Razia Aziz writes: How is it that, so often in ministry, when a shock leaves you reeling and uncertain about the ground upon which you stand, at that very moment you are called to rise above the wreckage and offer a profound and humbling service? So it was with the funeral of Inayat Hafiz*, a man of Pakistani Muslim origin, whose daughter, Abida had written to OneSpirit Interfaith Foundation in search of a minister to conduct her father’s funeral. Chance would have it that a fellow interfaith minister, Rita Mitra, who had stepped up to support the family to this point, found that due to personal circumstances, she was not able to do the funeral. Thus, on the same day on which I had received some news out of the blue which blew my professional life apart, I received an email from Lindsay with Abida’s request.

razia-webpic1  Razia Aziz

Every funeral is special, but the description of what the family was seeking to achieve in this service left me in no doubt that it would be exceptional in more ways than one. The shiver that ran through my being as I read Abida’s message signalled to me that there could only be one answer to Lindsay’s email, although my head protested a dozen reasons why I should ‘pass’ on this one: I was in a state of disarray personally; I had a busy schedule and it was likely the funeral would be on a day I could not make; there were considerable challenges inherent in the funeral due to the combination of faiths which needed to be represented; etc, etc, etc.

Yet a still small voice said “You must do this”. I have done relatively few ceremonies since my ordination, but I have come to understand that there are some moments which exemplify the idea of ‘a calling’, where the voice of Spirit is unmistakable, and when, having sung “Here I am, Lord” at one’s ordination, with a gusto reserved exclusively for novice ministers, it is just unthinkable not to show up. So I ‘showed up’: I wrote to Abida the next day to say ‘Yes’. The events that then unfolded provided ample confirmation, if I needed it, that this was absolutely the right decision.

An exceptional man and family

Inayat, who was alive at the time Abida’s email was written, was married to a Greek Cypriot woman, Ariana, who had maintained her faith throughout the half century they were married. He had been accepted in the bosom of her family, and had shown an openness to his wife’s culture and religion which many would consider unusual in today’s world. Their three daughters — now adults, two of them with children of their own — had grown up in a liberal and open-minded atmosphere, with an emphasis on inclusion and the importance of a loving and non-judgmental attitude towards people’s differences. They were free to define their own faith and philosophy.

Inayat was clearly an exceptional man, and one whose farewell needed to reflect the spirit in which he had lived his life. As he was dying, his brother and sister-in-law had recited verses from the Qur’an by his bedside, yet near to his death he requested a Christian priest to read the last rites for him. I had been hopeful to meet him before he died, but he passed in the early hours of the day after I had responded in the affirmative to Abida’s email.

Then began the work of weaving together the fabric of what would turn out to be an extraordinary funeral service. Rita’s involvement meant that the family were able to have the conversation with him about his funeral before he died — and consequently they had a detailed picture of what it was they were trying to create. This made some of my work much easier than it might otherwise have been. I met with Ariana, Abida and her two sisters Jamila and Farnaz on a Friday evening at the Hafiz family home in north London, where Abida lived with her parents.

The moment I stepped into the house, I felt I had stepped into a ‘field’ characterised by warmth and kindness. We discussed Inayat’s life, I looked at family photos and listened to Ariana and her daughters speak about him – all the while remembering the time when my own mother wore the disbelieving look of grief that comes when a very much loved long-term spouse or partner has taken their leave. The rent left by the departing soul is unmistakable – it can be seen in the eyes, and you are left in no doubt that the road ahead will be unspeakably hard. In my heart I knew I had to do everything I could to ease the journey, at least for the little way I would walk alongside Ariana, Abida, Jamila and Farnaz.

Muslim and Greek Orthodox combined

We discussed all the elements of the service, and in particular the matter of how to combine, in keeping with Inayat’s wishes, elements of both Muslim and Greek Orthodox sacred rites within a single funeral in a way which would feel honouring both of him and of the mourners who would be gathered there — of any and of no faiths. All the while, I could feel an incredible quiet strength and resolve in the family to ensure by any loving means that this honouring would take place, and I had a growing sense of my own need to ‘step up’ in a way that matched their commitment, in order to ‘hold’ the worldly space for this remarkable funeral.

A plan seemed to be shaping up. And then Ariana told me something which humbled and opened me to the task ahead in a way I had not at all expected. When Inayat was in his last days, and his consciousness was floating in and out of ordinary reality, he started to repeat a woman’s name which did not match any of their friends or relatives. His wife and daughters were puzzled by this, and inquired amongst the wider family circle in Pakistan (as the name was a Muslim name) as to its significance, but in vain. Having drawn a blank, I guess they had put the matter to one side. Until I turned up. The name was Razia.

From this point on it was clear to me that I was absolutely not in charge of the deeper flow of this unfolding story, but that it was my sacred duty to be as awake as possible, and to put aside any other non-urgent commitments and focus down to the finest detail, in order to ensure that this deeper flow proceeded unimpeded. The fabric that needed to be woven was complex indeed: liaison with the daughters, the funeral director, the cemetery staff (including a visit to the chapel beforehand to familiarise myself) may seem quite usual for a funeral; but there was the additional matter of the Imam and the Priest – how would they respond to the call to step out of their customary practice into unknown territory where the space was held – firstly – by a woman, and — secondly — one whose spiritual provenance and authority was indeterminate?

