Wednesday, June 7, 2017

How I started fasting during Ramadan after 9/11 and what I learned

This is a reflection on Ramadan I wrote in 2002, which was published in the pamphlet "Islam from a Quaker Perspective, which was widely circulated among Friend and was even translated into German. This pamphlet was later reprinted in a more inclusive book called "Quakers and the Interfaith Movement." See https://www.createspace.com/3611010
 Fasting during Ramadan seems just as important and relevant now as it did 16 years ago. I am grateful that God led me to this practice.

After the tragic events of September 11th, 2001, I felt led to undertake a spiritual discipline that would help me to deal with feelings of grief, anger, and confusion and also to discern where the Spirit was leading me during this troubled time. I decided to fast one day a week until war, or the threat of war, ended.
I chose the Muslim form of fasting—abstaining from food and drink from sunrise to sunset—because I felt it would help me to feel more solidarity with those who belong to what the Quaker writer James Michener called the “world’s most misunderstood religion.”
On the first day of my fast (Friday, November 16), I read a moving story about Ramadan in a pamphlet by Gene Hoffman, a peace activist who pioneered in “compassionate listening” work in the Middle East. During Ramadan Gene paid a visit on a poor Palestinian family who made her lunch but didn’t eat a bite of food. “Why are you doing this for me?” she asked. Their reply touched her heart and mine:  “Ramadan kareem. ‘Ramadan is generous.’”
This and other stories piqued my interest in Ramadan and those who observe it. What are Muslims really like? What can we learn from Islam that can help us in our spiritual work and in our work for peace and justice?
In 1991, during the Gulf War, I made my first serious effort to understand Islam and what is really happening in the Middle East. I incorporated Islamic texts into a world literature course I was teaching at a university. With my wife, who is a Methodist pastor, I co-taught a class on Islam using material recommended for interfaith work, such as R. Marston Spreight’s excellent introduction to Islam, God is One: the Way of Islam (Friendship Press: NY, 1989). We also studied the work of Father Elias Chacour, the Palestinian priest/peace activist who wrote Blood Brothers and We Belong to the Land. His works opened our eyes to what was happening in Israel from a Palestinian Christian perspective. I became friends with Sis Levin, who came to work for the American Friends Service Committee’s Middle East program in Pasadena, California, during this period. Sis’ husband Jerry (a Cable News bureau chief) was held hostage in Beirut in 1984. Sis wrote Beirut Diary, a compelling account of her efforts to free her husband and to learn the truth about the Middle East situation. As a result of her experiences, Sis  became an ardent peace activist and  worked tirelessly to build bridges of understanding among Christians, Jews, and Muslims. These writers helped to dispel many stereotypes and provided valuable insight.
In this age of religious conflict that threatens to engulf the world in war, I have taken to heart Gandhi’s words, which seems more important now than ever: “It is the sacred duty of every individual to have an appreciative understanding of other religions.”
From past experience studying Buddhism, I realized that it isn’t enough just to read books and study a religion. The best way to understand and appreciate a religion is to practice it, just as the best way to appreciate music is to play it—preferably in the company of other practitioners. Such practice does not require conversion, but immersion. I decided that the best way for me to understand Islam would be to observe Ramadan and to spend time with practicing Muslims.
Ramadan, I learned, is one of Islam’s most important holy days—indeed, one of its “Five Pillars,” or essential practices. During this month of observances, the Qur’an was first revealed to the Prophet Mohammed through the angel Gabriel. This event is to Muslims what the birth of Christ is to Christians—a revelation and incarnation of God’s Word (the Eternal Logos) in human history. It is a solemn as well as joyous occasion. By day, Muslims dedicate themselves to God through the discipline of fasting. By night, they celebrate the benevolence and compassion of God through special prayers and meals. Muslims are also supposed to read the entire Qur’an during this holy month and give liberally to charities.
I began my Ramadan fast on November 17, 2001. In addition to fasting,  I also made a commitment to read the entirety of Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s monumental work, The Meaning of the Holy Qur’an, which was highly recommended by Muslims.
During the weeks that followed, I visited both Shi’ite and Sunni mosques and joined in communal prayers. I also incorporated some Muslim prayers into my daily religious practice. I learned to say the opening prayer of the Qur’an in Arabic and English:

 In the name of God, the compassionate, the caring,
bi  smi llahi r-rahmani  r-rahim,
praise be to God , lord sustainer of the worlds
al-hamdu     lillahi rabbi l-’alamin
master of the day of reckoning,
maliki yawmi d-din
to you  we turn to worship
iyaka na’budu
and to you we turn in time of need
wa iyaka nasta’in
lead us on the straight road
ihdina s-sirata l-mustaqim
the road of those you have given to whom
sirata l-ladina an’amta ‘alayhim
not those with anger upon them
ghayri maghdubi ‘alayhim
not those who have gone astray.
wa la d-dalin.

