08/15/2011 10:14 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Interfaith Voices From The Next Generation

My friend Eboo Patel recently organized a meeting at the White House aimed at encouraging college students to dedicate themselves to interfaith understanding and cooperation. Given that it is the Muslim Holy month of Ramadan, Eboo and I invited students from around the country to write essays about Ramadan and interfaith engagement.

Out of the many excellent essays, the three below reflect an especially thoughtful and spiritual approach to the inter-faith project and its relevancy for personal religious practice and the promotion of a peaceful pluralistic world.

May you be blessed as I have been by these fine essays by Nayab, Nicolas, and Saadia -- just a few of America's next generation of inter-faith inspired religious leaders.

Paul Brandeis Raushenbush
Senior Religion Editor
The Huffington Post

Food for Thought: An Interfaith Ramadan

By Nayab Mahmood
Cornell University student, IFYC interfaith leader

"You can't eat for an entire month? How do you survive? You can't drink water either? What about gum?" These are the questions that I, as a Muslim observing the holy month of Ramadan, have to face when telling people why I'm not eating any lunch. Rather than be bothered by the lack of knowledge, though, I try and take these opportunities to teach someone something about Islam that he or she did not previously know.

Ramadan is one of the most sacred times of the year for Muslims, when we make a promise to God that we will go sunrise to sunset without consuming any food or water. It is a time where we work on our religious conviction, our piety and our moral character. Being one of the five pillars of Islam, fasting teaches us patience and self-discipline, and makes us more charitable and empathetic toward those in this world who have no food with which to break their fast.

One of the most important things Ramadan does is strengthen relationships, not only within the Muslim community but also within an interfaith one. Many great relationships start at the dinner table, and food is the means through which people come together. Every night, Muslims all over the world come together with their family and friends to break their fast at iftar time. I say we tap into this tradition; I propose that we should use Ramadan as a means to promote interfaith dialogue and discussion.

Every year, my family holds an iftar at our house for our friends in town. I had a few non-Muslim friends at school who were very interested in what Ramadan was, so I invited them to attend our iftar and see things firsthand. They came to my house, wore my traditional Pakistani outfits, observed us praying and joined us in the joyous occasion of breaking our fast with an array of delicious foods. It was a night of complete cultural immersion, and they were able to see and understand this aspect of my faith. We talked afterward, and my Hindu friend told me about different fasts in her religion, while my Jewish and Catholic friends talked about how they want to help those who are forced to fast everyday because they have no sustenance. The kind of experience that we had at my household that year was one that should be felt all over the globe.

It would be incredible to see if, at sunset, all over the world, Muslims invited Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Pagans and secular individuals to come and share in their meal. Many people do not understand the meaning of Ramadan, in much the same way they don't understand Ash Wednesday, Yom Kippur or the Baha'i month of Ala. Fasting is a common theme across many faith backgrounds, and what better time to discuss religious similarities than during Ramadan? We should take this opportunity and transform it into a means for promoting interfaith cooperation. We can talk about the similarities in our beliefs and remark upon the differences.

In a time when the world is overrun by hatred and ignorance, the need for interfaith collaboration is the greatest. People of all faith and non-faith backgrounds need to support one another and respect each other's beliefs. Together, we can show the world how religion is not a vehicle for violence; rather, it can be used to bring people from all walks of life together, to celebrate diversity and shared beliefs. I call upon all of you to see how you can utilize this time in the Islamic calendar to further the voice of interfaith dialogue. Everyone, in every community, should hold an iftar open to the general public and use it to talk and meet those with backgrounds different from your own. Let's utilize this opportunity to further the message that respect and understanding can prevail.

Why I Stopped Observing Ramadan: A Unitarian Universalist's Journey Toward Spiritual Practice

By Nicolas Cable
Chicago Theological Seminary student, IFYC interfaith leader

During Ramadan, Muslims around the world fast as a prescribed spiritual practice of their faith tradition. Last year, as part of my ongoing spiritual journey, I chose to participate in Ramadan. This year I decided to follow the practice again because of the powerful impact it had on me. Only this year, something felt unnatural. So, on Sunday night, I decided to stop my observance of Ramadan. But why? What changed?

Ramadan profoundly changed me last year. It has been one of the most powerful spiritual experiences in my life. It taught me about the relationship between food and spirituality and it gave me the tools to eat more ethically and compassionately. The experience also gave me a greater reverence for the mystery and beauty of the divine.

I recall posting updates on Facebook of how I was feeling physically, emotionally, but, most often, spiritually. I went to several iftars with friends, breaking my fast with strangers and loved ones in an act of spiritual exultation. However, most memorable were my nights alone at home, when I silently ate a date and drank some water as the sun finally slid beyond the horizon.

When Ramadan ended, I began to advocate for more conscious eating, as I published an article about my non-Muslim experience with Ramadan at school. I made a decision to become vegan for a New Year's resolution. I am more in tune with my body and my soul and the Spirit of Life today than I have ever been.

On July 31, I preached a sermon on ethical eating as a spiritual practice at a Unitarian Universalist church in Mequon, Wis. The response was very welcoming and I could tell people wanted to engage more spiritually with the food and drink they consumed. When I got home that night, I realized I had forgotten that Ramadan started the next morning. I decided I wanted to participate again this year.

