It might seem odd that the question of whether Christians should join in iftar meals with their Muslim neighbours is a pressing one for the Church in the UK. But following the hosting of a Grand Iftar, to mark the end of the Muslim season of Ramadan, at Southwark Cathedral, reaction appears to have been strongly divided, and it is clearly a contentious issue.
The word ‘iftar’ simply means ‘meal’ or ‘feast’, and has with it implications of a social meal, eaten together in the community. At that level the issue is relatively uncontentious. But the iftar is a particular meal, ending the fasting during the daytime all through Ramadan—and Christians who live in Muslim countries by and large have no problem with joining in with this social occasion, as it is just part of the local culture. (They also point out that, paradoxically, Muslims probably eat more during Ramadan than at other times, because of the large breakfast taken in the morning, and the iftar feast at the end of the day!)
But in the UK, the Ramadan fast has a different status. Fasting is one of the five pillars of Islam (along with confession of faith, ‘There is no god but Allah, and Muhammed is his prophet’, prayer, giving alms, and pilgrimage to Mecca), and the iftar meal usually happens just before evening prayers. In a non-Muslim culture, the iftar will have an important function in identifying and encourage cohesion for the Muslim community. But it is isn’t possible (as some have argued) to simply say that the iftar is a religious meal. Islam does not separate the ‘religious’ from the ‘social’, and has a totalising world view, making exclusive claims over the whole of life. (Mainstream Christianity had a similar approach prior to the modern era; the division of life into the sacred and secular is primarily an Enlightenment construction.) So the status of the iftar meal is complex, particularly in Western cultures where Muslims are a minority group. One of the issue for Southwark Cathedral was building trust and cohesion between Muslim and non-Muslim communities a year on from the attack on London Bridge by three Muslim men.
Arguments in response to the Southward Cathedral event have mostly been about social or cultural issues, but what are the theological resources we might draw on to reflect on this issue? I think there are three resource to draw on: Jesus’ own practice of table fellowship; Jesus’ teaching on eating; and Paul’s extended discussion in 1 Corinthians.
Jesus’ table fellowship with undesirable and marginal people is reasonable well-known, and according to the gospels was a distinctive aspect of his life and ministry. The criticism of Jesus by those concerned with ritual purity is recorded in all three gospels, in Matt 9.10–13, Mark 2.15–17 and Luke 5.29–31. There are several things to note about these incidents which are often passed over or misunderstood.
First, the criticism is not by nasty religious bigots of Jesus as a laissez-faire liberal. Jesus actually commends the Pharisees in their concern and teaching; what he dislikes is their hypocrisy in not themselves putting it into practice (Matt 23.3). And Matthew, with his concern to express the gospel in Jewish terms, actually records Jesus teaching that we must be even more concerned about righteousness (Matt 5.20)
Secondly, whilst Jesus attends meals at the houses of those whom the Pharisees might shun, he never actually invites them himself, and never hosts a meal for them. The only time we see Jesus acting as host for guests at a meal is in the last supper, where those who attend are clearly committed disciples (with the possible exception of Judas). Here, Jesus makes practical provision for his guests and explains the meaning of the Passover celebration, as a good host would do.
That throws light on the other important aspect of Jesus’ table fellowship. If he has been invited (or in the case of Zacchaeus has rather forced himself to be invited) it is because the host wants to hear his message. This becomes clear in Jesus’ teaching given in response to the criticism: he has come to call sinners, and how can he do this without spending time with them? It is fascinating at this point to note the differences between the accounts of Matthew and Mark compared with that of Luke, who is most clearly writing to a non-Jewish audience. Where the others record Jesus as explaining that he came to ‘call sinner’, Luke makes the nature of that call explicit: ‘I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance’ (Luke 5.32).
We can see, then, that Jesus does not simply disregard the religious and theological significance of table fellowship, and does not simply drive a coach and horses through existing practice. Rather, he is pushing the boundaries of existing practice in order to preach the gospel and call people to repentance in the light of the kingdom, using table fellowship as an anticipation of the righteousness that will result.
