Our search for peace should be paramount in the month of Ramadan and positive interfaith initiatives have paved the way towards this
“The number of months with Allah is twelve months in Allah’s Book, the day when He created the heavens and the earth. Of these, four are sacred. That is the upright religion. So do not wrong yourselves during them.” The Qur’an 9: 36
“Blessed are the peacemakers, they will be called children of God.” Jesus speaking in Matthew 5:9
I was keen to write on the subject of peace, because Ramadan inspired me to consider the centrality of it at this time of year. In the midst of national and international tensions, thinking about peace takes us to the heart of our traditions and the outworking of what we believe, especially during times of communal turning towards God.
It can be superficial, or unhelpfully competitive, to compare the Christian seasons of Lent (before Easter) and Advent (before Christmas) with Ramadan. However, there are similarities and all have repentance at their core; with repentance comes seeking God and God’s peace for ourselves and others, rather than extremism, violence, terrorism and war.
This is why we must challenge strongly the assertions that religion is behind the majority of conflicts, or that Islam specifically is a dangerous religion. With that in mind, two years ago, also during Ramadan, we produced this statement highlighting the significance of peace in opposition to acts of violence, stating, “Peace with God and our fellow human beings is at the heart of Christianity and Islam. We acknowledge that believers do not always make clear that they are for peace and against violence.”
This year, three peaceful Ramadan initiatives have caught my attention:
1. Sarah Ager’s (@saritaagerman) Interfaith Ramadan blog series highlights the creativity and personal experiences of people of other faiths engaging with Ramadan, as well as Muslim openness to other faiths. The counter-intuitive message of this campaigning blog is its gentle emphasis that Ramadan is for everyone.
2. The Ramadan Tent project at SOAS University takes Ramadan – prayers and iftar – into the public space and the open air, with the same harmonious message. This is heightened with the setting of an outdoor central London location, sharing seating space on the grass with others, many of whom are non-Muslims. One particular feature of Ramadan Tent is that non-Muslim speakers, mostly interfaith activists, are asked to share their experience of Ramadan, which is both a sign and a fruit of real peace.
3. Similarly, the Big Iftar, this year with government funding (a welcome investment in the Muslim community), has been encouraging not only mosques, but also churches and synagogues to host iftars. Social media has treated us to the hugely peaceful sight, against the backdrop of renewed hostilities between Israel and Gaza, of Jews and Muslims sharing iftar at a synagogue in Golders Green. The event was so controversially peace-building that both Jews and Muslims commented that it was unfortunate that it took place during a time of appalling conflict and loss of life elsewhere. This is a reminder of how vital it is to work for peace, and express fully the significance of our most meaningful religious observances.
It could be coincidence, but positive messages in the media about Muslims working and praying for peace have been very noticeable during Ramadan (shared on Twitter using hashtag #RamadanPeace), emphasising spirituality and non-violence. This includes the Muslim Council of Britain’s statement on ISIS and Iraq, Muslims praying for peace in Nigeria and an open letter from Imams encouraging people to stay away from Syria.
Most recently, Christians and Muslims, actively involved in building good relations between both their faiths, were invited for iftar by Archbishop Justin Welby at Lambeth Palace. It is a sign of Ramadan coming of age in the UK that this first specifically Ramadan-related initiative was at the centre of the Church of England. The Archbishop spoke of the importance of friendship between Christians and Muslims and of reconciliation. He was followed by another man of peace, Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra, challenging us to see the real meaning of Ramadan as more than just fasting, but 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.
As a friend of Islam, I echo that message of the great potential of Ramadan. As a Christian engaging with Muslims, I decided over 10 years ago that I could not do this work without becoming familiar with the Qur’an and investing time and energy into reading it, both to myself and within the masjid (mosque). To reiterate what I told the audience at the Ramadan Tent at the beginning of this Ramadan, I had spent a couple of days engaging in i’tikaf (retreat) in Nottingham. During a very intense first night, the last sixth of the Qur’an was recited for about six hours, and that experience of extended concentration on scripture has remained with me.
Ramadan gives time and space for focusing on the Qur’an, God willing, rather than boning up on “a manual of hate” as some have said, with a yearning for peace and harmony, and avoidance of fitna (dissension, unrest), a frequent Qur’anic injunction. What better time than Ramadan, which is nearing its end, to talk about peace and give it the profile it deserves, acknowledging that people of faith, for a large part, have not done enough or said enough about it.
Image from: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/06/30/ramadan-2014-photos_n_5543326.html
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