It all started with an invitation to Friday night iftar at the home of a Muslim friend. Iftar is the evening meal that breaks the daily Ramadan fast for observing Muslims. I felt that full participation in iftar could happen only if I fasted during the day on Friday, which I did. Then, late Friday night, I was invited by another Muslim friend to Saturday evening’s iftar at our local Islamic Center, so I fasted again. The result was a 48-hour period that, quite literally, was the most moving interfaith experience I’ve ever had. Here’s my account of my amazing Ramadan weekend.
Several people knew I was planning to fast last Friday during the day. Some were Muslims who regularly observe Ramadan. Others were friends who have fasted on their own for various reasons in the past. In a flashback to the days when I was pregnant, everyone had a piece of advice to offer – eat lots of protein, drink lots of water, eat a big meal for suhoor, eat only a small snack for suhoor. Obviously, I was just going to have to guess.
Suhoor is the predawn meal eaten by those observing Ramadan. Last Friday, dawn began at 4:53AM. I set my alarm for 4:30, but I didn’t sleep well the night before, so I woke up at 4:00 anyway. I had a protein shake (good choice) and a bit of orange juice (not a great choice) and took my vitamins. Then I went back to sleep – sort of. I got up at 6:45 to get my kids off to camp. I felt like crap. Every part of my body screamed that it was not going to be a fun day.
My work day was intentionally unscheduled. I had tasks to accomplish but nothing too pressing or difficult. I struggled along. I had a headache in the morning from caffeine withdrawal, and I was exhausted. Frankly, the early afternoon – from about 1-3PM – is a total blur. I was sitting at my desk in front of my computer, but I honestly couldn’t tell you what I did. Eventually, my work day ended – more with a whimper than with a bang – and it was time to pick up my kids from camp.
My teenaged daughter decided to fast and attend Friday night iftar, as well. She ate breakfast and took a bottle of water with her to camp but vowed to avoid eating until sunset, which was at 8:48PM. When I picked her up, I immediately asked how it went. She said that it went pretty well, but she kept forgetting that she was fasting. As the group picked berries, she found herself with a mouthful that she immediately spit out. Later, they played a game where the prize for the winners was a treat. She accidentally ate two of them. Then, it was time to bake cinnamon bread, a Friday afternoon tradition at this particular camp. By now, the little girls she was in charge of knew she was fasting, so they made sure she didn’t inadvertently eat any dough.
All our Muslim friends were so kind and supportive of our efforts. They were quick to tell us both that if you eat/drink something during daylight hours, but it’s unintentional, then it’s OK. It was the first of many Ramadan lessons. I did take a nap in the late afternoon, and then we dressed for iftar. These particular friends are Shia, and he grew up in Iran. Their tradition is to break fast with warm water, dates, and a few other snacks. Everything was delicious, but frankly, I might have eaten anything at that point.
Then, we prayed. The prayer mats were placed next to one another, touching; the women donned prayer shawls. The head of the household led the prayers, the men prayed behind him, and the women were behind the men. It was a follow-the-leader sort of thing, especially since it was all in Arabic, but as far as unfamiliar rituals go, it was pretty straight-forward. We each shared an extemporaneous prayer, in English, from our hearts. My daughter, a true lover of ritual, was moved to tears.
After prayers, it was time to eat! I mean, really eat. Soups, beets, salad, rice, chicken, and watermelon. We ate and talked and laughed and told cat stories and shared various traveling adventures. It was a delicious meal shared with new friends who are slowly, but surely, becoming good friends. Another mutual friend showed up around 11PM. She had been at the mosque but wanted to stop by. It felt like New Year’s Eve with all these people up and out in the middle of the night! My daughter and I got home around 12:30AM. We were exhausted. I had been invited to iftar at the mosque on Saturday night, but I was way too tired to even think about whether or not I could fast the next day. Fasting or not, there would be no getting up at 4:30AM for suhoor. Of that, I was sure.
I woke up at 7:30AM to walk our dog. It was a lovely, cool summer morning in the mountains. There were no cars on the roads, and the air was fresh. I felt great! Fasting today was going to be no problem. I could tell already.
I enjoyed a normal Saturday, full of cooking, cleaning, and errands. I was around food a lot. I made several meals for my kids as well as a dish for Sunday dinner, but I felt totally at peace with fasting. Occasionally, I would feel a pang of hunger, but the pangs simply made me feel more connected with my Muslim friends and with everyone around the world who was fasting with me. I became acutely aware of all the things I put in my mouth without even thinking about them. Normally, I take the foil top off my son’s yogurt, lick the lid, and throw it away. But not today. Any other day, I might take several sips of juice as I walk by the glass sitting on the counter. But not today. Usually, I think nothing of grabbing a few chips out of the bag as my daughter dips them into her salsa. But not today. In general, I try very hard to appreciate my food – to remember from whence it comes and to pause for a moment in gratitude – but I’m much better about that when I’m eating a meal. All the other stuff I eat and drink during the day? I’m barely aware of it at all. Yet another Ramadan lesson.
