Saturday, 20 July 2013

Fasting Can Bring Us Closer Together - Saadia Faruqi

Today's post is the second in a series of weekly posts by Saadia Faruqi who will be sharing her experiences of Interfaith Iftar meals at her local mosque in Houston, Texas. 

If you who are reading this post are Muslim, it goes without saying that probably for you Ramadan is the epitome of spiritual sacrifice and uplift. After all, Muslims all over the world fast every year as a way of getting closer to God Almighty, and to feel empathy for those who stay hungry as a result of circumstance rather than choice. What you may not realize is that many other religions have fasting traditions of their own, which although not as strict as the Islamic fast, are no less valuable to those followers. Last week I wrote about the start of Ramadan and our tradition of sharing it with friends from other faiths. This week I facilitated the first women’s interfaith Iftar at my mosque, leading to a plethora of information, inspiration and dedication.

I had organized a small group, six guests and approximately the same number of Muslim women from my mosque. Three of the guests had visited our mosque before, while three were visiting for the first time. We sat around a table in our mosque dining hall and chatted informally waiting for the program to commence. Many personal facts were exchanged, leading to the discovery of several similarities such as three participants being teachers in their professional lives. As is traditional for events held at our mosque we started with the recitation of the Holy Quran and its translation. 

I then welcomed the group and asked for introductions. Because people tend to either go on and on about themselves or stay completely silent during introductions, I asked for three things: name, religious affiliation and one personal fact such as hobby, interests etc. The introductions further revealed commonalities such as interest in sewing and quilting, and that many were mothers with small children. I could have planned an ice breaker but I think this worked just as well with less time spent.

When we all felt like we knew each other a little better, I passed around a Ramadan quiz, which participants had to complete in pairs (one guest and one Muslim). Each Muslim partner was asked to help her guest find answers on the quiz ranging from the reason Ramadan is celebrated to who is exempt and much more. This resulted in a more relaxed discussion with a much better format than a lecture on the ins and outs of Ramadan. The quiz had ten questions and lasted about 15 minutes. Afterwards I asked the guests to share which questions they found difficult and which answer surprised them. The majority of guests said they didn’t realize sexual activity was also prohibited during Ramadan, and that this month was considered sacred because the first Quranic revelation occurred that time

The next activity was entitled personal experiences of Ramadan. I asked the Muslim participants to share with the group one challenge they face during Ramadan, and one aspect they enjoy. The answers were an accurate description of why fasting has been made obligatory on Muslims. Many participants found patience to be a challenge, while almost all saw it easier to maintain a disciplined and focused lifestyle during this holy month. Worship and sacrifice were the enjoyable aspects for most Muslim participants. These emotions were so much more “real” coming from the mouths of people who fasted, than would have been if I had delivered an explanation of the benefits of fasting in a lecture format. This activity was even more successful than I had imagined.

Lastly I asked our guests to share some fasting traditions of their own. One Jewish guest expressed her amazement at the similarity between fasting in Islam and Judaism. She talked about her own tradition of fasting during sacred days like Yom Kippur or the Day of Atonement (this also gave us the opportunity to marvel at words such as “yom” and “shalom” which are similar in Hebrew and Arabic)

Other guests, who were of Christian faiths, also shared their fasting practices during Lent. Many Christian guests talked about fasting during difficult decisions or tough times, a concept similar to the voluntary fasting practiced by Muslims. Interestingly we learned that evangelical Christians often have an even stricter regimen of fasting throughout the year as a means of pleasing God and purifying themselves.

The discussion ended with Maghrib adhaan (call for prayer) and Iftar. Muslim participants left for prayers and returned to continue a more informal conversation during dinner. The feedback from guests was excellent, ranging from comments on the South Asian food served to the value of the discussion. In the words of one guest who emailed me later: “I thoroughly enjoyed our dinner and discussion together. All of the ladies (who I feel like I know and are becoming friends) were so gracious as usual and I feel like I really learned a lot about Ramadan. Unmasking the unknown is so helpful to everyone. And I really enjoyed the informality of the evening. It always helps me feel comfortable. Thank you again for a lovely evening.” This and other comments made the event a success in my mind.

Realizing the value of interfaith dialogue is like understanding our Creator, the Almighty Allah, a little bit better. I am looking forward to our next interfaith gathering with new guests to share the meaning of fasting with. 

★  ★  ★

Saadia Faruqi is an interfaith activist, speaker and writer specializing in American Muslim issues. She blogs at Tikkun Daily and is editor of the Interfaith Houston blog. Follow her on Twitter @saadiafaruqi

You can read her first article here: Sharing the Blessings of Ramadan with Others

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