On Monday 27th May, Dr Leal and I were very kindly invited by Brasenose College student Abdullah Khalil to share in the Iftar at the Oxford University Islamic Society’s dedicated prayer room in the Robert Hooke building. An Iftar is the celebratory evening meal Muslims enjoy together to end their daily fast in the month of Ramadan (9th month of the Islamic calendar). The annual observance of Ramadan is regarded as one of the five pillars of Islam as it commemorates one of the first revelations of the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad. It is a time of fasting, abstinence, prayer, reflection, alms-giving and community.
We gathered just before 9pm as the sun was setting, slipped off our shoes in the hallway and padded quietly into the carpeted prayer room for silent prayer. At 9:11pm the Muslim call to prayer was chanted beautifully to mark sunset and the breaking of the day’s fast. Sharing plates of sweet dates and glasses of fruit juice were circulated. Not having eaten myself for 9 hrs the dates were very welcome – much more so I imagine for Abdullah and our hosts who had not eaten since their pre-dawn meal of Suhur as the Ramadan fast takes place during daylight hours for the month.
Dave and I were then honoured to sit in on the communal prayers that took place and watched as women and men carried out their devotions and prostrations led from the front by the repeated chant of a Qur’anic verse in Arabic of “God is Great”. After which table cloths were spread on the floor and an impressive home cooked feast emerged as if by magic: samosas, chickpea curry, savoury and sweet rice with cloves and nuts, spinach and chicken were offered. Mehroz and Lennaert joined us at the meal and it was wonderful to build further friendship with Brasenose-ers and across our communities, to have the opportunity to learn about each other’s faith traditions as well as hear how Abdullah and Lennaert’s finals were going, to congratulate Mehroz on the recent submission of his PhD. We were made to feel so welcome by everyone; it was a moving experience.
Walking back home in the dark I was struck again by the power of prayer (traditionally Muslims pray 5 times a day: dawn, early afternoon, late afternoon, sunset, night) and the value of fasting for our spiritual lives. In our consumerist Western culture, where having more seems to be priority and being full is an aim, there is something powerful about the discipline of setting time aside to be empty, to leave space in our lives for God, for others, to experience hunger and remember the needs of the world and respond in service. Christians traditionally pray daily in the morning and evening (monastics might pray up to 8 times a day) and practise fasting, especially in the 40 days of Lent. Jews pray also three times a day and fast particularly at Yom Kippur and Tisha B'Av amongst other occasions. Fasting is a practice that all the great faith traditions of the world recognise as of value like regular times of daily prayer, which are a necessity.
It reminded me of how much we share in common and how such encounters can be full of friendship and a celebration of our different faith identities – mutually encouraging and enriching. Thanks to Abdullah, Lennaert, Mehroz and ISoc for the lovely invitation and very warm welcome.
photo shows, pictured left to right: Lennaert Woudt (3rd year PPE), Dr Dave Leal (Brasenose Lecturer in Philosophy), Revd Julia Baldwin (Brasenose Chaplain), Mehroz Ehsan (Final Year PhD Cardiovascular Medicine), Abdullah Khalil (4th year medic)