Wednesday, 23 July 2014

A Ramadan of Firsts | Julian Bond

Iftar at London Synagogue | Credit: The Big Iftar

After twelve years working on Christian-Muslim relations (my twelfth anniversary was at the end of the first week of Ramadan) it might seem that there is little new to say. People may be aware that I spend most of my time looking for things that are new. The media too, hence my own approach, are constantly looking for new things and firsts. Sometimes, as with this Ramadan, we are surprised by things happening for the first time. And so it is that we had the first iftar (a ‘Big Iftar’) in a London synagogue this year, and another has already taken place. 

As Britain becomes more familiar with Ramadan more and more iftars are taking place which include people of other faiths, long may it continue! But there was one first which stood out for being both exceptionally welcome and unexpected. It was hosted by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, our Patron. The original suggestion came from the Big Iftar team, in fact from my colleague Zahra Imame, when we knew that we were breaking new ground, exploring iconic possibilities for Christian-hosted iftars. The Archbishop (office rather than person) has been involved in this important work for longer than I have. My son still gently parodies one of my earlier radio interviews by telephone which began with the immortal words, ‘Well … it all started with Archbishop Carey …’

Successive Archbishops have been great friends of the Muslim community, highlighted especially in the relationship between Archbishop Justin and our Co-Chair Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra. They demonstrated this publicly when responding as leaders of both our faiths to the tragic murder of Lee Rigby in May 2013. Celebrating these connections, amongst times of difficulty, as we celebrated the end of the day’s fasting and spiritual disciplines was a key moment. As Archbishops and staff have changed over the years we had to consult a previous colleague to establish that this was, in fact, not only the first Lambeth Palace iftar but its first ever Ramadan-related event.

The Archbishop also provided the place and the opportunity for the Christian Muslim Forum’s work over the last eight years to be celebrated through the presence of members and associates old and new, as well as well-respected senior leaders and representatives of the Muslim communities. It is a tribute to Forum’s values and ethos that our friends were describing it as a family reunion!

Ramadan is, of course, as is often emphasised, a time of prayer and peace. The Archbishop in a brief welcome and reflection before we broke the fast highlighted his own particular interest in reconciliation.

Speaking before the breaking of the fast, Archbishop Justin expressed his appreciation for the good relations that Christians and Muslims enjoy in the UK, and spoke of the need of people of different faiths to stand together against the backdrop of terrible violence and suffering, particularly in the Middle East.

“There is much that we need to talk about, and much that we can work on together; but tonight is about celebrating the importance of our friendships,” he said. {from the Archbishop of Canterbury’s website}

The Archbishop then commended us all to God. He was followed by Shaykh Ibrahim who challenged us to see the real meaning of Ramadan as more than fasting, rather spiritual refreshment and reconnection to God. Both led us in heartfelt prayers for peace, forgiveness and strengthening of relationships between people of both faiths.

One thing (of many!) that our two faiths have in common is prayer. It is surely right that we should pray with and for each other, perhaps especially at Ramadan with its extra focus on prayer and the living out of the life of prayer. Christians can pray that Muslims experience fully all the blessings of Ramadan and feel themselves closer to God. Likewise Muslims can pray for blessings and peace for their Christian neighbours, whether here in the UK or in troubled places around the world. Let’s get with the spirit of Ramadan, a time of generosity amongst the fasting, of love, devotion to God and hospitality. Ramadan is a Muslim season but we can all appreciate, more so as we get closer to those who observe it and share in it with them.

Julian Bond
Christian Muslim Forum

Previous Interfaith Ramadan Post: 
A Ramadan Message to ISIS: You Don't Speak For Islam | Qasim Rashid

Monday, 21 July 2014

A Ramadan Message to ISIS: You Don’t Speak For Islam | Qasim Rashid

It is a real privilege to be able to publish an excerpt from Qasim Rashid's book EXTREMIST, an Amazon #1 Best Seller on Islam, which has been adapted specifically for Interfaith Ramadan in light of the ongoing situation in Iraq and the surrounding region. 

     The terrorist organization ISIS has set a new low standard of barbarity and inhumanity. Their most recent act of terrorism is a demand that Christians either convert, pay the jizya, leave their homes, or be killed.
     Nothing in Islam or Prophet Muhammad’s example supports ISIS’s barbarity. The below modified excerpt from my book EXTREMIST addresses the issue of jizya and dhimmis directly.
    Let’s start with dhimmi. Dhimmi is a historical term referring to non-Muslim subjects of a Muslim state.1 The word literally means “one whose responsibility is taken” or “people with whom a covenant or compact has been made.”2 Dhimmi describes citizens of a Muslim state afforded security over their persons, property, and religious practice in return for a tax (the jizya). Historically, when empires won battles and wars, common people were subjugated, looted, and forced to work as laborers and serve in the military. Islam did away with such practices by affording all non-Muslim subjects the special dhimmi status.3

