Sunday, August 23, 2009

The gift of Muslim hospitality

When I began fasting during Ramadan nine years ago, I had my first experience of Muslim hospitality. It was unforgettable. I was invited to an iftar (fast-breaking meal) by Asima Butt (far left, next to my wife Kathleen). Asima was a beautiful young woman who worked as a cultural affairs director for the city of Whittier, CA (named after the great Quaker poet). Her father, Dr. Hassan Butt, was a well-to-do physician from Kashmir who lived in a huge house, a kind of compound, with his extended family (some of whom are shown here). He and his family welcomed Kathleen and me into their home with such generosity and kindness that I was moved to say, "God is so good. He asks me merely to give up lunch, and in return gives me a feast and a wonderful family to share it with!"

Over the years I came to know and appreciate this gracious Muslim family who gave me my first taste of the Muslim way of life. We had many fascinating conversations about theology and politics and shared many personal stories.

This year I have been apprehensive about observing the Ramadan fast since each year the days grow longer. (Mulsims use a lunar calendar, so the month of Ramadan moves ten days forward each year.) When I began fasting nine years ago, Ramadan started in early December and I had to fast for only 10 hours or so. Now the fasting time is 14 hours!
I became so stressed about this that I developed a severe back ache
and had to take a muscle relaxant on Thursday, when I was working on my talk about health care reform for ICUJP. By Friday I was feeling better, but woozy. How would I feel on the first day of Ramadan?

To my surprise, when I woke up at 5:00 AM on Saturday, I felt great! My mind was clear, and my back ache gone, and I felt intense gratitude. I knew that God will give me strength to observe this fast, as He had in previous years.

I was also pleased that I was going to an iftar at the home of my dearest Muslim friend, Shakeel Syed. Shakeel is the executive director of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California. "I am like a bishop," he sometimes jokes, "but without any power." The Shura Council is an umbrella organization for all the mosques in Southern California. Shakeel visits the mosques, helps them in their work, and is their voice in the public arena.

He is one of the most compassionate and spiritual people I know, and from the very first time I met him, I felt a heart-connection with him. He serves on the boards of various organizations that I am also connected with, such as Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace and the American Friends Service Committee. Two years ago he went to Israel-Palestine with a group sponsored by the AFSC and came back profoundly moved by what he saw. He has spoken out passionately about the plight of the Palestinian people. I honor him for his courage in speaking out since many Muslims have paid a heavy price for doing so.

Shakeel is also an incredibly warm and generous person. In April of this year, several weeks before my wife went to the hospital, we went to the AFSC to chat with Eisha Mason, the associate regional director. She told us that Shakeel was coming over for lunch. I thought she meant that she and Shakeel were going out to lunch together. It turned out that Shakeel had purchased a Middle Eastern meal for the entire office staff of the office. He brought his family with him and we had a wonderful feast together!

When my wife was in ICU, Shakeel and his wife came to visit and to pray for her on Mother's Day. I was incredibly moved that he would take the time to honor my wife in this way.

A week ago, when Shakeel came to visit me at my home, I asked him if the mosque in Culver City had iftars open to the public, like the mosque in South Bay. He told me it didn't, and then proceeded to invite me to his home for an iftar.
"I am very busy during Ramadan because of my position," he explained. "But I have the first night of Ramadan free. It is my family night."

When I realized that he considered me part of his family, I was touched. I knew this was a sign from Allah that I was indeed supposed to fast for Ramadan!

Last night I went to Shakeel's home, which is located not far from the King Fahd mosque in Culver City. He lives on the second floor and you can see the beautiful blue minaret from the porch.

Shakeel has three daughters (Khadija and two others whose Arabic names escape me) and a son Mujahid. They range in age from 11-16. His wife Sarai is a school teacher. They live in a modest apartment in which the most prominent feature is a book case well supplied with books on Islam and current affairs.

He is a man after my own heart!

Shakeel referred to me as "Uncle Anthony" and made me feel like part of the family.

I chatted with the children and learned that Mujahid (who is twelve or so) played basketball that day in spite of his fast. I commended the children and told them that when I felt that fasting was too difficult for me, I remembered that Muslim teens fast.

"You are my inspiration," I told them.

I learned that Khadija has been studying Arabic at Cal State San Bernardino. Most Muslims learn enough Arabic to be able to recite Qur'an. Khadija is studying colloquial as well as classical Arabic.

I am always impressed with how Muslims make such an effort to learn Arabic, the language of their scripture. Very few Christians--even pastors--bother to learn Greek. Even more impressive to me is the fact that many Muslim teens memorized the entire Qur'an in Arabic. It was struggle for us to get Christians kids just to memorize a few Bible verses in English!
When the sun set, we had a light fast-breaking snack (which was preceded by a prayer said by one of the children). Then the family had formal prayers, which I joined.

I always feel so uplifted when I pray with Muslims, and this time of prayer was particularly moving since I was part of the family. After the formal prayers, there was a time of "dua"--personal prayers, spoken from the heart. Shakeel's prayers for "Aunt Kathleen" and "Uncle Anthony" touched the depths of my soul.

After the prayers, we had a delicious meal of spicy Indian food prepared by Sarai. We had such good conversation about everything from family affairs to politics and religion that the time flew by. It was 10:30 when I finally left.

I learned that Shakeel and his family usually goes to the mosque after iftar and prayers for two hours! They go to bed at 11 PM and get up at 4 AM for morning prayers (called fajr) and breakfast.

I feel so blessed to have come to know Muslims and Islam in this intimate and personal way. If only other Americans could come to know Muslims and Islam as I do, I am convinced our country would be deeply enriched spiritually and we would have a much saner view of the world.

I am grateful that President Obama gets this. His Ramadan message showed remarkable understanding of Muslim theology and impressed Shakeel as well as me. I hope that Obama show respect for Muslim not only in words, but also in deeds.

President Obama's Ramdan message:

1 comment:

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