Iftar at a mosque
Observations from an interfaith evening meal during Ramadan
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Last week, I was invited to an iftar at a mosque in Los Angeles. An iftar is an evening meal that Muslims eat to break their Ramadan fast after sunset. Ramadan began on May 5 this year, and for a whole month, Muslims all around the world are fasting from food and drink from sunrise to sunset.
I decided to sign up for this iftar: I’ve been to Shabbat dinners with Orthodox Jews, so why not a Ramadan dinner with Muslims? I didn’t think much of it until I mentioned it to an older woman from Colombia named Ruth, and she shot me a look of alarm. This woman cleans houses for a living, and for every inch of space that she dusts and vacuums, she covers it with prayers of protection and blessings. And now this prayer warrior was telling me, “If I were you, I’d pray to God and ask if He wants me to go.”
“What’s the problem?” I asked. “It’s just a meal with fellow human beings. We don’t share the same faith, but I don’t think there’s anything bad about building friendships with people of other religions.”
“Yes, yes, but it’s not just a meal.” Ruth said. “That’s a communion. You’re sharing communion with people who practice witchcraft.”
“Witchcraft?” I repeated, almost laughing out loud. “Muslims don’t practice witchcraft, Ruth.”
She shook her head. “Maybe not, but you’ve got to remember: We live in a spiritual realm. There are demonic things in the Islamic religion. They pray five times to a false god. Just think: Who are they calling out to?”
Frankly, I thought she was being rather extreme. We live in a culturally and religiously diverse society. I grew up with Muslim, Hindu, Catholic, Buddhist, and Taoist friends in Singapore. Los Angeles is home to about 500,000 Muslims, and I live a few blocks away from one of the largest mosques in Southern California. With all the religious strife and violence and persecutions erupting in this world, what’s wrong with Christians and Muslims sharing a meal to build relationships and understanding?
So I went to that iftar on Tuesday evening. But I heeded at least one piece of advice from Ruth—I prayed. It was a simple prayer: I prayed for God to let me see what I needed to see, and I prayed for the souls of the people at the iftar.
Turns out, the mosque where this iftar was held is one I pass by every two weeks on my way to a church neighborhood dinner. I had always wondered about this mosque, and now a polite man in a black thawb (a long tunic) was guiding me around inside. A former King of Saudi Arabia and his son built the mosque 1996—a white-and-blue structure with an elaborate dome, a 72-foot-high minaret, and Turkish tiles. My guide ushered me into the library, a room rimmed with Arabic religious books, and then led me to the prayer rooms. The prayer rooms are segregated by gender—lower room for males, upper room for females—and are open daily for the five Islamic prayers. Sometimes on Fridays during jumah (a Friday afternoon prayer), prostrated bodies fill the mosque all the way back to the entrance.
We had our iftar on the second floor, where people greeted each other with “Assalamu Alaykum,” or “Peace be upon you.” Most of the 80 or more people there were Muslims, and I was one of about a dozen professing Christians in the room.
While we waited for the evening prayers to start, leaders of other faith communities talked about what fasting means to their own religion. The imam said fasting leads to a deeper consciousness of God, who watches everything you do. A leader from the Agape International Spiritual Center, a transdenominational congregation, talked about how Jesus was the greatest spiritual scientist, and said that how Jesus overcame temptation on earth “emanates everything that represents Ramadan.” A Reform Jew talked about how Jews and Muslims may have some differing religious tenets, but really, they are all the same. An evangelical pastor said fasting shouldn’t just purify you inside, but manifest outwardly as kindness and compassion for others.
That’s when warning bells began tinkling for me. They all talked about God. They all talked about prayers, treating others well, and peace. But even the evangelical pastor didn’t make any distinction about who people worship during their fasting—and nothing he said would have been out of place coming from of the mouth of an imam or a rabbi. That bothered me. Then during dinner, people stood up to share what they learned from the speakers. One person said, “What I learned is that God is one. We are one, and our God is one.” Almost everyone in the room nodded in appreciation. That bothered me too.
When the clear distinctions between the gospel and other religions get blurred … that’s when I wonder how much shaky ground we stand on during such interfaith gatherings.
Later, I asked a Muslim woman in a hijab what she prays for during her daily prayers. Come Ramadan, she said, she puts her gym membership on hold, suspends her Netflix account, and tells her friends she’s offline for a month. And five times a day, she prays for her mother who recently passed away, for her own well-being and career, and for God to forgive all the sins in her family lineage.
I was surprised: “Even your ancestors?”
She nodded enthusiastically: “Yes, even my ancestors. I pray for everyone in my lineage. I pray that God will wipe all their slates clean and they’ll meet him in heaven.”
“I’ve never heard of praying for the sins of your family lineage in Islam,” I said.
“Oh, I didn’t get this from Islam!” the woman chirped. “A while ago, I attended a Christian Bible study. I just like to attend those things and learn about Christianity, you know? And this Christian lady at the Bible study, she told me I should pray for the sins of everyone in my family line, and God will forgive all of them. I thought, ‘Huh, I like that. Why not?’ So I’ve been praying for my family’s sins ever since.”
I was aghast. What sort of Bible study was this? They had an amazing opportunity to share the gospel of Jesus Christ to a curious, spiritually hungry Muslim woman, and this was the heretical poppycock they fed her instead?
Then the woman got up to perform her fifth prayer at 9:15 p.m. “I gotta go, but it was so wonderful meeting you,” she said, beaming. “I love that you came to our iftar. We all worship and pray to the same God after all, right?”
Oh, nooooo. What conflicting emotions and thoughts I had then! I loved each individual there, for we are all image-bearers of the same Creator. These Muslims were friendly, welcoming people, genuinely delighted to break bread with non-Muslims, and they were fun to be with. But we do not pray to the same God. They do not know God, for Jesus Himself said, “Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him” (John 5:23).
I desire friendships with people of other faiths. I support working with other faith communities to address issues such as injustice, freedom of worship, and religious persecution. I condemn Islamophobia. But when the clear distinctions between the gospel and other religions get blurred, when participants take away a feel-good sense of “oneness” and even syncretize certain beliefs or practices, when an evangelical leader says almost nothing that sets him apart from imams and universalists, that’s when I wonder how much shaky ground we stand on during such interfaith gatherings.
During the evening prayer, we Christians didn’t have to pray with the Muslims. I stood at the back and watched them bow and then prostrate themselves on the rug whenever the imam sang out, “Allahu Akbar!” Among them was a little boy, around 5 years old, copying his father’s movements from a 90-degree bow to full prostrate. But as everyone kept their heads down to pray, he popped his head up, peeking and looking restlessly around him.
This little boy probably didn’t understand what he was doing. But he’s a little human being, created with both physical and spiritual eyes that saw something sacred and serious was going on. So even though he wasn’t sure what was happening, he dutifully tucked his head back down to a posture of submission to Allah.
May we Christians not be like that little boy—seeing but not understanding, sensing but not discerning, questioning yet blindly submitting to what society tells us is right.
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