Regarding dhimmis Prophet Muhammadsa said, “If anyone wrongs a man with whom a covenant has been made [i.e., a dhimmi], or curtails any right of his, or imposes on him more than he can bear, or takes anything from him without his ready agreement, I shall be his adversary on the Day of Resurrection.”4

Prophet Muhammadsa also made it clear that protecting the lives and honor of dhimmis was the responsibility of the Muslims, and failing in this regard would incur God’s wrath: “Whoever killed a Mu'ahid (a person who is granted the pledge of protection by the Muslims, i.e. a dhimmi) shall not smell the fragrance of Paradise though its fragrance can be smelt at a distance of forty years (of traveling).”5 At the conquest of Mecca, Prophet Muhammadsa had the upper hand against those who had persecuted him for more than two decades. He could have silenced his enemies forever. Instead, he turned to the Meccans and declared, “I say to you what the Prophet Joseph said to his brothers: ‘No blame against you! You are free.’”6
Even before the conquest of Mecca, the Charter of Medina set the precedent for the treatment of mua’ahids (dhimmis are those non-Muslim subjects who become subjects after a war. If there is no war and there is a negotiated settlement, then they are called mua’ahids). When Prophet Muhammadsa was popularly appointed Medina’s ruler, he entered into a pact with the Jewish communities of Medina. Through this pact, he granted equal political rights to non-Muslims. They were ensured complete freedom of religion and practice.

After the Prophet Muhammad’ssa demise, non-Muslim inhabitants of the fast-expanding Islamic empire enjoyed the same dignified treatment.7 When Hadhrat Umarra, second khalifa of Prophet Muhammadsa, conquered Jerusalem, he entered into a pact with all inhabitants of the city, declaring:

In the name of Allah, the most Gracious, most Beneficent. This is a covenant of peace granted by the slave of Allah, the commander of the faithful ‘Umar to the people of Jerusalem. They are granted protection for their lives, their property, their churches, and their Crosses, in whatever condition they are. All of them are granted the same protection. No one will dwell in their churches, nor will they be destroyed and nothing will be reduced of their belongings. Nothing shall be taken from their Crosses or their property. There will be no compulsion on them regarding their religion, nor will any one of them be troubled.8
A dhimmi assassinated Hadhrat Umarra in 644 CE. Rather than lashing out against dhimmis, at his deathbed, Hadhrat Umarra specifically ordered:
I urge him (i.e. the new Caliph) to take care of those non-Muslims who are under the protection of Allah and His Messenger in that he should observe the convention agreed upon with them, and fight on their behalf (to secure their safety) and he should not over-tax them beyond their capability.9

Indeed, Hadhrat Umarra merely followed Prophet Muhammad’ssa noble teaching regarding Christians who live under Muslim rule. In a famous letter that Prophet Muhammadsa wrote to the Christians of Saint Catherine’s Monastery at Sinai:
This is a message from Muhammad ibn Abdullah as a covenant to those who adopt Christianity near and far—we are with them. Verily I, the servants, the helpers, and my followers defend them, because Christians are my citizens; and by God I hold out against anything that displeases them. No compulsion is to be on them. Neither are their judges to be removed from their jobs nor their monks from their monasteries. No one is to destroy a house of their religion, to damage it, or to carry anything from it to the Muslims’ houses. Should anyone take any of these, he would spoil God’s covenant and disobey His Prophet. Verily, they are my allies and have my secure charter against all that they hate. No one is to force them to travel or to oblige them to fight. The Muslims are to fight for them. If a female Christian is married to a Muslim, it is not to take place without her approval. She is not to be prevented from visiting her church to pray. Their churches are to be respected. They are neither to be prevented from repairing them nor the sacredness of their covenants. No one of the nation (Muslims) is to disobey the covenant until the Last Day (end of the world).10
Contrary to ISIS’s barbarity, Prophet Muhammad’ssa example shows that Islam demands equality for all citizens.

Next, I transition to ISIS’s demands regarding jizya. The jizya tax was the only tax imposed on non-Muslims; it was typically lower than taxes on the Muslims of that state and was paid by fewer people. The term jizya comes from same Arabic root as jaza’, which means “reward” and “compensation.” So, according to Sharia or Islamic law, this money was returned to the minorities. The jizya tax, like other taxes, creates accountability on the part of the government to do right by its citizens. In Christian-ruled Sicily, for example, the Christian officials had such a tax for minorities—and they too called it “jizya.”