Evening fell, and I was still feeling good, physically and mentally, as I picked up my friend and headed to the mosque. Well, she calls it a mosque because this is where she worships and prays. Technically, however, it’s an Islamic Center. As it was explained to me, this it because it doesn’t have a dome or minarets. As I pulled into the parking lot, I saw women exiting their vehicles with pans of food, kids playing on the swing set, and a gaggle of men standing around talking. Honestly, I could have been pulling up to any Protestant church in America. The Center is basically a big rectangle with two entrances on one of the short ends. The first entrance is for women. The second entrance is for men. Each side has a bathroom and cubbies for shoes. The kitchen lies in between.
I immediately scanned the clothing situation since it was one of my concerns. Some women wore beautiful Muslim prayer outfits bought in larger U.S. cities or online or in their home countries. Most of these outfits consisted of long pants with lovely embroidered tunics over them. Other women wore long skirts with light-weight long-sleeved shirts. I had worn long pants, a shirt, and a long-sleeved light-weight sweater. My friend assured me that I was not required to wear a head-covering, but every single women (and many of the girls) had their heads covered, so I decided I would be more comfortable with my head covered, too. Luckily, I had remembered to bring a shawl. There was also variability in what the men wore. Some of them wore jeans and t-shirts, some wore dressier pants and shirts, and still others wore more traditional Muslim pants and tunics. Some, but not all, also wore Muslim prayer caps.
Sartorial choices aside, the place felt like a regular “church party,” as everyone bustled about. We broke fast, briefly, with something to drink and dates. Then, just as we had done the night before, we prayed. The entire floor was considered to be a prayer mat, so we simply stood, shoulder to shoulder, and followed the leader. The leader, in this case, was an imam, hired by the mosque for the month of Ramadan. Originally from Egypt, he now lives in Connecticut. The imam was in the front of the room, and the men were behind him. The women were separated by those temporary folding doors seen in nearly every church basement in America. Where the two folding doors came together, a deliberate space was created that allowed us to hear a bit better. The prayers, like the previous night, mostly consisted of prostrations led in Arabic. I didn’t quite have the rhythm of it yet, but it was manageable.
Then, it was time to eat! The folding doors were separated and the long food line was placed between the men’s area and the women’s area. The members from Pakistan were in charge of food that night, so we ate our fill of rice, beef, chicken, salads, soups, and garbanzo beans, all laced with cardamom, turmeric, cloves, and cumin. The kids (and a few adults) ate pizza, and we all enjoyed rice pudding and fruit for dessert. The women chatted about their kids, their fasting experiences, and how delicious the food was. Everyone was gracious, welcoming, and very appreciative that I had made the effort to fast – from both food and drink – for two days.
Based on my experience the night before, I thought that was it. In reality, we were just getting started. The Sunni tradition is to pray and listen to the Qur’an after the meal – for about 2 hours! The last of the five daily prayers, isha, is at about 10:10PM right now. The folding doors were once again brought together (except for the little opening), and all the women lined up, shoulder to shoulder. We prayed as we had before. Then, we stood, arms crossed in front of us, as the imam recited from the Qur’an. Note that I used the word “recited.” He was not reading from the Qur’an, as Christian ministers do from the Bible, because he has the Qur’an memorized. After the recitation, there were more prayers, followed by a brief break.
A few minutes later, the entire ritual was repeated: prayers, Qur’an recitation, more prayers. After this second set, there was a brief teaching. The imam, in English, explained what he was reciting. It happened to be the story of Mary giving birth to Jesus from the sura titled Maryam. I’ve actually read that sura and the background account in the Tales of the Prophets several times, so I felt quite at home. When the teaching ended, we repeated the ritual two more times: prayers, Qur’an recitation, prayers, break, prayers, Qur’an recitation, prayers. Amazingly, I started to find my rhythm. I can’t quite say that I understood the Arabic, but somehow, I started to figure out what I needed to do when. I was no longer following the women around me; I was a part of them.
It was now after midnight, but we weren’t quite finished. The final piece of the evening was the du’a, a profound moment in Muslim worship when one expresses devotion to Allah and/or makes requests for things related to one’s faith or one’s life. Christians would recognize this time as a final prayer. In fact, many of the “rules” regarding du’a are similar to those for Christian prayer – you should offer du’a only to Allah, you should be patient in Allah’s response, requests should be from the heart and pure in intention, and du’a can be offered at any time. The imam offered a beautiful, poetic du’a. The rhythm of the Arabic and the sacredness of the moment washed over me. I felt both completely at peace and completely at home.
And then it was over. Once again, I arrived home at about 12:30 in the morning. My head was spinning. Was that from fasting for two days? Was I simply tired? Was I still a bit dehydrated? Was my mind just frantically trying to process all the new experiences I was having? I quickly recounted everything that had happened. I had refrained from both eating and drinking for two days in a row, which I have never done before. I had shared a private iftar with Muslim friends. I had shared food and companionship with all sorts of lovely women at the mosque, thanks to the generosity of yet another Muslim friend. And I was learning how to pray in yet another tradition. But none of that quite captured how I was feeling. I lay in bed and let my body relax. Maybe, just maybe, I thought to myself before rolling over and falling fast asleep, some of those walls that separate me from all that is divine, had crumbled just a bit.