Posted by: Titus Presler | September 21, 2012

Interfaith appreciation flourishes at Edwardes amid anti-video protests in Peshawar and Pakistan

The academic year at Edwardes College in Peshawar commenced on Monday, Sept. 10, and it was a providential coincidence that we had planned the year’s first plenary faculty meeting and celebratory gathering for Thursday, Sept. 20.  This turned out to be the eve of Yaom-e-Ishq-e-Rasool, the Love for the Prophet Day declared by the federal government of Pakistan to affirm, channel and contain the protests that were intensifying over the week nationwide against the anti-Islam video that has provoked demonstrations around the world.

Eid is the celebration that brings the Muslim month of fasting – Ramadan, or Ramazan as it is called in Pakistan – to an end, and this year it occurred on August 19.  Eid is an elastic observance, for it is customary for institutions, commercial enterprises and governmental offices to hold celebrations, typically called Eid Milan Parties, for their respective groups at any time during the following weeks.  The Urdu verb for meeting is milna, hence Eid Milan is an Eid gathering.

Accordingly we at Edwardes thought it a good idea to bring the celebratory dinner on the Bungalow Lawn that would follow the faculty meeting under the rubric of an Eid Milan Party. 

As usual, the faculty meeting began with a prayer offered by the principal, and for this opening conclave I chose the longstanding Edwardes College Prayer, which shows provenance from the Collect for Grace in the Book of Common Prayer and from Micah 6.8:

Almighty and everliving God, you have brought us safely to this day: We praise your Holy Name.  Keep us free from sin.  Prosper the work of our hands and of our minds.  Strengthen us that we may fulfill the duties of each day.  Give wisdom to the leaders of Pakistan, that we may be led into the ways of peace, live justly, show mercy, and walk humbly in the fear of God.  Amen.

It was imperative that I address the sense of national crisis in my opening remarks.  Appreciating the levelheadedness of everyone in the College, I termed the anti-Islam video a disgraceful act against Muslims and expressed regret that some protests had become violent.  While affirming freedom of expression, I wondered aloud whether the West might ponder the example of India, the world’s largest democracy with a vibrantly free press, where it is nevertheless against the law to circulate materials – whether in print, film, video or whatever – that can reasonably be expected to incite hatred and conflict between groups.  As I have often written before, India has long and deep experience of what it calls “communalism,” a useful word that denotes conflicts that have social, economic and political dimensions, yes, but which also divide along religious lines.

Evening prayers followed the academic meeting, Muslims going to prayer rugs or mosques, Christians gathering for Evening Prayer according to the Book of Common Prayer in the Chapel, where the day’s epistle was the story of Paul and Silas in prison in Philippi.

Evening gatherings on the Bungalow Lawn at Edwardes are gracious affairs.  Lines of electric lights swoop in arcs among the trees, tables of steaming samovars delight with taste and smell, and it is customary for all gatherings to begin with remarks and presentations from a podium.  In this case we began by honoring a retiring vice principal, Physics Prof. Muhammad Akhyar among our 95-strong faculty

To observe the occasion of Eid I asked Vice Principal Dr. Yar Muhammad, a Pashto scholar and head of our department of Islamiyat and Pashto, to offer a short homily on Eid.  He spoke for about ten minutes on the etymology of the word Eid; the difference between Eid-ul-Fitr, which closes Ramazan, and Eid al-Adha, which commemorates Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Ismael; and the purpose of fasting.

I then asked Asst. Prof. Sabir Hussein, who teaches Islamiyat, to offer a prayer over the meal, in which he memorably addressed Allah by saying, among other things, “You are with us as we gather, you are with us as we pray, you are with us as we eat.”  As we waited for what was a delicious meal, Urdu Asst. Prof. Ijaz Ahmad sang a lovely Urdu song, tapping out a rhythm on the podium as though it were a tabla, the drum common throughout south Asia.

Yar Muhammad said appreciatively that this was the first official Eid Milan Party in the history of Edwardes College.  That surprised me, for it had seemed such a natural theme for the gathering.  We do have a Christmas party, after all, and Christmas holidays as well as Muharram holidays.

Thursday had been too busy for me to pick up news of the day’s violence, which the News International headlined the next day as, “Islamabad becomes war zone as protests turn violent.”  And we had no way of knowing that yesterday’s rioting nationwide  would kill 5 people and injure 60 in Peshawar and take a toll of 19 killed, probably hundreds injured and untold damage throughout the country.

We were aware, though, that anything could happen.  In that awareness, the afternoon and the evening were suffused with the grace of mutual understanding and reconciliation.  Now, knowing what has happened, we pray, reach out to the mourning and the injured, and hope for the dawning of God’s perfect peace.

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