Thus, non-Muslims paid jizya as free citizens of the Muslim state in return for the protection of their civil and political liberties. Aside from this, Muslims were also taxed, and often at a rate heavier than the jizya. Additionally, Muslims were obligated to perform military service, from which all non-Muslims were exempt.11

Jizya served as the sole citizen tax to assure protection from all foreign attacks. Thus, if protection could not be promised, then jizya was impermissible. In The Preaching of Islam, Thomas Arnold records a statement of the Muslim general Khalid bin Waleed: “In a treaty made by Khalid with some town in the neighborhood of Hirah, he writes; ‘If we protect you, then Jizya is due to us; but if we do not, then it is not.’”12

Abu Ubaida was a famous Muslim commander of Syria. When he entered the city of Hims, he made a pact with its non-Muslim inhabitants and collected the jizya as agreed. When the Muslims learned of a massive advance toward the city by the Roman emperor Heraclius, they felt they would not be able to protect its citizens. Consequently, Abu Ubaida ordered all the dues taken as jizya to be returned to the people of the city. He said to them, “We are not able to defend you anymore and now you have complete authority over your matters.”13 Al-Azdi records Abu Ubaida’s statement as follows:
We have returned your wealth back to you because we detest taking your wealth and then failing to protect your land. We are moving to another area and have called upon our brethren, and then we will fight our enemy. If Allah helps us defeat them we shall fulfill our covenant with you except that you yourselves do not like it then.14
The response that the people of Hims gave to the Muslims further substantiates that as dhimmis they were not in any way oppressed but instead lovingly embraced:
Verily your rule and justice is dearer to us than the tyranny and oppression in which we used to live.15 May God again make you ruler over us and may God’s curse be upon the Byzantines who used to rule over us. By the Lord, had it been they, they would have never returned us anything; instead they would have seized all they could from our possessions.16
Blinded by their own egos, the leaders of ISIS ignore this beautiful history. Professor Bernard Lewis observes that dhimmis welcomed the change from Byzantine to Arab rule. They “found the new yoke far lighter than the old, both in taxation and in other matters, and that some even among the Christians of Syria and Egypt preferred the rule of Islam to that of Byzantines.”17

Moreover, the jizya was not forcefully collected. It was a tax paid willingly as a favor for the protection of the state. Hadhrat Mirza Bashiruddin Mahmud Ahmadra, second khalifa of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, notes:
The expression “with their own hand” is used here in a figurative sense, signifying (1) that Jizya should not be forcibly taken from the People of the Book but that they should pay it with their own hand i.e. they should agree to pay it willingly…; or (2) that they should pay it out of hand i.e. in ready money and not in the form of deferred payment; or (3) that they should pay it considering it as a favor from Muslims, the word, yad (hand) also meaning a favor.18
Moreover, the Muslim state exempted from jizya those dhimmis who chose to serve in the military. Sir Thomas Arnold elaborates:
When any Christian people served in the Muslim army, they were exempted from the payment of this tax. Such was the case with the tribe of al-Jurajima, a Christian tribe in the neighborhood of Antioch who made peace with the Muslims, promising to be their allies and fight on their side in battle, on condition that they should not be called upon to pay jizya and should receive their proper share of the booty. When the Arab conquests were pushed to the north of Persia in A.H. 22, a similar agreement was made with a frontier tribe, which was exempted from the payment of jizya in consideration of military service. We find similar instances of remission of jizya in the case of Christians who served in the army or navy under the Turkish rule.19

Furthermore, only employed men paid this tax while women, the elderly, the ill, and the unemployed were exempt.20 But while non-Muslim women were exempt from the jizya, Muslim women were required to pay the zakaat regardless of whether or not they worked.

In reality, the jizya tax was an agreement between those non-Muslims who chose to live in Muslim lands and under the Muslim government. The Spanish Almorvids, for example, are a living testimony to the integrity and compassion with which Muslims treated Jews and Christians. Historian Gwendolyn Hall cites Francisco Codera, who wrote in 1899 while citing ancient Spanish historians:

The Almoravids were a country people, religious and honest…Their reign was tranquil, and was untroubled by any revolt, either in the cities, or in the countryside… There was no tribute, no tax, or contribution for the government except the charity tax and the tithe. Prosperity constantly grew; the population rose, and everyone could freely attend to their own affairs. Their reign was free of deceit, fraud, and revolt, and they were loved by everyone.
learning was cherished, literacy was wide-spread, scholars were subsidized, capital punishment was abolished… Christians and Jews were tolerated within their realms. When the Christians rose up in revolt, they were not executed but were exiled to Morocco instead. The Almoravids were criticized, however, for being excessively influenced by their women.21

At a time when the West drowns in misogyny, perhaps the West could learn a thing or two from the Almoravid Muslims and ensure that women become “excessively” influential.

In sum, as Muslims we hold fast to the word of our beloved Master Prophet Muhammadsa regarding dhimmis; i.e., the protected: “By God, Christians are my citizens and I hold fast against all that displeases them.”

ISIS must be brought to justice for their crimes against Christians and all humanity. Whatever religion they claim—it is not Islam.

Qasim Rashid is an attorney and author of the #1 Amazon Best Seller on Islam, EXTREMIST. He's also the author of the critically acclaimed book, The Wrong Kind of Muslim. Qasim serves as the national spokesperson for Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA. Find Qasim on Twitter @MuslimIQ.

