Dunedin's Sons of Abraham

Dunedin's Sons of Abraham

Before getting started, I should clarify that the title of this article does not refer to a couple of blokes you might catch down at the Cook on a Thursday night. Abraham and his sons Isaac and Ishmael provide the historical and spiritual roots of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. University Chaplain Greg Hughson explains: “Abraham is a very special character, who was admired by all the followers of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. He is a great example of faith and trust in God.” Sharik Hussein, a Muslim student and member of the Student Interfaith Group, provides a nice analogy: “Think of three holes in the ceiling, with three beams of light, but still the same source of light. That is Abraham to the three faiths.”

Jewish people trace their roots back to Isaac, who formed the “Israelites” nation, while Muslims trace their heritage back to Ishmael, who formed the “Ishmaelite” nation. Christians fit in there somewhere, but it’s more complicated. They all believe in the one God, but have differing opinions on how to interpret God’s teachings and whom they regard as true “prophets”. Muslims regard Prophet Mohammad as the final messenger of God, while Jews insist that they’re still waiting for the messiah to turn up. Fast forward a few thousand years, cross several oceans, and you’ll find small Jewish and Muslim communities in Dunedin.

Dunedin's mini Tel Aviv

A small number of Jews first arrived in Dunedin during the Nineteenth Century, creating a cultural and artistic legacy disproportionate to the tiny Jewish population. The Jewish community helped develop the early economy of the city, notably the Hallensteins family, who started a well-known clothing chain – bet you can’t you guess its name? The first synagogue, built on Moray Place in 1863, is today the
Temple Gallery.

Mathew Shrimpton, President of the Jewish Students Association and the Student Interfaith Group, says that today the Jewish community is small – “about 50 families or so” – but quite progressive, meaning there is not a strict adherence to traditional Jewish practices. While you are unlikely to see bearded Orthodox Jews knelling in prayer, the community still gets together every fortnight or so, as well as for big cultural and religious events.

Shrimpton’s own practice is not strictly “day to day”, but more an “identity, cultural thing”, which he attributes to university life and the lack of other Jewish students. “If I lived somewhere else in a more Jewish environment I might be doing more religious things. I guess it’s a function of where you are… like a buffet really, you take what you want and leave what
you don’t.”

One of these traditions is Sabbath, the Jewish day of rest. Traditionally, from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday Jewish people will eschew everyday activities and use the time to reflect on spiritual aspects of life and spend time with family. Among other things, they are prohibited from “lighting a fire”, which covers the use of electricity and automobiles, and other traditional scarfie activities. With university assignments and social events it can be very difficult as a student, though ultimately Shrimpton enjoys the practice: “I like being able to switch off and take some time to think. I guess it’s a chance to look at yourself without any outside influences.”

The World’s Southernmost Muslim Community

The Dunedin Muslim community is much larger, with around 1000 members. Although Muslims first arrived in Otago during the gold rushes of the 1870s, it was not until the 1980s, when Muslim students began coming to Dunedin from all over the world, that the community really began to develop. Today the Muslim community gathers regularly for prayer and various cultural events at the Al Huda Mosque on Clyde Street, which is the world’s southernmost mosque.

Sharik Hussein is a lot stricter in his religion than Shrimpton, and explains that Muslims follow the “Five Pillars of Islam”, which lay the framework for their lives. Muslims are expected to pray five times a day, and Hussein finds prayer very beneficial at university, as it provides a structure for his day.
Hussein doesn’t find it too difficult being a Muslim in Dunedin, or at university, as there is a large community to engage with, though he recalls some interesting experiences. “When I pray in public people ask ‘Are you alright? Are you sick?’ as I’m down on the ground, and I’m like, ‘Oh, I’m just praying.’”

You may have recently noticed a few faint-looking Muslim students on campus, enviously eying you chowing down your lunch. Well, that is because it is currently the month of Ramadan. During Ramadan, Muslims all around the world fast from sunrise until sunset. It is a time for reflection and to practice self-discipline and self-control, as well as to feel empathy for those less fortunate.

While any member of the public is welcome to come along to the Mosque in the evening as they break their fast together, I was lucky enough to be invited by Hussein, so avoided looking like a typical student rocking up for the free feed.

Al Huda Mosque is nestled into the not-so-pious Clyde Street. I couldn’t help but chuckle at the irony of it being across the road from Starters Bar, though when I shared this observation with Hussein, he laughed and mentioned the view you get on a weekend there is enough to turn anybody into a teetotaller. I agreed sheepishly, mentioning the “stories” I’d heard, but obviously keeping the previous weekend’s activities to myself.

Even though I had never been to the Mosque before, it was amazing the way my presence was accepted. Everybody smiled and greeted me with “salaam” (peace) as a “brother”. I briefly spoke with the Imam, who could not have been more welcoming, and was very pleased that I had come to observe the Muslim culture and religion. Overall it was a very cool experience, plus the delicious meal was a welcome break from the flatting varieties.

