By Das K, New Age Islam
05 August, 2014
It was wonderful—that little bit of interfaith sharing the other day. A couple of dozen people—Sunni and Shia Muslims, Protestant and Catholic Christians, Hindus of various castes, and others, like myself, who want to love all religions but don’t subscribe to just one—got together at our institute (a Christian centre for interfaith dialogue and harmony) to celebrate the Muslim festival of Eid ul-Fitr, marking the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramzan. After a couple of routine speeches, a German man—an ordained pastor of the Protestant Church—and his wife stood up to share their impressions of Ramzan. They were on a visit to India and had spent the last two months at our centre.
“I’d never have thought that one could stay without food and water for 15 hours, and that too day after day, for a whole month!” the pastor began. He had made some Muslim acquaintances in our town and had been deeply impressed by their commitment to their faith. He had seen how devotedly they had fasted, and with what dedication they had said their prayers five times or more that entire month of Ramzan. “It’s really such a wonderful learning experience for us. It’s all so new!”
Some years ago, the pastor continued, he was on a visit to India along with some other Europeans. “It was the month of Ramzan, and a person in our group asked a Muslim man who was fasting a very typically European question.” He wanted to know what benefit the man derived from fasting.
“You see,” the pastor explained, somewhat embarrassed, for our benefit, “many Europeans want to know what personal benefit they can derive from anything they are asked to do before they decide whether to do it or not.”
The Muslim man’s reply had deeply moved the pastor. He answered, “Your question is wrong”, he said. “We don’t fast thinking of what benefit it may bring us. We fast because God has commanded us to.”
The pastor thought the reply was wonderful. I thought the same, and I’m sure you do, too!
The pastor’s wife—also a Christian theologian—was equally impressed by the piety of many Muslims she had met while in our town during Ramzan. She had never seen anything like that before—so many people fasting and for such a length of time every day. A little more than half of the German population, she explained, claimed to follow one or the other form of Christianity, but not all of them practiced Christian rituals. Certainly, fasting of the sort she had witnessed for the first time in her life, in our town that Ramzan, was something few Germans ever did.
The pastor’s wife spoke about the importance of fasting in terms of abstaining from things we crave for. To encourage such abstinence among Christians, she explained, some years ago a group of German Protestants had launched what is called the ‘Seven Weeks Without’ campaign. The initiative encourages believers to abstain for a period of just under two months every year before Easter from one thing that they are attached to: it could be meat or alcohol or the mobile phone. In just a few decades, active involvement in the movement has grown from just a few dozen activists to more than 3 million people.
True, this initiative may not seem as demanding as the Muslim fast during Ramzan but it was certainly a wonderful way to promote abstinence.
One could hear murmurs of approval among the audience. And when the couple’s little daughter—she must have hardly been ten—spoke about how, as part of the annual ‘Seven Weeks Without’ campaign, she abstained from sweets for seven weeks one year and from playing with toys in another, it really touched our hearts!
That short interfaith encounter was a wonderful learning experience for me—and, I hope, for everyone else present on the occasion that day. It’s one thing to sing the praises of one’s ‘own’ religion—many of us habitually do that—but it’s quite another for someone from one faith tradition to speak about the goodness that he or she discovers in another faith and its followers, as the German family did that evening. In their case, spending time with and befriending Muslims in our town had given them probably their first ever chance to observe Muslims as real people beyond stereotypical images, and to learn to appreciate the goodness that they were able to discern in their practice of their faith. The Muslims in the audience must certainly have appreciated their generous gesture of admiration. In turn, their sharing about their German Christian practice of abstinence must certainly have touched many hearts, too.
Listening to people from diverse religious traditions sharing about their practice of abstinence—from food and water, in the Muslim case, and from mobile phones and alcohol or sweets in the German Christian case—it struck me that the nature of the phenomenon behind the different forms that the practice of abstinence assumes in different traditions is actually quite the same. And it isn’t just this one practice that’s common between most religions. They share much more than that: remembrance of God, prayer, pilgrimage, service and charity, for instance. As in the case of abstinence, the forms these practices assume differ in the different religions, but the purpose and significance of these practices are similar, if not identical, in all religions: seeking to help us moving from self-centredness to Reality- or God-centeredness.
A wonderful realization for interfaith harmony, don’t you agree?
The German pastor made precisely the same point, although he put it slightly differently. Remarking on the common practice of abstinence in different religious traditions, he commented that in all cases the practice was—or, rather should be—impelled by one thing. And that is love—love that moves us to go beyond our limited selves to reach out to God and to our fellow creatures.