It was a wonderful month. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I was out most nights. I met lots of old friends. I made new friends. We shared meals. We had a great time. But we didn’t drink any wine!
What am I talking about? Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, prayer and almsgiving. Muslims fast from dawn to dusk – no food, no drink, no arguing, no swearing, no sexual activity. As the sun sets in the evening, they gather with family and friends for the iftar meal (literally, “breaking” the fast). I am a Catholic priest. I am not a Muslim. What has Ramadan to do with me? And why did I enjoy it so much?
I first hosted an iftar meal at the Columban house in Lahore, Pakistan in the nineties. I invited our Muslim neighbours. The old man from the house across the road came in his dressing gown. It was a wonderful sign of his feeling ‘at home’ with us. He told us it was his birthday, so we sang “Happy Birthday!” to him. We shared fruit. We chatted. They told us that they should have invited us: “We are Muslims; you are Christians; it is our duty to invite you” .… and the next week they did, first this house, then that, down the street. It was the first time we had been inside each other’s houses. We became neighbours, in the proper sense of the word, not just living in geographical proximity, but being neighbourly towards each other, becoming friends.
I am delighted that Ramadan has become a major interfaith occasion around the world. It is certainly true where I now live in Sydney. Beside the family and neighbourhood gatherings, Muslim community organizations host iftar meals. Mosques host iftar meals. Corporate bodies host iftar meals. The NSW Parliament hosts an iftar meal. The Premier hosts an iftar meal. This year, for the first time, the Prime Minister hosted an iftar meal! The Catholic Archbishop hosts an iftar meal. Other churches hosts iftar meals. Often believers from other faiths are invited. Some are huge public events catering to hundreds. Others are for selected civic, religious and interfaith leaders. Some are in private homes. Some provide meals for refugees, detainees, the homeless and the needy. Ramadan is a wave of Muslim generosity reaching out to the wider society.
I have been invited to these iftar meals for many years. I am no longer a stranger to my hosts, nor they to me. Now we are meeting as friends, so Ramadan has become a wonderful social time. I am touched by the warmth and friendliness of my Muslim hosts. When I thanked them they insisted that it was they who should be thanking me for honoring them with my visit. I am astonished by their hospitality and generosity – literally thousands of guests are being fed every night. At one such event over 700 people were treated to a three course meal. But when I looked around the room I noted that I was the only Christian clergyman present. This saddened me as it indicated that the local Christian and Muslim communities were not in touch with each other. Priests and Imams who are busy meeting the needs of their own communities also need to reach out to each other. Hosting and being invited for an iftar meal are great ways to build those local community relations. Being invited into a home to share an iftar meal with a family is a special privilege.
Ramadan is not just about fasting and feasting. It is also a time of spiritual devotion, of extra time spent in prayer and reading scripture. My daily intercession in the Eucharist was, “Let us pray for our Muslim sisters and brothers, that by the physical discipline of their fasting, the spiritual devotion of their hearts, and the generosity of their alms-giving, they may find grace and favour in God’s eyes”.
The extraordinary generosity and hospitality of Muslims during Ramadan is all the more astonishing given the constant barrage of negative media reporting they suffer. To counter this negative media stereotype, I wish that more and more people could experience the goodness, warmth, friendliness, generosity and welcome of Muslim hosts that has been my privilege in the past month.
…. and yes, I too fasted during the thirty days of Ramadan, as a gesture of Christian solidarity with Muslims, so that for me the evening meal was truly an iftar – a breaking of my fast! And now I am also truly joining in the celebration of Eid al-Fitr, the feast which marks the end of the month of fasting! Eid Mubarak! A blessed feast to all!!