Rick Warren explains his own past attendance at iftar meals as an example of good neighbourliness, following the example of Jesus:
It’s called being polite and a good neighbor. For years, we have invited Muslim friends to attend our Easter and Christmas services and they have graciously attended year after year. Some have even celebrated our family’s personal Christmas service in our home. So when they have a potluck when their month of fasting ends, we go to their party. It’s a Jesus thing. The Pharisees criticized him as “the friend of sinners” because Jesus ate dinner with people they disapproved of. By the way, one of my dear friends is a Jewish Rabbi and my family has celebrated Passover at his home, and he attends our Christmas and Easter services. I wish more Christians would reach out in love like Jesus.
But read in context, Jesus’ practice is more complex, and more theologically loaded, than that.
The second resource is Jesus’ teaching about eating with others. When Jesus sends out the Twelve to preach the kingdom of God in Luke 9.1–6, he tells them to take no provision with them, so that they will have to rely on the hospitality of those to whom they go for their food and water. Essentially, they are doing a trade: you offer us food and lodging and we will offer your healing, deliverance and the good news of the kingdom. But in the second, parallel episode in Luke 10.1–12 when he sends out the 72, he gives more detailed instructions and spells out the implications of this strategy. ‘You must eat and drink what is set before you’ (Luke 10.7). It is clear from what Jesus then says about Chorazin and Bethsaida that the 72 are ministering in the largely gentile region to the north of Lake Galilee, and it implies that anyone concerned about Jewish food laws is going to have to learn to be a little flexible.
This flexibility is implied in Jesus’ teaching elsewhere. I recently preached on Matt 5.43–48, and in the centre of this teaching about relating to those who are unlike us and those who dislike us, Jesus challenges the natural human tendency to stick with ‘our own kind’. But the language he uses is that of ‘brothers’ (and, by implications, ‘sisters’). This could be understood to refer to family and kindred groupings, but kindred language also applies in the NT to fellow-Jews; Paul uses this language in Romans 16 to talk about his indebtedness to fellow Jews who have worked with him in his apostolic ministry. The implications of Jesus’ teaching here begins to undermine the idea of Jewish (and so Christian) social self-containment. You can see how challenging this is when you look at the history of inter-religious relationships. A few years ago I visited Thessaloniki, and when the city was part of the Ottoman Empire you could see very clear the quarters of the city which were Jewish, Muslim and Christian—there were very clear boundaries between the communities, who wore distinct styles of clothing and used distinct architectural styles in their buildings. Jesus’ appeal in Matt 5 to the universal identity of humanity created in the image of God raises a large question-mark over such parallel existences. Furthermore, Rodney Stark highlights that a good deal of the rapid growth of the early church came from exogamous marriage, that is, Christian women marrying non-Christian men.
Against this, we need to remember that the relevance of Jewish food laws remained an issue for the early church for some years. This is evidence by the issues debate in the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15, but also by the way that the gospel writers seize on Jesus’ teaching to apply it to the question of food in Mark 7.19—Mark’s editorial comment making it clear how important this one, small statement was.
The third resource is Paul’s teaching about food offered to idols in 1 Cor 8–10. This is pertinent, since Christians and Jews in the first century were living in a world where the religious and the social were blended together just as they are for Muslims today. To be part of a trade guild and practice your craft, you needed to pray to the ‘sponsoring’ God of the guild, and the economic consequences of refusing to compromise your Christian faith is an important background to the language of economic control of the worship of the beast in Rev 13.17.
This intermix of religious and social life extended to the markets. It was possibly to buy meat that had not been offered to idols, but this was much more expensive than meat that had been used in temple offerings, and so was not a practical option for those who were poor—and it is clear from the discussion in chapter 11 that there was a wide mix of economic status within the community.
Paul’s argument begins with the central confession of Jewish faith, the Shema from Deut 6.4, but revised to incorporate Jesus into the unique identity of the one God.
So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that “An idol is nothing at all in the world” and that “There is no God but one.” For even if there are so–called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”), yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live. (1 Cor 8.4–6)
There is only one God, and this one God is both the God and Father of Jesus, and the Lord Jesus himself. (This is the most important text in the NT demonstrating early worship of Jesus as incorporated into the identity of God.) What does this then mean for the ethical problem of idol-meat?
