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GENERAL SECRETARY JOINS
Photo Captions, Credit Below
December 12, 2001, NEW YORK CITY National Council of Churches General Secretary Robert W. Edgar (pictured with Aisha Ad-Dawiyya, right) was among some 70 Muslims, Christians and Jews who shared a traditional Muslim "Iftar" meal and a time of dialogue, on Dec. 6 at Union Theological Seminary here.
The unusual event took place during Ramadan, the holy month in the Islamic lunar calendar when Muslims fast during daylight hours. The Iftar meal breaks the day's fast after sunset prayers.
"If Sept. 11 had not happened, would we be here together, breaking bread, listening to each other?" the Rev. Dr. Edgar asked in a panel discussion following the vegetarian meal.
"In my theology, God did not cause this tragic event, but God helps us use tragic events to heal wounds," Dr. Edgar said. "God is opening some doors for us in the shadow of Sept. 11," he said, calling on participants of all faiths "to learn together, to walk together, pray together, be seen together, and model better behavior to the world."
Panelist Aisha Ad-Dawiyya of Women in Islam affirmed that in her 15 years of interfaith work, the Dec. 6 shared Iftar meal stands out "as a special gathering for me." "As a result of Sept. 11, we have forged some new kinds of relationships," Ad-Dawiyya said. "This is an incredible opportunity the Creator has put before us. I trust we will not let it slip by."
Dr. Edgar expressed the hope that churches, synagogues and mosques would use the months ahead to learn about each other's faith traditions. "This is a teaching moment," he said, "a time to open the eyes of people who have been blinded by propaganda."
In 2001, Ramadan overlaps with Advent, the season when Christians prepare spiritually for the celebration of Christ's birth. That coincidence, coming in a season of war, has prompted an unusually strong emphasis on fasting among Christians, with Protestant, Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Evangelical and other leaders calling for the observance of fast days at various times in December and also in the months ahead.
Many who are fasting, including Dr. Edgar, say they do so not only in solidarity with Muslims, but also to rediscover their own fasting traditions and to appreciate the commonality of this practice.
Several panelists explained the purpose of the Ramadan fast, for the benefit of non-Muslims in the audience.
"The real purpose of fasting is to purify the soul--to become God-conscious," said Naeem Baig, secretary general of the Islamic Circle of North America, which has U.S. headquarters in Jamaica, N.Y.
Elaborating on that theme was Feisal Rauf, an imam who is head of the American Sufi Muslim Association. Rauf said that in the tumult of everyday life the physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual beings are shaken together and become "an emulsion." When a person fasts and becomes still, "these entities" settle out, allowing more spiritual awareness, he said.
Themes that emerged in the dialogue that followed the panel presentations included the challenges facing many Muslims as they attempt to accommodate their religious perspective with modern forms of government and a religiously plural society.
"This ferment of ideas is something that the Muslim community needs," said Rauf. Noting that the Muslim intellectual movement to modernize at the beginning of the 20th century was quashed by the rise of "authoritarian regimes" in many Muslim countries, he said, "We need to fast forward into the 21st century."
Others suggested that the climate of fear enveloping Muslims today--created by physical attacks, racial profiling, and the detention of many hundreds of Muslims in the U.S.--prevents their open and honest discussion of Islam with others. "Some Muslims are giving superficial answers to questions about Islam," said panelist Farid Esack of South Africa, who is a visiting professor at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City. "How do we go beyond just PR?"
In a discussion of how the role of women in Islam gets played out in interfaith dialogue, Aisha Ad-Dawiyya acknowledged that in Islam "we have our gender challenges," but asked dialogue partners to refrain from "superimposing your issues on the dialogue. Ask yourself what your motive is," she said. "We need to begin with mutual respect."
Despite the difficulties inherent in interfaith dialogue, Mary Boys of the Union Theological Seminary faculty urged participants to persevere. Observing that "our meal is a form of interfaith dialogue," she said that such dialogue "is not first and foremost an intellectual exchange; it is a religious one. "Here tonight we have the possibility of forming friendships," she said, "and interreligious friendships are the most important friendships we can engage in, in our lives."
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