THE COLORS OF AUTUMN MERGE WITH THE COLOUR OF ISLAM
By Raheel Raza
Fonthill United church is nestled on a hill in a small town called Fonthill, near Niagara Falls. It’s a long drive from Toronto, but how many people would be out on the road on a Sunday morning at 8 am? Just a couple of “eternal optimists” and flocks of birds enjoying the end of summer. So we found ourselves in for an easy drive. Me and my protégé Noman.
With the beginning of vibrant colours of autumn on the trees overlooking the church, there was a sign outside saying THE COLOURS OF ISLAM. Perhaps it was this unusual sign that attracted a large number of people to come out to church this Sunday in September – a leap of faith for the visionary Minister, Rev. Dr. Garry van Bruchem who had invited two Muslims to offer a Muslim service in a Christian church.
As the congregation settled, there was a call to worship from the pulpit of the church. This was no ordinary call. It was the azaan (Muslim call to prayer) recited with feeling and passion by Noman who has an extremely melodious and soulful voice. The vibration of the azaan could be felt upto the stained glass ceiling and I saw two women in the front row, wipe their eyes. After the call to prayer, there was pindrop silence as the congregation absorbed what had just happened. Perhaps one of many firsts in this part of the country where a Muslim call to prayer in a church, is not the norm. When I translated the azaan for the congregation, they were moved.
The entire service was a combination of readings from the Qur’an and the Bible, and sayings of Jesus and Mohammad. Noman played sufi music and the congregation who had thought that there is no music in Islam were thrilled to the core. We spoke about the united colous of Islam i.e diversity within Islam as well Islam’s relationship with other faith traditions. We expounded on the similarities between the two faiths and it was a message received with open hearts and minds. People came and hugged us and said they were so grateful for the message. There were also tough questions at the end, but when we begin with a call to worship, followed by a hymn from the United church hymn book, the path is already easy. We were refreshed, rejuvenated, revived and rejoiced at the opportunity to reiterate that while there are differences, it’s our commonalities as humans and as people of faith and spirit that bind us together. Ever so often, in the far reaches of a small town, we re-discover that humanity is really one community.
BUILDING A GLOBAL INTERFAITH COMMUNITY – a Muslim Speaks
By Raheel Raza
In November 2006, when Pope Benedict visited Turkey, he said “With the help of God, we must find the way of peace together, for the good of humanity.” These words, as a global vision for interfaith relations are urgently needed today, and bode well for people and institutions building bridges of understanding between faith communities.
We live in times when the world in involved in violence perpetuated in the name of faith. Karen Armstrong’s writes “every time a violent action or an intolerant word is spoken, the world becomes a worse place and the virus of evil and hatred spreads. But every time any single believer reaches out to others in compassion and sympathy, the world improves a bit.”
Compassion and understanding are the keystones of interfaith dialogue. For this to happen, we as humans have to respect each other regardless of which tradition we follow. How do we build mutual respect? In these challenging and too often troubled times, we need new perspectives and models so that we can find humane answers to the challenges of globalization, based on a deep respect for the diversity of cultures and religions in our world community. There is a desperate need for new and practical ways of reintroducing spirituality, ethics and faith into the international debate on globalization, and the local consultation on inclusivity and social reform. This work has to be done at a grass roots level and build up to a global reality.
Religious inclusivity only happens when faith communities and their leaders join hands with politicians to forge an understanding that through partnerships in a pluralistic society we can encourage socially beneficial peace, nature friendly behavior and ecumenical decisions.
To be sure, many people are already committing themselves to these goals. For example the work at Scarboro Missions with their Golden Rule Poster and their openness for others. This is the kind of model that is needed for an international global interfaith project. A model that stresses on similarities rather than differences, and reflects that there is unity in diversity. But a deeper change of consciousness is also needed. Religious inclusivity has to be promoted from the pulpit. In places of worship, whether they are churches, temples, mosques or synagogues – the message should be one of pluralism and respect.