Surprisingly, this belief cuts both ways. On the one hand, if Jesus is Lord, then idols are themselves nothing, following the tradition of the critique of idolatry in the Old Testament. We have nothing to fear, and nothing to worry about—and we are therefore free to eat whatever food we like, without any anxiety. On the other hand, if Jesus is Lord, we should not be compromising our faith by doing something that might look (either to us or to others) as though we are selling short on our belief in the uniqueness of God as revealed to us in Jesus.
So, for Paul, the discussion moves away from ontology (the ‘objective’ status) of the food we are eating, and moves towards the sociology of the community. What does our eating this food communicate? What does it say about us, both to our brothers and sisters within the community of faith, and to those on the outside? Will it help to build up the faith of believers, and will it support the proclamation of Jesus as Lord?
This, it seems to me, gets to the nub of the controversy about the Grand Iftar held at Southwark Cathedral. I was very interested to notice that Rick Warren, when talking about his own participation in the iftar, prefaced that by explaining how distinctive he understood his Christian faith to be, and that by joining in this community meal he was in no sense compromising his faith.
What did the Southwark Grand Iftar communicate? Those who organised it were clear in their intention—that this should communicate a willingness to build social bridges, and not perpetuate unnecessary division. That is laudable, even necessary—but for some, the suspicion of compromise on the question of interfaith relations has ben fuelled by other occasions when the boundaries have been blurred, for example when Giles Goddard hosted a Muslim service in his Anglican church, which necessitated the covering up of Christian images. In such a context, the message of the Grand Iftar is less clear than it would otherwise be.
And in a social context where police guidance to combat Islamophobia (if such a thing can exist) bears an uncanny resemblance to a Shariah ban on any criticism of Islam as a religion or the Qur’an as a book, then the message gets even more mixed. Add to this other iftas where there is a significant buy-in to Muslim culture, and the problem is compounded. It would also help for the Church of England to be clear that, alongside community building, it does also believe in seeing Muslims come to Christian faith in some way or another.
The proof of the pudding is less in the eating and more in the communication—in one direction or the other. Although done with laudable intent, it appears on this occasion the impact has been less than helpful.
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24 thoughts on “Should Christians share in Muslim Iftar meals?”
Many thanks Ian, for this well-argued and thought-provoking article. Can you tell me which of Rodney Stark’s books you were referring to above?
Rodney Stark’s “The Rise of Christianity” contains (in chapter 5) the idea Ian relates, along with a lot of other stuff examining from sociological perspectives the extraordinary growth of Christianity in its first 3 centuries.
Many thanks David
I would not attend an Iftar meal, for exactly this reason:
“…if Jesus is Lord, we should not be compromising our faith by doing something that might look (either to us or to others) as though we are selling short on our belief in the uniqueness of God as revealed to us in Jesus.”
While I have no personal or theological objection to sharing a meal with my Muslim neighbors (indeed I have done, the church I attended in Leicester ran ‘Muslim-Christian dialogue’ meetings), however strong my disagreements with them might be, the iftar meal does not constitute a ‘ceremonial’ meal, insofar as I understand it at least, and so I would not feel like I was compromising anything by attending, though I would remain cautious.
It would almost certainly look that way though.
After all, in today’s’ largely secular and post-Christian society, an event such as described above would very likely be viewed as mutual tolerance (at best) and approval (at worst) of Muslim religious practice. A cynic would say that this was the explicit intent of Southwark. This is the framework the vast majority of commentary on religion fits into in today’s media culture; ‘do you tolerate or discriminate’ is the linguistic paradigm of choice. It also doesn’t help that this comes from a position of ignorance (of both faiths) and from the desire to paint agreement or cooperation on one issue as if it reflects an agreement/cooperation on all issues. Secular Britain would be much happier if all the ‘rough edges’ vanished from religion and we ended up with something more like this: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-27872551
In general I find the holding of an iftar in a cathedral far less objectionable than the holding of a ‘Muslim service’, as per Southwark in 2015. The former is unwise, the latter plainly mistaken and appalling.
