SINGAPORE – Every day during the Islamic month of Ramadan, Ameerali Abdeali wakes up before the sun rises to join the other members of his family in a light meal before saying their morning prayers.

In a tradition that joins him with Muslims around the world, he does not eat again, or even drink water, until the day is done. At sunset, Abdeali usually breaks his fast with a date before evening prayers, either with family members or with fellow Muslims at a mosque.

Muslims in Singapore are observing Ramadan Sep 1-29 this year.

On Sep 8, instead of breaking fast with other Muslims, Abdeali invited friends from other religions to join him in iftar, the evening meal after fasting. The gathering that evening at the Muslim Kidney Action Association included at least four Canossian sisters, a Methodist bishop, several Buddhist monks, a Hindu swami, a Taoist priest, a Jain monk and two Brahma Kumaris.

Abdeali is president of the association, which assists kidney patients and promotes kidney transplant donations.

“Fasting is one of the five pillars of Ramadan. It is a practice that has been there even before the religion of Islam was introduced,” he explained. “It is a time when Muslims are supposed to reflect on scripture to see how they can become a better person, and to do charitable deeds.”

Abdeali considered this gathering of friends from other religions “an especially good thing to do during this month”.

Another reason Abdeali organized the gathering was to welcome back Canossian Sister Theresa Seow after four-and-a-half years working in Rome with the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.

“Celebrating the breaking of fast together with the Muslim community gives us a chance to better understand one of the main aspects of their faith,” Sister Seow said.

Of her time in Rome, she said: “I was using Singapore as an example of what interreligious relations are all about. It’s not just doing things together. To me, every day is [an] interreligious [experience].”

The Singaporean nun added, however, that “although the government has been trying to push for [interreligious dialogue], there has to come a stage when the government has to let go and let the people take over”.

She and Abdeali have been friends more than 15 years. “We both believe very strongly in, and practise, interfaith activities,” Abdeali said.

The gathering began with Sister Seow and the other religious representatives each sharing their experiences. Iftar commenced at 7.10pm with the consumption of dates, followed by a vegetarian dinner prepared by Venerable K. Gunaratana, a Buddhist monk.

“The vegetarian dinner is to respect our Hindu, Jain and Buddhist friends, and is important in building solidarity,” Abdeali explained.

Sister Seow told the gathering that while interfaith dialogue is not about conversion, it does bring about conversion, because “I am learning something new about the other person.”

Methodist Bishop Yap Kim Hao said, “We need to convince people who think that everyone needs to be converted to their faith of the need for understanding in times of peace, so that we can all survive together [in times of crisis].”

When asked what she would advise the church in Singapore, Sister Seow responded, “As Pope Benedict says, interreligious dialogue is not an optional extra. When we organize interreligious activities, we are not short of Catholics coming, but if we talk about formation, no one wants to come. Our church needs to provide formation for our people, that is, what you need to learn in order to have an authentic dialogue with others.” – Daniel Tay