Catholics, other Christians, and Jews were all invited to an interfaith dinner by the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago two days before Thanksgiving. Each night at Sundown during Ramadan, Muslims celebrate a breaking of the fast (iftar) and a festive dinner is given for friends and family. The Chicago area Muslim community has expanded on this tradition and for the past five years, hosted a large inter-faith dinner for scores of guests from other faiths. This year, Cardinal George and at least 100 Catholics took part in the event.
As an example of the diversity of the gathering, at our table were seated: several Catholics, several members of a reformed branch of the LDS (Mormon church), a young Muslim couple and a Muslim Doctor on the faculty of the University of Chicago. After welcoming guests and serving a couple of small snacks to symbolically break the fast, all were invited to the Mosque above the banquet hall to pray or observe the prayer that is traditional at sundown. The women and men each proceeded to their own section of the Mosque for prayer. Shoes are removed before entering the prayer space. The Muslim men form a straight line shoulder to shoulder facing the front. As one row is filled, the next row begins in an orderly manner. The prayer in Arabic is led by an elder in the community. Several different postures (all strikingly reverent) are used during the prayer. The guests gathered toward the rear of the Mosque in a respectful, although much less organized manner. Interestingly, a young Muslim girl was brought by her dad into the Men's section where she remained just in back of the area where all the Muslim men prayed but she was clearly more curious about the guests toward the rear. After about ten to fifteen minutes of prayer, the men at their own pace began to leave the prayer space and return to the banquet hall.
One of the features of the evening was a preview of the upcoming PBS film, "Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet." Introducing the film was an executive from WTTW. Acknowledging that he had "never attended an interfaith anything before," he expressed amazement at the enormous diversity of the crowd of several hundred people gathered for the Interfaith Dinner!
Speakers from several faith traditions spoke in the course of the evening. Cardinal George emphasized the importance of love and understanding in our human interactions. The Archdiocese and the Muslim community in Chicago have been involved in an interfaith dialog for the past five years. Kareem Irfan of the Council of Islamic organizations challenged all people of faith to stand up to religious bigotry that can build walls between peoples. Mr. Salim Muwakkil emphasized the importance of solidarity among people of faith. A question that he brought before us was, "Can we grow holy together?" He expressed concern that the strict restrictions the U.S. Government is now placing on travel of males over age 16 traveling to the USA from virtually all Muslim or Arab countries is giving extremists just the evidence they need to "prove" that America and the West in general are hostile toward Islam.
A few statistics that were shared. The number of Muslims worldwide is 1.2 billion, making it second only to Christianity in the number of followers. There are about 7 million Muslims in the United States. Locally, the number of Muslims in the metro area is approaching 5%, having surpassed the Jewish population in the past few years. The dinner of lamb, chicken, rice, salad and rolls was delicious but far more important was the gracious hospitality of mainstream Muslims to people of other faiths. Sharing a festive meal in a holy season for many faiths opens many possible avenues of positive interfaith relations at a time when the realities of our world cry out for such action. May grace and peace be upon us all.
Alan Schmidt, D.R.E.
St. Edmund Parish, Oak Park, Illinois