This will help us gain consideration for each other and work on the bases of common visions, ideals, values, aims and criteria. This will also help us eliminate the seed of racism which is ignorance. We have to understand that we have the power and need the incentive to move beyond mere tolerance towards accepting all cultures and religions. However it’s important to remember that unity does not mean uniformity! Whether we accept it or not, diversity is a blessing from God who created humanity into different nations and tribes so that we may know one another.
The Persian poet Saadi phrases the challenge of humanity in the following words:
"Human beings are like members of one body Created from one and the same essence When one member feels pain, The rest are distraught You - unmoved by the suffering of others Are unworthy of the name human. "
INTERFAITH RELATIONS IN CANADA
Let me begin by telling you why I do what I do. This is best explained by Karen Armstrong’s words when she writes in her recent article in the Time magazine: every time a violent action or an intolerant word is spoken, the world becomes a worse place and the virus of evil and hatred spreads. But every time any single believer reaches out to others in compassion and sympathy, the world improves a bit. So my work in essence, is a small drop in the ocean in an attempt to bridge the gulf between people.
In order to fully understand and appreciate the depth of this topic, I think it’s important to set the tone with some demographics and to understand that I speak from the perspective of a Muslim living in Canada.
Although Muslim presence was first felt in Canada in the late 1800's, this diverse community from at least 25 different countries of the world, came in waves in the past five decades - the last wave arriving from the Africa’s in the 1980's.
• The latest immigration of Muslims is from South Asia i.e. India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. • approximately 1.1 million Muslims reside across Canada of which approx 130,000 are Pakistanis in the GTA • 325,000 in Ontario and about 299,000 living in the Greater Toronto Area which stretches from Richmond Hill in the East to Brampton in the West. • There are 115 mosques across Canada, about 50 in Ontario – more being build all the time, but there are no community centers where youth or seniors can meet and interact.
There is total freedom of religion in Canada – anyone of any faith can freely worship where and how they wish to, as long as faith stays in the fold of the private sector. People call Canada the multifaith capital of the world and there is a street in Toronto called Bayview Avenue which is also fondly called the spiritual strip – there is a mosque, Jewish synagogue, Buddhist temple, variety of churches and a Zoroastrian temple all within walking distance of each other. In fact the mosque and synagogue share a parking lot when there is overflow of traffic – an idea that so enthused two Montreal film makers that they filmed a documentary called A LOT TO SHARE in which they interviewed the Rabbi and Imam talking about peace and interaction. Rumi has written something beautiful about trying to restrict the presence of God to a place of worship. He says: Fools laud and magnify the mosque, while they strive to suppress holy men of heart but while the former is mere form, the latter, spirit and truth. The only true mosque is that in the heart of saints. Is the place of worship of all for God dwells there.
And I work on the conviction that the hearts in which Allah dwells can’t be tainted with hatred or demonization but can only be filled with the light of love. When I first came to Canada 12 years ago, there were a few Muslims involved in interfaith dialogue at a very peripheral and formal level. It was more of a token toleration shown towards minorities and wasn’t part of the mainstream. Also it was sort of UPON INVITATION ONLY kind of set up where the host community would invite us to participate in dialogue or to show support for the diversity that is Canada. Muslims as a rule kept to themselves, and because Canadians by nature are conservative and political correctness keeps them from prying too much into each others’ lives – specially when it relates to faith, so there wasn’t much need for intense interaction.