A selection of key figures speaking out against ISIS:
- British leaders condemn ISIS
- CAIR press release (US)
- Qatar-based Egyptian Qaradawi
- Statement by Leader of Ahmadi community
- MuslimMatters: A historical analysis of ISIS and manipulation of Quran


         1 . Juan Eduardo Campo, ed., “dhimmi,” in Encyclopedia of Islam (Infobase Publishing, 2010), 194–95.
2 . Edward William Lane, Arabic-English Lexicon (London: Willams & Norgate, 1863), 975–76.
3 . H. Patrick Glenn, Legal Traditions of the World (Oxford University Press, 2007), 218–19.
4 . Sahih Sunan Abu Dawud, #3052. (Emphasis added.)
5 . Sahih Jami’ Bukhari, vol. 9, Book 83, #49.
6 . Zadul-Ma'ad, vol. l, 424.
7 . Glenn, Legal Traditions, 219.
8 . Tarikh at-Tabari, 2/308.
9 . Sahih Jami’ Bukhari, vol. 4, Book 52, #287.
10 . Prophet Muhammad, “Prophet Muhammad’s Letter to St. Catherine’s Monastery at Sinai,” in ZMD Corporation, Muslim History: 570–1950 C.E., trans. Dr. A. Zahoor and Dr. Z. Haq (Gaithersburg, MD), 167.
11 . See Accessed August 12, 2012.
12 . Thomas Walker Arnold, The Preaching of Islam: A History of the Propagation of the Muslim Faith (2007) 61.
13 . William N. Lees, Futuh ash-Sham ed. (Culcutta: Baptist Mission, 1854), 1/162.
14 . Ibid. 137–38.
15 . Ibid., 1/162.
16 . Ibid., 138.
17 . Bernard Lewis, What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response (2002), 57.
18 . See Accessed August 12, 2012.
19 . Arnold, The Preaching of Islam, 61–62.
20 . Ibid., 60.
21 . Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, Slavery and African Ethnicities in the Americas: Restoring the Links (2005), 6.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

How I Find My Way in Ramadan as a Non-Muslim | Stephanie Meade

For the initial years I celebrated Ramadan with my Muslim husband, it wasn’t about much more than the food, and my questions. I learned to cook the traditional meals he grew up eating and fasted intermittently while trying to gain a better understanding of fasting and Islam generally. Once we had kids old enough to celebrate, Ramadan became about establishing traditions to make it special for them. We decorated our house, read special Ramadan holiday books, baked star and moon cookies and crafted garlands, countdown calendars and banners. But all of these efforts were missing something. They were devoid of the essence of Ramadan—the spiritual practice. 

Without the spiritual component, I wrestled between the beauty Ramadan inspired and the burden I sometimes felt it imposed, even though I felt terribly shallow and selfish thinking, let alone admitting that. There was the constant cooking of elaborate meals for 30 days, the camping trip invitations declined, the weekend brunches and summer BBQs with friends we skipped.  When I talked this through with my husband, he encouraged me not to take part in Ramadan if I felt burdened, as that is not what Ramadan is supposed to be. But to me that wasn't quite the solution. I loved the principle behind the practice—experiencing hunger to better understand poverty and the deepening of one’s own spirituality, compassion and patience through fasting. I wanted to find a better way to embrace it as a non-Muslim, beyond that of a surrogate emptily carrying my husband’s belief. 

I began with small changes that have grown into traditions. One of them was to use iftars (the meal to break the fast) as a means to reconnect with each other. Every night after iftar, my husband and I sit in a dim-lit room and just talk over tea or decaf coffee. This may seem like no big deal, but usually we spend every night on our laptops working. Taking some quiet time on a usually busy weeknight for just us to talk, with the kids already asleep, feels like a luxury. Another small change was my mindset around cooking. Rather than feeling burdened by all my time spent in the kitchen, I see Ramadan as a chance to rethink our diets and climb out of the recipe ruts we have fallen into.

Although I was getting closer, I still felt like a curious traveler in this spiritual maze of Ramadan. As I watched my husband focus on his own spiritual development through fasting, prayer and visits to mosque, I longed to find a place within the practice, but it was not clear to me how until I realized something. Traditions are like the ‘how to’ of a belief. But there must be a solid foundation that allows any tradition to flourish.  And I had been trying to celebrate through food, crafts and small rituals without embracing the essence of Ramadan. It was like trying to master a bunch of yoga poses while skipping the deep breathing. 

I first tried really embracing the belief by going right to the source. I put the Quran on my bedside table (and I own not one but two English translations) for several Ramadans only to not read more than a few pages each year. I also asked myself if just becoming Muslim was the missing piece (it was the obvious one) that would solve my inner unrest. But it was not that easy. Having not had a faith for most of my life, just picking one when I see the beauty in all, is not a decision I’ve been able to come to. All religions have the same principles of love and kindness underlying them. It feels reductionist to me to just pick one over another. 