With a Little Help From My Friends

Here in Dunedin there is an amazing sense of interfaith togetherness, which contrasts with the images and messages we receive from the Middle East. Hughson explains that following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, “A lot of Muslim students were feeling quite vulnerable, with some threats against them for what had happened in New York. People were generalising about Islam being a violent religion, out of ignorance really. There were some cases of women being sworn at in the streets, and hate mail to the Mosque.”

Hughson continues, “Out of that we formed the Dunedin Abrahamic Interfaith Group, which has brought together Christian, Jewish, and Muslim people to work together for peace.” Mai Tamimi, a Muslim PhD student who is also secretary of the Interfaith Group, spends a lot of time going around schools with a Christian and Jewish speaker, talking to children about Islam and answering any questions they have.

Tamimi believes that “When you live in a multicultural community like Dunedin, it is important that people learn more about each other and how to interact with each other.” She delights in the naïveté of the questions she is asked at schools, with many “about fasting, hijabs, whether we go out and meet people, basically whether we live normal lives!”

The most common questions tend to be about the position of women in Islam. Tamimi explains “We [women] receive our education, we travel, we work, earn money, there is no oppression… If you come to pure Islam, women are given their rights; they are in no way oppressed. But if they are oppressed, in one way or another, it is because of the practices and the people who oppress them, not Islam as a religion, or the teaching of Islam.”

Dunedin: A Model for the Two-State Solution?

Unless you spent the last few years under a rock, or maybe just in the North Dunedin bubble, you have probably heard of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Without going into too much detail, as I do not possess the patience or the word-count, let’s just say that it is rather complicated.

Basically, Israel is a Holy Land for both Jews and Muslims, especially the city of Jerusalem. These dynamics feed into the conflict, as they both have a religious connection to the land. As the Israelis are predominantly Jewish and the Palestinians predominantly Muslim, it is the conflict between these two groups of people we hear most about.

If you took media reports on the conflict at face value, you would believe little other than that Jews and Muslims hate each other. Tamimi, from the city of Hebron in Palestine, has witnessed much of this hatred in her home city, but explains that it has not always been this way. “Before the conflict started [nearly 100] years ago, Jewish people used to live with Muslims, in Palestine… together in harmony. I always remember the words of my Grandmother, who used to tell me ‘I had neighbours who were Jewish’… They lived in harmony and they shared celebrations… Most of what is happening [today] is political, but unfortunately religion is taken as an easy excuse, or justification, for any kind of conflict.”

She explains that relations between Jews and Muslims here in Dunedin are much more peaceful. “You are taken away from that environment and deal with each other as human beings, rather than enemies… As human beings there is not much difference, but when it comes to talk about right of land, access to places, whose land is this, who came first, who came after, then the whole thing starts to go somewhere else.”

With her entire family, extended family, and many friends back home in Palestine, Tamimi is hopeful that one day we will see a peaceful resolution to the conflict. “Oh well, as we say, Insha’Allah – ‘God Willing’ – I never lose hope. I can’t see that back home it can be solved easily, or quickly, or in the near future, but I won’t lose hope.” Perhaps with more Interfaith Groups fostering understanding we can hold onto that hope.

Drinking tonight bro?

As a Critic reporter, I couldn’t help but throw a few touchy questions into the mix. For Hussein, drinking is one of the more interesting issues. Alcohol is prohibited for Muslims, so there are some difficulties in being both a Muslim and a student. But ultimately, Dunedin’s culture actually works to reinforce his faith and abstinence from alcohol. “You see the binge-drinking culture, and that’s one of the reasons Islam prohibits drinking, because it totally destroys the morals of society.” I could not argue with that, though we all agreed that perhaps “destroying the morals of society” is exactly why people do it (though not me of course).

I then asked Hussein to describe Monkey Bar in a few words. Stifling back laughter, he responded: “You see a lot of things. You experience a lot of things. Sometimes it’s just, take it or leave it sort of thing.” I dared not dig any deeper.

Shalom – Salaam – Peace

Hussein and Shrimpton both agree that their religions provide them with a framework by which to live their lives. They have a path to follow, a guide which helps them immensely at university. Hussein likens Islam to “an internal GPS. Even if you are out in the desert, you are never lost.” Shrimpton sees Judaism as more of an identity: “It’s hard to describe the feeling. A nationality comes close to describing it. You are part of something bigger. It makes you feel a part of something.”

Most of all, the Interfaith Groups promote understanding of their respective faiths, and would rather people ask questions than take what they see in the media for granted. Hussein says, “If you are interested in the religions, then go and read about it, and ask questions. Ask the person who is wearing the hijab, the person with the beard, we’re not going to bite.”

If you are interested in learning more do not hesitate to ask questions. You can email the Student Interfaith Group at: otagostudentsinterfaithgroup@gmail.com. Sharik also says to look out for Islam Awareness Week coming up September 3 – 9, where they will be promoting “Islam and the Environment”.
This article first appeared in Issue 20, 2012.
Posted 5:14pm Sunday 12th August 2012 by Michael Neilson.