The Muslim/Pakistani community of Canada is quite diverse and has it’s scary aspects. Within various communities there are mosques where disturbing messages of anger and hate are eschewed. There are Muslim Student Associations that are very conservative for example at York University they give strong anti Christian and Jewish khutbas – knowing all the time that York is primarily run by Jews. They also consider anyone without hijab not to be a proper Muslim and will leave flyers about burning in hell , on the doors of young Muslim girls. I say through experience because I’ve had young nieces go through the school and University system. The focus of many of these young Muslims is only hijab or Jihad – they have never wanted to or tried to move beyond these two issues. As a result their outlook is somewhat restrictive and their interaction zero, because they look upon the West as being the Dar al Harb where everything from cats to computers is considered haram. The question of course arises as to why they are still living there but no one dare ask. The other so called moderate Muslims or Pakistanis never felt it important to project Islam to others. As long as they had the freedom to follow their faith as they like, it didn’t matter that they might share their neighbor’s pain or donate money to the children’s hospital where they live.
So in essence till late last year, Islam was a faith that was never in the mainstream. It was out there and no one was pushing to bring it into the public arena. I did not start out in Canada as a Muslim journalist but I fell into by default about ten years ago, when I saw how little was written and how much misinformation was being reflected about Islam. So I took it upon myself to write about Muslim women, eid, Hajj and so on, but it was not enough so the lives of Muslims in Canada were still a big mystery. However, September 11 pushed Islam into the public arena, exposing both the positive and negative practices and aspects of the community. Media opened their doors, not I should add, because they were our friends but because we were what made news. We were under the microscope and more so than in America because of the visibility and voice of Muslims in Canada. This worked both in our favor and against us . While we had an opportunity to voice our opinions and were invited to do so, suddenly every Tom, Dick and Mary overnight became an expert Islamic analyst, but in an extremely ignorant manner. They had to fill the news slots and there was no time to do homework or check their facts. So what came through was either personal opinions or misinformation. The Muslims were taken unawares and were quite unprepared because we are not by nature media literate. As a result we were called Islamics, Muslimites, Mohammadans and some rather derogatory adjectives. It didn’t take long for us to ascertain that if we didn’t want ourselves being spoken for, we have to jump into the arena, armed with knowledge and start speaking for ourselves. This brings to mind what our Prophet Mohammad pbuh has said about the power of knowledge: "Acquire knowledge. It enables its possessor to distinguish right from wrong; it lights the way to Heaven; it is our friend in the desert, our society in solitude, our companion when friendless, it guides us to happiness; it sustains us in misery; it is an ornament amongst friends; and an amour against enemies."
This is what led to the beginning of a major movement towards interfaith relations. September 11, gave some of us an opportunity to re-visit our faith, strengthen our knowledge, do some deep research and reflect on world happenings. For others it meant digging their heads in the sand hoping the problem will go away. But that does not happen in the West where technology plays a major role in influencing people’s minds and views. Also some of us saw this as a God-sent opportunity to reflect the true face of Islam and Muslims to our colleagues, neighbors and friends. I’m now going to share with you what I have done because I can only reflect my personal experience. On September 12, I had my first invitation from Vision television which is the multifaith television network of Canada to come and talk with people of other faiths, on how we could bring some sense into the catastrophe through our faith communities. The wonderful thing I learnt was that faith communities speak of language of peace, non violence and justice. It was Martin Luther King Jr. who said in one of his speeches: “As you press for justice, be sure to move with dignity and discipline, using only the weapon of love. Let no man pull you so low as to hate him. Always avoid violence. If you succumb to the temptation of using violence in your struggle, unborn generations will be the recipients of a long and desolate night of bitterness, and your chief legacy to the future will be an endless reign of meaningless chaos”
So through the darkness of what was unfolding in the world around us, we started working together on issues of peace and understanding through interaction. If the rhetoric had been purely political we would never reached any consensus so it came as pleasant surprise to see how hungry the mainstream were to hear about Islam. I should add that by now, ignorant buffoons both within and outside our community had already done quite a bit of damage to our image. For example the young Imam who said on public television, “we don’t kill our women, we flog them!”. Ordinary people were confused by conflicting images, and a variety of opinions. So it became a very urgent agenda for us to find people who could be spokespersons for the community and express a more knowledgeable message. Churches started reaching out to invite us to speak in their sermons and I can tell you that since September 11, I must have spoken in about 25 churches all over Ontario and distributed almost 1000 flyers on Islam. People started asking me if I was converting or whether I was converting them? What they didn’t understand was that I was educating and learning at the same time. Many of the misconceptions that that I had about Christians were removed and similarly they came to me and said, we needed to hear this. As we developed the discourse about Abrahamic religions and the quest for peace in Islam, non Muslims were both enlightened and bewildered because they kept asking, how come we don’t hear about this aspect of Islam and Muslims? An old gentleman came to me in a church after a sermon and said “tell me who is your boss? I want to write a letter of thanks.” So I smiled and said “your boss and my boss are the same” How so he asked and I pointed upwards and said, there – that is my boss who you call God and I call Allah so if you want to put in a good word, that’s where you can do it”. Point is that it comes as a total surprise to hear that we believe in the same creator.