However, something felt uncomfortable for me this time. I don't think it was that I couldn't handle the physical strain of fasting; I think it had to do with the realization that my faith tradition has no spiritual practice that is as defined as this example from Islam. Unitarian Universalism is a tradition of religious freedom, as it advocates for a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. As a non-doctrinal tradition, our spiritual practice could be summarized as the complete opposite of Islam in regards to practical prescription. UUs engage with their spiritualities in different ways, including prayer, meditation, hiking and journaling. Ramadan this year gave me a new sense of longing for greater prescription for spiritual practice in my faith tradition. I wrote in my sermon on eating as a spiritual practice:

I wonder whether there are potential thorns that can grow from this spiritual rose of freedom, if we do not address certain areas where perhaps we could walk more in unison along our spiritual paths. I suggest this not as a hope to transform our faith tradition into something that it is not. ... All I wish is for us to simply consider how spiritual practice can become at times a more communal, public expression of the love we share so readily in this space on Sunday mornings.

I appreciate Islam as a beautiful religious tradition that has shaped so much of the world we live in today. But I am not a Muslim; I am a Unitarian Universalist. I want to see how we as UUs can approach this tightrope walk of religious practice and freedom in the 21st century. I think it is not only possible, but also quite necessary for us to grapple with this tension as a religious people. I think in doing so, we can cultivate a set of spiritual practices that are as liberating and meaningful as our diverse theologies. We define our movement as a progressive one. My hope is that we can progress in a way that allows us to maintain a sense of reverence, community and engagement with the world.

This year, while I am no longer participating in Ramadan, my spiritual practice will be to continue a conversation with Unitarian Universalists who may long for a more consistent and structured practice with engaging with the spirit of life and love. Ramadan is about reawakening to the beauty of life and to the greatest mysteries of the universe. I have never been more awake.

My Jihad

By Saadia Ahmad
Providence College student, IFYC interfaith leader

Ramadan, the holy month of the Islamic calendar in which Muslims abstain from food, drink and sexual activity from sunrise to sunset, as well as control negative thoughts and emotions, is a time when one actively purifies and nourishes the heart, body, mind and soul through willful deprivation, steadfast prayer and critical self-reflection. I see it as one more blessing granted by God to bring myself into a state of mind beyond that of my current lifestyle, to achieve greater patience, and to lessen the negativity present within myself and our world.

Such a peaceful state of mind is especially imperative in the midst of what I call round two of the "summer of Islamophobia." The Ground Zero Mosque served as the target for the media and politicians last year, while this season's focus includes proposals for anti-sharia laws across the nation and demeaning slander from politicians like Peter King and Herman Cain. Both time periods made it vividly clear to me that, with the tremendous amount of support Muslims receive, there also exist those who resist our presence and involvement within our country.

But I find God's providence in the proximity in time between this year's Ramadan and the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. As a nation, we all stand witness to the pain of loss and helplessness experienced by so many. I honor and pray for those who have suffered and continue to suffer as a result of the actions of those who merely claim to be following God's word in their pursuit of senseless, sickening acts of hate. In doing so, however, I cannot and will not agree with venting such emotions toward any group. Allowing this oppression to occur and watching such isolating barriers form would entrap us into accomplishing the goals set forth by extremists, and as an American and as a Muslim, I cannot allow such groups to destroy our freedoms in fear.

But unlike last year, during which I silently seethed in anger and felt helpless to change the image of Islam, I seek to enter this school year with a mind and soul connected to God in order to sustain and guide me through my sophomore year at Providence College, a small, Catholic institution in Rhode Island. Though I have grown to love the school immensely and passionately for its academics, student life, and caring and supportive individuals across campus, PC struggles with embracing and supporting different forms of diversity. While the focus leans toward race and ethnicity, my hope is to pursue initiatives more focused on religious diversity.

Interfaith dialogue has just recently developed as a strong interest for me due to my experiences here. My own conscious decision of immersion into a different religion has helped me understand the extent to which grave misunderstandings and painful grudges exist with great prominence in our world today. As someone who benefits immensely from both Islam and Catholicism, it is saddening and frustrating to see such miscommunication when instead there is such overwhelming opportunity for personal and community-wide growth. It serves as my personal motivation to pursue a positive, active role in spreading truth and eliminating prejudice and violence. As a student, the best audience within my reach at the present time is my college community.

I have spent this summer preparing myself for the upcoming semester, in which I hope to establish an interfaith dialogue and action group to allow others the opportunity to benefit spiritually and intellectually from exposure to diverse faith and non-faith traditions. From there, the goal is to dedicate ourselves to various social justice causes, united in diversity, as is the mission of the Interfaith Youth Core's "Better Together" campaign and President Barack Obama's Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge. Through extensive research of present groups and programs, comparison to similar schools, and interactions with various faith leaders through my intern position at the Council on American-Islamic Relations in New York, I enter the final stage of self-preparation in this holy month. Every sensation of weakness that pulses through my body, every weary breath I take, every urge to alleviate these temporary bodily discomforts, poses an obstacle to overcome that tests and ultimately strengthens my patience, endurance and self-control, inshAllah (Arabic for "God-willing).

If I fear any kind of misunderstanding or misinterpretation, or even those words and actions that do intentionally seek to harm, I contribute to the power of fear. Regardless of any inclination I may have to feel fearful of upcoming challenges, I will not give in to it. That is my jihad.