This prayer sums up the essence of Islam and is to Muslims what the Lord’s prayer is to Christians. Each day I rose before dawn, prayed this and other prayers, ate breakfast, and studied the Qur’an. I prayed at least five times each day, facing north (the direction of Mecca for those in California) and bowing with forehead to the ground in the manner of Muslims.
When I told Muslims that I was observing Ramadan, they were extremely pleased and impressed. They were not only eager to discuss Islam with me, they also wanted to know more about my Quaker faith. Observing Ramadan thus became an opening for what the Quaker scholar and ecumenist Douglas Steere called “mutual irradiation”—the sharing of the “Light that enlightens all men and women” (John 1:9).
The most common reason that Muslims gave for fasting during Ramadan was that it helps us to empathize with those who are poor and don’t have enough food and water. Others spoke of self-discipline, or of  religious obligation. A Muslim physician and religious leader from Orange County, California, named Maher Hathout pointed out that the ability to fast—to delay gratification—is what distinguishes human beings from animals. It is also a test of faithfulness and integrity since only God knows if we are truly fasting, or sneaking food when no one is looking!
Many Muslims seemed surprised that a non-Muslim American had the self-discipline to fast. Sad to say, we Americans are seen as an extremely self-indulgent people, given to compulsive overeating and to equally compulsive dieting. When we diet, we generally do it for selfish reasons—to improve our health or our appearance. Fasting, on the other hand, is a discipline that helps us to become un-selfish and spiritually healthy. As the Greek Orthodox Saint John Chrysostom observed:  “Fasting is medicine” (Homilies, III. ca. 388 C.E.) Practiced with humility, fasting helps to free us of our addictive behaviors, and can deepen our connection with God and with our fellow human beings—especially with those who are poor and hungry.
I learned this lesson very keenly one afternoon when the hunger pangs became so intense, and my energy level so low, that I had to quit work at four o’clock. I walked to a nearby park to watch the sun set (which seemed to take forever).  My throat parched, and my belly rumbling, I realized that I could break my fast and end my discomfort at any time, whereas hundreds of millions of people (most of them children and mothers) don’t have this option.  That night, after my meal, I sat down and wrote checks to charitable organizations with more joy than I have ever before experienced. Fasting, I discovered, can do wonders to stimulate compassion and the urge to be charitable.
Fasting can also be a humbling experience. I was surprised to learn that most young Muslims are eager to start fasting since it is a mark of adulthood. (Children don’t have to fast, nor do the sick, pregnant or nursing women, the frail elderly, and travelers.) A charming story called Magid Fasts For Ramadan by Mary Matthews describes how an eight-year-old Muslim boy decides to fast for Ramadan because his big sister has turned twelve and has begun fasting, and he wants to be grown up like her. Because Magid’s parents say that he is too young to fast, he secretly feeds his lunch to the ducks. When his parents find out, they take their son aside and tell him that it is admirable for him to want to fast, but it’s not healthy for one so young. Besides, the father explains, Muslims must always tell the truth! The fact that many Muslim teenagers feel like Magid and take pride in fasting gave me pause. Whenever I was tempted to give up my fast, I recalled their example and said to myself, “If teens can do it, so can I!”
Muslims who were spiritually mature reminded me that fasting means abstaining not only from food and drink, but also from other habits that intrude upon our relationship with God and our fellow human beings. During Ramadan, I was told, one should abstain from backbiting, judgmentalism, and anger. This proved at times far more challenging than simply skipping lunch.
I was also told that during this holy season one’s spiritual life is supposed to be heightened. Prayers uttered during this period “count” more than prayers at any other time, and acts of kindness are supposed to carry more weight with God.

But I liked best what one Muslim mother said: “Ramadan is a time when I try to become a better person.” The practice of fasting and prayer certainly made me want to become a better person. It also made me more acutely aware of my human foibles, and of my deep need to feel connected with God and with other human beings.

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