‘In general I find the holding of an iftar in a cathedral far less objectionable than the holding of a ‘Muslim service’, as per Southwark in 2015.’
Well, yes, it’s all about deciding where you draw the line. It so happens that, minutes ago, I watched Gavin Ashenden speaking about the iftar in the cathedral question (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2OieV-bJpbs); and I think you might find his understanding of the issue helpful. As I’m not any kind of expert here I would simply say that he was extremely clear and makes a pretty compelling case.
There is a more general point about drawing the line: wherever you do so, it’s a simple fact that once a line has been crossed it is very hard, if not impossible, to uncross it. And, as you say, whatever you do or don’t do gives out signals over which you have no control. And that tells me that any uncertainty or lack of full knowledge about an issue should mean that ‘no change’ is the default position. And the logic behind that recognises the ‘one way street’ or ‘ratchet’ nature of so many of these kinds of decisions and the irreversible harm that can be done if you get it wrong.
In that regard there does now seem to be a far too much secular driven urgency among Christians to respond to every twist and turn of political and social chatter while being woefully ill-informed about the facts and unconcerned about the implications of the hasty response. You might say that for Christians there is indeed urgency about the Gospel, the rest can wait. For the Church of England (any Christian church) to lose the witness of its church buildings to the unique truthfulness of Christianity (who Jesus was and is) would be much worse than merely careless.
Thanks for sharing the link, it’s been some time since I watched AU and you’re right, it was helpful. Gavin Ashenden does an especially good job of setting this particular Cathedral decision in the context of the London Bridge attack, and therefore as much a memorial as a celebration, but without loosing sight of the danger. In some ways I can sympathise with the decision, but I still think it unwise.
I agree with you completely about crossing lines, and that we should strive for ‘no change’ unless there is very compelling cause to do otherwise.
Thank you for grounding this in scripture.
It’s not as if there is any objection to having a picnic together in Wollaton Park.
There is, within the Church, and widespread, without, (in politics, in society, generally) a belief that we worship the same God, and what you describe is likely to continue to foster that belief or understanding. We don’t.
Everything is likely to go swimmingly unless Jesus is talked about. Heaven forefend that that should happen in a CoE Cathedral.
In social science terms, each community, Christian and Islam, may be replete in “bonding – social capital”, but thin in “bridging – social capital” between distinct communities, and this eating together may be seen as nothing more than an exercise in “bridging”. In Christian terms, the “bridging” is grounded in the commonality of all human being in the image of God, and loving your neighbour, but the distinctives in what or who we worship remain, which are seen in the desires and drivers we live by, and “loving” doesn’t include embracing or perpetuating error through avoidance. Where, when and how are important in bridging. A Cathedral setting invests significant weight to the message the setting, of itself, gives, without any words being used. Words are necessary to promulgate the Good News of Jesus.
How about loving through a forum for interfaith (including the secularist/humanist/atheist) theological debate within the community? Perhaps a tall order?
A concern, I’d have, is whether those who would represent Southwark, Diocese would subscribe to a historical creed, with our triune God, but I don’t know anyone at all there. But I do recall, one local( to me) Bishop preaching that Jesus ministry had failed in his death on the cross. As an old, but young (aged 47) Christian I was profoundly offended and disturbed that anyone with such beliefs could hold such a high position.
Having now watched the Gavin Ashedon video, an equal concern would be a lack of understanding of Islam, in the CoE, an understanding that the former Bishop Nazir-Ali has, that ABoC Rowan Williams, his endorsement of sharia law,(and it’s conflict with the “rule of law”)didn’t seem to have.
There seems to be little understanding of the difference in the earlier Mecca period and later Medina period in Islam, and the application of the doctrine of abrogation, in which the later (and later period) pronouncements of Muhammad declare as null and void the earlier pronouncements. This applies to both the Qur’an and hadith accounts of Muhammad’s life.
The doctrine is also applied to Christian scripture and to Jesus (as only a prophet).
Say not “Trinity”. Desist; it will be better for you: for God is one God. Glory be to Him:(far exalted is He) above having a son. (Surah 4.171)
Say: He, Allah, is One.
