By Fr Martin Sirju Taliban. Boko Haram. Terrorism. These are some of the words that come to mind when many people hear the word ‘Muslim’. This is unfortunate. Not so with the Muslims I knew of growing up in Cedros. We would visit the imams sometimes to jharay babies and they always came back well.
My grandfather too took me to the Ramadan prayers in the home of one of the local Muslims, Mr Akbarali, where all attendees would drink the sweet sawine after prayers as a kind of village communion and solidarity. These are the bonds I remember and cherish. It is important for us to remember that Muslims and Christians have a long history together. In the Iberian Peninsula in the Middle Ages, they did not live side by side but together, learning, studying, and meeting regularly. Jews, Christians, and Muslims are relatives, having the same semitic root – we all acknowledge Abraham as prophet in the more ancient sense; he is the ancestral father in faith.
We both have months of fasting and Arabic Christians obviously call God ‘Allah’. It is with this connection in mind that Archbishop Jason Gordon shared with me the idea of a joint breaking of fast with our Muslim brothers and sisters, especially since Lent and Ramadan overlap this year. I told him the idea should be shared with the Inter Religious Organization (IRO) while keeping the Catholic-Muslim initiative intact. The IRO members welcomed the idea of a joint breaking of fast with Muslims and Catholics as well as the idea of a National Day of Prayer and Fasting.
It was eventually set for Friday, April 8. I contacted the Anjuman Sunnat ul Jamaat Association (ASJA) representative of the IRO, Imam Clyde Prudhum-Ali (note the Christian first name!) and asked if a breaking of fast would be possible. The Imam said he didn’t see a problem but would contact Imam Zainool Sarafat, ASJA President to confirm arrangements. Imam Sarafat welcomed the idea and so Archbishop Jason and I headed down to the Charlieville ASJA Complex and arrived early, about 5.15 p.m. We spoke until about 5.30 p.m. when we noticed a few men in Muslim garb looking as if they were expecting someone. We got out of the car and received a warm welcome from the President and others gathered.
Maryam and the prophet Jesus After showing us briefly the span of the complex which included a boys’ secondary school, a girls’ secondary school, a primary school, a preschool, and a learning institute, we headed to a special hall prepared for us. The opening dua (prayers) took place followed by a reading of the Qur’an by one of the muftis (theologians). This was followed by a short address by the senior mufti, Asrarul Haque. He spoke of the Muslim understanding of the prophet going back not only to Abraham but Adam, and of joint fasting practices and that a Muslim is obliged to honour the prophet Jesus and His mother.
In fact, chapter 19 in the Qur’an is dedicated to Maryam (Mary). He pointed out that Muslims can still eat a sound meal in the evening but not for Christians for their fast is throughout the 40 days of Lent. He explained that Muslims are expected to refrain from sexual intercourse during the fasting hours but not necessarily at night. Curiously enough, James Brundage in his magnus opu, Law, Sex and Christian Society in Medieval Europe points out that there was more sexual abstinence in Lent than fasting. Archbishop Jason spoke next on Christian Lenten practices – almsgiving, prayer and fasting, all which Muslims do in Ramadan. In fact, in the room in which we met there were many hampers intended for the poor.
The purpose of the prayer and fasting is similar, he said – to control mind and body to focus on God. He also spoke of Muslims referring to God as “the Beneficent and Merciful”. For Christians too God’s highest quality is mercy. He also mentioned that many Catholics with Muslim spouses fast for Ramadan so this encounter we were having is also lived in society. One of the imams present sang a very moving qasidah. After the qasidah was the breaking of the fast. Here we saw the rich Trini cultural callaloo. We broke the fast with a doubles, a wanton, a date, and a samosa with water or soft drink. Afterwards, we retired to the adjacent masjid (what we call mosque) for the magrib salaat (evening prayer) which was about 15 minutes.
We took off our shoes to enter the masjid and sat while the brothers prayed. Then came the sumptuous dinner at the Haji Ruknudeen Institute of Islamic Studies. Again, we took off our shoes. It was a sumptuous meal of rice, Singapore noodles, fish, and chicken. Mufti Asrarul wisely pointed out to the other imams not to serve us the chicken, knowing we were off meat for Lent. What an exhilarating meeting, an enjoyment of friendship among kinsmen. There were some other gems to mark the end of the day.
The imams were familiar with us long before we met: many of them watch Trinity TV! The Archbishop was known to them particularly through his homilies during pandemic lockdown. We found common ground on the Concordat of 1970 and spoke of our deep commitment to protect our schools. They assured us we were welcome at the ASJA complex at any time. His Grace and I left the compound spellbound. It was a prophetic initiative, and we thank His Grace for it. The esteem in which the imams held the visit was palpable. We need to promote more of this through the IRO. Religion, we must remember, is an indispensable element of peace in any nation.