and in developing our talents. The three goals are quoted as: Increase faith and personal righteousness, Strengthen families and homes, Seek out and help those in need

From the beginning, the women have made blankets for the poors, baked bread and cakes, harvested cereals or potatoes for populations in different countries after wars or disasters, prepared first-help kits or self-confidence kits (for women in prison or under chemotherapy), built food banks in many US states, gathered furniture and baby clothes for new parents with low incomes, raised funds for local humanitarian or social associations, donated blood, etc. Of course, the men have helped too! It’s part of their duty as Priesthood holders to be kind and generous to others.

After more than a century of actions here and there, the Apostles decided to better manage their international help. LDS Charities was founded in 1985 and since then has donated more than 1 billion dollars in cash and material assistance to 167 countries. Several programs have been set up: providing clean water, neonatal resuscitation, immunization program, vision program and wheelchair program (see the infographics). The humanitarian program also provides relief support after disasters such as the Haiyan typhoon, earthquakes, floodings, etc.

One fact is clear: the LDS Church does NOT work alone. Finding partners for their relief operations and charity programs is essential to have the best outcome possible. They have worked closely with the American Red Cross (although with recent revelations about how this NGO employs the donated funds, I don’t know how it will affect their partnership), the Red Crescent, Live United, All for Good, and others during the biggest natural disasters of recent years.

Recently, Elder Holland (one of the Apostles) has the great joy and privilege to give an address at the UK Parliament. He said:

"We all long for the day when swords will be beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks, but unfortunately religiously related violence is increasing, not decreasing, as we move into the 21st century,” and “These conflicts have led to humanitarian crises of staggering proportions around the world. The need to help remains enormous.” […] “Because considerable portions of these situations are caused by those espousing one kind of religious belief or another (as tragically misapplied as that belief may be), then it only seems right that others of equal but more constructive religious conviction ought to help remedy these situations and set right what has gone wrong. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sees its efforts at humanitarian aid in that light.”

Humanitarian aid
has a cost. But I think that I will speak for every member of my Church in saying that it’s a cost we are eager to pay. We don’t know what tomorrow will bring for us, so we have to prepare ourselves and also lend a hand to help those who are suffering now. Latter-day Saints believe that we are all brothers and sisters in spirit and children of God, our Heavenly Father. Being charitable to our spiritual family is essential!

However, I pointed out to a fellow member last April that we tend to be too “Church oriented” when it comes to service and humanitarian efforts:

"Yes I am a member of the Church and I know how much the Church does in Humanitarian Services. I have in the past donated several time throught the tithing bill or by internet on the LDS Charities website. However, I don't think we can always say "Church first, it's better..." like I have heard several times. There are NGOs that know the specific needs of a region, a village, etc. Charity can't be only seen through the prism of the (amazing) work of the humanitarian departments of our church. How could we say to non-members: "I'm generous and do good deeds but it always goes through the work of my Church and yes that helps everyone even those not of our Faith". I'm a convert, the only one from my family, and I want to help "all" men and women, because that is the Gospel. 
I support associations and NGOs from diverse backgrounds, and for me it's a way of showing God's love to other people. I would like to see more interactions between the members of the Church on a local level and other groups and religions. The Apostles are telling us to let our Light shine forth. By encouraging NGO that are there to implant autonomy, self-reliance, educative programms, etc, we enable the people to be stronger and wiser. As one of my dear friend says: "We can't convert everybody, but we can definitely try to make them ready for it!"

I have the hope and the desire to build kind and strong relationships with men and women, from other Faiths or no Faith, who work for the betterment of this world. An interfaith project, with my friends from my local ward (= a parish in the LDS Church) or just me, is something I’m actually planning for next year. I will be happy to share my experience with you during the 2016 Interfaith Ramadan series. Meanwhile, I wish you, dear reader, a year full of Charity and great meetings with like-minded people with whom you can progress. 

Eolia is a French mom of two young children (soon three!) who moved to Germany 22 months ago, following her husband in his new job. Baptized in the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints in July 2005, her first affiliation to a faith even if she already considered herself a Christian before, she kept her will of openness and of discovering the mysteries of the world. She refuses to stick labels on people and prefers to go with the flow (of the Holy Ghost or cosmic energy…) and doesn’t let herself be too overwhelmed by events. She knows she’s far from perfect and the image of pure kindness (just ask her kids how “mean” she can be when she says no), but that doesn’t stop her from taking another step on her journey toward God. And if she meets open-minded people from various backgrounds on the way, that’s even better! She blogs at La Cité des Vents, a bilingual blog (French / English).

