“The best religion is humanity”, was the powerful message delivered by Gift of the Givers founder Dr. Imtiaz Sooliman on 7 February in Cape Town. Following a proposal inspired by the Common Word Initiative and championed by King Abdullah II of Jordan, the United Nations General Assembly unanimously adopted World Interfaith Harmony Week (WIHW) in 2010, which is observed every year during the first week of February. “What we are proposing is a special week”, said King Abdullah, “during which the world’s people…could express the teachings of their faith about tolerance, respect for the other and peace.”
Heeding the call to mark this important week of interfaith dialogue, the Cape SA Jewish Board of Deputies hosted a breakfast at Café Riteve for local faith-based leaders and diplomats. In a country that is often plagued with division and difference, the gathering included a Sunni Imam, a Shiite Maulana, Progressive and Orthodox Rabbis, Anglican and Catholic Priests, diplomats and politicians, creating a picture of possibility and hope. Chairman Li Boiskin opened the event with a brief history of WIHW, followed by an explanation of phylacteries by a tefillin-wearing Rabbi Osher Feldman. “Putting tefillin on the hand before the head symbolises Judaism’s emphasis on action”, said Rabbi Feldman.
Having just arrived back from flood relief work in Mozambique, Dr. Sooliman delivered a powerful address on the role faith-based communities can play in social development. In 1992, Dr. Sooliman founded the Gift of the Givers Foundation, which is closely associated with the Muslim community and is the world’s largest African disaster relief organisation. Since its establishment, it has delivered more than R750 million in life-saving aid to millions of people in 35 countries (including South Africa) in the form of search and rescue teams, medical personnel, medical equipment, medical supplies, medicines, vaccines, anti-malarial medication, high energy and protein supplements and food aid. More recently, it sent four rescue teams to Haiti following the devastating 2010 earthquake, and in 2011, it was the only international organisation providing food aid to Somalia.
21 years ago, Dr. Sooliman’s Afrikaner neighbour in Pietermaritzburg suggested that he travel to Istanbul to meet with the revered Sufi Sheikh Muhammed Saffer Effendi al Jerrahi. Little did he know that this trip would forever change his outlook on life. He recounted meeting Americans, Israelis, Russians and Hindus for the first time in Istanbul, whom he had been conditioned to believe were “enemies” of the Muslim people. “You cannot live in the past; you must learn from the past”, he reflected on the experience. During his meeting with the Sheikh al Jerrahi, he was told that “the God of mankind is one”, and was instructed to establish a humanitarian organisation, which became known as the Gift of the Givers. In 2010, Dr. Sooliman was awarded the Order of the Grand Counsellor of the Baobab (South Africa’s highest honour) by President Jacob Zuma for his contribution through Gift of the Givers to humanitarian aid nationally and internationally. He has also been named as one of the world’s 500 Most Influential Muslims by Professor John Esposito of Georgetown University.
When Gift of the Givers’ rescue teams faced logistical obstacles getting into Haiti following the earthquake, Dr. Sooliman was assisted by the Catholic Church to cross into the country via the Dominican Republic. “Humanity and compassion get you a lot further than politics”, he has learned over time, as “98% of religions share the same beliefs.” He invited other faith-based groups to partner with the Gift of the Givers to deliver critical relief to disaster areas. His organisation serves all people irrespective of race, religion, culture, colour, political affiliation or geographical location, unconditionally.
You can learn more about World Interfaith Harmony Week by visiting www.worldinterfaithharmonyweek.com and the Gift of the Givers at www.giftofthegivers.org.
Jewish medical personnel and trauma counsellors who are interested in volunteering their time and expertise to the Gift of the Giver’s emergency relief missions can contact the Cape Board’s Gina Flash firstname.lastname@example.org.