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My Meal with a Muslim

Posted by spritzophrenia on September 27, 2010

As per my recent posts, last Thursday I met Sarah and Fariha for coffee after work. (Names changed as New Zealand is a very small place). I hadn’t thought I could find someone to meet in such a short space of time, but an internet acquaintance set it up, thankyou Sarah. Sarah is an atheist, with Muslim and Hindu parents who decided not to push either faith on her. Her mother is a “liberal” Muslim, so Sarah also has a lot of knowledge about Islam. When she told me her friend is Bangladeshi, I expected someone with a foreign accent. I was surprised to meet a second-generation Kiwi, intelligent, articulate and funny, working in a respected profession in the city.

Funny— we don’t think of Muslims with a sense of humour, do we?

We three got along well socially and could have talked about general topics the whole time, but I decided to ask what it’s like growing up as a Muslim in New Zealand. I felt the purpose was to share about Islam and non-Islam and didn’t want to miss the opportunity. Fariha talked about her grandparents being some of the first Muslim immigrants in New Zealand, and helping start the first mosque in Daniel Street (now still owned by the community, but not a mosque). I mentioned my view that all New Zealanders are decended from immigrants and that should inform our thinking. It’s something I think us whiteys need to think about more.

I’m reasonably educated about Islam for a Westerner but I learned new things. I understood from what was said that both women are part of a smaller Shi’ite sect. For me, I associate Shiite with Iran, it’s weird to find people from the Asian subcontinent who identify as Shiite, which we discussed. Fariha referred to “the fundamentalists”, indicating that she felt some distance between her faith and the extremists.

I found out I can go to the mosque, as a non muslim. If I do go I want to have a friend there so that I know how to behave. I can’t go to Mecca, even as a tourist, although Sarah was unsure about that. “How would they know?” Both women love the fact that in Mecca everyone is dressed in white and racial and ethnic barriers are dropped. They love the idea of the one-ness of so many different peoples. Fariha hasn’t been on Haj and Sarah said she couldn’t, as a non-Muslim. Sarah said she’s been told there’s no such thing as a non-practicing Muslim, so you either are or aren’t. Hence, she is not a Muslim. However Fariha disagreed, saying there’s a bit of leeway, for example Fariha does not always pray five times a day.

Muslim women

Not Sarah and Fariha

I offered Fariha the opportunity to ask me questions, but it didn’t happen. Being a second generation New Zealander, no doubt she already knows a lot. She said she’d attended a Christian school growing up and had participated in chapel services. She was quite ok with that as Islam “developed from Christianity and Judaism”.

We didn’t talk much about difficult topics. They did agree with my suggestion that “a good outcome of the absolute horror of 9/11 is that it opened up the existence of Islam to many people in the West who had ignored it”. I mentioned I’d read a book by a woman of Pakistani descent which says Arab Muslims tend to look down on non-Arab Muslims. Fariha said she thought that was “probably the case”. She also could understand it “to some degree” as “the Quran was first given to Arabs”, and socio-politically most servants and menial workers in Saudi are foreigners.

We talked about head-coverings, and she said it “isn’t in the Quran”, but in the Hadith. She doesn’t wear a head-covering. She also said such head coverings are a sign of status, these women are copying the Prophet’s wives, something I didn’t know. (My older post on head-coverings here).

They agreed there is a lot of discussion and disagreement within Islam on some topics. Fariha said she was “speaking for herself, personally, not for the whole of Islam”. She said Imams (Mullahs) are “not like priests”, there is much more ability to disagree, it’s much more equal, which I didn’t know. This struck me like the “congregational” Christian way of running their churches; in theory there is no priest-equivalent as they view all believers are priests. We briefly discussed Sufism, and Fariha said she thinks Islam is a bit more about the group experience, than about “personal spirituality”, although that is there too.


Overall, the meeting was worthwhile in my view. I don’t know if Fariha thought so, but I think she did. She expressed at the start that it was nice of me to make the offer, and afterwards emailed Sarah that she enjoyed it.

Santi, who initiated Meal with a Muslim day, is thinking about hard issues, he’s raised some areas to think about. I think a real challenge is to meet with those Muslims who are “fundamentalist” and despise the West. On our side, it also requires the Western “fundamentalist” Islam-haters to be willing to meet. I don’t know how this could happen. Perhaps each side’s “moderates” can work on their more extreme bretheren? I also think that Muslim to non-Muslim dialogue needs to be an ongoing discussion, there are other questions I want to ask. At this point, Sarah, Fariha and myself have no further plans, and I do think “Meal with a Muslim Day” should be proposed as a one-off occasion each time with no further expectations.

One thing that has stayed with me is that when I think about Islam, I am thinking about a person— an intelligent, attractive neighbour whose humanity I want to support. I think this alone makes the experience worthwhile, to personalise beliefs into people rather than “other”. Though I doubt it is an issue for Fariha, I hope and believe the same is true from the other direction.

Can Muslims accept, flourish in and support Western-style “live and let live”? I think so, and I hope so. There is work to be done by both sides, but by such small actions maybe we can improve one part of this confused world.

What Are Your Thoughts?


Music by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan

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22 Responses to “My Meal with a Muslim”

  1. My friend L is Jewish, she was with my brother for 7 years. I love her dearly. She is now married to S, a Muslim, a filmmaker, a great guy. I have had them both over for social stuff. While the designated time-period for the โ€˜meal with a Muslimโ€™ was not good for me HAVING DRINKS OR FOOD WITH HIM IS NOT UNIQUE AT ALL.

  2. leesis said

    I think this is a great post Jon and a big pat on the back for walking your talk!!

  3. Iain said

    Hey there,

    This has nothing to do with anything – seriously – but your music video brought it to mind.

    I’m sure it isn’t very PC at all but it’s just too hilarious. Make sure you stick past the intro to get the idea before you quit in disgust ๐Ÿ˜‰

    • Haha, perhaps it’s not PC, but it’s funny. I’m sure there’s versions of this kind of thing in every language. I’ve seen a spoof of a German song in similar style ๐Ÿ™‚

      I actually like this song, it’s kinda dance-able. Thanks ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. Jon,

  5. nina said

    you did it! ๐Ÿ™‚
    for me, a muslim (plus a mom with 2 toddlers), faith is a struggle. so maybe i’m not the right person if you’re looking for a fundamentalist one. i wish i could express my thoughts better next time. thank you for sharing this.

    • I appreciate your honesty that “faith is a struggle”. I think it’s that way for many people, not just Muslims. No need to apologise, i’m just glad you stopped by to comment. Thankyou Nina ๐Ÿ™‚

  6. santitafarella said

    Wow! This is a really great recounting of your experience.


  7. […] with our Muslim neighborsย and not matches for burning their Qurans, Jonathan Elliot in New Zealand found a Muslim to have lunch with this past month, and recounts how he did this, and what he learned from the experience. First, he […]

  8. santitafarella said

    Hi Jonathan:

    I commented at my blog on your “meal with a Muslim” post. See here:


    —Santi : )

    • Iain said

      Great stuff, Santi (and Jonathan), I just visited Santi’s blog post on this.

      About who can visit Mecca (which I’ve always thought would be awesome), my guess would be that if you were from NZ you’d have to get some kind of endorsement from a mosque. I know that some countries have religion printed ON the passport. That would make it easier (but harder to deceive, I guess).

    • Thanks, I subscribe to your blog so it was a pleasant surprise in my email today Santi. I shall go and comment there too ๐Ÿ™‚

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