Previous Interfaith Ramadan Post: Faith and Ketchup: A Christian Perspective on Fasting 

Faith and Ketchup: Christian Reflections on a Ramadan Fast - Ashlynn Stillwell

This year, I decided to fast each Friday of Ramadan in solidarity with my Muslim brothers and sisters. As a Protestant Christian, the Muslim approach to fasting with no food or water from sunup to sundown was not familiar to me. When I was in college, I fasted for one day of Ramadan with a close friend who had recently converted to Islam, but I was certainly no expert on Ramadan and “proper” (whatever that means) Muslim practices. But I decided to give it a try each Friday of the holy month.

In reflecting on my Ramadan experience, inspired by the #Christians4Ramadan hashtag, I realized three important elements that made my fast deeply rewarding: support, sight, and symmetry.

Support. The first Friday of Ramadan, I set my cell phone alarm for 3:45 AM for the sehr meal. I got out of bed as quietly as possible, in hopes of not waking my husband and young sons, and ate a completely forgettable meal in the dark. Two glasses of water later and I went back to bed, expecting to spend my foodless, waterless day alone. My husband, however, gently reminded me of the importance of support, including support from those not fasting. He quietly rolled over, snuggled into me, and whispered, “Happy Ramadan.” Simple words, but a remarkable message of support.

Sight. My fast proceeded uneventfully, as I said a quiet prayer each time my stomach growled and moved on with my day. That evening, as my husband and I picked up our boys from daycare, our eldest requested dinner at a local burger joint. Sure, we agreed, it was Friday after all, and it had been a long week. It was a little awkward to order food for the boys and not myself, but ultimately not a big deal. When the food arrived at our table, instead of eating, I simply watched the boys eat. Typical meals with a 2 and 4 year-old are hectic to say the least, a balancing act of fulfilling their needs and wants while attempting to eat my own food with minimal spilling, throwing, yelling, and the like. For the first time that I can remember, I had sight to simply see my boys enjoy their food. The youngest is quite passionate about food of all kinds, but that evening, he was especially passionate about ketchup. Ketchup. The simplest of condiments. I found myself thanking God for the sight to observe my little boy and his passion for ketchup. I long to have passion for God like his passion for ketchup.

Credit: Ashlynn

Symmetry. At the end of the day, in preparing for my solo iftar, I found myself grossly unprepared. I hadn’t planned ahead at all, and now I would likely end up eating something forgettable (again). Don’t Muslims break the fast with milk and dates? Hmm, well, we never buy dates, but… in the cabinet, I found some dates! A bowl of dried fruit leftover from a Passover Seder meal we celebrated at our United Methodist Church. Cold milk and a sweet date, with remarkable symmetry in my interfaith efforts. Dates from a traditional Jewish meal, celebrated in our Christian church, breaking my Muslim fast. Amazing.

As a religious person – an imperfect spiritual being – I look back on my Ramadan fast and smile. I never expected to deepen my faith in response to my son’s passion for ketchup. But God is mysterious, and God speaks to us in many different ways. Even through the passionate example of a 2 year-old with ketchup. I too can open my heart to passion for God.

Ashlynn Stillwell is an Assistant Professor in Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in her "day" job. More information about her professional research can be found at Ashlynn is also a member of the Board of Directors of Faith in Place, an interfaith environmental non-profit based out of Chicago. She attends Wesley United Methodist Church in Urbana, IL. 

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

The Side Entrance Of Religion - Kristina ElSayed

I am un-mosqued. Every mosque I’ve ever been in feels like a side entrance. It doesn’t matter if we walk through the same door as the men, or sit directly across the latticework barrier from them. To the non-Muslim parent of Muslim children, the mosque feels unwelcome.

To be fair, I am also un-churched. Every church I’ve been in since entering my interfaith marriage has left me feeling unwelcome. Even when the church is progressive and open and welcoming to people of all walks of life, they don’t recognize Islam as a credible religion. To the Christian mother of Muslim children, the church feels unwelcome.

What do we do when we enter interfaith relationships and build a life with someone who has a different belief system than your own? You could convert. Your spouse could convert. You could recognize both religions, educate and celebrate them equally with your children. You could ignore your religion in an effort to raise your children with once centralized religious practice.

In my life, I chose to have my children grow up with once central religion. I have learned about Islam formally for many years, and continue to learn on my own. But Islam has never called me. I am filled with a strong spiritual connection, but I have no place to worship that fits my life. I have no community with whom I can worship.

