George Street has been the scene of my theological musings before and on the May 13th I was on my way to St Clement’s to take a service for Ascension Day when I noticed a Muslim family celebrating Eid with a meal at the Whistle Trago Restaurant.
I wished them a happy Eid and pointed out that this year it fell on the same day as Ascension Day when Christians celebrate the universal kingship of Christ and the end of his earthly ministry. Did I point this out as a means of religious one-upmanship? Well, no, because Muslims also believe in the Ascension of Jesus.
I suspect that most Hastings In Focus readers, Muslims or not, will have been more aware of Eid than of Ascension Day. The former certainly received more references in the media.
Not that long ago, the latter was much more in the public consciousness and it was a legal right for pupils to be absent from school in order to attend Sunday School picnics and the like. Nowadays it has fallen in significance even for regular churchgoers and my guess – and it is only a guess – is that there were more Muslims celebrating Eid in the UK than there were Christians attending an Ascension Day Service. There were only 20 people at St Clement’s which, believe it or not, represented a 50 per cent increase on the last such service in 2019!
The history of the relationship between Christianity and Islam is complicated. Many years ago I studied Islamic history at Cairo University and the relationship between the faiths has remained a particular interest. Both faiths have exhibited intolerance and violence in respect of each other and both faiths have also demonstrated an enormous capacity for moral good in the world.
Both faiths are often judged by their extremes. I cringe at the antics of the religious right in the United States and I have nothing in common with them, spiritually, morally or intellectually. My Muslim friends feel the same about Islamic extremists. In contemplating the latter, we should recall that Muhammed was a revered figure among enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire and that Islam was regarded as a rational religion for rational people. Thomas Jefferson also thought highly of Islam and the 1935 frieze on the US Supreme Court building includes Muhammed as a lawgiver. I doubt that the Trump inspired thugs who stormed Capitol Hill were aware of that.
Perhaps the most prominent Muslim in the UK seeking to build a strong relationship between the faiths and combat Islamophobia is Baroness Warsi, a former cabinet minister and chairman of the Conservative Party. In her excellent book The Enemy Within: A Tale of Muslim Britain she gives Hastings a good press, writing about her childhood holidays here. She recalls her visits to “a quintessentially English seaside town, dressed up in our full Pakistani best. We must have seemed odd, fully dressed on a warm summer’s day on the beach, but I certainly never recall being aware of being stared at or not being made to feel welcome.”
That’s the Hastings valued by so many of us. According to the 2011 census, there were 1,159 Muslims (1.3 per cent of the population) living in Hastings. I hope that our Muslim neighbours and our Muslim visitors can write about our town in similar fashion today.
The Reverend Paul Hunt is the part-time priest-in-charge of St. Clement’s and All Saints in Hastings Old Town. St. Clement’s is open for public worship at 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. on Sundays until the end of May after which services will be held at All Saints.