Interfaith dialogue: iftar and the healing of hospitality

When my Muslim sisters host iftar, the meal taken by Muslims at sundown to break their daily fast during Ramadan, it’s a lively event. Games, conversation, laughter and eating take us deep into the night, writes Kim Chong.

Western Sydney Women’s IntHERfaith Initiative. Photo: Columban Centre for Christian-Muslim Relations.

Western Sydney Women’s IntHERfaith Initiative. Photo: Columban Centre for Christian-Muslim Relations.

It’s a long way from the tiresome tropes of Muslim women as subdued and oppressed. Iftar with my Muslim sisters is high-energy fun, even if I am the only woman attending who does not observe Ramadan (I’m Catholic).

My work at the Columban Centre for Christian-Muslim Relations in Blacktown, NSW, means I receive many invitations to iftar. They vary from official dinners with religious and civic leaders to intimate home iftars, where a family invite guests to join them at their dining table. Then there is often a “sisters” iftar, a highlight.

Attending various iftars has shown me how diverse our Muslim sisters and brothers are in ethnicity, culture and spiritual practice. But what they have in common is hospitality. Iftars are essentially community gatherings. As in many a celebratory event, it is not exclusive. Baptisms, weddings, Christmas and Easter often include guests in the pews or at the table who are not Christian. That’s because they are friends, colleagues, or neighbours. These events are religious observances but, like Ramadan, they open themselves to hospitality and community.

The word ‘hospitality’ is rooted in 14th Century Old French ospitalité, ‘hospitality; hospital’, from Latin hospitalitem, ‘friendliness to guests’. I once read an article about hospitality as a mode of healing.[1] ‘Hospitality’ is rooted in ‘hospital’ after all. The article states that hospitality connects different people through their shared woundedness. That is, it connects different people through an open acceptance of each other as imperfect beings. When we can recognise our limitations as humans, such humility releases us from the fantasies of perfection that alienate us from each other. It is a doorway into our humanity, which is a doorway into each other.

“Hospitality heals by making whole. In welcoming strangers, hospitality brings people together in the wholeness of community, and thereby allows the wholeness of being.”[2] Wholeness emerges from a connection of disparate parts. It is a state of unity, of being unbroken. But connecting our different selves with each other in community does not mean that we become one, or the same. The wholeness of community is not a finite total. Wholeness is founded in connection, a co-existence of difference and sameness.[3]

We cannot know ourselves as whole beings without accepting the differences that we might otherwise deny in each other. For example, when my Muslim sisters or brothers invite me to join iftar, it does not matter to them that I am not Muslim. If they denied me based on my difference in faith, or I them, this suggests that because we are unlike each other we are unacceptable to each other. This risks a belief that only one way of being is the way. Expecting you to be like me, or I like you, will keep us from each other. It is inhospitable.

Hospitality offers sustenance, accepting everyone as they are, without classification, or comparison. It’s a radical act against stereotype and prejudice. It opens us to knowing each other, and ourselves, as whole beings, unique and full of potential. “Potential is a person’s wholeness. In these terms, transformation involves people setting aside the limits of labels and masks and coming to accept who they really are. This acceptance, a making whole, is the healing,” the article said.[4]

When I arrive at the sisters iftar, I join a round table of strangers. We greet each other politely, introduce ourselves formally, admire the table setting. Secretly we may be making comparisons, feeling awkward and self-conscious. When the women learn I am not Muslim, a warmth emerges and a desire to show me the ways of the iftar. They offer me tea and food first. They are grateful that I might join them with open curiosity in a religious observance different to my own.

This in no way jeopardises my own beliefs. Rather, a space has opened between our habitual identities and ourselves as whole people, so that greater aspects of who we are become apparent and available. Acceptance allows us to be fully ourselves. As we relax into the evening, conversation flows. We speak as women and mothers. We laugh and cheer during a trivia game. This is how friendships are made.

As the evening winds down, I am invited by one of the women I have befriended at my table to witness the prayers at the mosque next door. We enter the mosque together and she bids me goodbye as she joins her sisters on the main floor to pray. I witness their prayer from a balcony.

It is with this sense of hospitality and community that a new women’s interfaith network in Western Sydney is realising its potential. Established early last year through my work at the Centre, the Western Sydney Women’s IntHERfaith Initiative gathers women from different religions to meet in a spirit of solidarity and friendship. Its purpose is to build a sisterhood which breaks down stereotypes and prejudices. Currently our organising committee consists of Christian, Muslim and Sikh women, but we are seeking to expand the representation to include the world’s major religions.

About 40 women gathered for the inaugural meeting in early 2021. Just like the sisters’ iftars, the room was buzzing as the women shared who they were with each other. While the ensuing COVID-19 lockdown brought the in-person gatherings to an end mid-year, some of the women did their best to meet online. We hope to gain momentum as we gather in person again throughout 2022.

The Western Sydney Women’s IntHERfaith Initiative is an opportunity for women to come together just as they are, to feel safe, welcomed and accepted, and to have fun! Hospitality is central to building community. Once the guard is down, we realise our whole selves through each other and the potential to do good things.

Kim Chong, Media & Community Liaison, Columban Centre for Christian-Muslim Relations

[1] Game, A. & Metcalfe, A. (2010), ‘Hospitality: How Woundedness Heals’, Journal of Spirituality in Mental Health, 12: 1, pp. 25-42.

[2] Ibid., 26.

[3] Ibid., 27.

[4] Ibid., 28.

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