For the first time in 30 years, Ramadan, Passover and Lent overlap. A group of UMN students organize a book club that aims to “find common ground in our mutual desire for God.”
“There is such a need for interfaith dialogue,” said Sophia Park, a fourth-year biology student and vice president of the University of Minnesota Interfaith and Cultural Student Association (UMN ICSA). The group was created last March and regularly organizes social events aimed at interfaith education.
Starting this month, UMN ICSA is hosting a series of Ramadan Book Clubs for attendees to read and discuss an international bestselling book called “Secrets of Divine Love.” As described by members of the UMN ICSA Board of Trustees, the book offers an “inspiring, uplifting and spiritual insight into the beliefs, practices and principles shared by millions of Muslims”.
Since Islamic holidays follow the lunar calendar, the holy month of Ramadan does not occur at the same time each year. For the first time in 30 years, this year’s Ramadan straddles Lent and Passover, two major holidays in Christianity and Judaism.
In a recent Instagram post, UMN ICSA said the coinciding holiday provided people with “an incredible time to learn from each other, appreciate our differences, and grow in solidarity from our shared values.”
Amal Suri is Muslim and a third-year biology student. She is President of UMN ICSA. She runs the book club alongside the group’s secretary, Mahnoor Ghumman. Of the book, Suri said, “There are many religious people who believe in one God and so this applies to so many different religions.”
At the first book club meeting, the two leaders led discussions around prompts such as, “How do you see God? How have your impressions of God changed since childhood? Has the book changed your impression of God?
The members of the book club represent a wide range of religious and contemplative traditions, including Islam, Christianity and agnosticism.
Park is a non-denominational Christian and she said she helped found UMN ICSA alongside its other leaders.
“It was kind of born out of conflict,” Park said. “We were seeing a lot of religious intolerance and I think each of us individually experienced a form of ignorance… We were thinking about what might be a good solution to that and that’s what we came up with.”
“I noticed a lot of individual religious groups on campus,” Suri said. “There wasn’t a lot of interfaith conversation going on so I thought it would be good to form an interfaith organization…I think there’s a lot to learn from talking to people different from you.”
Park cited the interfaith panel as the UMN ICSA event she is most proud of. During the panel, speakers from the respective Abrahamic faiths discussed how faith can help fight racism.
Park said the panelists looked at how to “right the wrongs that have happened in this country around racism with God at the center…and right some of the wrongs that have been done.”
Anantanand Rambachan is a professor of religion at St. Olaf College and has been involved in interfaith work for over 25 years. He recently began serving as co-chair of Religions for Peace, the world’s largest interfaith network.
“Peace is an ideal common to all our religious traditions,” Rambachan said. “We share this commitment that a good human community is a peaceful and just community. We cannot talk about peace without also talking about justice.
Referring to how religion has been used to legitimize injustice and oppression, Rambachan said, “The historical legacy of religion is mixed…Religion should be a resource for human unity and for human flourishing. The God of compassion is a great inspiration to transform social structures into infrastructures of justice, infrastructures of compassion, infrastructures of care.
UMN ICSA and similar groups reflect long-standing historical trends related to interfaith relations.
“The religious landscape of the United States really changed dramatically in the 1960s,” Rambachan said. The Immigration Act of 1965 eliminated immigration quotas based on nationality, which greatly increased religious diversity in America.
“That’s where we have the transformation,” Rambachan said. “The demographics changed, which meant people were meeting, working side by side. People began to live their lives in an interfaith context.
Jeanne Kilde is director of the University’s religious studies program. Kilde cited the ecumenical movement as a major development in American interfaith work. The movement was made up of Protestants, Catholics and Jews who worked together to address common social issues in communities.
Other religious groups like Muslims and Native American religious practitioners were not widely included in these interfaith collaborations until the 1990s. .
Rambachan called groups like the UMN ICSA “expressions of growing religious diversity.”
“That’s what, for me, changes mindsets,” Rambachan said. “Sharing meals together, going to each other’s homes, talking about hopes, fears and dreams, discovering what I call common humanity.”
Suri shared similar sentiments. “There’s a lot of tension between people of different Abrahamic faiths,” she said. “We are actually similar in a lot of our beliefs. You can actually come together and have these discussions and relate to each other and talk about our similarities and our connections.
Reflecting on the power of interfaith work, Suri said, “I think some people have come to interfaith events with preconceived judgments about people of different faiths. I really think leaving conversations and learning more about the other person, learning how you are actually so similar in your belief in God…they would leave that conversation having a newfound respect for each other.