Last Saturday, I attended an interfaith event hosted by the Islamic charity Ulfa Aid – the premise was to bring together Muslims and non-Muslims in the somewhat understated surroundings of the London Hilton Hotel for an evening of “Faith, Friendship and Food”.
The event itself was delightful: the food delicious, the company enjoyable and the entertainment, well…entertaining. As well as traditional music and dance (and some not-so-traditional, but equally wonderful, Gospel singing), there was also a nuanced and engaging talk given by the eminent Cambridge Scholar Timothy Winter (also known as Sheikh Abdul Hakim Murad), in which he reflected on the common humanity in all of us, and the common striving to find meaning and purpose in our otherwise confusing and erratic lives.
But what struck me most of all about the evening – and speaking to others, I was certainly not the only one to reflect on this particular aspect – was the genuine sense of warmth and camaraderie that was extended to us non-Muslim (and often non-believing) guests, and the openness and sincerity with which the ins and outs of the Muslim faith were discussed and aired among the diners. At a time when Islam is simultaneously misunderstood and increasingly prevalent in the West, it is crucial that such interfaith dialogue is allowed to flourish, and that the ‘moderate’ Muslim voices are heard above the clamour of religious and political extremist on both sides of the spectrum. Above all, it is events such as these that really allow Westerners – as outsiders – to understand the current political and social turmoil taking place in the Arab world; to see with our own eyes the common desire for freedom and meaning that unites us all and to understand that is this – beyond any arbitrary classifications of race, faith, or colour – that makes us human.
Because although I might be a secular agnostic, born into the Judeo-Christian tradition, and profoundly sceptical of institutionalised religion, I too can understand the fundamental tenants of the Islamic faith – and their application to wider society: charity, openness, compassion, solidarity. These are all things every human society cherishes and hold dear; because these are all things that define us as human beings, bound together in the shared destiny of this earth we inhabit.
And so I cannot commend highly enough all those individuals (and there were at least a hundred of them), who last Saturday were able to place their prejudices to one side and come together for the evening. If only more people could do so, then perhaps this world might not be such a bad place to live in after all.