The holy month of fasting for Muslims, called Ramadan, is finally here and there has never been more media publicity about it. Have you noticed how even mainstream news publications are writing about Ramadan these days? From photo essays of fasting scenes around the world, to op-eds about what it means to fast and how the act of fasting can bring everyone closer together, everyone seems to be writing about Ramadan.
That last is true by the way, if handled wisely. This month, more than any other time, can be an opportunity to bring people – not just Muslims but those of a variety of faiths – towards one another in a spirit of friendly understanding. Interfaith iftars (breaking of the fast at sunset) are all the rage, not just in the U.S. but also in England and elsewhere. Let’s face it, anytime there’s food on the table people will come lovingly and willingly because food is a great equalizer (many interfaith efforts are built around the dinner table, for that precise reason). So iftar can be a moment of peace and love, of heartfelt discussion and letting go of enmity.
At my mosque, we have been organizing weekly women’s interfaith iftars for several years now. It is a tradition to the extent that community women contact us each year to confirm the dates so that they don’t miss out on the wonderful conversation and learning. True, ours are not the only such events in town; in Houston alone there are dozens of interfaith iftars, from the one hosted by the mayor to another one where the entry fee is close to $50 and many more in between. Ours are small and free, but I’ve honestly seen minds being changed and friendships formed due to our humble efforts. Here are some reasons why I think these events are so popular and meaningful:
- Size: Contrary to the huge events around the country that seat hundreds, I strongly believe that interfaith iftars should be small and intimate. At ours we invite 4-5 women from different faiths, and an equal number of ladies from my mosque, and we chat around a table. That one conversation sometimes leads to others, often at homes or cafes, and it’s like a snowball effect that’s lovely to witness. The larger a crowd gets the fewer the benefits, in my experience. Smaller is better where important discussions are concerned.
- Format: have you ever been to an interfaith iftar with a panel of speakers who talk about fasting, while the audience listens politely and waits for sunset so that they can eat? Sadly, I’ve been to many of those and have never found any value to those speeches. At our interfaith events, we all sit face-to-face, and there are no assigned speakers except a moderator (usually me) who guides the discussion. We talk, we laugh, we get to know each other, we ask questions, we give answers… and thus we learn.
- Mutual exchange: Some people believe that an interfaith iftar is a chance to teach our neighbors about Islam, a moment of “dawah” which is Arabic for invitation and stands in many cases for preaching. Not in my mosque. We plan our iftars around mutual exchange, because I want our Muslim ladies to be exposed to other viewpoints and traditions as well. So while we talk about Ramadan and answer questions about this sacred ritual, we also talk about other fasting traditions such as Lent and Yom Kippur. We spend a sizable chunk of time talking about things other than Ramadan, because in my opinion, the best way to encourage dialogue and understanding is to have a two-way communication. Wait a minute, isn’t that the definition of dialogue?
I realize that everyone who organizes an interfaith iftar, or attends one for that matter, is really trying to do the right thing. My way is different from others, and certainly there may be larger, star-studded affairs that have value for someone else. The one thing you do learn through interfaith work is that no one way of doing or believing is “the right way,” all are equally valid. Will I be successful in making the world a better place? My efforts are small and targeted, so probably not. But I can certainly help improve relationships with my neighbors by talking and listening, by sharing, by not only educating but also being educated. If we all did that in our little circles, perhaps we could indeed make the world a better place.