But this year I decided to take a new approach that feels more authentic. I am focusing on my own beliefs within the rhythms of Ramadan by reading books reflective of my spiritual development. Since I was a teen, I have been an active reader of all sorts of spiritually oriented books. Early on, this was Native American spirituality, then it was Buddhism and, for many years, I have been drawn to books from various Indian gurus. This year during Ramadan, I’ve been reading Yogananda.  The interesting thing is I see many parallels to Islam. “If you are a slave to your senses, you can not be happy. If you are a master of your desires and appetites, you will be a really happy person.” Fasting teaches you to master your desires and through it, you develop not just compassion for humankind but a deeper sense of happiness.

My approach to Ramadan may be unconventional but focusing on my own spirituality feels right. Maybe I am finally finding my way after all.

Credit: Stephanie Meade

Stephanie Meade is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of InCultureParent, an online magazine for parents raising little global citizens. After many moves worldwide, she currently lives in Berkeley, California with her husband and two Moroccan-American daughters but she’s always restless for the next global adventure. 

Previous: Sharing Iftar with Friends | Dr Andrew Smith

Saturday, 19 July 2014

Sharing Iftar with Friends | Dr Andrew Smith

Credit: Dr Andrew Smith

Near the start of Ramadan I was sitting in my friend’s house waiting for Iftar. Several members of his family were there along with some members of our inter-faith young leaders group which included myself (evangelical Christian – but not very young), a Catholic, a Hindu and a Sikh. There was a lot of laughter, conversation and good humoured banter throughout the evening. The homemade food was delicious and the evening ended with a real sense of gratitude for what we had eaten and the experience of sharing Iftar with such a diverse group of good friends.

I’ve been involved in interfaith work for about 20 years and been to a few Iftars in that time, but this year it’s reached new heights. I’ve been invited to several and often more than one a day. I’ve also fasted on some of the days, although I usually start the fast with my regular breakfast at 8am but then refrain from food or drink until the fast is opened at 9:30pm.

The experience of sharing the meals has given me pause for thought, when we think of fasting we tend to focus on the physical difficulty: clearly to train one’s body and mind to go without food is a challenge especially when it’s for such a long time as is the case with Ramadan in the UK this year. One of the things I’ve noticed when I’ve been fasting is how often I would usually eat a small snack, have a quick drink or taste food whilst cooking my boys’ meals. At each of these moments the physical act of the fasting becomes a mental act as we become conscious of reflex actions and applying self-discipline. Fasting, so easily perceived as physical, is a significant mental exercise. Of course it also encourages us to focus outward using the hunger pangs to remember the many millions starving and to have a small glimpse into their experience.

For me as a Christian, as for many other Christians and Muslims, fasting is not just a physical or mental but a spiritual one. When I was speaking to young Christians about fasting, I had to remind them that Jesus expected his disciples to fast but that it should not be seen as a chore. It’s not the same as being told you can’t watch TV for a week as a punishment for bad behaviour. Fasting  is about making space for prayer, for denying ourselves food and drink in order to rely on God to sustain us. 

The moments of thought when we are about to eat, or the pangs of hunger can be used to point or thoughts and prayers towards God. Time usually spent cooking and eating can be used for prayer or reading the scriptures. The significance of fasting is that the physical, mental and spiritual all combine and build on each other. The spiritual life encourages fasting, hunger pangs remind us of God’s provision the stopping and thinking creates space for prayer which inspires the fast and so the circle continues.

However, the experience of Iftar has taught me two things for further reflection. Firstly the communal nature of Iftar is a really significant part of fasting. As Christians we, like Muslims, affirm the communal nature of our faith, but the act of sharing Iftar reinforces this community even if during the day we are fasting alone at work or at school. By knowing that you’ll come together at the end of the day is a great encouragement to keep on going. 

The Bible speaks of us spurring one another on in good work and that we should encourage one another and build each other up. A Muslim friend once said to me that we should try to outdo one another with acts of righteousness. Waiting to eat with friends at the end of the day certainly encouraged me to keep going, the spiritual exercise of fasting was made easier by the encouragement of knowing that friends were doing it and that we would end it together.

This leads me to my final reflection; that how we end a fast can be as important and meaningful as the actual fast. In the past when I’ve fasted, I’ve just ended it with a quiet meal by myself or with my immediate family (there’s only four of us). But to meet with friends and to have the ritual of eating dates and prayer before the meal gave a highlight and focus for the end of the day. It reminded me that faith is not an isolated task but that, counter to the individualism of wider society; faith inspires and is inspired by community.

So thanks to all the friends who have invited me to Iftar, it’s been a very special Ramadan for me so far and one that has encouraged me to revisit and deepen the disciplines of my own Christian faith.

