The Big Iftar: Breaking Bread amongst Friends

West London Synagogue (WLS) has long been a centre for members of different faith communities to come together and build bridges of mutual understanding, faith and friendship, and I’m delighted to have attended one of WLS’ recent interfaith gatherings.

Whilst Muslims are currently celebrating the holy month of Ramadan, where we fast from sunrise to sunset in remembrance of the poor and needy and celebrate the first revelation of the Qur’an, our Jewish brothers and sisters have also recently celebrated the festival of Shavuot, marking the monumental moment when God gave Moses the Ten Commandments. The combination of these two festivals this year shows that as members of the Abrahamic family, we really do have more in common than many may realise. Every year, our Jewish neighbours fast for 24 hours during Yom Kippur, whilst for Muslims, Shavuot reminds us of the importance of Prophet Moses and the Torah within Islam.

To mark the joint celebration and bring together the two communities, WLS hosted a joint Tikkun Leil Shavuot study night and Big Iftar, open for all to attend. The evening started with an Erev Shavuot combo service and Q&A debate which I, alongside other members of the Muslim and Jewish communities, thoroughly enjoyed. We then moved to the dining hall as 250+ of us united for iftar – the evening meal following the breaking of our fast.

20170530_223149.jpgWith everyone sat side by side amongst members of both faith communities, the hall had a joyful lively buzz of chatter as everyone got to know one another. The dinner consisted of a lovely mixture of Middle Eastern food including hummous, falafel, bread and a range of salads. As we broke bread together (dipped into hummous of course!), we learnt about each other’s faiths, with further reflections on the meaning of Ramadan and the importance of interfaith unity by both Rabbi Helen and Sheikh Ibrahim Khalil Baye Nass.

Enjoining in a heartwarming gathering of unity, solidarity and faith, the evening was a wonderful success – albeit a bit short for those of us who had to rush off to get the train home! The Big Iftar was later followed by a scriptural reasoning and all-night study session and subsequent Shacharit sunrise service, once again open for all to attend. Little did we know though that the success of the evening and the unity it portrayed were to become more important than ever. As we reflect on the heartbreaking terrorist attacks, merely a few days later, the evening is an inspirational reminder of the need to come together in harmony.

Thank you to Rabbi Helen, Julia, David and Neil plus Nic and all other staff and members of WSL for hosting such a wonderful evening and once again, welcoming the Muslim community with warm, open arms. May we continue to come together and may there be many more big iftars to come, God willing!

Salam, shalom, peace.

Elizabeth Arif-Fear

Co-Chair, Nisa-Nashim Marylebone

Credits and information:

Article feature for WLS Shavuot Review (2017)

Photography: West London Synagogue (featured image) (c), Elizabeth Arif-Fear (c)

Find out more about the Big Iftar campaign via their website and social media platforms (Facebook and Twitter).

#ChallengingTheNarrative – Which narratives do you refuse to endorse? Here’s 10 I won’t…

Last month, in line with International Women’s Day, I attended the Nisa-Nashim conference in London. Nisa-Nashim (meaning “women” in both Arabic and Hebrew respectively) is a UK based organisation which aims to bring Muslim and Jewish women together to build bridges, found friendships and develop understanding between the two communities. We’ve got more in common than you’d think: we both come from the Abrahamic family of faiths, we share many values and practices and  sadly, both Islamophobia and anti-Semitism – at least in visible terms – are on the rise worldwide including Europe and the USA.

However, this unfortunate trend appears to be bringing the two communities closer together. Back in February this year in the US, when thugs desecrated two Jewish cemeteries in Philadelphia and St. Louis, American Muslims raised over a staggering $140,000 to rebuild the graves. Likewise, when a mosque in Tampa (Florida) was attacked just day later, thanks to the support of Jewish donors, a massive total of $60,000 was raised to repair the damage. Gestures such as this go to show that we refuse to be divided by hate and that we actively challenge the narrative that “Jews and Muslims don’t get on” (due to predominantly Middle Eastern politics one would presume).

“Challenging the narrative” was exactly the theme of the Nisa-Nashim conference – a lovely day spent with lots of lovely Jewish and Muslim sisters (and one lovely gentleman)! We really are stronger together and we really do need to show that stereotypes, narratives and misconceptions must be challenged. During the day the question was posed: What narratives are you challenging? Other than by already being there, this made me think about what I am doing and what I can do – like all of us – to challenge people’s perceptions and to offer a different narrative. Here’s my list – what’s yours…?

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1. Islam and human rights are “incompatible”. Muslims hate “gay people”, agnostics, atheists, non-Muslims, Hindus, feminists, human rights campaigners etc.

