I would like to thank you for the invitation to be part this Iftar dinner; and I consider it a special privilege to be asked to share some reflections with you tonight. However, let me make a confession right at the outset. When a few weeks ago, your Executive Director, my good friend Shakeel Syed sent me an email, asking me to speak here this evening, I had some decidedly mixed feelings. On the one hand, I am always delighted to hear from Shakeel and interfaith gatherings are my favorite kind of events. On the other hand, Shakeel asked me to share some
'reflections on fasting from a Christian perspective.' Now, for Muslims, the question of fasting is, of course, a very natural one. After all, this is what Ramadan is all about. But for me as a Christian,
Shakeel's invitation initially caused something of a mild panic. 'Fasting? We Christians
don't do that! At least not anymore. Perhaps, there are still a few Catholics who fast from time to time, but certainly not Protestant Christians, like
myself.' So what was I going to say here tonight?
One option, I thought, would be to take you on a brief historical tour of how fasting once was a very important part of the Christian tradition. After all, Jesus himself practiced fasting and strongly recommended it to his followers. And throughout Christian history, fasting was indeed practiced by a majority of Christian communities. But to simply talk to you about the past of my tradition, would be a cop-out. Because the really interesting
- and more perplexing - question is 'how and why have so many Christians given up this discipline of
So you see, the invitation to speak here this evening proved to be quite a challenge; a challenge to ask some difficult questions of myself and my own Christian tradition. So what I would like to do is to share with you some of these internal questions with which
I've wrestled over the past several weeks.
What is the point of fasting? Over the years, I've learned that it's always best to ask people themselves why they do certain things or dress in certain ways, rather than coming up with my own imaginary answers. That way, you actually learn something - rather than just confirm what you think you already know - but really
don't. So on quite a few occasions, I've asked some of my Muslim brothers and sisters the simple question:
'Why do you fast? Why do you observe Ramadan?' I've received many interesting answers to that question, but the most thought-provoking, the one that stuck with me was:
'Fasting during Ramadan is like an annual self-check to test whether my moral brakes are still
That answer was quite an 'aha'-moment for me.' For, I have to admit, at first sight, fasting seems a rather strange practice. Why should you refuse to eat or drink when you have plenty of food in the fridge and an unlimited supply of running water from the tap in your kitchen? No other creature would even dream of fasting, right? But
that's precisely the point. All of God's other creatures behave purely based on their instincts: they eat when they are hungry, they run away when they are afraid, they fight back when they are attacked. We as human beings have these same instincts too. But among all of
God's creatures, we as human beings are the only ones who have also been given the ability to make choices which may at times go against our instincts. None of
God's other creatures has a sense of right and wrong. We human beings alone have been given the ability to make moral choices. We alone have been given the ability to stand up for what is right, even when we are threatened. We alone have been given the choice not to strike back when we are attacked. And we human beings alone have been given the ability to say no to food and drink, even though our stomach is growling and our fridge is full.
I say, 'we human beings.' But I must quickly admit, that most Americans have almost lost this ability to say
'no.' It's simply because we practice it so rarely. Ours is a society of limitless consumption. Ours is a society that worships instant gratification. Ours is a society in which each day, we are bombarded with hundreds of messages telling us that bigger is better, that what he have is not enough, that we need to consume more and more and more so that our economy will grow and grow and grow. At the same time, we have begun to realize where our conspicuous consumption, and our unbridled practice of capitalism is leading us. It is leading to the depletion of the
world's resources. It is leading to ever increasing pollution and irreversible climate change. Our insatiable appetite for consumer goods is leading to mass exploitation and poverty of billions of our fellow human beings, especially in the Global South.
And in the midst of this world of ours, each year over a billion Muslims voluntarily refrain from eating and drinking - for a whole month! What a powerful message that sends to the rest of us. In our world of global capitalism that is setting us on the path to ruin, fasting is not just a spiritual, it is also a profoundly
counter cultural and thus a political act. Fasting runs directly counter to our consumer culture and its compulsive urge to amass more and more goods
- if need be at the expense of our fellow human beings. Those who fast experience it in their own bodies that our human life is very fragile and that our needs are much more basic than we are led to believe by advertisers.
Perhaps even more importantly, fasting engenders the recognition that all we have - even and especially our life itself - is not our own achievement or possession but a blessing, a gift we receive anew each day from our creator. And that annual exercise of voluntarily letting go of some of
life's most basic needs, namely food and drink, in order to recognize them anew as the gifts of a caring and merciful God; this exercise of fasting also relaxes those hands that seek to just accumulate, and hoard, and amass, and engenders the urge to share
God's gifts with others. It is therefore no coincidence that the sharing of food at Iftar dinners during Ramadan is always such a joyful affair. Indeed, today that grateful joy and generosity is spilling over even beyond your own community to include us
'outsiders' from the interfaith community.
So what I would like to say in closing is this: You as Muslims, especially you as American Muslims, have much to teach us, the rest of American society. Please be not be defensive about your practice of fasting during Ramadan. Perhaps more than ever, American society needs your voice, your insights, your wisdom. As American Muslims, you have much to teach the rest of us Americans. Help us to re-discover our own spiritual and moral roots.
Remark at Interfaith Iftar Dinner held by Islamic Shura Council of Southern California, Anaheim - CA, Sunday, June 28, 2015
Reinhard Krauss, Ph.D. is a lecturer at UCLA Center for the Study of Religion.