Can you believe it? Ramadan is almost over and we are right in the midst of the holiest time of this holy month: the last ten days which are full of blessings, forgiveness and mercy from Allah. Partly due to the physical toll of fasting and partly as a sign of respect for the intense spirituality of these last few days, many Muslims tend to withdraw within themselves and place more emphasis on prayer and quietude. Here’s why this may not be the best way to spend the last ten days of Ramadan.
For many mosques in the U.S. and Europe, Ramadan is an ideal time for interfaith dialogue. People are naturally curious about the fasting practices of Muslims, not only because they are similar to traditions of Lent and Yom Kippur, but also because our fast is considered so much more strenuous than theirs. They want to know how we do it, and why. Instead of retreating to our homes or mosques, opening up our spaces to outsiders from different religious backgrounds can be a wonderful way to share not just the month of Ramadan, but also the beautiful teachings of Islam.
A Time to Remove Misconceptions
As the interfaith coordinator for my mosque in Houston, I organize weekly interfaith iftars for women in my community. Yes, it takes time and effort, and the participation of many of my friends, but it is truly worth it. Each week we welcome five to ten women of various faiths for a group discussion, mosque tour and salat observation. The conversation begins with fasting, but often quickly expands to many other topics. Americans are curious about Islam, and they bring all types of questions and concerns to the iftar table. Invariably the queries start with “I heard on the news that….” What a wonderful opportunity for us to defend our faith from media attacks, and to change the minds of our neighbors! What a great time to remove stereotypes and misconceptions, and sow the seeds of friendship and harmony!
Another benefit of interfaith iftars is that we as Muslims learn something about our neighbors as well. After all, fasting is a tradition in one form or the other in most other religions, yet we Muslims tend to think that we are the only ones who practice this ritual in today’s materialistic and nonreligious society. Not so. I think it is time to change our stereotypes and misconceptions as well. Fully understanding that interfaith dialogue must be a two-way street in order to be helpful, I don’t try to control the tide of conversation in any way, and allow my guests to talk about how and why they fast as well. Surprisingly, many Christians and Jews tell us about complete fasts they keep not only for their own faiths but also as a point of solidarity with Muslims. Last week a woman emailed me to say that in anticipation of an upcoming interfaith event at my mosque she plans to fast the whole day, so that she can know what we all feel like. I was so honored that it brought tears to my eyes.
At my interfaith gatherings, devout Christians share their experiences with fasting and prayer, and devout Jews explain the much more difficult fast of Yom Kippur and other lesser fasts in Judaism. We discuss the discipline, perseverance and love of God that pervades all of us as we shun food and drink and so much more as a sign of our faith. Such information helps me and my friends understand that we are all more similar than different, that we can find commonalities instead of trying to find areas of weakness or inferiority in others. If we could all think in this manner about each other, our world would be a peaceful place indeed.
So as we prepare to bid goodbye to another Ramadan, why not open up your mosque or home to a few neighbors? Provide a simple meal, give time for discussion and conversation. I guarantee that you will be pleasantly surprised not just at how your offer is received, but also at the increase in spirituality you gain as a result of this simple act of hospitality. Sharing Ramadan can make a big different these last ten days, so please take the first step.