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Engaging in Something Marvelous: a Non-Muslim Learns from His Ramadan Fast

Kevin Childress

By Kevin Childress

There simply was no diversity in the small southern town I grew up in. Virtually 100 percent of the population was white, middle-class Baptists. The most “exotic” people in town were a small number of Lutherans, including my close friend Laura and her family. Hearing how people talked about Lutherans, I wanted to defend them, and I started seeing myself as an outsider like them. From that time onward I have identified with outsiders.

As an adult, my life has taken me around the world (for example, I lived in Armenia for two years, working with the Peace Corps). I’ve been to Egypt, Turkey, Russia, India, and all over Eastern and Western Europe. And in all these places I have witnessed expressions of hatred and superiority that one group of people directs at another. No country is free of it. But in those same countries I witnessed extraordinary acts of kindness, sympathy and respect for outsiders.

When I finally got around to it in my 40s, I went back to school to formally study comparative religion (the comparison of doctrines and practices of the world’s faith traditions). It was something I had always wanted to learn more about, perhaps because of my commitment to respecting outsiders. I never wanted to solely study a particular religion, as it is the diversity in particular that most fascinates me, and what I wanted to center my work around.

Two years ago, I read a blog by Lisa Sharon Harper (a columnist with “Sojourners”) about her experiences as a non-Muslim fasting during Ramadan. The idea was appealing to me, as it clearly conveyed a message of respect for, and solidarity with, Muslims.

When I decided to fast last Ramadan, I posted something about it on my Facebook page. That was all I initially said about it to anyone. I prepared myself for fasting with what I thought was practical planning – figuring out schedules for when I would prepare and eat food. I am such an organized person (one of those people with a Master List of smaller “to do” lists), and I dove into it with enthusiasm. For a while it was pretty easy. And I learned a lot of tips. For one thing, it helps to have ready-to-eat food on hand. Late at night, I sometimes just didn’t have the energy to cook. And it’s important to be sure to eat when the time arrives – missing the mealtime window can make for a very uncomfortable day.

Some people say they gain spiritual insight during fasting. It might sound odd, but I have to say that during my fasting time, I found myself reading more poetry, and thinking about the world around me in poetic terms. I rarely ever write poetry, but during fasting I found myself writing haikus about the smell of summer rain, or the intricacies of a well-made shirt. I developed a kind of stillness in my mind that allowed me to “unpack” an idea, to hold it to the light and attempt to see it more clearly. Some people might joke I was simply experiencing protein deficiency or something, but I don’t think that was it. I think I was just a little closer to what I call the “eternal,” and what most people call God.

My post on Facebook attracted a bit of attention. Muslim friends sent me the obligatory “High Five” comments in the beginning, and checked in with me on occasion to see how I was faring. Muslims I hadn’t met before sent me friend requests, because they’d seen something about my fasting on their friends’ Facebook pages. As Ramadan went on, people started sharing with me how fasting was altering their views of the world and themselves, often (to my surprise and pleasure) using poetry as a means of communicating their feelings. One friend on Facebook quoted the Sufi poet Rumi, who compared the fasting person to a musical instrument ready to be played: “We are lutes, no more, no less.” I had often heard that fasting during Ramadan brought Muslims together, spiritually and emotionally (through their shared experience), and physically (in breaking the fast every evening). It was interesting to discover the same type of thing happening virtually.

My first invitation to attend an Iftar (the evening breaking of the fast) came from someone I had met on Facebook. At that Iftar, I met numerous people who in turn invited me to other Iftars. Thanks to these invitations, I could easily have gone to a different one every evening, and quite a few of them were interfaith iftars – some hosted by city politicians who weren’t even Muslim. And it was in the gathering together with people to break the fast that I knew I was engaging in something marvelous and important: around the table, as we met and got to know each other, we changed from strangers into neighbors.

As Ramadan continued, what started to be a problem for me were encounters with people who didn’t know I was fasting. I would show up at someone’s home and they would have this lovely lunch laid out. “I made lasagna because I know how much you love it,” a friend said. It reminded me of a time in Armenia when a poor village family had invited me over for a meal. In honor of my visit, they had killed their only goat, and fried its liver. They brought the dish to the table with such pride, and I remember feeling queasy just looking at it. But, in knowing what it cost them – and what it meant to them to serve me – I ate as much of it as I could. So when faced with the lasagna, I made a quick decision to eat it. Later I felt bad about breaking my fast, thinking I had failed. But then I realized I had sacrificed something that was important to me in order to offer my respect and regard for another person. Maybe I hadn’t failed after all.

For the rest of Ramadan, I fasted as much as I could, but I broke fast when situations like this arose. A Muslim would never make such concessions, of course – and they would rarely face such situations anyway, since most people know they are fasting. But for me, my fasting had been successful because it prompted me to be mindful of food, and to think about the function of food in society. The sharing of food can break the ice between strangers; it can be a gesture of hospitality, and an indication of trust and respect. And it certainly helps us to celebrate joyful moments in our lives, when people come together around a table to share a meal.