For the first 10 years of my life attending the Mosque, I would sit aside trying to decipher the Arabish that was coming through the speakers. Sometimes I would listen from the hallway, and other times I would listen from the balcony. Most of the words were in heavily accented English, with random Arabic words thrown in for clarity to the majority. If you are like me, once an Arabic word is thrown into the lecture, I’m stuck because my brain goes off trying to recall the meaning, or I’m lost because I don’t know the meaning. The lecture looses focus and I never regain the message.

During this time when I was actively searching for Islamic knowledge and guidance, trying to listen and understand if I was being called to become Muslim. I would listen to the Khutbah Kast from the Islamic Center at New YorkUniversity. Imam Khaled Latif became my Imam. He spoke American English and he grew up in New Jersey. Imam Latif used Quranic scripture and connected it to every day life in a way that I was used to hearing from attending church and listening to sermons. I learned how Islam could grow and adapt and help the American Muslim community. Then the podcasts ended in favor of YouTube videos I don’t have time to sit and watch.

These days, the mosque I attend has an English Jummah every Friday. When we attend this service, we are allowed to enter the same door that the men use, and we sit at the back of the main prayer hall. Most of the leaders are high school boys who are born American English speakers, Muslim scholars in the making. I am often the only woman there, sitting in the back with my daughters. I can see the speaker and I can sit in the same room as my family. It isn’t ideal but its fine. It’s progress.

In my struggle to discover a religious practice that fits my life, I have studied the major World Religions. I have read about Buddhism, Hinduism, Judiasm, Islam and Christianity. While Christianity does not have all of the answers, it does have characteristics that marry well with my Islamic life. There are denominations and churches that recognize that God’s message doesn’t end with Jesus.

Discovering that Unitarianism sees the logic and wisdom of every religious practice has been a revelation and a relief. Through my search, I found The Dublin Unitarian Church Podcast. After listening to the Reverend Bridget Spain talk so eloquently about a central topic and incorporate lessons from Christianity, Islam and Judaism in a single sermon made my heart full. Finally, I found a source of spiritual growth.

I am still un-churched. My approach to my religious practice often feels like I’m going around the side entrance of the restaurant to get the scraps and peace together a meal. Now at least my soul is being fed on a regular basis.

Kristina ElSayed is a mother of three, a wife, a jeweler and a writer.  She creates empowerment jewelry for people of all faiths and spiritual paths at VianneFere and writes about raising Muslim children as a non-Muslim parent.  You can read more at My Islamic Life and AltMuslimah. Kristina can be reached through her website or on twitter @myislamiclife

Kristina previously wrote Fasting For Faith and contributed to the What Can I Do If I'm Not Fasting? panel for IFRam2015. 

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

I Have No Earthly Reason To Be Fasting. So Why Do It? - SJ Jacobs

I have no earthly reason to be fasting. My colleagues regard me with bemusement, my grandmother thinks I am on the verge of converting and my partner continually threatens to move out until I am done (not seriously, of course). But I am a happy atheist, content in my relationship with the divine, that being that I have none. I am not fasting in solidarity with anything, to raise money for anything or because I am considering Islam as my next spiritual home. So why do it? Why go through 30 days of feeling hungry most of the time and sick from trying to eat for about 4 hours a day? Because in January 2015 I started a yearlong project to observe every holy day in the six largest religions in the UK (Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Sikhism). 

In January I made a commitment to myself that I would learn about religions that, by and large, I knew nothing about by celebrating, meditating, praying and fasting with them. The holy days in themselves are merely a portal, a convenient way into each religion, tapping into the special and outstanding parts of the religious year. Although it is quite possible to observe the days mechanically, without engagement, I wanted to immerse myself, if only for a short period, in the faiths themselves. I don’t expect to get more than a brief glimpse into each world in this fashion, but it felt more authentic than any other way I could think of, short of actually converting!

Every time I mentioned the project to anyone, they would say incredulously “but surely you are not also doing Ramadan?”  and I would think “I believe that Ramadan counts as a festival, yes” and I would feel mildly sarcastic about the whole thing. The next question would be “but you’re not fasting??” Yes, I would, indeed, be fasting, as I am of sound mind and body and had little excuse not to.  “But you still get to drink water, right?”  Wrong.  “You’re crazy”. It was funny where my friends and family drew the line. They could just about accept the fasting part, but the idea that it is a Hard Fast just lost them entirely.  How could I explain that I was just one of millions of people around the world who would be having this experience?  How could I begin to show that my fast is a doddle compared to people in Pakistan who are fasting in 45 degree heat, or people in Iceland, who are fasting for upwards of 22 hours a day? I realised that many of my secular friends would never have fasted for a single day in their lives. This idea blew me away, given that, by the end of this year, I will have spent almost 100 days under some kind of dietary restriction.