I do not hate anyone. End of. God gave us all life and we must respect everyone – with no distinction in regards to ethnic background, nationality, race, religion or sexuality END OF. I myself am a human rights campaigner. I have a Master’s in Human Rights, I run a human rights blog and I’m a member of Amnesty International. I’m passionate about being active – online and offline – and I try and use my voice to speak out against injustice. This is my life, if I couldn’t do this well… there’d be trouble!

As a Muslim, Islam advocates feeding the poor, being just, honest, treating all humans (including women!) with respect, honour and dignity. Islam is serious about human rights. Unfortunately religious extremism, fear, sexism, tribalism, greed, intolerance, xenophobia etc. have all got in the way for many…

2. Muslims and Jews “don’t get on”

I’m Co-Chair of a local Jewish-Muslim women’s group in London as part of the Nisa-Nashim network. I respect and love my Jewish brothers and sisters. I may even have Jewish heritage (long story) and that is something I’m incredibly proud of. I’m forever saying how I’d like to make some Jewish friends! I – like many Muslim women – attended the Nisa-Nashim conference and are involved in its activities. The main hall was full of love! Since then I’ve been able to attend an interfaith Passover Seder and will continue to be involved in interfaith work. We’re sisters in the Abrahamic family and we’re sisters in humanity. And no: being Muslim does not equate to being anti-Semitic or a terrorist just as being Jewish does not equate to being a Zionist or Islamophobe.

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Jewish-Muslim solidarity (Washington D.C.) – Image credit: Joe Flood (CC)


3. Converts are suspicious, strange or wannabe extremists

There are Muslim converts, Jewish converts, Sikh converts (people I’ve met!) – it’s a fact of life. However we come to our new faith, we usually do so with love and enthusiasm – we’ve found something dear. Converts need to learn, they need support and they’re on a journey but hey – we’re normal!

4. You can’t be (truly) British and Muslim

British, Muslim and proud – that’s me. That’s also millions of British Muslims across the British Isles. My history and heritage is mine – it’s what got me here – and Britain accepts me as a Muslim, for who I am. Having spent time in other countries which are far less tolerant – I can tell you I’m proud to be British. Muslims who have spent their lives here, whose friends and family are here or have been offered a new life here – are happy being British too.

There’s no reason why you can’t be British and Muslim. Britain is a multicultural multifaith society and Islam teaches you to respect the law of the land and to be tolerant of others. For those who don’t like “living in a kaffir land” as they say – do they really feel British when they hold such beliefs?! Likewise for Islamophobes who worry about a “cultural clash” – we’re here and we’re happy. If we weren’t we’d go somewhere else! Look at the Muslims out there in politics, education, business, the charity sector, all over – we’re leading integrated, fulfilling and satisfying lives. And for those of you who aren’t convinced: we had an absolutely fabulous time at the British Islam 2017 conference back in February!

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Protester at an anti-Trump protest (London) – Image credit: Alisdare Hickson (CC)

5. Today’s youth are apathetic and superficial

Not sure I quite fit into the youth category any more but here’s the point. We’re young, we’re passionate, we have a voice and we get out there. Going back to my previous points, like many young British men and women, I’m involved with groups. Just look at those standing up against Brexit related hate crime, xenophobia, Trump, Islamophobia, you name it. There’s millions of us focused on real issues.

6. Islam is Sunni or Shia

I’m Muslim. I’m not Sunni, Shia, Sufi, Deobandi, Ahmadi or anything. I am Muslim and Muslim alone. Having said that, there are billions of Muslims who identify under a particular sect or label. Those who label any other as non-Muslim perpetuate intolerant extremist beliefs. Ahmadis are Muslims, so are Sufis, Shias etc.

7. Muslim women cover themselves for men

I do not cover myself for my husband, my father, (male) Prophets or any person – male or female. I cover for Allah (swt) and Allah alone. As a Muslim, I believe that God is not human and has no gender. For more on this point, cick here.

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Image: Elizabeth Arif-Fear (c)


8. Women convert to Islam to get married/for a man

I converted – like all the other converts I know – for faith and faith alone. I also converted before I got married. In Islam, Muslim men can marry Christian and Jewish women so there’s no need for such ladies. In any case, such conversion would be insincere and invalid. Without faith, you cannot be Muslim. Read more here.

9. Islam is an “Eastern religion” which oppresses women

Islam is a religion for the whole of humanity. I’m not from “the East”. There’s Muslims across the US, Canada, Latin America, the UK, France, North Africa – you name it (see point number four). Islam teaches that each land had their own Prophets. Muhammad and Jesus (pbut) were from the Middle East yes but there’s 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide.

Furthermore, there is no such thing as “East and West”. The “Clash of Civilisations” narrative is FALSE. There is the Western hemisphere, countries in the Eastern hemisphere etc. but we’re ONE world – a world that happens to be increasingly globalised. What’s more I’m me. I’m Muslim yes. I’m British yes. But I refuse to put put in a box. You’ll know who I am and what I’m like by talking to me, listening to me and getting to know me.

