LONDON – British Jews hosted British Muslims, Hindus and Christians at an open house Iftar at the West London Synagogue on Tuesday, May 30, as Muslims marked the fourth day of Ramadan fasting.
Ramadan, the month of fasting, has become the perfect opportunity to reflect the best of human values, honoring our neighbors, irrespective of their faith, sitting down and sharing a meal with them.
The event, one of many facilitated under the umbrella of The Big Iftar, is a community cohesion project designed to remove barriers and to show us more of what we all have in common.
Tuesday May 30th coincided with the celebration of Shavuot where tradition holds that God gave Prophet Moses the Torah on Mount Sinai. The evening began with a Jewish religious service that some Muslims attended. Being the flagship Reform Synagogue in the UK meant that both Hebrew and English were spoken throughout.
While some Muslims remained for the Q&A held in the Synagogue, in parallel, the remaining Muslim and non-Muslim guests arrived and we gathered for the Maghrib prayers in a hall downstairs.
Men towards the front, with women behind them, praying without barriers or separation as Prophet Muhammad and his companions did.
As the maghrib prayers took place, I stood alongside a Hindu family visiting from Washington DC and their local British Hindu hosts; they had never seen Muslims pray in person, and were also excited to be a part of the Muslim-Jewish experience.
The prayers and the Q&A session finished at the same time, and we all made our way into one of two large halls where we sat to enjoy a vegetarian meal, chosen to ensure that everyone could eat something, without worrying whether the menu items met the varying dietary requirements of guests on the evening.
The meal was followed by an interfaith scriptural reasoning discussion which ran to midnight. There onwards our Jewish hosts began an all night prayer session, before another service in honor of the Shavout was held on the roof at sunrise. Guests were invited to be a part of the complete spiritual experience.
During our meal, Sheikh Ibrahim Khalili Baye Niass, the Imam who led the prayers, shared an important interfaith message in the form of a hadith narrated by Prophet Muhammad, that a believer is a person in whose company another person is feels safe; adding that we (non-Jewish diners) feel safe here (in the company of our Jewish hosts).
Sheikh Ibrahim shared another hadith of the Prophet, that a person does not have faith until they want for others what they want for themselves. Adding that the classical scholar Imam Nawawi interpreted this to refer to all of humankind. Meaning that unless you want for every other human being, irrespective of their faith, what you want for yourself, then you cannot be described as a believer.
On a lighter note, Rabbi Helen Freeman who also spoke during our meal added, “The food (in our age) particularly associated with the giving at Shavuot is cheesecake which is compared to milk and honey as it is sweet on your tongue.”
In doing so, she demonstrated that Jews, Muslims, Christians, Hindus, atheists, everyone present on evening, have a genuinely common and strong bond: we are all foodies. 🙂
Throughout Prophet Muhammad’s life he not only lived in the company of non-Muslims be he actively encouraged interacting with non-Muslim neighbors, including, in one hadith, treating with respect and dignity idol worshippers (when one companion asked how to treat their idol worshipping parent).
Honoring non-Muslim neighbors was a necessity as exemplified by the Constitution of Madinah which set out to ensure strong relationships with every community that did not harm the Muslim community.
There was an understanding then, just as there is an understanding now, that while we may hold different points of view on a number of subjects, this does not mean that we cannot and do not find ways to come together in humanity.
Thanks must be tendered to Mohammad Yahya who is the interfaith officer at the West London Synagogue who helped facilitate the evening.
The Big Iftar is holding events across the country throughout the month of Ramadan, I would strongly encourage attending one, for how better to understand the Ramadan message of fasting which is designed to encourage balance and wellness, than to bring communities together.