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Why I Fasted Alongside My East London Muslim Friends
August 15, 2013
A guest article by @I_faithFriday, see the original blog here

Having lived in London for twenty years, I have worked in the East End now for six. During that time, people of all denominations have told me stories about living round here. About the Lionhearts chasing young Bengali men up Brick Lane in the Eighties. About how the Sikh gurdwara burned down ‘but no-one ever found out who did it’. I’ve glimpsed moments myself; the mess of twisted metal down from the masjid after the Whitechapel nail bombing in 1999; only a few years ago, a kettle of police outside the Marquis of Cornwallis pub on the Bethnal Green Road, slow marching a herd of lairy, chanting skinheads into waiting police vans by Weavers Fields; four years back- a small, red swastika sprayed unassumingly amongst the Banksy-alikes on the old, disused masjid on Redchurch Street, a building first founded by a friend’s father a few doors down from the current mosque, now equally daubed in tags and artists’ graffitti that may as well read, “We don’t understand what this building is for (or we wouldn’t write on it)”. Being a songwriter, I tried to pen the flavour of what I felt as best I could:

 ”We think that it dies/ if we just close our eyes/ but it never stopped.“

Do not be fooled: this phenomenon didn’t just pop up in the wake of events in Woolwich. Somewhere along the way, between the past and now, whilst everyone else was watching Eastender omnibuses, raving about the Atkins diet and selling their old IKEA sofa on eBay, hatred in London was simply going quietly about its business. It occasionally reared its ugly head at football matches and on polling days, where the list of candidates from novel organisations with bracing, optimistic titles like “English Futures” or “Democratic Freedom Party” hid more ominous credentials. Essentially, once most of Middle Britain saw Nelson Mandela walk out of jail and into office, we thought hatred was cracked and went back to sleep.

'armed with a complete lack of knowledge about Islam'

Let this serve as a clear lesson to anyone who will listen: Whilst you were fiddling with your DAB radio and trying to find a parking space at Lakeside, your racist neighbours have been organising themselves, armed with a complete lack of knowledge about Islam but a great deal of misconception, quoting out of context and scaremongering. And just plain trolling.

'The irony of racists attempting to goad London’s Muslims ... by parading about through Tower Hamlets does not hold sway with anyone who ever read a Holy book.'

The irony of testosterone-fuelled racists paying homage to the not-very-English Richard Lionheart, an actually-very-French-speaking bisexual king who only spent six months of his reign in England and once claimed that in order to fund his crusades he ‘would have sold London if [he] could find a buyer’, does not escape anyone who ever read a history book. The irony of racists attempting to goad London’s Muslims, who in fact share a great deal of their heritage and culture, by parading about through Tower Hamlets does not hold sway with anyone who ever read a Holy book.

To make any lasting difference in London right now it is necessary to pour water on ignorance rather than petrol. Understanding what faiths do (and don’t) is key. Therefore, any initiative that allows for greater knowledge and trust within a community is sorely needed, or where it already exists, needs to receive the same level of attention from the world as all the vile tantrumming of Robinson, Lennox et al. Standing against them in the streets may appear defiant in the short term but it will not transform anyone’s hatred in the long term.

There are many London and UK organisations devoted to the task of promoting understanding and unity, here below being just a few; you can #FF (Follow Friday) any one of them to receive not only a friendly welcome but vital clarity about the values they aspire to and what they stand for:

@SRTRC_Eng  @ChrisMusForum   @CitizensUK  @_Interfaith_  @1stEthical  @RamadanTent  @LondonFaiths  @LokahiFdn  @AdamsChildren  @threefaiths  @FaithMattersUK  @DineMine1  @TheBigIftar  @MuslimCouncil  @Haaya_Hounslow   @MosaicNetwork   @BoardofDeputies  @BritishFuture   @BHAhumanists

Left to right: Fatima Adamou (Christian Muslim Forum), Abdullah Faliq (Cordoba Foundation), Jill Dhell, Aliya Azam (Al-Khoei Foundation and Christian Muslim Forum), Julian Bond (Christian Muslim Forum) at a planning meeting of the London Peace Network

'while we may have differences in dogma and practice, essentially there is no ‘Them/Us’. There is just ‘Us’.'