Dr Andrew Smith is the Director of Interfaith Relations for the Bishop of Birmingham as well as being founder and chair of trustees for The Feast a charity bringing together Christian and Muslim teenagers. He has been involved in interfaith work for the last 20 years and has written a number of articles on the issue and is a regular speaker on interfaith matters. He also works in association with Near Neighbours.

Previous: Are You Open to New Light? | Charlotte Dando
Next: How I Found My Way in Ramadan as a Non-Muslim | Stephanie Meade

Friday, 18 July 2014

‘Are you open to new light?’ | Charlotte Dando

Charlotte Dando

The idea of one defining moment, a road to Damascus style epiphany, the exact pin-point on the character arc of life which radically influences the path you take, well, it always seemed a little contrived to me.  Surely there are any number of factors and variables, choices, negotiations and happy coincidences which add up to define the people we each become. So I won’t claim any one moment of clarity in my own life journey, rather there were (and still are) numerous factors that led me to interfaith work. Perhaps the earliest indicator of this future route however, came when I was fourteen years old. The musty, mundaneness of a community centre was interrupted by the chattering and laughter of sixty teenagers. Streaks of brilliant orange material flashed across the hall as we watched a demonstration in turban tying. It was just one part of what my school inventively titled, “Sikhism Day”. 

I grew up in a highly multicultural part of England, home to a large minority of South Asian first, second, even third, generation immigrants of Muslim, Hindu, and (at my school especially) Sikh heritage. Yet a sheltered Roman Catholic upbringing had left no room for reflection on religious diversity – it simply didn’t exist in my little world. “Sikhism Day” was the first real taste of religious difference I remember experiencing. And I thoroughly enjoyed every minute. 

After that day, it became ever apparent that I would go on to pursue Religious Studies, feeding my fascination for faith, first at high school, and (after being knocked off my path for a tumultuous, but not entirely wasted six years) I eventually gained a Bachelor’s, swiftly followed by a Master’s degree in the study of religions.       

It was during these years spent intellectualising religion when I began, in earnest, to discover the interfaith movement. My first steps into interfaith activism were sparked by an academic response to religious diversity; a decision firmly rooted in the head. It would be sometime before I found an emotional and spiritual basis for my interfaith work.

When I first discovered interfaith work, I was in the unenviably position of not quite understanding my own faith; which was increasingly confusing within interfaith settings. Although interfaith work aspires to define people not simply by, but far beyond, their religious traditions, so many dialogues still seem to begin with the introduction, ‘My name is {insert name}, and I’m {insert religion}’. How could I introduce myself? 

At that time, I knew perhaps more of what I didn’t want from a religion, than what I did. From experience, I wasn’t good with intermediaries – with the idea that it was necessarily for another person to help me to communicate with God - especially if this was the sole preserve of men. Yes, I needed a religious community which valued women as more than the people who serve tea and cake at the end of the service. And I needed a religious tradition which would be flexible enough to allow my questioning and critical thinking. I was also sure that I could only value a religious understanding which was fully open to religious diversity. 

It may be possible to suggest a correlation between my involvement with interfaith work and the increased urgency to sort out my own beliefs, although I think perhaps it was inevitable. I know now from experience, and from speaking to many others, that an unexpected bonus prize of interfaith dialogue is that it forces you to confront not just the beliefs of others, but your own. In turn, dialogue often leads to deepening of faith, greater understanding and increased self-awareness. Hence it wasn’t long after I started volunteering with interfaith groups, that I began to explore the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers

It sounds terribly clich├ęd, but right from attending my first introductory evening on Quakers, I knew I’d found what I was looking for. After so many years feeling like I didn’t quite fit in, suddenly I had a name for the things that I valued. It took a number of years to become a regular attender, and even more to become a fully-fledged member, yet I self-identified as a Quaker from that first day. 

After my second introductory evening, I was given a copy of Quaker Faith & Practice, an anthology of Quaker writings, as well as instruction on the more administrative activities of Quaker Meetings. I devoured the chunky book in a matter of days. The first section called Advices and Queries contains 42 short passages for reflection. I recall my excitement as I read #6 for the first time, 

Do you work gladly with other religious groups in the pursuit of common goals? While remaining faithful to Quaker insights, try to enter imaginatively into the life and witness of other communities of faith, creating together the bonds of friendship.

Here was a religious tradition not simply allowing for religious diversity, but actively challenging me to make interfaith friendships, to work with and learn from people of different backgrounds. From that first reading, and increasingly so today, my interfaith activism and my commitment to the Quaker way are not just compatible, but they are extremely complimentary. 

Interfaith work became a spiritual response as I sought to find ‘that of God’ in everyone (a key Quaker principle). As I read on through Faith & Practice, I found more inspiration. William Penn, for example, wrote, ‘The humble, meek, merciful, just, pious, and devout souls are everywhere of one religion’. And in an argument from 1660 on Christian unity, which in contemporary times might as easily apply to interreligious unity, Isaac Pennington states, 

‘And oh, how sweet and pleasant it is to the truly spiritual eye to see several sorts of believers… For this is the true ground of love and unity, not that such a man walks and does just as I do, but because I feel the same Spirit and life in him, and that he walks in his rank, in his own order, in his proper way and place of subjection to that; and this is far more pleasing to me than if he walked just in that track wherein I walk.’

