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Iftar, generosity, and obligation

On Wednesday, I participated in the Australian National Dialogue of Christians, Muslims, and Jews. We began the dialogue with prayers for the victims of the Manchester massacre.

The topic of yesterday's meeting was fasting, with particular focus given to the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins this weekend.

The Jewish and Catholic communities also offered input. The Uniting Church didn’t because our church has little to say about the importance of fasting!

Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset every day of the month of Ramadan. In the evening, the fast is broken with an Iftar meal.

Ramadan celebrates the time of the year when the Qur’an, the holy book of Islam, was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad. It marks a period of prayer, penance, purification and acts of charity.

Fasting in Ramadan is obligatory for all adult Muslims (with exemptions for those who are unwell, etc.), and Islam prescribes in great detail how this should be observed. Further, fasting is but one area of life where restrictions apply during this holy month.

Listening, as a Protestant, I was intrigued. In the past, a traditional Protestant view would have seen Ramadan as so many rules and regulations, and even as an attempt to achieve salvation by good works.

A better-informed view, however, would perceive a more fundamental distinction at work; Islam, as well as Judaism and Catholicism, is based on prescribed behaviour, whereas Protestant Christianity is based on prescribed beliefs.

For example, Protestants speak of the importance of love and concern for others, whereas Islam requires that a Muslim give 2.5% of their wealth to the poor each year. This is called zakat. What is required here is specific and mandated. In Protestantism, a general directive is considered sufficient.

Hearing about Ramadan, I felt a little envious and a little uncomfortable: uncomfortable because it is so different to life in a Protestant community; and envious because it speaks of great dedication and commitment.

What would happen if say GUC required all church members to read the Bible for one hour a day during the season of Lent?! In the Uniting Church, we invite and encourage; we rarely prescribe.

Another insight struck me yesterday, the importance of hospitality. Muslims display great generosity in Ramadan; they ask people from many faiths or no faith to share in their Iftar meals. (I will be attending the Grand Mufti’s Iftar meal on Saturday, 10th June.)

Our most sacred Christian festival is Easter. We don’t, however, have a custom of inviting people from other faiths to share in a celebratory meal.

Perhaps, we should…

Could we invite others to Tenebrae?

Herein is a small example of what happens when people of different faiths can meet in a safe space, characterised by respect, understanding, and curiosity.

When we gather together and listen, there is so much to learn and so much to rejoice in.

I hold onto such moments whenever I hear distressing news, such as recently from Manchester.