Imam Khalid Latif is blogging his reflections during the month of Ramadan for the third year in a row, featured daily on HuffPost Religion. For a complete record of his previous posts, click over to the Islamic Center at New York University or visit his author page, and to follow along with the rest of his reflections, sign up for an author email alert above, visit his Facebook page or follow him on Twitter.
It's remarkable how many people who are not Muslim fast during the month of Ramadan. At our Islamic Center at NYU, we regularly have people break fast with us at our nightly dinners who are trying it out even though they are of others faiths or, at times, no faith at all.
What would compel someone to fast the month of Ramadan if they are not Muslim? Our fast entails giving up food, drink, and sexual activity from dawn until sunset. Lists of reasons behind this can be made and many who try it for a day, a week, or even the entire month agree that they find spiritual rest and benefit in observing the fast, breaking it with a community, and spending time in prayer with others. My thoughts are more focused though on why they would do it in the first place. Especially since they have never experienced any of the benefits of fasting because they had never fasted a Ramadan fast before.
The primary conclusion that my mind takes me to is that Muslims enjoy fasting, and those who see us fast observe that enjoyment and want to try it out. It might seem like a simplistic notion, but when you really break it down, if I see you doing something and can see that you love doing it, it's going to incline me towards doing it as well.
I don't support the idea that every person needs to bear the burden of representing their entire community to the rest of the world. I just don't think it's fair and I find it unreasonable. We all have names and narratives to go along with those names. Each one us doesn't have to get lost in the mix and suddenly have to set the standard for the understanding of 1.5 billion people. But in the way we have conveyed our fasting and normalized it as a practice to many people who have misunderstandings about our faith, at least in the United States, so too we can normalize other aspects of our faith by first building a similar relationship to them for ourselves. Each one us can teach someone and it doesn't have to be burdensome.
Your friend who is fasting Ramadan is probably fasting in large part because they have seen you fast, not because they saw me or anyone else fast. They experienced your eagerness leading up to the month and the excitement that carries you through it. The constant messaging that comes is uplifting and invigorating. You not only speak of the change Ramadan brings to you but you actually embody that change by believing yourself that the fast is something that is beneficial, even if its only for the month. Your demeanor, your body language, and how you carry yourself changes. And the people around you see this and find it so attractive, they actually fast as well. That's amazing. Can you imagine what would happen if Muslims on a grassroots level felt empowered enough to do that with other parts of our faith?
Our holidays, the Eids, tend to not be as celebratory as we could make it. Some know that we perform Hajj, but not as deeply as they could as it is something that we leave until we're too old to perform it. We're definitely not approaching our daily prayers as a spiritually invigorating practice but are content praying in a classroom, office, or dressing room of a department store, if in fact we pray at all. There is no strategy or mindfulness in financially empowering our community through our Zakat and other charitable giving. But if we started to approach these things the same way we do as our fasting, not all but many would start to understand a little bit more about us.
Muslims spend a lot of time saying what we aren't. I'm not violent. I'm not a terrorist. I'm not oppressive to my women. But not too many of focus on saying what we are. And in turn people take their precedent from wherever they can and that usually ends up being a source that paints us to be something that we're not.
Every major media outlet has a pictorial essay up on Ramadan. The whole world knows that we fast. They don't really know so much else about us. If we want the rhetoric around our faith to change, we have to start approaching how we are living it and talking about it differently. By no means does this have to be done in pursuit of proselytizing. The goal is to just educate. And all of us can play a part in that process.
If you are fasting this Ramadan and looking for a place to break your fast, whether you are Muslim or not, we would love to have you join us at our Islamic Center at NYU. We have dinners every weeknight and you can find more info on them at www.nycramadan.com.