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Let's go hungry together, hungry for peace
Pat Morrison, NCR contributer
On Oct. 15 (give or take a few hours, depending on one's global positioning), an estimated 1 billion people around the world will begin a month of serious faith-based fasting called Ramadan. This year make that 1 billion and 1.
Rob Davis of San Jose, Calif., will join the worldwide Muslim community in observing the strict Ramadan fast, which entails no food or beverage (including water) from sunrise to sunset for 30 days. Except Davis isn't a Muslim. He's a Mormon.
He's also the chief of police for the City of San Jose. Davis' decision to observe Ramadan didn't come out of the blue. Last year he was one of several civic officials in San Jose invited to speak to the local Muslim community. The event was an iftar dinner, a social gathering Muslims hold at the end of the day of fasting. Many Islamic communities around the country invite the non-Muslim public to join them at the breaking of the fast.
Davis felt genuinely welcomed, he said. But on the religious level he felt out of his depth. He had read up on Islam and knew its basic tenets, known as the Five Pillars (profession of faith, prayer five times a day, fasting, charity, and pilgrimage to Mecca, the religion's holiest city, once in one's lifetime). But, Davis told The Mercury News of San Jose earlier this week, he realized that when he addressed the Muslims gathered to hear him last year they had experienced something he hadn't. "They had gone hungry, and I had not."
"It just dawned on me," he said, "that if I am truly going to understand the nuances of this religion, I should join them in this fast."
For Muslims, Ramadan is the holiest month of the year and has many layers of meaning and symbolism. And individual Muslims and cultures may emphasize one aspect of Ramadan over another. For some, Ramadan is a time for believers to concentrate on the perennial struggle against human nature's baser tendencies and, by abstinence, to clear and purify one's attentiveness to God. Ramadan undertaken for God alone, Muslims believe, ensures the pardon of their sins (not in the sense of atonement or penance through personal suffering, but through God's mercy.) It is also a time for Muslims, both individually and as a community, to enter into deeper communion with God -- special prayers for each day of Ramadan help facilitate that aspect. Going hungry for a month also enables Muslims to identify with the hunger and deprivation the poor and needy experience on a regular basis.
In addition, Ramadan is commemorative, recalling two great events: the beginning of the divine revelation of the Quran, Islam's holy scripture, to Muhammad, and the prophet's military victory at Badr, which was decisive in unifying and strengthening the fledgling community in its new religion.
Observing Ramadan is a way of surrendering to the will of Allah -- the core meaning of Islam. A few years ago I asked a Muslim cab driver in New York if it wasn't difficult to go without food or even water -- and what's worse, for some, a cigarette -- for an entire work day? He shrugged. "A little bit, I guess. But we do it for God." That basic motivation -- observing the fast because it pleases God -- is easily grasped even by children and those believers without sophisticated theological background. Ramadan helps a Muslim deepen his or her relationship with the Creator, and that's sufficient.
Many progressive Muslims, especially in the United States, also see the Ramadan fast as a way of coming to deeper inner peace through one's relationship with God -- a peace that then overflows into the entire umma, or Muslim community, and beyond that to the planet. Each day of Ramadan, "I ask God to make me a peaceful person, to make my children lovers of peace," a Muslim friend of mine shared, "and I ask him to bring peace to the whole world. I show him, with my body, that I am hungry for peace."
Fasting is an ascetical practice that all the world's great religions practice. As Rob Davis will discover, observing Ramadan can provide a lived experience in common with a huge portion of humanity, and at the same time offer insight into, as he said, "the nuances" of their great faith tradition.
But joining in the Ramadan fast, even an "abridged" version of it, can also be a powerful means for people of all faith traditions to unite on behalf of peace -- at a time when our fractured, battered world is so greatly in need of it. This month a billion Muslims are fasting in the name of "the Compassionate and Merciful" One. We their friends and neighbors have nothing to lose -- and a lot to gain -- by joining them.
Let's go hungry together, hungry for peace. As all the People of the Book agree: God fills the hungry with good things.
Make that 1 billion and 2. Pat Morrison is also observing Ramadan. She writes from Bradford, Vt.
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