In dialogue with Fatimah Ashrif
Julian: It has been over a year that Fatimah, a Muslim, and I, a Christian, have been meeting to read scripture with friends from different faith backgrounds. The venues for our gatherings have been as eclectic as our discussions: churches in central London, Friends Meeting House in Euston, London, parks and green spaces and the London Central Mosque have all provided space for us to reflect for a few hours. During my time as director of the Christian Muslim Forum, I organised hundreds of Christian-Muslim events and initiatives but this dynamic idea of reading scripture and sharing heart-reflections in the hope of creating deep friendship was entirely Fatimah’s.
I happened to be in the middle of writing Bible study notes for the Methodist Church’s website, our most popular page, on the occasion of our first meeting. Fatimah has a great fondness for the Psalms and asked me to pick one. As I read the one I had chosen for her, many Qur’anic themes jumped out at me (as a Christian relating to Muslims and Islam I had read the Qur’an many times, and had just resumed for Ramadan). I had only recently left the Christian Muslim Forum and was still feeling its absence, as many of my regular opportunities for ongoing dialogue were now gone. I found that this could fill that gap but also transcend all formal interfaith activities. It allows us to appreciate each other’s differences, and recognise ourselves in one another. We call our meetings ‘scripture-sohbets’ (sohbet is a Turkish term used to describe heart-to-heart conversations between teacher and students, and between students).
Fatimah: In present times (as ever), it seems important to challenge constructs and notions which aim to engender division. The Qur’an tells me: ‘And God’s is the east and the west: and wherever you turn, there is God’s countenance.’ (2:115) If God’s face or ‘being’ (as the word is sometimes translated) is everywhere, and the two directions belong to him, then where and how does the ‘otherness’ arise, save within the mind of the human being? Opportunities for dialogue become a possible way of dissolving this fear, and relating to each other as humans first.
Just as in relationships we are often attracted to opposites, I have always been drawn by difference, finding it beautiful and fascinating, though always returning to the realisation that under these layers of difference, we are essentially the same. I met Julian last year at a workshop he was facilitating with St Ethelburga’s, a fifteenth-century church in central London. I remember his warmth. Despite our obvious differences such as race and religion, an immediate kinship was ignited.