Saturday, August 22, 2009

Why do I fast during Ramadan?

Today is the first day of Ramadan, celebrated by Muslims because it was during this month that the Holy Qur'an was first revealed to the Prophet Mohammad.

During Ramadan Muslims refrain from eating or drinking from sunrise to sunset. Most get up before dawn to pray and to eat a light breakfast. When the sun goes down, Muslims break fast and pray. The fast-breaking meal, called an iftar, is often a time for celebration since Ramadan is the month when God revelead the Qur'an to humanity.

I have been observing the fast during Ramadan ever since 9/11. At first, I fasted as a way to purge myself of the despair and other negative emotions I felt after 9/11 and our invasion of Afghanistan. I also found that fasting opened me up to the Muslim community and to interfaith work in a profound way.

Over the years I have come to appreciate fasting as a spiritual practice. Fasting has deepened my relationship with God as well as with my Muslim brothers and sisters. Fasting has also deepened my empathy with those who are poor and hungry.
I look forward to Ramadan each year as a time for spiritual renewal (just as I look forward to Lent, Christmas, and Yom Kippur).

Quakers don't believe that it is necessary to observe holy days since every day is holy, but I find that observing these seasonal holidays can be a helpful spiritual practice.
Because many people wonder why I fast during Ramadan, I wrote the following explanation a year or two ago.

“Why do you fast for Ramadan if you are not a Muslim?”

I was asked this question while having dinner with Prof. Mohammed Abu-Nimer, a well-known Palestinian professor of peace studies who has taught at Hebrew University and now teaches at the American University in Washington, DC. The author of numerous books and articles relating to conflicts in the Middle East, Prof. Abu-Nimer had come to a Quaker center called Pendle Hill near Philadelphia to give a lecture about the situation in Israel/Palestine. As editor of a Quaker magazine, I was there to hear what he had to say about this topic.

It was my first encounter with Prof. Abu-Nimer, and Pendle Hill is a Quaker Center for Study and Contemplation, so I paused in silence to reflect before answering his question. My response surprised even me.

“I have been fasting during Ramadan since 9/11 to reach out and express my solidarity with the Muslim community,” I replied. “And I also find fasting to be an excellent spiritual practice that helps me to empathize with the poor.”
So far, the words were ones that I had given many times before when asked about fasting. But then came the unexpected part:

“I plan to keep fasting during Ramadan until there is peace in Israel/Palestine.”
Where these words came from, I don’t know, but they felt like what Quakers call a “leading of the Spirit.”

Hearing my words, Prof. Abu-Nimer smiled. He obviously appreciated this response, but I didn’t realize how much until later.

That evening, Prof. Abu-Nimer lectured about the heart-breaking situation in Israel/Palestine. He spoke about the deteriorating political conditions, and how every effort to promote a non-violent solution or approach had met with resistance and ultimately failure.

Finally, someone asked, “Do you have any good news to tell us about what can be done to promote peace?”

Prof. Abu-Nimer paused and reflected, and then he smiled.

“Yes, I have good news,” he said, “I met a Quaker during dinner this evening and he told me that he was fasting during Ramadan until there is peace in Israel/Palestine. This gave me goosebumps…”

At that moment, I had goosebumps, too. I felt as if God had confirmed my leading, and that from now on I really am committed to fasting during Ramadan until there is peace in the Holy Land.

A few months later, I found myself attending a peace event in Tel Aviv on the first day of Ramadan. For two weeks, I had been traveling with an interfaith delegation of Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and Quakers visiting and listening to Muslims, Christians, and Jews of all backgrounds and political persuasions at refugee camps, settlements, kibbutzim, and cafes. It was a powerful experience that help me connect with the people of this region at a heart level.

On this first day of Ramadan, Muslims and Jews were scheduled to go on a silent peace walk through the streets of Tel Aviv. This event was sponsored by Middle Way.
It was 9:00 AM in the morning, and already 80 degrees. I had had nothing to eat or drink before dawn, as I usually do when I fast during Ramadan, and was wondering if I would have the strength to make it through this four-hour walk in the heat of the day.

Just then an Arab in white robes began addressing us. He welcomed us to this event and spoke glowingly about peace and cooperation and then told us that he had purchased bottles of water and snacks for all participants. No mention was made of the fact that he and other Muslims would not be eating or drinking anything.
I was impressed, and humbled. Clearly this was another sign that God wanted me to fast during Ramadan until these wonderful children of God—these peace-loving Muslims and Jews—know real peace.

Our silent walk through the streets of Tel Aviv is one of the spiritual high points of my life. We didn’t solve all the problems of Israel and Palestine, but for one day we all knew what peace feels like. This was a blessing for which I will always be grateful to God.

I encourage everyone, regardless of religious persuasion, to “fast for peace.” Fasting can teach us feel in our gut (and not only in our heads) what Jesus meant when he said, “Blessed are those who HUNGER and THIRST after justice.” Jesus understood from personal experience what hunger and thirst were all about, and why we need to work for justice. Jesus fasted for forty days in the wilderness. He lived in poverty, in solidarity with the poor. All his life lived in complete and humble submission to the will of God. This is the way to true peace.

Fasting for peace may seem like a small thing, but if we do with a pure intention, only God knows where it will lead and how it will change your life, or even the world.