Meanwhile, there are actions to take, whoever you may be. Being a curious Christian who is committed to deepening my faith by acquiring knowledge and opening dialogue, I took three new actions this year that have altered the way I think forever; I read the excellent translation of the Qur’an in English by Professor Muhammad Abdel Haleem, esteemed Director of the Centre of Islamic Studies, SOAS. I visited East London Mosque for the first time in May to start building friendships with people who have since come to support #InterfaithFriday in a very powerful, positive way. And I took on fasting the last ten days of Ramadan. Why did I do all that, I hear you asking? Before you leap in with accusations of syncretism and blasphemy, I’m clear about my motives. I delved into the faith of my friends and neighbours partly in solidarity, partly as a way to better meet God by treating the experience in the same way that I would a retreat. And, whilst what happened over those ten days raised many potent questions for me about myself, mostly it simply confirmed what I had suspected all along: that while we may have differences in dogma and practice, essentially there is no ‘Them/Us’. There is just ‘Us’.

In medieval Europe (the era where most racists like to draw their faux-crusade symbolism from) fasting for Christians was much more akin to the discipline of Ramadan, indeed it may well be that historically the one was born from the other. The Lenten preparation, Shrovetide, was a time of confession before fasting took place. The using up of fats and dairy on the eve of Lent we know well as Pancake Day, but during Lent itself all meat was also strictly prohibited. To replace food with devotion to God was as much the aim of medieval Lent as it is now for Ramadan.

It seemed pointless to me to take on a fast without also praying. So I learned the basic Salah along with the supplications. I had no prayer mat so I used a clean towel. I used my iPhone compass to work out where to face. It meant getting up about 2.30 to eat the early meal, sehri, finishing all food and drink by a certain time and then praying Fajr around 3.30. This was already discipline enough; being someone who habitually rises at 6am and sleeps at 10pm meant the first few days felt like being trapped with jetlag in an airport lounge. Because I ate and drank carefully I didn’t experience drastic hunger or thirst as I thought I would. That turned out to be the least of my hardships. What really required the discipline was making sure I didn’t swallow anything foreign. This is when you realise how much you do without thinking. In five days I had fingernails longer than I’ve had in years, as I tried not to inadvertently chew away on them as I normally do. I attempted not to swear, which for me was practically impossible.

The real beauty of Ramadan came from visiting people; either attending the mosque for shared iftar and prayers, or sitting down with friends and neighbours. It’s not that Ramadan is about socialising, quite the opposite; the journey goes inwards. But the communion between people who are all there to take on the same devotion creates an electricity that courses round the room. At East London Mosque, in the new Maryam Centre for women, I attended late night Taraweeh prayers that culminated with a series of amens in which not only the muezzin but most of the women were quietly weeping, palms upwards, listening intently to the crack of emotion in his voice over the speakers. What I took away from that night I will hold close to myself.

I fully recognise that most Christians would feel taking on worship to this extent to be beyond where they would comfortably go. But there is also some unnecessary concern about worshipping alongside another faith which stems from lack of knowledge. Jesus said love the Lord your God with all your heart and your soul. That is exactly what I did, coming in the process to a new understanding of what He meant; all his ministry involved focussing on the power of God, placing himself as the servant, the subordinate, giving away the power and not seeking it for himself. Making the vulnerable and lowly powerful, leading them to the space  for God inside themselves, that each and every one of us is holy with a little ‘h’, to be honoured. In this regard, the message of Jesus and Mohammed (pbut) is the same. It gave me theological room to stand alongside my sisters and commune with the brothers knowing that our purpose is not to be identical, but to be shoulder to shoulder with our eyes fixed firmly upwards rather than on ourselves.

When we find dialogue, humanity and common ground with those we thought we did not understand or even hated, through knowledge, and are bold enough to share that experience with others, then we will have caused a new era for London that cannot come fast enough. #InterfaithFriday asks you to take it on.

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