Inspired by the passage which asks, ‘Are you open to new light, from whatever source it may come?’ my spiritual life has been enriched and nourished by shared experiences within interfaith friendships. In this way, I have found an emotional basis to my interfaith work. From praying and fasting with my dear friend who is Muslim, to email and letter exchanges on life, love and compassion with a good friend who is Buddhist, interfaith friendship has made me a better Quaker.  

Yet I also feel that Quakerism might have something important to offer to the interfaith movement. The Quaker way of worshipping involves sitting as a group, as equals, facing each other, in stillness and silence. If anyone feels moved to speak, they may do so, before sitting back down and reverting to silence. In this way, it is open and easy for people of different faiths to take part in Quaker worship. At my own Quaker Meeting over the past year a small group of Muslim women have regularly attended, even signing up for the tea rota once in a while; they have become part of the life of the meeting. And if I had £1 for every Anglican priest who has told me how much they enjoyed Quaker worship, I’d have, well, at least a fiver!

A few years ago I took part in a yearlong interfaith fellowship programme. During the first training month, fellows from around the world came together in London. A small group decided to meet each morning for prayer. On that first morning, without prior discussion we came together in silence. Prayers from each tradition were interspaced with further moments of silence. In this space, as I sat together with a couple of Christians, a Hindu guy, a Jewish girl, a few Muslims, a Baha’i and a Buddhist, we shared the silence; and I’d never felt closer to God. 

Dialogue is clearly an important, indeed vital, aspect of interfaith work; yet it is possible for us to talk too much. Silence, even when unexpected, might offer a beautiful tool for sharing, for breaking down the divides of religious difference, and for drawing souls more closely together. In silence there is humility; in silence we are equal, we are one.   

Charlotte Dando is an interfaith activist based in London. She is Co- chair of URI Europe Youth Leadership cooperation circle and facilitates interfaith workshops in British schools with 3FF. Charlotte is Assistant Director of the William Temple Foundation. She tweets at @CharlotteDando

Previous: Christian-Atheist Marriage and Relationships | Solsikke
Next: Sharing Iftar with Friends | Dr Andrew Smith

Thursday, 17 July 2014

On Being a Christian Married to an Atheist | Solsikke

The following post is a compilation of reflections and articles on Interfaith Marriage by a Christian who has been married to an Atheist for 28 years. Here, Solsikke shares her struggles stemming from difference and speaks about nurturing love, respect, and tolerance rooted in shared values. 

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Once I'd taken on the task of writing about Christian/Atheist marriage, it gave me the opportunity to look back at the blogs I have written over the years which have taken me through the highs and lows.

I don't think I ever considered my blogs for public reading. They were personal reflections for me and quite cathartic for working through difficult periods. So it seems a little strange to share deliberately them openly now. They were never intended to be positive up-beat pro-interfaith pieces, but rather to honestly describe the tricky times and tensions as well as the moments of insight and commitment to each other, just as and when they arose. So bear that in mind when you read. This is my story, not anybody else's.

Typically tensions arise for us over the Christmas period. Christmas is a strange time - religious in some ways and very secular in others. So it can be a confusing time for us - each having different hopes and expectations.

This was the first blog I ever wrote back in December 2011 on the subject of being a Christian who is married to an atheist. The issue of being sensitive to my husband's feelings and yet being true to my own beliefs has continued on over the years.

There were times when I felt under real pressure to give up my faith for the sake of our relationship and trying hard to assert my right to follow my faith; times when I focused on understanding and accommodating my husband's side; and times - again and again - when we both picked ourselves up and continued to walk together in our relationship.

In January this year I wrote my most recent blog on the issue. Some atheists I have spoken to have clearly said that they could never be in a relationship with somebody who was religious. And some theists have said the same thing about atheists. I am sure there must be many, many atheist/theist relationships/marriages out there - yet I have had difficulties finding anybody else.

In March, at the beginning of Lent, I started a Twitter account with the specific intention of using it to listen to atheists out there, hear what they have to say and learn from them. It has helped me in several ways:

Firstly, I have made some good friends out there. (Always good!)

Secondly, I have begun to understand some of the issues atheists (including my husband) have with religion, our religious scripture and the attitudes and behaviours of some theists. That's been particularly helpful in my situation, because a lot of those are issues my husband and I haven't been able to discuss, because they have so easily caused tensions, anger and upset. Somehow through the medium of the Internet with a bunch of strangers, that's been much easier.

Thirdly, I have realised that there are atheists out there who are whole lot stronger in their wording than my husband tends to be. (Haha!)