What’s more, I’m not oppressed. I’m an active feminist. In terms of women’s rights, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) taught his followers to respect women. When the Qur’an was revealed women were treated as second class citizens with no rights. Islam gave women the right to own property, the right to divorce, a range of sexual, emotional and financial rights within marriage at a time when baby girls were being buried alive and women were sexually enslaved. Islam advocated for women’s education and social, emotional and spiritual wellbeing. It forbade forced marriage at a time when women could be married against their will – used and abused for the pleasure of men – teaching people to instead respect their wife, mother, daughter(s), sister(s) etc. Read more here and here.

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Minneapolis (2006) – Image credit: Brian Wisconsin (CC)


10. A woman’s place is (solely) in the home

Women are the one’s who bear children, who go through pregnancy, who breastfeed and if a family can afford to have one salary – great, no reason why the lady can’t stay at home. There is no reason why a woman should be unhappy and unfulfilled staying at home.

However, woman also hold a valid place in society as a whole. We are half of the population. We cannot be completely cut off and shunned into the private sphere. Many women are mothers and carers whilst also holding a career at the same time or whilst being active in their community. Many women do not even have children. Women are doctors, teachers, educators, business women, politicians, writers, journalists, community workers, mentors etc. and as such we build (or aim to!) a more open, richer, more understanding world which represents the diversity of the population both in gender, nationality, ethnicity, culture and religion.

We cannot allow half of society to be misrepresented or even not represented at all. Society needs to serve everyone and therefore be built by both women and women. I like millions of Muslim women work full-time. I am active and I love it! For my sisters who are at home – great. Each to their own.

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So there we are, let me know your counter-narratives. I’d love to hear!

If you’d like to learn more, see also my previous post on the most common misconceptions of Muslim women. You might be surprised!

If you’d like more information about Nisa-Nashim, check them out online via their website and across social media: Twitter and Facebook.

Credits and acknowledgements:

Big thanks to all those who have inspired and supported me for who I am, who I aim to be and in everything I do.

Images: artgraffCarnagenyc, Martha Heinemann BixbyStraßenfotografie Hamburg (CC) (featured image). Image licences available to view via Flickr

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Passover past and present – A story of human slavery

Last week marked the Jewish festival of Pesach (Passover), which recalls when Moses led his followers out of Egypt, free from a life of slavery. I was fortunate to go to an interfaith Seder (Passover meal) and learn all about this festival.

Also know as “The Festival of Freedom”, Passover is a reflection of Jewish history, slavery, human suffering and the importance of freedom and human rights. The festival dates back to the time when Pharaoh refused to released the Children of Israel from slavery. As a result, ten plagues first ensued, affecting the Egyptians living in ancient Egypt. What followed were:

  1. The Plague of Blood: God turned the River Nile into blood. Fish died and the water stank.
  2. The Plague of Frogs: Frogs were everywhere all over the land!
  3. The Plague of Lice: Dust was turned into lice. The lice then crawled on people and animals.
  4. The Plague of Flies: The land was take over by swarms of flies.
  5. The Plague on Livestock: Horses, cattle, donkeys, camels, sheep and goats all died.
  6. The Plague of Boils: Livestock and the Egyptian population broke out on festering boils.
  7. The Plague of Hail: A terrible hailstorm hit the land, destroying crops and killing people and animals.
  8. The Plague of Locusts: A mass of locusts destroyed the land’s crops.
  9. The Plague of Darkness: For three days, Egypt was covered in darkness.
  10. The Plague on the Firstborn: Every first-born son was killed. The homes of the Israelites were spared – the angel would “pass over” them. This is where the name “Passover” comes from.

The Israelites then fled the land of Egypt out of slavery. Now this was my first Passover Seder and I’m by no means an expert – hence, if you want to know about the religious history and elements of Passover Seders, you can find out more here. For Christians, you’ll find the history of this festival in the Book of Exodus. For me though, this was not just a great chance to learn about Passover traditions and Jewish history, but also about Judaism and Jewish values themselves and how such history and values relate to our multi-faith world today.

