Planting the seeds of change: the Tower of London’s first interfaith iftar

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Image credit: Naz Legacy Foundation

Key religious leaders came together for a historic event at the Tower of London this week, as they celebrated Ramadan there for the first time in its 900-year history.

The event was organised by the Naz Legacy Foundation, a charity that aims to build networks between diverse groups to strengthen unity and understanding, with a strong emphasis on youth and politics.

The guest list included the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan; Imam Mohamed Mahmoud of the East London Mosque; Roman Catholic Cardinal Vincent Nichols; the Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis; the chaplain to the Speaker of the House of Commons Rev Patricia Hillas and the Anglican Bishop of Willesden Lusa Nsenga-Ngoy.

They joined representatives of organisations, charities, public bodies and others to share, breaking the daily evening fast of Ramadan together.

For Muslims, the holy month of Ramadan is an important opportunity to come closer to the divine by fasting from sunrise to sunset as an act of worship. Typically communities gather together every evening for an “iftar” meal and break their fasts together.

Sadiq Khan, a practising Muslim, said of the interfaith attendees: “What I find heartening about this scene is that it isn’t a rarity, but a reflection of everyday life our diverse city. A city where we don’t just tolerate differences, but we respect and celebrate and even embrace them.”

Previous interfaith iftars organised by Naz Legacy have been held at London landmarks such as Lambeth Palace and St Paul’s Cathedral. The significance of choosing the Tower of London, with its history of barbaric torture and execution, as a venue for an event about community and solidarity was not lost on the leaders.

iftar tower of london
Image credit: Sorcha Connell

Just before the breaking of the fast, Imam Mohamed Mahmoud said: “This tower has stood in this city for almost a millennium, and for most of that time has been a symbol of power, both just and unjust, a symbol of death and destruction. And yet here we are today, a symbol of tolerance, togetherness and solidarity. How times change, slowly.”

The interfaith iftar’s theme this year was the climate crisis, which tied in with the Tower of London’s ‘Superbloom’ project, transforming the moat into a field of flowers.

Addressing the theme, the mayor said: “I firmly believe, just like cities, faith communities have a central role to play in addressing the threat of the climate crisis and raising awareness about the importance of acting now to protect the world and its most vulnerable”.

“Live simply, so others can simply live” was the rallying call from Cardinal Nichols, who in his address challenged consumer culture as an attempt to “satisfy a lack of ease within ourselves” and that for those with religious belief, they find “fulfilment in the mystery of God”.

Harris Bokhari, founder of Naz Legacy, told the Evening Standard that attending iftars was more important now than ever, saying “we all need to rebuild – including our ability to see the best in each other and not let the difficulties of the past two years weigh us down. This is a time for forgiveness and healing.”

In recent years, the concept of an interfaith iftar has become more widespread, as organisations, universities and mosques use them as an opportunity to learn more about each other.

A representative of the interfaith charity the Faith & Belief Forum said: “Now more than ever do we need to lead in showcasing how to dialogue across difference. We believe tackling ignorance and stereotypes is the key to societal change, and the thirst for events such as these shows the public want to reach out to each other.”

Imam Mahmoud reflected on John Fisher and Thomas More, who were imprisoned kept in the tower in Tudor times, and what they might think of an interfaith iftar occurring on the same grounds.

Both were executed by Henry VIII in 1535 for being “the wrong kind of Christian”, and later became saints in both the Catholic and Anglican churches. He said it would be “utterly inconceivable” for them to imagine “a rabbi, a black bishop, an imam, a Muslim mayor of London and a Roman Catholic Cardinal would join together to break bread here”.

“We cannot know” the impact of interfaith and climate work, he said. “All we can do is plant the good seeds to good work now, and not live to see the fruits.”

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