Allah is He on Whom all depend.
He begets not, nor is He begotten.
And none is like Him. (Surah 112)
This is a fuller explanation of the doctrine of abrogation, sketching a debate within Islam.
I’d say that Gavin Ashenden’s point (that Islam generally, would be reluctant to denounce violence) is likely due to the doctrine of abrogation as well as for the reason he puts forward.
Thank you for this piece.
One could say it is an example of growing Islamicisation in Britain:
the making of Islam mainstream when historically it has never been.
Muslims must be delighted to have their meals in flagship Christian buildings.
It is utter naivety of liberal clergy who do this.
“One could say it is an example of growing Islamicisation in Britain:
the making of Islam mainstream when historically it has never been.”
I really do not understand how you can reach that conclusion. If there is growing islamicisation it can only be because the number of muslims is increasing. Are we supposed to treat such people like pariahs? No of course not. They are our neighbours we must treat them as such. Rather we must reach out to them to show them the love of Christ.
Yes a cathedral is a flagship Christian building, but it is only a building, it is not a like the Temple of the OT. What is this saying about our theology of church buildings?
The term “growing islamicisation” is a term used by right wing extremists to justify racism. I think we should be careful about giving them the opportunity to claim they are doing it under a Christian banner.
Ian points out that Jesus never invited outcasts into his own house, but I am not sure how significant this is given that, as I read it, he did not have a house to invite them to during most of his ministry.
‘Yes a cathedral is a flagship Christian building, but it is only a building, it is not a like the Temple of the OT. What is this saying about our theology of church buildings?’
I think to say ‘but it is only a building’ fails to understand how people relate to places and ideas. If you need any convincing just think how hard businesses work to create logos and themes (in product design, colour schemes, the look of their buildings, and much else) which identify who they are and what they have to offer. And think how we love the physical place – our houses and gardens – which we call ‘home’; and isn’t it sad to see a house or a whole estate which is run down, neglected, unloved? Surely that tells us that physical places do matter.
Church buildings are still a major mark of identity (fantastically placed throughout the nation) which conveys the most important message people can ever hear. Far from the CofE playing fast and loose with its buildings it should be using everything about them to witness to the unique person of Jesus Christ and where you might find people who can give you first hand news about him.
There really does seem to be something about the Church of England that reeks of lethargy within and estrangement from the world outside which combine to rob it of common sense when it comes to the basics of how it runs itself and how it best uses the huge inheritance which it still retains.
Yes we should keep our buildings well (as far as finance permits) that is a good witness. But not to welcome others into it? Why not. I agree we should not allow an islamic service in a church, but there is a theme all through the bible about being welcoming of foreigners.
Don, you said:
“There really does seem to be something about the Church of England that reeks of lethargy within and estrangement from the world outside which combine to rob it of common sense when it comes to the basics of how it runs itself and how it best uses the huge inheritance which it still retains.”
In a society where racism seems to becoming normalised if not acceptable, I think we need to stand up for a biblical principle here. After all the world we now live in (in some parts of the country more than others) is now multi-ethnic and multi-faith. It is very different to the world of 100 years ago. If we are to preach the gospel afresh in each generation we must engage with the world we live in.
Should a church/cathedral host such? Never
Would I attend the meal if a Muslim neighbour invited me to their home? Yes
Is that inconsistent? dunno
I’d find that entirely consistent, with a game of cricket before, or soccer (as long as it wasn’t with Liverpool’s Salah).
My wife and I were Council approved, volunteer, respite carers for a youngster with profound learning disabilities from a Muslim family. Our declared Christian faith wasn’t an impediment, but an asset in the eyes of the Council, and an acceptance by the family, as we could understand their faith but we declined an invitation to attend their Mosque.
Not inconsistent at all.
It is whether churches or Christians should be hosting Iftars, or whether attending them.
They are different things.
An excellent piece, Ian. Having recently attended a similar crafted Iftar meal in Newcastle Cathedral, I was wondering when we could all have the opportunity to actually discuss the distinctions of our faiths (Maybe next year). Interestingly, the best bit of the evening came when a young Muslim school pupil spoke movingly about the encouragement and support he’d received from his Christian secondary school.
