[Episcopal Diocese of Texas] Christ Church Cathedral in Houston hosted an interfaith Iftaar on July 11, presented by the Friends of Iman, a group of young adults who organize education and interfaith activities in memory of Iman Haq, a young Muslim woman who died two years ago at the age of 20.
An Iftaar is a traditional Islamic dinner observed during the month of Ramadan, when the community gathers together to break their daylong fast as the sun goes down.
The event featured a panel discussion with representatives from the three Abrahamic faiths: Mubeen Khumawala representing Islam, Rabbi Steve Gross representing Judaism, and the Very Rev. Barkley Thompson, dean of the cathedral, representing Christianity. As the event was focused on the observance of Ramadan, an Islamic month of fasting, each representative spoke briefly on the fasting rituals of their faith tradition before taking questions from the crowd.
Khumawala explained that many Islamic rituals can be traced to the idea of self-purification.
“We attain self-purification through fasting by restraining yourself from your two most basic needs: food and drink,” he said. “Fasting during the month of Ramadan serves a means of remembrance…We remember God to attain self-purification by reciting his word, through supplicating to him and by keeping our minds and our tongues busy with this remembrance.”
According to Gross, the Jewish tradition focuses on the idea of atonement on Yom Kippur, which is the culmination of 10 days of repentance. “The holiday, or holy day, of Yom Kippur enables us to really try to focus our intentions through prayer, through repentance, and through fasting,” he explained. “Jews go through a process each year when we try to keep ourselves on the straight and narrow.”
Speaking on the Christian season of Lent, Thompson explained that the most American Christian traditions do not fast as fervently as their faith counterparts. “We are not as observant as our brothers and sisters of other faiths,” he said. “If we fast at all, we usually fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. But during Lent, we also have this practice of taking on a spiritual discipline or giving up something that we love.
“It becomes sort of a joke in many Christian churches. I give up beer every year because I really like it! I like to come home at the end of the day with a really cold, really hoppy, dark beer. And when I come home, and I am deprived of that, it reminds me that I am trying to live in some way like Jesus did during his time of temptation.”
Audience members asked several thought-provoking questions regarding the role of women in each religion, the meaning of traditional dress, and the call to charity shared by each faith.
At one point, an older Christian woman, who admitted her only knowledge of Islam comes from the media, expressed anger with what she perceived as the disparagement of women and the lack of education of Muslim Imams, or leaders. But before Khumawala could fully respond, she added, “I know there are Imams with a political point of view that ask their congregations to ‘rise up.’ That is a lot of power for one person to have, so where does that come from?”
At that point, Thompson interjected with the only applause-line of night, stating, “The late Rev. Jerry Falwell, a highly educated Christian leader, went on CNN and said about Muslims, ‘Blow them all away in the name of the Lord.’ So I would simply offer that it is an equal opportunity misuse of one’s religious power. We see it more in our news media, but I don’t think that it is really any more prevalent amongst leaders in the Muslim world than it is among Christian leaders in the western world.”
In regards to traditional clothing, Gross added, “I encourage all of you with questions to sit next to a woman wearing a hijab or traditional dress, and you might learn so much more from them. Often from our western eyes, it is seen as something of subjugation, but in my experience it is almost always a matter of choice. In Judaism, some men choose to wear a yarmulke and in some more orthodox traditions, women will cover their heads… It is a wonderful, complex cultural tradition.”
The discussion ended with a question regarding each faith’s common call to charity. A young Muslim woman explained that charity is a central tenet of Islam and asked why it is also important to the Jewish and Christian faiths. Drawing upon that sense of ecumenism, Thompson explained why Christians are called to see God in all things.
“John’s Gospel, the beginning of Genesis and some of Paul’s letters in the New Testament say that the Christ is incarnate in all things. And while we don’t mean to co-opt your faith into our own, what that means is it’s not just metaphorical that if I feed you, I feed Jesus. The Christ is, in fact, incarnate in you. When we will say in our better moments that there is truth in Islam that you can teach us, that there is truth in Judaism that you can teach us, that is because Christ is also incarnate in your faith. So the truth you teach us is in fact Christ teaching us.”
Gross also explained another commonality in the religions as he noted, “Many people in this audience probably don’t know that Jesus is also the Messiah in Islam. So it is important for the world to know that there is huge amounts of overlap in our faiths.”
“And Jesus was also a quite faithful and observant Jew,” Thompson added.
Following the discussion, Khumawala issued the Islamic call to prayer, and the Islamic community prayed in the parish hall before everyone took part in the Iftaar dinner with jazz musicians playing in the background.
Friends of Iman provides scholarships for disadvantaged young people all over the world, especially girls. The organization, which is spearheaded by Iman Haq’s mother, Naila Qureshi, first held this interfaith dinner two years ago with just a few participants. This year, that number swelled to well over 100 participants and continues to grow. Learn more about Friends of Iman here.