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Fasting and Feasting Through Islam’s Most Holy Month

A few years back, I spent a summer interning at a refugee resettlement agency. I expected to learn about our nation’s labyrinthine immigration policies, to manage a small caseload, and to teach English.
I did not expect to laugh so hard or eat so well.

I laughed with one Iraqi woman, as we parsed the difference between “Tuesday” and “Thursday”, and I struggled through numbers in Arabic. I laughed at her son, asleep in a tumble of toddler limbs. I laughed through awkward first encounters with family after family, as we mimed questions and connected through sheer, mute goofiness.

I laughed because that small act of accompaniment was all I could do.

My internship happened to coincide with Ramadan that year. I watched in awe as one of the Iraqi women I had become close to abstained from food she set out for us and her children, all while interviewing for jobs and navigating a new city. Halfway through the summer I attended an iftar, or breaking fast meal hosted by the Iraqi translator for our organization, her American husband, and several of the refugee families. We traded stories over dates, stuffed grape leaves, and some ridiculously succulent meat.
When the idea for this blog emerged, I returned often to the memory of that meal and the practice of Ramadan.

At its most basic level, Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, which in turn follows a lunar calendar and therefore shifts year-to-year. This year, Ramadan lasted from May 5th-June 3rd. Muslims throughout the world observe a month of fasting from sunup to sundown in recognition of the first revelation of the Quran to Muhammad (Christians might recognize the angelic messenger).
But that’s all Wikipedia.

In an effort to get beyond the factoids, I attended an interfaith iftar hosted by several organizations including the Interfaith Center of New York, Peace Islands Institute, Synagogue Coalition, Fellowship in Prayer, and HIAS, a Jewish non-profit that has been working with refugees for more than 130 years. At the iftar, I connected with Dr. Ahmet M. Atlig, the imam at Manhattan Turkish Masjid- North East Islamic Community Centre.

Dr. Atlig generously agreed to answer my questions.

Could you walk me through the general teachings and significance of Ramadan?

During Ramadan, many Muslims will start to think: “What is my contribution?” Islam pushes Muslims to think about what it means to be part of the human family. Ramadan is a checking and balancing time. Because of that, to me as a Muslim and as an imam, I am always indicating this reality and asking my congregation: Please, check your situation. Are you part of the human family? Are you isolated from the people or not?

Being part of society is very important, because our religion – Islam – has two main sources. One is the holy book, the Quran, and the other is the sayings of Prophet Muhammad. Those two very important sources are always pushing Muslim people to think about their contributions to society.

This is not a new invention. Christianity is always pushing and advising people to think about the same issue. Judaism as well, and the other other holy belief systems.

The second part of Ramadan is cleansing. I like to share a story. I was living in Istanbul, which is the biggest city in Turkey and was also the center of the Ottoman Empire. One of the historical hamams, or public baths, in Istanbul is still a hotel and open to the public. There is a 500-year-old inscription at the entrance. It says: “If your intention and your heart is dirty, don’t expect this building to clean your heart and your intention. Go first, clean your heart and intention, then come any time to clean your body. This facility is just for your body.” Prophet Muhammad is always saying, “Go first to clean your heart and your intention.” Ramadan is a check and balance time. What about your heart, your intention, your attitudes, your actions? It is a fixing time.

Another important part of Ramadan is charity. It is obligatory that all Muslim people must give a certain amount of money to the poor. There is no obligation to poor people to share, but even the poor people try to give small amounts to their friends and students in order to contribute to society. This is called zakat.

Finally, dialogue. The Quran says,
“O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you” (The Quran 49:13).

The Quran tried to say that your race and color and understanding and geography are all different, and because of this difference there is a need to discover and to love you. This forces us to dialogue. You are coming from a different part of society. There is an opportunity for discovery. When I discover you, there is the possibility to love you.

My duty as a human being is to discover you and get to know you. Ramadan is an opportunity for Muslims to discover their neighbors, inviting them to tables and to their lifestyles. Come tonight, I would like to show my family, my lifestyle, and get you involved in my family.

What is the purpose of fasting in the Muslim tradition?

Fasting is not a new invention of Islam. Judaism and Christianity have fasting as well, but in different forms. Buddhism and Hinduism also have some kind of fasting discipline. Fasting forces me to think about the poor. In my daily life, especially in the United States, food is very cheap. You can easily go to the restaurant. But in so many other parts of the world people cannot access meat or fancy restaurants easily. This is the time to think of the poor and people in need in different areas of the world. This is the first aim.

The second aim is spiritual discipline. Fasting teaches me to wash out sinful thinking. Fasting has a power to discipline my soul as well. Especially during Ramadan I am checking myself. I am a little bit more positive. Fasting gives me a more spiritual atmosphere and I use that atmosphere to be a good person.

What is the purpose of feasting in the Muslim tradition?

Food is the center. You know, food is not a simple thing. Food is very important. I like to give an example. One of the Muslims at the time of the Prophet, 1500 years ago, asked: “Oh Muhammad, what is Islam? Could you describe the meaning of Islam?” The Prophet said easily, “Islam is offering food.” It is that simple. The whole religion is offering food.

This is a tradition of all prophets in history. Judaism, Christianity and Islam share a main ancestor in Abraham. The most important tradition of Abraham is to share food with everybody. Abraham was living in Harran, in the east of Turkey, where he had a house with four doors facing in all four directions. All passersby could see. Abraham is explaining this reality that I want to eat every meal with guests. Sharing food is part of religion.

Sharing food builds society. Every Muslim person is thinking of inviting their neighbors to their house for Ramadan. The center of society were the masjids, or mosques, and every congregation before Ramadan chose a day to contribute – everybody is invited to my mosque, to a breaking fast dinner, and I will provide all the food. This is my day and my pleasure. Unfortunately, we lost this tradition in these days. Muslim people invite just Muslim people to the mosques. I am very sorry about this reality. I tried to break this false attachment during my sermons. We are all Muslims already. We know each other. What about other faith backgrounds and other people?

Are there specific foods you associate with Ramadan? I’ve heard dates are significant…

Dates are the tradition of the Prophet Muhammad. Medina is in a desert. The desert has only one type of fruit: dates. When we start to open our fasting with dates, we are thinking that 1500 years ago Prophet Muhammad was eating this fruit. But it is not an obligatory thing.

What happens at the end of Ramadan, on Eid?

Fasting is very hard – and now we can celebrate, fasting is finished! We achieved and did a good job. For 30 days we fixed our souls. We shared our society, we shared food with others, we achieved dialogue with neighbors. And now – it is time to celebrate.

Are there any final ideas you would like to end with?

Dialogue. This is the meat of Ramadan. When we come across people, we just say, “Hi, hello, how are you?” But unfortunately, we are not passing to a deeper dialogue. We experience an invisible isolation.

A European composer said that if you tell me something, I will forget it, surely. Don’t tell me something. If you show me something, I may remember, but no guarantee. If you involve me in your lifestyle and your family, then I will understand you. Understanding is not a simple word. “I understand” is cheap talk. No, you cannot understand me without knowing me deeply and allowing me to dialogue deeply. In any normal situation we think our society works. But in a time of crisis, we need that deep dialogue.

When we achieve dialogue, we create heaven in this world. According to Jewish tradition, a rabbi asked his teachers how he would know that night is ended and day is started. His teachers gave many answers. But at the end, one answer stood out: When you see that strangers are brothers and sisters, then at that time night is ended and day is started.

Dr. Atlig at an interfaith event.

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