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Reflections on World Interfaith Harmony

bySneha Khan
onFebruary 8, 2024

I come from Toronto, a city often referred to as the most multicultural metropolis in the world. With around half the population born outside the country, there are over 200 ethnic groups and more than 140 languages spoken in the city. Living here since the age of four, I’ve been exposed to many different cultures and religions. Although I was born into a Muslim family, living in such a socially diverse hub has taught me the importance of learning about other religions to truly appreciate and celebrate interfaith harmony in the world.

Walking through my neighbourhood in Toronto, I see our Sikh Punjabi neighbours helping the elderly Muslim Pakistani couple living across from us mow their lawn. And when Ramadan comes around, the Pakistani neighbours offer their traditional iftar food to all of us on our street, regardless of our background. They share an integral piece of their religious and cultural tapestry as an expression of gratitude for our collective support for one another in this little community.

Throughout my experiences of learning about other religions in Toronto, I’ve been to many Durga Puja and Diwali events at temples with Hindu Bengali family friends, as well as Easter vigils with Jamaican and Chinese Christian schoolmates. I draw inspiration from my Jewish teachers at school, who have taught me about Hanukkah traditions and the painful history of Jewish persecution. Every day, I learn from my Muslim hijabi colleagues and their difficult experiences existing as visible religious minorities in an increasingly hostile world. I admire my Filipino Catholic friends who are on their respective religious journeys to love themselves and find community despite the colonization and proselytism their families have faced.

Each experience has revealed the enlightening nature of different religious communities consistently operating from a place of love for all humans and the desire to help neighbours. Recognizing the vital role of religion in the world is essential. Regardless of one's background, every human deserves respect as they navigate their individual path of understanding and critically contemplate their place within their faith.

Initially proposed in 2010 by King Abdullah II and Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad of Jordan, World Interfaith Harmony Week falls in the first week of February every year and aims to promote solidarity between all people regardless of their faith. This week highlights the need to foster peaceful living by encouraging individuals and communities to share spaces and resources harmoniously, reducing the potential for conflicts that may arise from differences. The encouragement of dialogue and understanding paves the way to tolerance towards one another and the mitigation of religious tensions due to misunderstandings or misinterpretations.

In an increasingly interconnected world, interfaith harmony is especially essential for global cooperation. It encourages nations to collaborate on shared challenges, such as climate change, poverty, and public health, recognizing that solutions often require united efforts.

In the context of international development, interfaith collaborations across the world often focus on social and environmental sustainability. This collective effort can lead to initiatives that positively impact communities and contribute to the overall well-being of society.

For example, when the September 2023 earthquake hit the High Atlas Mountain region here in Morocco, many religious organizations were the first to come to the aid of the Moroccans affected (the majority of whom are Muslim). With the generosity of important Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, and Christian donors, the High Atlas Foundation was able to distribute key resources and amenities to distressed communities in rural areas.

This cultivation of social unity is also reflected in HAF’s various multicultural cooperation projects. In particular, the House of Life project facilitates the free loaning of land adjoining Jewish burial sites to establish organic fruit trees and medicinal plant nurseries to benefit Muslim farming communities. Morocco has a robust history of interreligious cooperation that is frequently overlooked in contemporary discourse.

These ongoing HAF initiatives bring together individuals from multiple religious backgrounds to collaborate on the shared goal of improving local communities and their environments. Through these projects, participants work side by side, regardless of their religious affiliations, to plant trees that will provide food, shade, and environmental benefits for years to come.

Tree planting is quintessentially a universal part of the human experience and an act of faith, as respect for nature is paramount in many world religions. For example, caring for a tree is seen as sadaqah in Islam, while in Judaism, trees are regarded as the “pinnacle” of the plant world. The Tree of Life archetype has existed across various ancient mythologies, such as within early Dharmic, Mesopotamian, Greek, Scandinavian, and Germanic religions. The tree motif occurs culturally everywhere, making it clear that over time, our human ancestors have consistently placed immense importance on communal care for the environment.

By engaging in this collective action of tree planting, participants build bonds of trust and understanding that transcend religious divides and foster unity and common purpose. The fruits of these collaborative efforts extend beyond the act of planting trees. As the trees grow and flourish, they become literal symbols of the interconnectedness of humanity and the shared responsibility we have to care for the earth and one another.

This past Interfaith Harmony Week, I found myself reflecting deeply on the rich cultures and religions that I've been fortunate to experience both back home in Toronto, and here in Morocco. Interfaith harmony isn't just a moral imperative—it's a practical necessity. It promotes international cooperation and empowers communities to address shared challenges, from environmental sustainability to social justice.

As religious organizations came together to provide aid to communities after the earthquake here in Morocco, the power of multifaith action grounded in compassion and solidarity was very well illustrated. The same goes for HAF’s ongoing multifaith tree planting initiative, which celebrates the special longstanding relationship between Muslim and Jewish communities historically living together here in Morocco.

Exploring interfaith relations involves acknowledging the various interconnections and entanglements that exist between every religion, much like the roots and branches of a tree, ultimately realizing that all humans depend on the same vital resources and share the same search for meaning in this world, helping one another along the way.

Sneha Khan and Smita Mahmud, fourth-year students of International Development Studies from the University of Toronto, are currently interning at the High Atlas Foundation in Marrakech, Morocco.