What does it means for a Christian to go on retreat (i'tikaf) in a mosque during Ramadan? This is my journey.
On the day I got up as usual, it was still dark, and made breakfast. I prayed the Lord's Prayer - 'give us this day our daily bread!' and asked for strength in fasting as a spiritual exercise. I finished breakfast around 06.30 (discovering later that the fast should began at 05.30, no imam for guidance though I could have researched it better - this was several years ago).
I arrived at the mosque in time for Asr (afternoon) prayers. I sat at the back of the mosque as usual but was invited to come forward for the dhikr (meditative chanting) after congregational prayers, it was good to sit with the worshippers as they chanted. Maghrib (sunset) prayers were followed by the breaking of the fast. As on many occasions, after discussions of difference and similarity, conversation turned to falling church attendance in the UK.
Isha (night) prayers and a series of recitations (tarawih prayers) foloowed. The congregation stood for each recitation, punctuated by prayer prostrations. I sat at the back observing during for around an hour and a half.
My good friend the imam, Dr Musharraf Hussain, told me earlier that there would be a vigil, this would involve each Hafiz reciting from memory one jus of the Qur'an each (from Surah 41 to the end of the final Surah, 114). Before we started he introduced me as a friend and a keenly practising Methodist Christian, which I appreciated. I shared greetings from the Christian Muslim Forum and The Square Methodist Church, Dunstable and was completely open that I was a Christian interested in Muslim spirituality.
During recitations I followed parts in translation. Two of the hafiz were striking. One was Shaykh Abdur Rahman from Syria who recited with a beautiful melodious voice, especially Surah 55 Ar-Rahman, a litany containing the repeated phrase 'which of the favours of your Lord will ye deny?' His voice reminded me of the oud (middle-eastern flute). The other noteworthy hafiz was a young lad giving his first public recitation, he seemed quite confident and had a good deep tone.
There was a short break in the middle which gave me the opportunity to talk about the recitations with those who were sitting around me. I mentioned how Surah 62.1 'whatever is in the heavens and on earth, declares the praises and glory of Allah' reminded me of the beginning of Psalm 19 'the heavens are telling the glory of God'.
We also discussed the fact that most of the worshippers didn't actually understand the Arabic. Later, I was very pleased to share my Qur'an translation with those next to me, they clearly appreciated seeing the English version. We followed the last 15 (short) Surahs simultaneously with the recitation. When we finished the recitation those who were still present were invited to the front of the mosque to join in the responsive singing of the Naseeda (a song of praise). This was very free-form, there was a great sense of closeness as we gathered round. It was very emotional, I was in the middle of the group as they sang joyfully, with feeling, and I was moved by the emotional power of the worship. The first song was somewhere between chanting and singing, the next really was singing, complete with musical hand gestures, the leader sang beautifully and expressively. It was a great moment even though I didn't know what was being sung, the depth of feeling - joy and passion - was unquestionable.
Throughout prayers and recitations language was a hurdle that I could not clear, being able to understand Arabic and Urdu would have made it quite a different experience.
The following morning, after a very short and sleepless break, I attended Fajr (dawn) prayers, for the first time. Some of those who had been with us for the late night recitations returned to the mosque for Fajr before going to work.
At the end of my retreat I explored these questions, and shared them with my friend Musharraf.
1. Can a practising Christian engage with the spirituality of another religion?
I was not able to participate as a Muslim would, but I was present. 'Presence' is something very deep, as in 'practising the presence of God' (Thomas a Kempis). I don't mean merely being physically present, but present in the Spirit. In being present with Muslim worshippers my experience was of all of us drawing closer to God, having a common recognition that we are all engaged in this, 'as the Spirit moves us'.
Drawing closer to others who are also making the journey towards God, in different faith-traditions, can be part of one's own journey. At the very least this means recognising the God-focusedness of other spiritual practices. I believe that this is where Christ wants me to be and that this is my calling.
2. How can a Christian take part in, and benefit from, engaging in the retreat of another faith tradition?
Many people of various faiths, and none, take part in retreats within different traditions. For me the Muslim retreat (i'tikaf) was a framework within which I could engage with my own spirituality and explore another faith's spirituality, out of this naturally develops a deeper dialogue.
Christians friends from a range of traditions, Anglican, Catholic, Methodist, Evangelical, ministers and lay people offered these supportive words:
- Looks like you have an interesting time ahead! Would that there were more who were willing to 'let go' and trust in God to take them where they need to go.
- I am entirely supportive of what you are doing and cannot imagine that the retreat will do anything but deepen your own Christian spirituality and your understanding of Muslim spirituality. In my experience it is only our fear that closes God off to us and if you enter this time with an open and peaceful heart, as it seems clear you are doing, then I cannot see how it cannot fail to be rewarding.
I found my friend Musharraf's insight, devotion to God and concern for others to be supportive of me as a Christian. The Muslim prayer timetable provides a framework for regular prayer, especially in the afternoon and evening. At prayer times I have listened to the adhan in particular, which, apart from the shahadah, to which a Christian would not say 'Amen', has some very helpful exhortations - hasten to prayer, hasten to (spiritual) success. During the prayers I have listened without praying while the imam is speaking, then prayed the Lord's Prayer during the shorter silences and my own prayers, before, during and afterwards in the longer spaces, particularly in the Fajr prayers on the morning of my last day. It was not a retreat specifically tailored for me, but the spiritual element was definitely there and perhaps I have had to work harder at my own spiritual response. One of the reflections that I shared with a small group on my last evening, after the last set of prayers (Isha), was the evident joy in their religion that the worshippers had.
3. How can being involved in another faith's religious activity be a time of Christian witness?
I begin by quoting the guidelines on inter faith dialogue produced by the churches in the UK - 'dialogue is the medium for authentic witness'. I did not come on the retreat in order to witness to Christ, or Christianity, which would have been an abuse of the welcome extended to me. I did however come on the retreat as a Christian, seeing my self-identification as the first part of witness and then my presence as being a further integral act of witness.
Public commitment to respectful and attentive engagement, in a prayerful and spiritual attitude, is a strong witness. It shows a Christian identity which is strong, open, inclusive and reflective. In order to go deeper in dialogue and engagement and remain rooted in one's own faith one seeks to encounter and fully appreciate the other, without becoming the other, allowing the dialogue partner to see oneself as an engaged, open and inclusive other who has no fear of the experience or the dialogue partner ('perfect love casts out fear', 1 John). There is a certain amount of risk, personally and in relation to one's own faith community in going deeper in engagement, but through risk comes growth.
The retreat provided much fuel for thought and potential for dialogue. It was noticeable in the recitations that there were a number of verses challenging the idea of 'God having a son' and also those focusing on the teaching and message of Jesus. I am convinced that Christians need to hear and read these texts and that they should be part of Christian-Muslim dialogue. It would be useful for Muslims to know how Christians feel about these texts, for Christians to know how this influences Muslim engagement with them and to explore issues around one faith making assertions about the other's beliefs and scripture.
Seven years later I am still hugely grateful to my friend Musharraf and the experience is still with me. This is the first time that I have written publicly about it.