I am reaching a stage where I feel that I can only achieve so much by listening to strangers. The key issue is that this is about two people - my husband and me. We need to be courageous enough to listen and speak to each other. To risk that it might be painful at times and to trust that it will be okay and we will be safe. There is a reason that we have been together for 28 years - we are good together! We have much in common and share many values.

It seems not so much our differences in beliefs which come between us, but our fear that they could. We need to trust in ourselves and our love for each other.

I found this moving letter from an Atheist Married to a Christian. I especially love the final paragraph:

That love is what my interfaith marriage is all about. Rachel would call that the manifestation of God’s love and grace in our marriage. I call it my profound privilege to be able to spend every day of the rest of my life growing a little bit closer to my wife.
(Thank you, David B!)

I continue to be interested to hear from people who live in Atheist/Theist relationships. How do you make it work? What are your difficulties and how do you overcome them? 

Let me know by replying to this post or by finding me on Twitter under @solsikke66

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Here are a selection of posts from Solsikke on Interfaith Marriage:

Tolerance in Interfaith Marriage 
The Christian-Atheist Marriage Thing
Being Myself 
Friends and Signs of Growth 
Learning to See the Other Side 

Previous Post: A Personal Note of Thanks (and a small request) 

A Personal Note of Thanks (And A Small Request)

Writing is an intensely personal process. Often beautiful, sometimes painful and, every now and then, utterly terrifying! I often find myself umm-ing and ahh-ing in the early hours of the morning over whether an article will resonate with readers or if it will just be the blog equivalent of tumbleweed rolling aimlessly across someone's timeline...

Yet without fail, this paranoia has always been brushed aside by the warmth and support I've received from you, the readers, and I'd like to thank you so much for your kind words and encouragement since I began A Hotchpotch Hijabi and, in particular, the Interfaith Ramadan series. Getting to know you, reading your experiences, and being able to share inspiring and thought provoking articles by incredible writers, leaders, and activists has been incredibly rewarding for me on a personal and spiritual level. In this short time, I've made wonderful friends from all different faiths and countries: from frozen Siberia to sweltering Djibouti!  

When I first put fingertips to keyboard, I certainly didn't expect to be immersed in such a welcoming and supportive community of kind, hope-filled, and open-minded individuals who share a passion for telling and sharing stories. Among these writers, I'm sure there are plenty of Muslim bloggers, old and new, who you deem more than worthy of a Tenth Annual Brass Crescent Awards nomination and this is the perfect opportunity to help boost their profile and show support for your favourite bloggers. 

The Awards include many categories such as Best Muslim Blog, Best Non-Muslim Blogger,  Best Female Blogger, Funniest Blogger, Best Post or Series, Best Writer, and even Best Tweeter. 

If you have enjoyed reading this blog and consider it among your favourites, I would be honoured if you would consider nominating the Interfaith Ramadan blog project for Best Series and share your reasons why you think it deserves to be up for consideration. 

It's hard to capture in words the warm fuzzy feeling that writing, sharing, and interacting with this community has given me over the last two years. I can only say a huge and unsatisfactory 'thank you' and let my unspoken but heartfelt gratitude fill up the space my words are unable to reach! 

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In a few clicks, you can nominate your favourite bloggers here: 
Tenth Annual Brass Crescent Awards

Previous: Finding Home | Love, Inshallah
Next: On Being a Christian Married to an Atheist

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Finding Home | Love, Inshallah

Love Inshallah has been one of my favourite online publications for a long time. Not only do they provide a platform for the multitude of vibrant Muslim women. Among the collection of essays, you find the painful juxtaposed with the beautiful, the whimiscal sitting alongside brutal honesty, and an underlying boldness of spirit which exhilerates and inspires in equal measure. It is for these reasons that I was absolutely thrilled to be invited to add my story to the mix. Here is a short snippet of my piece on living abroad and yearning for "home". You can find the full piece at LoveInshallah

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"I’ve been uncomfortably straddling the Alps for some time now.

This see-saw sensation is common amongst those who live in a foreign country. Love and vocation brought me to Italy five years ago, but family and culture keep me closely tethered to the UK.

Sometimes, there’s equilibrium. I stroll through formerly unknown streets where the muddled muzak of a foreign tongue has steadily becomethe main means of perception and expression in my daily life. People cheerily wave at me from across the street. Even street vendors know my name and life story. From the outside it seems like I’ve achieved what I set out to achieve: I’ve become a local.

But, suddenly, a shadow of a thought flits through my mind. The image of a loved one reflected in the face of a stranger. An evocative scent that sets my nostrils flaring in a remembrance of home…Voom! I’m engulfed by sadness. That ache in the pit of my stomach that no conventional medicine can cure."

Read the full piece here: LoveInshallah

Previous: Religious Labels: Constructive or Constrictive?
Next: A Personal Note of Thanks (and a small request) 

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