And of course there was the service itself, where it was of the greatest importance not to offer ‘Interfaith Lite’ — skimming over the traditions — but ‘One Spirit and Interfaith’ with integrity and dignity given to the parts. I must say that I was grateful that there would be a burial (a matter both faiths agree upon), as a single slot in a crematorium would certainly have burst at the seams under the pressure of such weighty requirements.

At every step in the many hours’ preparation the service required I was helped along by both visible and invisible hands. Jo Petts, a fellow traveller and minister from the class of 2011, did a wonderful job of calling upon her network to ensure that two key lines of my opening address were translated into Greek in a style that would be unambiguously intelligible to Cypriot Greek speakers – and worked with me on the phone to ensure that my pronunciation was acceptable. My sister and brother-in-law helped me to translate the same two lines into Urdu for the benefit of the Pakistani contingent.

Standing together for Love

But there was one more little surprise in store for me: prior to visiting the family, I had stopped by the cemetery to see the Chapel space and meet the staff there. When I arrived, I found the vestry, where I put my bag down. I turned around to find I had been joined in the room by a priest wearing black. I started to talk with him, and discovered he was a senior Greek Orthodox Priest, Fr Giannis. “What a great synchronicity!” I thought, and talked with him a while about the interfaith funeral I was due to conduct. I later discovered that, at that very moment, Ariana was at his Church, where she had gone to ask if he would conduct the Trisagion service for the dead for her late husband.

Not only did Fr Giannis ‘step up’ to this out of the ordinary request, but he and the Imam, Dr Nasser, both proved staunch allies in the work of creating an inclusive and welcoming space for all the mourners. For this I am deeply grateful to them both. I think it should be noted that in a world so characterised by religious hatred, suspicion and division, there are people like these willing to stand together as a countervailing force for love.

However, before talking about the service itself, I want to put in a word of appreciation for the Funeral Director, Nick. I had two long telephone conversations with him, during which his devotion to his clients could not have been clearer. Not only had he had the deceased’s body transported to his company’s premises in East London, so that the body could be washed according to Muslim custom, he had had to act as a shield against extremist elements in the locality there who threatened to picket the funeral if they could find out when and where it was due to take place. He also assured me that the presence of Fr Giannis (a very senior and much respected figure) at the funeral would quieten any critical voices in the Greek Orthodox community who might question the legitimacy of conducting the Trisagion for the dead for a Muslim man. Though Nick and I never met (since he was unable to do this funeral himself) we made a heart-warming connection, and I was left in no doubt that he understood perfectly what ‘one spirit’ requires of us in the world.

On the morning of the funeral itself I asked Fr Giannis and Imam Dr Nasser to arrive a little early so the three of us could touch base with one other. This they did, and proceeded to engage deeply in conversation with each other — both in the best possible way trying to out-do the other in extolling the virtues of inclusion and acceptance of differences between peoples.

Why interfaith ministry came into being

Now picture this in your mind: in preparation for the procession into the Chapel, these two men standing either side of me in the entrance arch, us turning as one to walk ahead of the coffin into the Chapel, followed by the pall bearers carrying Inayat’s earthly garment, followed by Ariana, her daughters and their families, and finally a hundred more mourners — men and women of different colours, dress styles, ages. It was a blessed moment when the three of us turned once more as one to face and bow to the coffin, and to honour the mourners as they entered. The two religious leaders sat together in the front row, bathed in each other’s auras throughout the service until the end, when Dr Nasser conducted the Janazah prayers. My attempts at Greek and Urdu during the opening address seemed to land as intended. The eulogy delivered by the three sisters standing close together was both dignified and touching. The grandson, Paul, read a mystical poem which lifted the vibration of the gathering. The Orders of Service were a work of art put together by Abida.

Dr Nasser could not have been more accommodating on all matters which could have proved to be sticking points — from having no need for headscarves during the Janazah prayers, to the position of the coffin in relation to Mecca, to the participation of non-Muslims in the prayers and provision of a translation and explanation of the Janazah prayers themselves.

We processed to the burial site, where Fr Giannis conducted the Trisagion service by the graveside, then extemporised, delivering a thundering endorsement of a religion of love and inclusion. Mourners of different faiths, colours, languages and connections with the deceased in turn conducted their private and public rituals by the graveside. Flowers mingled with cracked earthenware, olive oil with incense, Arabic with Greek, and the love of God was palpable.

It’s hard to know how to sum up an experience such as this, so I won’t try. You know, as I do, that it was in part to answer the call for occasions like this that Interfaith Ministry came into being, and why it is so much needed in today’s world.

I will simply leave you with the two lines which I included – in English and in Greek and Urdu – in the welcome address:
‘Peace be upon you’
‘In Love’s true dwelling there is a place for each and every one of us’.

*All names in this account, with the exception of my OneSpirit interfaith minister colleagues Rita Mitra and Jo Petts, have been changed to preserve the privacy and safety of the family and others involved in this funeral.

  1. Profile photo of Rev Diane Christine Denney

    I have tears of pure love and joy as I read your wonderful words.
    Thank you for sharing this with us.

    Diane
    x

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