Beside fasting during Ramadan, there are countless ways a person can join in experiencing the faiths of other people. Guests are warmly welcomed at the Jewish Passover Seder, Christmas Mass, a Sikh Diwan, or the annual Hindu Diwali. But what I learned from my Ramadan experience is something that perhaps leaders and members of faith communities should keep in mind: for the people outside your doors who are interested in sharing your faith – they need to be invited. An implicit and generic “We are always open to visitors” isn’t really enough. Much better to issue an explicit and specific invitation, a “We invite you to join us next Tuesday” type of thing. Like a meal, the sharing of faiths requires a proper invitation.

About the author: Kevin Childress is the sole proprietor of SocialNet Works, LLC.  While his academic background is in Comparative Religion, his professional background is in Business, with more than a decade of experience in Information Technology, Public/Media & Donor Relations, Executive Management and Finance.  He has extensive knowledge of digital imaging, including video production and, of course, all avenues of social media.  A 22-year resident of Manhattan, Kevin has worked with religious and civic leaders in every borough of New York City.

Eid ul-Fitr 2012 Muslims Celebrate Around The World

Children pose at Obalende praying ground in Lagos on August 19, 2012 as muslims pray on the first day of Eid al-Fitr. Muslims around the world celebrate Eid al-Fitr, marking the end of Ramadan, the Muslim calendar’s ninth and holiest month during which followers are required to abstain from food, drink and sex from dawn to dusk. AFP PHOTO / PIUS UTOMI EKPEI

from the Huffington Post

To mark the beginning of Eid and in accordance with the Sunnah, or practices of the Prophet Muhammad, many Muslims wake up early in the morning and pray Salat ul-Fajr, or the pre-dawn prayer. After brushing their teeth, taking a bath and wearing perfume, they have breakfast before heading off to perform special congregational prayers known as Salaat al-Eid. Many Muslims recite the takbir, a declaration of faith, on the way to the prayer ground and give special charitable contributions known as Zakat al-Fitr.

Eid al-Fitr is a day of great merriment and thanksgiving. Muslims celebrate by gathering with friends and family, preparing sweet delicacies, wearing new clothes, giving each other gifts and putting up lights and other decorations in their homes. A common greeting during this holiday is Eid Mubarak, which means, “Have a blessed Eid!”

Click here to see more pictures

August 22nd, 2012 at 12:03 pm

Jains Start Fasts, Prayers as Paryushana Begins Today

Photography credit to Dinodia Photo Libary.

Digambra Jain Paryushana celebrations at a temple in Bulawadi, Mumbai.

from The Times of India
by Barkha Mathur

For the extremely religious Jain community, the next eight days are significant for fasting, praying and asking for forgiveness. Paryushana, which means self cleansing by removing all negativity like raag, dwesh, moh and maya, begins on the Bhadrapada Shuklapaksh Chaturthi. It is sacred as it marks the beginning of the eight days when the dashalakshana vrata is undertaken by devout Jains.

The two Jain sects, Shwetambar and Digambar, follow this period on different days. As the calendar this year has an adhik maas, there is a gap of nearly a month between the Paryushana of the two sects.

As these eight to ten days fall during Chaturmaas most saints settle in one place. This gives the community an opportunity to listen to their sermons. Describing it as a time for performing dharma, city businessman Nikhil Kusumgar says temple visits and attending sermons is an essential part of the prescribed rituals. “We follow the dincharya suggested by Lord Mahavir. This includes fasting and satsang.”

Click here to read full article

August 14th, 2012 at 4:00 pm

Interfaith Leaders Fast to Protest Solitary Confinement

Advertisement for the National Religious Campaign Against Torture’s 23-hour Fasting Solidarity event. Photo from Google Images.

by Chris Lisee
from Religion News Service

An interfaith coalition is urging Congress to end solitary confinement, which they said is a “harmful, costly, and ineffective practice.”

Muslim, Jewish, and Christian faith leaders joined the National Religious Campaign Against Torture to break a 23-hour nationwide fast on Tuesday (June 19) at a press conference following the first-ever congressional hearing on solitary confinement.

“We’re breaking our fast with a commitment that this issue is not over (and) that we’re going to even give more energy to our effort to make sure that no one has to spend time in solitary confinement,” said Richard Killmer, NRCAT’s executive director and a Presbyterian minister.

The earlier hearing before the Senate Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights called attention to economic, safety, and moral issues solitary confinement raises.

Click here to read the full article

October 7th, 2011 at 3:41 pm

Ramadan: A Month-Long Spiritual Gym

by Imam Abdullah Antepli

Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar. This is the month in which the Holy Qur’an started to be revealed to prophet Muhammad. So Ramadan marks the historical birth of Islam as the youngest sibling of the Abrahamic family. Ramadan has been primarily a joyful celebration of this birth in prayerful and devotional ways for the last fourteen hundred years by Muslims of all different backgrounds.