It was a former Bishop at Newcastle/Tyne I was referring to, above, and although the Church I was a member of and confirmed into, by a previous Bishop, was freehold, that sermon, together with the Cathedral participating in Diwali celebrations were amongst the factors that brought me away from the CoE as I was, spiritually, coming under the authority of the Bishopric.
I’d not hold my breath about theological interfaith discussions, although it would be marvellous to stand corrected and be proved wrong. Maybe, it has indeed happened in the past and much work has been done.
If he’s still there, perhaps, Canon Revd. John Sinclair could organise them, as a former enthusiastic participant in founder Rev’d Daniel Cozen’s ( a Canterbury Cathedral Six Preacher) evangelistic Through Faith Missions Team (with other Godly men Rev’d Peter Adams and Rev’d John Hibberd).
Perhaps Andrew Nunn and the Cathedral community count themselves as among the ‘strong’. I certainly hope so.
What happened ‘liturgically’ in any sense, on the part of the hosts or anyone else at the Southwark “Grand Iftar”? (The linked article by Adrian Hilton does not give a clear answer to this, despite assorted details proffered.)
I think, for example, of the variety of things included in the Wikipedia article, “Grace (prayer)”. What “saying grace” was there? Did this “Grand Iftar” differ from Ramadan meals in various Islamic traditions in this respect?
As an analogy, it’s worth reflecting that, in Jesus’ time, Samaritans would have claimed that they worshipped the One God, as the Jews did.
1. As Jesus sat at the well near Sychar, having a casual drink with the woman of Samaria, Jesus was forthright about the true knowledge of God imparted by the salvation which He promised through Jewish lineage: ‘Ye worship ye know not what: we know what we worship: for salvation is of the Jews.’ (John 4:22)
As the hosts, were Southwark Cathedral and its Dean prepared to be that forthright?
2. When Jesus did feast with those who believed differently, he patently disregarded their traditions and notions of ingestive defilement (Mark 7:14-19; Matt. 15:17-20)
As the hosts, did Southwark Cathedral and its Dean, demonstrate a similar disregard for false notions of ingestive defilement by allowing non-Muslims to partake of non-Halal foods at the event?
See last year’s here: https://vimeo.com/223253199
For all the talk of unity and diversity, it would appear that the Cathedral is bent on pandering to the scruples of other faiths more than St. Paul or Jesus would (Col. 2:21 – 23)
And all because, in today’s world, to be as forthright as Christ or St. Paul were about the futility of externalised religiosity would be to provoke what some view as needless offence.
More’s the pity.
In a recent podcast Gavin Ashenden did a very good job in putting the case for not hosting Iftar celebrations in a christian church. From the perspective of an attending Muslim holding such a meal in a church is an acceptance of the legitimacy of Mohammad’s claims to be the true prophet – and a key claim of Mohammad was that Christ was not resurrected.
Ashenden then goes on to point out that he is not aware of any mosque, anywhere, ever, hosting for example a christian meal at the end of lent – for the very reason that to do so would be to accept the claims of Christ and rubbish the claims of Mohammad.
This isn’t hospitality – or rather it is a hospitality that can never be reciprocated by a faithful mosque. Rather than calling this “hospitality” we should better call it capitulation.
Ian your argument about the Southwark Iftar (at which I was not present, but would have happily attended) seems to boil down to nothing more than guilt by association with Giles Goddard’s holding of Islamic prayer in St John’s Waterloo. You forget that the Bishop of Southwark made it very clear that this was a mistake on Giles’ part and that Giles – perhaps through gritted teeth – accepted the wisdom of his Bishop that this was a mis-step. The context therefore is not your rather lame attempt to link one event with the other, but of the distancing of the diocesan Bishop from the events in Waterloo.
The Archbishop of Canterbury having now hosted an Iftar meal within the grounds of Lambeth Palace, could you follow up, Ian, please, by examining what statements and prayers are actually said at an Iftar meal. That is what troubles many of us the most.