By Jon Pahl, Ph.D.
Ramadan--the Muslim month of fasting, changed my life. Not because of any holiness on my part.
As a Christian the closest I come to a day-long fast is to give up chocolate for Lent. Instead, it was during Ramadan in 2006 that I was invited to an “iftar” dinner at a Philadelphia hotel.
Iftar is the sunset meal that Muslims celebrate to break their day-long abstinence from food and drink. I was invited by people inspired by Fethullah Gülen--the Muslim preacher and scholar who has
inspired a global movement called “Hizmet,” which means “service” in Turkish. Now, 16 years later, I look back and realize that that Iftar changed my life for the better in countless ways.
From the outside, the month of Ramadan seems austere. Most Muslims wake up very early, have a light meal before sunrise, and then do not eat or drink again until sunset.
It does not sound like fun. It does require planning and discipline.
But Fethullah Gülen writes about feeling joy during the month--not wanting it to end.
“Throughout Ramadan a sacred excitement,” he writes, “can be sensed in the air. Dawn brings new light and promise ... evenings loom on the horizon, with their divinely arrayed colors, nights enveloped in a mystery of silence; they whisper to us of a private meeting with the Absolute Beloved.”
In other words, while Christians celebrate the 40 days of Lent to awaken in new ways to the love of God, Muslims find the same possibility in the month of Ramadan.
Usually, the first thing Muslims eat to break the fast is a date. That sweet morsel is even sweeter after a day of deprivation. And that taste is a moment-in-time for how God wants people to feel always. God desires us to appreciate the ordinary gifts of life, with every breath, every movement, every sip of life-giving water.
That appreciation can also awaken us to the suffering of others. Acts of compassion are common during Ramadan. Some Muslim families host different guests in their homes every night for a month--a dinner party every evening. Gülen encourages the practice: “Believers,” he writes, “should
invite their neighbors to a fast-breaking dinner, no matter what their philosophy of life is.” Through Ramadan, strangers, perhaps even enemies, can become friends.
Imagine, for instance, how different South Africa might be if for an entire month each family invited a different family every night to share a meal with them. Co-workers, neighbours, random passers-by sit down over a meal to share food, conversation, their lives! Such hospitality can transform a town, neighbourhood, community, nation.
So, Ramadan is about making new friends, as much as it is about giving up food for a few hours. But it is ultimately about finding peace. In a world torn by conflict, the simple act of refraining from eating from sundown to sunset, and then breaking the fast in the company of others, has the capacity to foster an awareness of life that recognizes its value, and doesn’t take it for granted.
As I traveled the world doing research for my book Fethullah Gülen: A Life of Hizmet, the first critical biography in English of this profound thinker and activist, I discovered in the community he inspired an attractive and enviable sense of what Gülen calls (in Arabic) rida. Rida is the root of the word “resignation,” and that is how the word is usually translated. But a better way to understand the concept--which is important in the Sufi (spiritual) strain of Islamic thought, is to live with an attitude of gratitude.
That is, an individual living by rida accepts whatever God provides, gratefully.
And for people inspired by Gülen, what they have had to accept in recent years would test
anyone’s faith. Following a series of changes in the Turkish government, they have been labelled “terrorists;” an example of an Orwellian “big lie” if there ever was one. Many have had to flee the country. Some have died in prison. All have suffered.
And yet, they continue to sponsor iftar dinners all over the world: in Tirana, Albania; Sydney, Australia; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Jakarta, Indonesia; Nairobi, Kenya; Abuja, Nigeria; Toronto, Canada; and Cleveland, USA--among hundreds of others.
Such resilience is also a fruit of Ramadan. To exercise restraint is to learn delayed gratification.
And delayed gratification opens the doors to deepened wisdom and ability.
I have made thousands of friends around the world since that first iftar dinner. I have learned more about life, myself, and the contingencies of history through my research than from any other project I have undertaken. And I have discovered that no matter what happens, we can go through life with a well of deep peace to draw from in any circumstance.
That capacity to grow peace within, and peace without, is at the heart of Ramadan for people of Hizmet and Fethullah Gülen.
He writes: “Ramadan reconditions souls, fosters sound hearts ... For this reason, [even through] adversities, if we give our willpower its due and manage to open our heart to [Ramadan] ... then it will cuddle us and shower us with blessings. Anger, violence, and rages will cease, and an atmosphere of peace and reconciliation will prevail.”
May it be so. It has been so in my life, from that one iftar to the present--even though I don’t give up anything more than chocolate.
*Jon Pahl is the Peter Paul and Elizabeth Hagan Professor of the History of Christianity at United Lutheran Seminary, in Philadelphia/Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, USA. He wrote Fethullah Gülen: A Life of Hizmet-- Why A Muslim Scholar in Pennsylvania Matters to the World.