To try to give people an insight as to what it was like to be on this journey, I blogged about my experiences.  I am blogging fairly frequently during Ramadan, mostly when something changes in how I feel or if I read something particularly fascinating. This is a personal journey and I cannot claim to speak for anyone else observing the Holy Month.  At one point my line manager said to me “It’s so great that you are doing this project while working here. We are learning so much!”  and, as gratified as I was that she liked what I was doing, I reminded her that, in order to understand Islam, she had better speak to a Muslim, not a Jewish atheist.

I make no claims to understand anything beyond the surface of the meaning of Ramadan, or of the whole of Islam for that matter. But, for what it’s worth, here is what I have learned:

1.      It gets better. Fasting is hard throughout the period, but it’s never quite as bad as the first two days.  I was miserable and cold and, unexpectedly, very depressed.  After that, you get into a routine and, if you are not careful, you can even start to get bored.

2.       It’s not about the fast.  People who ask “are you fasting for Ramadan?” are asking the wrong question.  It is about the prayer, the giving and the understanding that this is a holy month, given by Allah (swt) for us to breathe deep, think deep and let go of what is holding us back. It is about community, feeding one another and the knowledge that, everywhere in the world, Muslims are doing the same. The much better question is “What are you doing for Ramadan?”  It could be feeding other people their Iftar meal.  It could be giving zakat to the needy.  It could be simply being a positive force in the universe in whatever form that takes.

3.       I really should have read the Qu’ran earlier. I had advice earlier in the year that I should not try to read it until I had explore Islam and felt I understood it. I feel now that this was not good advice. Better advice came from the Sikh Guru Har Rai, who was off the view that we should read and chant even when we don’t understand, as understanding would come in time. Reading the Qu’ran, as I am now, I see that, even though I come at it from a Judeo-Christian perspective, there is much I can glean. I would like to continue my study and, perhaps, even get to some of the Hadiths, well after Ramadan is over.

4.       Ramadan is about community. Actually, I feel that this is more or less universal. All faiths are about community, to a certain extent. In many faiths, the coming together in worship is almost as important as the worship itself. On the days when I was breaking my fast on my own, late at night, I was very lonely. On the days when I broke my fast with others, trying not to overeat, sharing fasting nightmares and discussing the spiritual issues of the day, I felt much better and much better equipped to continue the fast the following day.  In Ramadan, as in many things, it is only as good as the company you are keeping.

So would I ever fast again for Ramadan? Not on your nelly. I love food too much and I am much more productive and focused when I know that my next meal is around the corner.  As much as I have a new found appreciation for the art of fasting, I don’t feel as though it is as good for me spiritually as other forms of worship. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t experience Ramadan in other ways. Maybe next year I will feed people at Iftar. Maybe I will give some money. Or maybe I will just smile at my Muslim cousins as we pass on the street and wish them a “Ramadan Mubarak”.

SJ Jacobs is a newbie in the interfaith world.  They keep a blog at charting their journey in observing all the festivals in all the major religions in 2015.  They apologise for any offence caused by anything, always. It comes from ignorance, not malice. You can follow them on @alltheholydays on Twitter.

Monday, 13 July 2015

A Monolithic Islam? Forget About It - Ro Waseem

People trouble me, sometimes. I often find myself wondering: why are people so judgmental? Perhaps, it is because a judgmental heart lacks introspection. I think that’s it. Yes, lacking introspection!
One of the most troubling trends I see within the Muslim community is the amount of hatred and suspicion towards Muslims who adopt different approaches and interpretations of Islam. 
With the Takfeeri ideology (ex-communication) on the rise, nearly every Muslim considers himself to be “rightly guided” and others, even if they differ on minor issues, to be “deluded by the devil” or a “Fitnah”, greatly hindering co-existence and mutual respect between Muslims. Sectarianism, which for this very reason has been severely discouraged in the Quran, has destabilized the Muslim community from within, resulting in every group happy with their version while looking down upon others.
We must realize that Islam is not a monolith, and that it’s impossible for nearly 2 billion Muslims to share the same interpretation of it. There is no “true” Islam, I would argue. Rather, what we have are Islams. At best, the “true” Islam, in my opinion, is relative to the person and is the interpretation that allows you to grow and evolve the most as a person, provided — a very important distinction to make – provided that the core of the Quran is not tampered with. And the Quran makes the case for this on the basis of the following verses:

