After another morning of waking up to a terror attack, I too remain subdued, saddened and reflective on what matters in life. This attack was on a bridge I have walked over a number of times in the past year, often while contemplating the beauty of the sunrise, how to solve global problems intelligently and peacefully, or simply how I am feeling that particular morning.
I refuse to be scared, I rebuke religious extremism of every kind, I reject the inevitable tide of prejudice and counterproductive reactions which will follow. I will go out and vote for the positive world I wish to see on Thursday 8th June. I will continue to learn from, celebrate life and friendship with, and love people of all different races, genders, sexualities, nationalities and yes, religious and non-religious points of view.
I will give: (1) a reflection on religion and peace; (2) what I learned and enjoyed about Iftar; and (3) a few things we can do to solve the world’s peace problem, building on (1) and (2).
1. Salaam, Shalom and Peace, My Friends
What is a really good response to what has happened? On Friday, my wife and I had the privilege of sharing Iftar with a Muslim friend and her family, friends and their children. Yesterday, after cooking for us, eating and talking with us from 21:21 to past midnight, she got up at first sunlight (02:03), prayed, and posted this verse alongside her happy musings from last night:
O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. ~ Qu’ran 49:13
Because I love Google, I looked up just now what the first of the five daily prayers (Fajr) means in English. This dawn prayer is mandatory for all Muslims as part of the third of the Five Pillars of Islam (Salah). The completion of the prayer concludes with the twice-repeated phrase:
Assalamu alaikum wa rahmatullah.
(Peace and mercy of Allah be on you.)
A Muslim friend will have asked for forgiveness twice prior to this, after first considering the perfection of God (Allah). Islam has the same root as the Arabic for peace, ‘salaam’ (سلام). Yes, Islam also means ‘surrender’ / ‘submission’, yet peace in the ancient world generally came from one side surrendering; this is hardly a big linguistic shocker. ‘Salaam’ is etymologically related to ‘shalom’ (שָׁלוֹם) in Hebrew, which Jews use to describe God, people, songs, even ships.
‘Jew’ and ‘Muslim’, ‘Christian’ and ‘Atheist’ – these masquerade as ideological identity ‘truths’. When used this way, we only end up masking our shared humanity and our desire to live at peace. In traditional Anglican Communion liturgy, everyone collectively prays:
Most merciful God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
we confess that we have sinned in thought, word and deed.
We have not loved you with our whole heart.
We have not loved our neighbours as ourselves.
In your mercy, forgive what we have been,
help us to amend what we are, and direct what we shall be;
that we may do justly, love mercy,
and walk humbly with you, our God.
This last part is taken from Micah 6:6-8.
Certainly, there are prima facie violent passages of the Qur’an, the Tanakh, and the New Testament. I do not mean to dismiss these passages to present an airbrushed ‘religion’ to be palatable after such an attack. I have covered how, in my personal journey, these passages have caused me to question, doubt, and change my beliefs. I often wonder at the cognitive dissonance management techniques which may be at apparent when such passages are either read and defended or simply ignored.
However, more reflective religion and meditation can help, that which honestly wrestles with these difficult passages and yet focuses on those passages which anyone knows how to interpret in the meantime. Learning more about faith, culture, history, and so forth will bring about positive changes. Even more so, sharing in experiences and communities outside your own ‘bubble’ and comfort zone are steps in the right direction.
So, in that spirit…
2. My Semi-Authentic German Ramadan Experience
My wife and I had the pleasure to enjoy a really lovely evening sharing ‘breakfast’ (Iftar), quite literally, with some Muslim friends of ours during Ramadan. Neither of us really knew our generous and funny hosts. Here are a few things which remain with us:
So many people speak about ‘Islam’ as if it were one indivisible, amorphous entity. ‘Islam’ covers around 1.5bn adherents, which is 22% of the world’s population, focused in 50 majority Muslim countries. (PRC, 2011)
The ages at our Iftar ranged from 1 month to 35 years. There was a baby, a toddler, a joyful 8 year old, an indefatigable mother, a computer scientist, our wonderful host, and us, the odd couple! Pakistani, German, British and Sudanese (I think) cultures were ambiently floating through the atmosphere of pleasant conversation. A random neighbour dropped by bringing fresh (but not for long) nappies, bags of treats and some seats.