All religions carve out specific periods of time to be more intentional and deliberate about their core teachings and ideals. Ramadan is that special time for believing and practicing Muslims when they try their very best to be more intentional and focused about their relationship with the Divine by taking on various physical and spiritual disciplines and by devoting significant amount of quality time to ponder about the state of that relationship.

Every day during this holy month, practicing adult Muslims of good health around the world spend the daylight hours fasting completely. They abstain from food, drink, and other physical needs during the daylight hours. It is a time to purify the soul, refocus attention on God, and practice self-sacrifice.

But Ramadan is much more than just not eating and drinking. Muslims are called upon to use this month to re-evaluate their lives in light of Islamic guidance. We are to make peace with those who have wronged us, strengthen ties with family and friends, do away with bad habits — essentially clean up our lives, our thoughts, and our feelings. The Arabic word for “fasting” (sawm) literally means “to refrain” – and it means not only refraining from food and drink, but also from evil actions, thoughts, and words. So Ramadan is a month of self-auditing. Muslims are expected to slow down and deeply reflect on their lives. They are called to note all the plusses and minuses, weak and strong areas. They are invited to give intense gratitude and thanks to the Divine and their loved ones for those plusses and ask forgiveness and guidance for the minuses from the same sources.

During Ramadan, every part of the body must be restrained. The tongue must be restrained from backbiting and gossip. The eyes must restrain themselves from peering at unlawful possibilities. The hand must not touch or take anything wrong. The ears must refrain from listening to idle talk or obscene words. The feet must refrain from going to improper places. In such a way, every part of the body observes the fast.

Therefore, fasting is not merely physical, but is rather the total commitment of the person’s body and soul to the spirit of the fast. Ramadan is a month long spiritual gym where Muslims work hard on their spiritual muscles. Muslims are called to do this year-round, but Ramadan gives them an opportunity to push these ethical and moral ideals into their bones and instill them in the very tissue of their brains. Ramadan helps Muslims develop these internal and spiritual strengths by forcing them to be more intentional every 11 months.

Ramadan is also a month of charity and empathy. Through these physical disciplines that we take on, Muslims try to improve their empathy with those who are less privileged than them and with those for whom hunger and starvation is a way of life. This deeper empathy and understanding is expected to increase our motivation and determination to attend the needs of our fellow human beings.

Eid al-Fitr marks the successful completion of month long struggle and internal purification at the end of Ramadan. Muslims often invite their non-Muslim friends to join them and celebrate their spiritual achievements.

And also, following are the special Islamic Dates during Fall-2011:

Ramadan Starts -First day of fasting August 1st, 2011
Ramadan Ends August 29th, 2011
Eid al-Fitr (Celebration of the end of Ramadan) August 30th, 2011
Hajj (Muslim Pilgrimage) days November 4-9th 2011
Eid al-Adha ( Celebration of the Pilgrimage) November 6th, 2011

 

Ramadan etiquette: A guide to your Muslim neighbor’s holy month

Asma Uddin and Shazia Kamal
from Washington Post OnFaith

In the next few weeks, you may come into work and find your co-worker taking a power nap at 9:30am. At break time, you’ll notice she is missing in the discussion about Harry Potter over at the water cooler. At the staff meeting, you will be shocked when she is offered coffee and cookies and refuses ! By lunch time, your concern about her missing at the water cooler compels you to investigate the situation.

Then you remember what she had mentioned last week over a delicious Sushi lunch. Flooded with relief, you go up to her desk, and proclaim with much gusto, “Ramadan Mubarak (Moo-baa-rak)!” Ramadan’s Blessings to you!

The month of Ramadan is a happy occasion; it is the month that the Muslim holy book, the Koran, was revealed to our Prophet Muhammad. Muslims are called by their religion to celebrate the month by coming together in worship, fasting each day for thirty days from dawn until sunset.

Click here to read the full article

August 10th, 2011 at 10:10 am

Chicago Downtown Luncheon a Success!

One of our program interns, Shannon, gives us a quick rundown of last Tuesday’s Downtown Luncheon event in Chicago:

This past Tuesday, September 29, the Parliament of Religions hosted a luncheon entitled “A Pure Body, a Purer Soul.” The panel featured three speakers each discussing fasting in their personal faiths; Rabbi Yehiel Poupko of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago spoke about Judaism, Professor Inamul Haq from Elmhurst University discussed Islam and Rajul Bhalala from the Chinmaya Mission shared her experiences of Hindu fasting. Each faith had recently finished a communal fasting time: Yom Kippur for Jews, Ramadan for Muslims and Navaratri for Hindus. The session was moderated by Sister Joan McGuire of the Archdiocese of Chicago, who also shared the Catholic perspective on fasting during the question and answer portion of the event. We will continue to hold such events as part of our regular Downtown Luncheon Series, so keep your eyes open!