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Seder plate: bitter herbs (e.g. horseradish), egg, orange, shankbone, karpas (green) vegetable (e.g. parsley) and charoset paste (apple mix), served with matzah (unleavened bread) (Image credit: Eden Hensley Silverstein, CC)

As a reminder of the slavery the Jewish people faced, we were introduced to “10 modern plagues” in the form of human slavery in the modern era. These are as follows:

  1. Sexual exploitation: Trafficking women and children for sexual exploitation is the “fastest growing criminal enterprise in the world” (Equality Now).
  2. Forced labour: 21 million people worldwide are forced to work against their will (ILO).
  3. Street crime and begging: Children are forced to beg, pick pocket and shoplift by adults in the UK and other countries worldwide.
  4. Domestic servitude: Forced to work for little or no play, deprived of sleep, rest and leisure, the ILO estimates that more under 16 year old girls work in domestic labour than any other category of forced labour.
  5. Drug cultivation and trade: The most widespread form of child labour at present is for cannabis cultivation (Unchosen).
  6. Human organ harvesting and trade: Imagine having your organs stolen and sold on the black market, forming part of a trade which generates between $600 million – $1.2 billion in profits a year across a range of countries…
  7. Debt bondage: This is the most common but lesser known form of modern slavery today.
  8. Illegal adoption: This terrible phenomenon is especially prevalent in China, where an estimated 10,000 children a year are trafficked for forced begging, illegal adoption and sex slavery.
  9. Warfare and conflict: There are an estimated 350,000 child soldiers worldwide whose physical and mental well-being is being compromised for violent  (adult) conflict.
  10. Forced marriage: Around 48% of forced marriages involve children and adolescents (PORGMUN).

Indeed, there are an estimated 21-36 million slaves in the world today. The biggest victims are still women, with a growing number of children being affected. Human slavery is bigger now than it has ever been…

The Jewish community have celebrated Passover since around 1300 BC, and long shall they continue to. In 2017, as a global community of various faiths and none, the world still thrives on human slavery in its many forms. May we all unite to end this evil and live together in peace, understanding and harmony for the good of humanity.

Salam, shalom, peace ♥

Further information:

  • Please visit Stop The Traffik‘s website for further information on today’s 10 modern plagues of slavery.
  • If you are worried about human trafficking in your area/community, contact the police, local social services or the modern slavery helpine on 0800 0121 700.
  • Further information on human trafficking can also be found here.

Credits:

Featured image: J. P. Kang (CC)

Ten faiths, one message…

Today – 27th January – is Holocaust Memorial Day. On this day we remember the barbaric massacre of millions of Jews (alongside other people classed as “undesirables” by Hitler), barely one century ago. As we are called to remember the genocide and we repeat: “Never again“, we must truly reflect. For the utterance of these two words have not stopped the violence, the prejudice, the bloodshed. War, torture, genocide…is carrying on as we speak.

In light of this, I’d like us on reflect on the following – especially as we remember the past and we envisage an unknown bleak future in the current socio-political climate and the fear rising from Trump’s new role as POTUS: we are the people. Humanity is one and we are responsible for the way we treat others and the way we respond to hate rhetoric. Regardless of our differences we must unite, remembering our similarities and enjoining in good. Are we all really that different?! No! Embrace your differences – it’s what makes you unique. The world would be so dull if we all came from one mono culture! However, at the same time: unite in solidarity.

With this in mind, I’d also like us to remember one thing in particular: The Golden Rule. The teaching of: treat others the way you wish to be treated! Whatever your faith, it’s there! And wouldn’t the world be a safer, happier, more tolerant place to be if we all remembered this “rule”? I’m convinced so! So here’s The Golden Rule according to the world’s 10 largest faith groups (listed in ascending order of population size). Enjoy!

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Shintoism

  • ~4 million followers worldwide (0.01% of the world’s population)

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Jainism

  • 4.5 million followers worldwide (0.06% of the world’s population)

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Confucianism

  • 7 million followers worldwide (0.1% of the world’s population)

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Bahá’í Faith

  • ~8 million followers worldwide (0.15% of the world’s population)

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Judaism

  • 20 million followers worldwide (0.3% of the world’s population)

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Sikhism

  • 30 million followers worldwide (0.4% of the world’s population)

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Buddhism

  • 400 million followers worldwide (7% of the world’s population)

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Hinduism

  • 1 billion followers worldwide (15% of the world’s population)

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Islam

  • 1.6 billion followers worldwide (23% of the world’s population)

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Christianity

  • 2.3 billion followers worldwide (32% of the world’s population)

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So, there we have it: 10 faiths, one rule, one humanity. If we really want “never again” to mean something in terms of action, then we need to respect our differences yet remind ourselves that we all have the same obligations towards ourselves and our global brothers and sisters. Ask yourself this when you’re in a situation: Would I want this? How would I feel in such situation…?

Salam! Shalom! Peace! ♥

Sources and credits:

Statistics from: Waterlow, R. (2017) ‘Top 10 Largest Religions in the World‘, World’s Top Most

Original photographs:

Feature image: Leo Reynolds

All images are edited versions of photographs first published under a Creative Commons licence, unless otherwise stated (see credits). For terms of usage visit Flickr.

Photo editing and design: Elizabeth Arif-Fear

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