Of the three adult Muslims, one wore a short head covering, one wore a headscarf, and the other donned one to pray. Before they prayed, we were asked if we minded – which was odd considering that it was not our home – and they went off to pray whilst we chatted with the 8 year old. Two of the three were converts. Perhaps theology, friendship and hospitality all played their part in this?
Ramadan derives from the Arabic for ‘scorching heat’ or ‘dryness’. In an inhospitable land, hospitality was life or death. From fasting one day myself in solidarity, I have the smallest inkling of sympathy. Hospitality, rather than homosexuality, is the focus of the Sodom and Gomorrah story in Genesis.
We knew the above, yet what new things did we learn on Friday night? This year is one of the hardest, providing only a 5 hour window for eating, since Ramadan is based on a lunar year (354 days) and falls at different times each year, like Passover. Speaking of which, I enjoyed a Passover meal too for the first time recently.
Fasting is compulsory for adult Muslims, yet ill (widely defined), elderly, pregnant, nursing, travelling and menstruating people are exempt. Fasting is not, however, the goal of Ramadan. It is a means to increase empathy, charity and awareness of one’s dependence on God. A fast is invalid if one becomes angry at others, for example.
We were asked if we would like tea and were presented with about 15 varieties. I mentioned that I happened to like chocolate and within seconds a plate of chocolate was on the table. As soon as a glass became empty, it was refilled with whatever the guest wanted. I soon discovered the German love of sparkling water! Despite being exhausted from lack of sleep and lack of food, our host was extremely conscious to spot anything which might make us happier. This is the essence and the ideal of Ramadan for those who are trying to follow in the ‘tradition of the Prophet’ (PBUH, for my Muslim readers): piety, humility, community, charity, prayer, learning…
It is often opined in atheistic circles that ‘religion is tantamount to child abuse’, following a certain Mr Dawkins. It can be – and we have seen it ourselves – if done abhorrently, yet most of the time, it is far from this. The 8 year old was the definition of a child being brought up ‘strong and stable’, one could say. She was happy, healthy and helpful. She was perfectly normal and we talked to her about her love of Jaqueline Wilson, Horrid Henry and Amsterdam. We were not surprised at all at this, yet we wondered how we might become good parents so that we raise our future (potential) children likewise. We thought on how our childhoods had shaped us walking home.
3. How to Solve World Problems
To answer Théoden‘s question, none of us alone can eradicate ‘such reckless hate’. We can simply ameliorate. Only collective positive cumulative everyday steps can help. What can we do?
I do not think “more religion” will solve anything, yet I do believe more reflective religion and meditation can help. Learning more about faith, culture, history, and so forth might bring about positive changes. Even more so, sharing in experiences and communities outside your own ‘bubble’ and comfort zone are steps in the right direction. Ramadan 2017 ends on 24 June (ish). In the 20 days left, why not ask if you can join a Muslim friend you know for their Iftar meal? Don’t worry – you don’t have to fast!
Social media algorithms continue to parrot back to us our own views and shield us from ‘the other’. They surround us with ‘fake news’ to our own ‘tastes’ and prejudices, such that we can demonise and be resistant to consider alternative ways to think and to live life. On this blog, I would urge you to sensitively question one another’s deeply held beliefs from curiosity and intellectual humility, consider what logical and psychological biases you may hold, and most importantly de-emphasise differences, striving for the happiness and good of all living beings.
Lastly, consider what you give to charity, for poverty is terrorism’s greatest ally. To me and to those participating in Ramadan, charity is not kindness; it is a duty of the fortunate to those who are unfortunate.
Amen to that.
Harry & Natasha ❤