Let me read you some of the input I’ve received: Dear Raheel, I just wanted to send a quick email to congratulate you on such an outstanding presentation last night! You were funny, engaging, informative and provocative. Your paper was well written, well rounded and gave an excellent overview of culture, religious doctrine, state related influences and economic status. Not an easy task to try and assimilate in a 40 minute talk. I learned so much more about Islam last night. It helped smash some of the preconceptions and prejudices I still hang onto. I found the brief biographical synopsis on prophet Mohammed especially enlightening. I had no idea that he was a forerunner of women's rights during his time. Now that is groundbreaking news to me! (Kathryn Graham – Creative Director – Makepeace International)
Thank you, Raheel, for the text of your beautiful message of faith to our congregation at Trinity. Above all, thank you for coming all the way to Huntsville at a busy time for your family and for bringing Saif with you. Your work for peace and understanding is very much appreciated here and I am sure it left a mark in many hearts that heard it. Thus it will be amplified many times over and have an impact on our community and hopefully on the world. Keep it up! Best regards, John
In November it was Ramadhan, and for the first time in Canada, television and radio stations were falling over themselves to interview Muslims. We’re actually running out of articulate people to send to media! With this phenomenon of interfaith dialogue and interfaith understanding, the biggest breakthrough has been that media for which faith used to be a four letter word, has also realized that mainstream media needs to reflect more of the OTHER faiths that make Canada home, so that through education and understanding they can bridge the gap of ignorance and racism. And Islam is in the forefront of information sharing right now – I believe that if we don’t make the most of this opportunity, we will lose a great advantage to promote our cause. So we work with youth to empower them to take pride in their faith and share their views.
On Eid al Fitr in December, we initiated what was a first for Canada. We rented a hall and invited people of other faiths to come and celebrate their festivity with us. So we ended up with seven faiths, all displaying and talking about their celebrations and we called this LIGHT UPON LIGHT. Media were so enthused by the title that they flocked to see what was happening. Word got to Ottawa and Hedy Fry, Minister of State for Multiculturalism heard about our event and sent a message that she will attend. When she arrived, she had tears in her eyes and said this is something I’ve never seen before. Then people in New York found out and I have been asked to go and meet with the Director of the Interfaith Centre of New York which is affiliated with the UN, and brainstorm with them, how we can work across our borders because they too are impressed with the framework we have in Canada.
And so it continues at every level. In school boards, corporations and at the government level there is a positive push to interact more with each other. But more important for us, there is an urgency to learn about Islam. Main Toronto bookstores ran out of copies of the Quran.
Let me end by once again quoting from Rumi:
What is to be done O Moslems? For I do not recognize myself I am neither Christian, nor Jew, nor Moslem I am not of the East, nor of the West, nor of the land nor of the sea I am not of natures mint nor of the circling heavens I am not of India nor of china nor of Bulgria nor of Saqsin I am not of the Kingdom of Iraqain, nor of the country of Khuransaan My place is restless, my trace is traceless Tis neither body nor soul, for I belong to the soul of the beloved I have put duality away, I have seen that the two worlds are one One I seek, one I know, One I see, One I call
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