Greenbelt festival seeks to build bridges with Muslim events

18 August 2017

FATEMA ZEHRA/AMAL

HOSTING a programme of Muslim culture is a reflection of the Chris­tian ethos of Greenbelt, the Creative Director of the festival, Paul North­up, said this week.

Amal at Greenbelt is a new venue that will showcase Muslim artistry, ideas, conver­­­sation, and spirituality. It will include performances by musi­cians, talks, and several oppor­tunities to learn “basic universal Sufi chants”. The Amal fund is a project of the Said Foundation that seeks to provide opportunities for British people to “explore the rich diversity of Muslim cultures and arts”.

Greenbelt’s organisers made a specific commitment to showcasing Muslim culture in the wake of the 9/11 terror attack and the programme is part of a concerted effort to “build bridges” with Muslims communities and “provide a space to build a greater understanding on what progressive Islam could look like here in the UK”, Mr Northrup said this week.

The organisers had anticipated “a bit of raised eyebrows”, he said. They were not seeking to “promote” Islam. “In the same way, Green­belt does not proselytise about its own Christian faith.”

The welcome was not limited to the Islamic community, he said. The organisers would “love it to become more and more a space within which all faiths and none could feel welcome”.

Asked whether Greenbelt was “distinctively Christian”, Mr North­up said that the word “Christian” had become “more slippery and vexed”. In the 1980s, the festival had “trumpeted itself very clearly as a Christian music festival. . . We have not shed that Christian foundation or commit­ment to core Christian foundational beliefs; but because we are a progressive space and wanting to be an inclusive space, we recog­nise that using certain language can be more of a barrier than a bridge.”

He continued: “We model our theo­­­­logy in terms of what we do, and part of that is creating this wel­coming and inclusive space. . . Greenbelt is still an avowedly and distinctively Christian space, but the curious tension is that might involve me not using the word ‘Christian’ sometimes.”

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Abdul-Rehman Malik, a member of Amal’s advisory board who has been coming to the festival for a decade, said this week that he regarded it as “one of my spiritual homes in the UK”. 

“It was the spirit of Greenbelt that captured me,” he said. “This was a confidently Christian space which took the idea of welcome seriously.” He praised the festival for seeking to “push audiences to engage with faith and faithfulness in new ways; to learn about others and understand their struggles; to engage with faith particularly the Muslim faith on its own term beyond the headlines.”

The Amal programme “begins by not only respecting but celebrating and embracing Greenbelt’s Christian heart and ethos,” he said. 

The Sufi chants — which have provoked the most discussion in the press and on social media, according to Mr Northrup — were a response to questions from Greenbelt guests about Muslim worship. 

“We started thinking about how Greenbelt audiences might engage with elements of Muslim spiritual practice. One of the important aspects of Greenbelt for me has been the opportunity to experience Christian worship in its many forms and I have forgotten how many times fellow Greenbelters because I consider myself one of them asked me about what Muslim devotions were like. Sufism  the word given to describe the vast mystical and spiritual traditions of Islam  has often provided the means for people of other faiths to find common spiritual ground with Islam. In India, the shrines of Sufi saints and mystics draw people from all traditions. The shrine of the spiritual master Khawaja Muinuddin Chisti, in Ajmer, for instance, is frequented by Hindus, Sikhs and even Christians. The Sufi mystics, although Muslim in confession, often sought to find the common universal spiritual threads that brought people of faith together.”

In the past, Mr Malik has led “circles of remembrace” at the festival, which includes discussions about the attributes of God, stories from the life of Jesus and other figures common to the two faiths, discussion of poets, and the chanting of God’s names and attributes. “I have been very careful to choose litanies which do not contradict the Christian faith and beliefs of those participating,” he said this week. “We focus on God. The Arabic for God is Allah and Allah is used by tens of millions of Christians who live in Muslim majority geographies to refer to the God of the Bible.” 

The Sufi chants had been “incredibly well received and resulted in “amazing discussion and conversation”.

He reflected: “Sharing between faiths is easy and hard. We find common ground on so much and we disagree, theologically, on so much. Experiencing culture, music, dance, theatre and art is a way of sharing deeply of confronting faultiness and finding the universal. Greenbelt or the Muslims at Greenbelt are not out to be converted or convert, we’re here to share, learn and become better human beings, better Britons.”

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