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Bridging Gaps: Inter-Faith Iftars

Once a strictly private Muslim affair, over the years, Iftar has gained currency to become a symbol of unity – among intra-Muslim sects, across religious groups and also between genders, elaborates Zafar Abbas.

Iftar parties, till nearly a decade ago, were considered a private affair for Muslims. Of late, though, political parties have started organising grand iftars, seen as occasions to meet people outside your own religion. It was a great hit initially for building the secular image of political leaders; but, the common people had little to take away other than some photographs with political heavyweights and a boastful chat in the locality. However, recently, iftars have travelled from political corridors down to neighbourhood gali-mohallas where interfaith iftars hosted by the people we meet in our everyday life have gained momentum.

Yashpal Saxena is busy calling his Muslim friends, inviting them for a grand joint Hindu-Muslim Iftar this Ramzan. He has an array of arrangements to organise and the list of invitees has to be meticulously drafted. When his son, Ankit Saxena, was killed by some Muslim neighbours in February over a love affair, the neighbourhood in Delhi's Raghubir Nagar of Khayala was tense fearing a violent backlash. Security forces were deployed at his house to ensure that the murder, termed by the media as 'honour killing', didn't take a communal turn. Politicians did try to swing the wind in their direction but Yashpal stood firm and undeterred taking on both media and politicians head-on, urging them to not taint his son's death in a communal colour. Four months later, this year in Ramzan, Saxena surprised everyone when he planned a huge Iftar to promote trust and brotherhood in the interreligious Iftar meet.

When Millennium Post contacted Yashpal, he was busy finalising the venue of the grand event. "One of my Muslim friends who lives nearby advised me to organise an Iftar and I readily accepted the idea. Now, we are expecting a gathering of over 500 people. In today's time, we need to eliminate hatred and spread love," Yashpal said.

As the word spread, Yashpal was answering frantic phone calls and by the time June 3 arrived, the list grew gigantic featuring prominent figures from the media, social service workers and eminent personalities of the city, who all sat together for the joint Iftar. Soon, following suit, newspaper headlines and special programmes on TV channels began spreading the message of peace.

"We have always advocated brotherhood and have not let anyone sabotage our message for peace. Yes, we are organising an Iftar party and I think this will bring the two communities together to spread love across the country," Yashpal Saxena was seen saying.

Some kilometres away from Khyala in the 'walled city', a group of youngsters were busy conceptualising measures to promote brotherhood between the Shias and Sunnis – the two prominent sects of Muslims. What followed next was the formation of a WhatsApp group where prominent professionals – journalists, academicians, historians were duly added. After intense discussion on bridging the gap between the two communities, the idea of 'Iftar for Unity' – a joint Iftar of Shias and Sunnis was conceived and nurtured. Suggestions flew on WhatsApp for like-minded people to be invited to promote unity between the two sects. As the number of participants and invitees increased, funds became a concern.

Receiving a tip-off on the noble cause, a Sunni owner of a restaurant in Old Delhi, Aiwan-e-Shahi, offered its terrace for the Iftar, with the historic Jama Majid looming in the background. The enthusiasm for the cause compelled many guests, who said they would be late due to prior engagements, to arrive among the earliest. As Shias and Sunnis sat on the terrace overlooking the Jama Masjid, Rana Safvi, a prominent historian and author elaborated on the dynamic culture of Old Delhi, earlier known as Shahjahanabad.

"Azadari was carried out beautifully on 10th of Muharram during the Mughal period, the Emperor himself wore green clothes and participated in Shia rituals within Jama Masjid and brought Alams and offered nazr and Neyaz. There were no differences between the communities and we should not allow that even now," said Rana Safvi.

Senior journalist Arfa Khanum said, "I always used thought that such gatherings served no purpose as only like-minded people attended it in the first place. But, I now realise, that it's important to organise such events to inform the present generation of our shared culture, the famous Ganga Jamuni tehzeeb, where people from all religions lived together with love and respect,"

The mixed gathering of both the sects, along with some non-Muslims, was seen exchanging ideas and sharing experiences. At the end of the Iftar, members from both the sects offered a joint namaz. Breaking stereotypes, the women too offered namaz on the same terrace.

"It's always a mesmerising sight to see Shias and Sunnis shun their differences and stand shoulder-to-shoulder for a joint prayer. We need this unity, not just between Shias and Sunnis but with Hindus as well," said Irteza Qureshi, a social worker.

Hundreds of kilometres away from Delhi, in the ancient city of Lucknow, several Muslims wearing skull caps were seen walking towards the Mankameshwar Temple on June 10, the oldest Shiva temple in Lucknow. Minutes later, as they took their positions beside the decorated tables, all knew it was a grand Iftar being hosted inside temple premises. The mingling witnessed Muslim men clad in traditional white kurta-pyjama being served Iftar by tilakdhari men in saffron clothes – everybody saw love in the air.

Above all, arrangements were overseen by Chief priest of the temple Mahant Devyagiri, a woman. She too sat with her Muslim brothers defying all boundaries.

In Gurugram, Nagrik Ekta Manch organised a grand Iftar party inviting people from all faiths. The beauty of the Iftar lay in how common people were given a stage to share their ideas and experiences. Men, women and children sat inside the hall exchanging words with each other on the Iftar table.

Miles away in eastern UP, in a small village Dinkarpur in Gonda, several Muslim men and women sat in long rows amidst greenery at the house of Jayshree Shukla, a freelance photographer and her husband Rajesh Srivastava for an interfaith Iftar party hosted by the couple on June 13.

"Muslims and Hindus in our village have lived peacefully for years now. When Tazias in Muharram passed by, Hindu families joined the procession. This is natural, instinctive intermingling which comes from living together forever," said Rajesh, the host. Jayshree believes these gestures go a long way in promoting brotherhood between people sharing different religious beliefs.

"My husband himself is a good cook, so he couldn't resist the temptation and was busy the whole day preparing food with the help of some men from the village who had volunteered. Raju himself made the kala chana, one of the major ingredients of a typical Iftar. It adds that extra love you know," grinned Jayshree.

In Noida too, in a media house, Hindu employees hosted their Muslim friends for an Iftar party in the office. The gesture was overwhelming for the invitees. "It's a great feeling to be hosted by your colleagues in the office. It gives a very positive energy and a great working environment," said Iqbal Farooqui.

These interfaith Iftars become relevant in the present-day where bridging gaps between communities and religions are of paramount significance. Sharing the food table has spread not just brotherhood but also trust and faith. In an atmosphere where communalism and casteism are gaining currency, saying no to hatred is the need of the hour and with young people from every faith joining hands in building bridges, the road to peaceful fraternity appears visible and distinctly approachable.

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