“Who listen to the Word and follow the best of it. Those are the ones Allah has guided, and those are people of understanding.” Quran, 39:18
“And follow the best of that which is sent down to you from your Lord, before the torment comes on you suddenly while you perceive not!” Quran, 39:55

These verses, which definitely demand more attention and pondering from the mainstream Muslims; speak against a monolithic, institutionalized Islam as they ask the reader to follow the “best” from what is revealed. If there was supposed to be one “official interpretation”, there would absolutely be no point in asking us to follow the best therein. How do you follow the best of what’s already best, anyways?
Most people are unaware of this, but the Quran itself talks of a plurality of paths to Islam:

Through this Book, God guides to paths of Islam (peace), those who seek His Approval. He brings them out of darkness into the light of His grace, and guides them to the straight path. Quran, 5:16

This is because God acknowledges our diversity, calling it one of His Signs (30:22); and unlike the clergymen, does not want us all to be identical robots.
Combining these points together, the Quran provides a comprehensive rebuttal to the idea of there being a “true” Islam that is supposed to be shared by all of its adherents.

Dealing with differences
Naturally, when we talk of nearly 2 billion Muslims, there are going to be theological differences. What matters though, is how we deal with these differences. We may have intellectual disagreements within the diverse Islamic thought, but we must not foster hate towards this diversity. 
Either we can acknowledge our differences and embrace them for the common good, focusing rather on the fundamental values that Islam teaches us, or we could continue with the “my way or the highway” ideology that is the main cause of sectarianism, again – which is severely discouraged in the Quran. (I delve on this further here)
Not being honest and true to ourselves, I believe, is at the root of sectarianism. We condemn others for their views, knowing full well that there was a time when we, ourselves, didn’t know what we know today. The problem, then, is that we’re overly critical of others, and fairly passive of ourselves, when it should totally be the other way around! We are quick to judge others because we only see things from one perspective–our perspective–which is limited and biased. We don’t try to analyze the reasons why people are the way they are because that is a hard task, requiring effort and broad mindedness.

Now, there is this weird idea people have that being blunt is the same as being provocative, insulting, and demeaning. Some people, who like to think of themselves as being “straight-forward” believe that speaking “truth” to a person with a different point of view doesn’t require you to be polite, understanding, and reasonable. No, these characteristics are seen as attempts of “sugar-coating” or being “diplomatic” (as if that’s a bad thing). 
Well, guess what? Even if you’re right, no one would bother listening to you sincerely if you come off as snobbish and condescending. Doesn’t that negate the whole point of dialogue? If you are so keen on spreading your truth, don’t be in it to praise your ego and making a fool out of others. Because ultimately, you’re only fooling yourself!
There are some ethics of dialogue, and the Quran lays them down most wonderfully:

Invite to the path of your Lord with wisdom and good advice, and argue with them in the best possible manner. Your Lord is fully aware of who is misguided from His path, and He is fully aware of the guided ones. Quran, 16:125

Socrates once said, “When the debate is lost, slander becomes the tool of the loser.” In other words, when there are no intellectual points left to make, people resort to ad-hominem attacks to get the impression of superiority. 
Again and again, we must remind ourselves the purpose of Islam. It is not to look down upon others, but to bring yourself up. It is not to criticize others, but to prime yourself. Islam seeks to suppress the ego, not to magnify it. In fact, the Quran repeatedly reminds the reader that he is not sent as a “guardian” or “watcher” over the people (6:107, 88:22). Why then, is the focus not on ourselves, but on others?

Gradual as it was, I realized over the course of my journey as a Muslim that there are many spiritual paths leading to the same destination: peace and serenity.
Just because I disagree with X and Y on some points, does not mean that I discount their spiritual journey as “invalid”, or that I start calling them other derogatory labels. The important thing, rather, is that you keep on treading the path you have chosen for yourself, growing with each step. Growth should be the priority, not the means by which you grow. 
Yes, we can all help in correcting each other by having a dialogue on a variety of theological and spiritual aspects, but the only person who’s utterly wasting his time is he who himself won’t move, but will block the way of others; advising them that they’ve taken the wrong path.

As the Quran beautifully puts it:
Each of you chooses the direction to follow; then strive together toward all that is good. Whatever stand you take, God will bring you all together. Indeed, God is Able to do all things. Quran, 2:148

A monolithic Islam? Forget about it!
An inclusive and pluralistic Islam? Yes! And much more Islam will come to you that way!                                                                                                                  

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