Edgar French, spiritual care coordinator at the University of Manitoba, explains how opportunities to experience other faith traditions, like Ramadan, can lead to new understanding
For those unaccustomed to the spiritual discipline of fasting, the idea might seem antiquated or come across as a misguided, self-depriving ritual. Experience, I always say, has the potential to surprise and reveal an alternative way of understanding. The Muslim Students Association has been holding Iftaar gatherings (in Arabic the breaking of fast, or the time to partake of food and drink) for Muslim and non-Muslim students alike, throughout the month of Ramadan. These gatherings offer an excellent opportunity to experience another faith’s traditions. Every night, beginning on May 16th, students have broken the traditional fast of Ramadan at the setting of the sun – 9:09 p.m. to be precise and progressively later as the daylight hours lengthen.
Ramadan is the yearly fast that encompasses a whole month on the Islamic calendar, commemorating the gifting of Qu’ran by the prophet Mohammed. The faithful fast daily for this month from dawn sundown. Fasting is one of Islam’s main tenants; one among the Five Pillars of Faith. The practice is not piety for its own sake. It is a way of cultivating the values of compassion, kindness, gratitude and discipline. Muslims abstain from food and drink as sign of solidarity towards the poor. It is a reminder of their responsibility to fashion their lives and direct their resources to helping those in need. In a fast paced world, driven by the distractions of consumerism and self-gain, Ramadan is “fast” of an alternate variety – a way Muslims hit the “reset button” and come back to what truly matters.
Its wisdom is also in keeping with the recent insights made popular by therapeutic practices in the field of mental health. I recently attended an Iftaar gathering held by the Manitoba Islamic Association. Dr. Rehman Abdulrehman, Clinical Director of Clinic Psychology Manitoba and the evening’s speaker, spoke on the commonalities between spiritual practices and mindfulness techniques. He recalled encountering mindfulness practice for the first time and thinking, “I’ve heard this before.” Islam, he remarked, has taught him the importance of being mindful, perceptive and disciplined in embodying the values of compassion and generosity. For him, it has been the path towards cultivating balance and a healthy life.
Back at the prayer room on campus, at Iftaar, I sat and spoke with a couple of MSA leaders. Curious, and maybe wanting to be a little astute, I asked what happens to Muslims who live in certain parts of the world where the sun hardly sets during the summer months, i.e. Scandinavia. “Do people not eat at all?” The student mentioned that Islamic teaching makes exceptions, particularly for the sick or pregnant women, and that in those conditions where the faithful may live, fasting is to follow Mecca’s sunlight hours. Graciously my student host retorted, “Ramadan is not meant to break you. It’s meant to help you become the best person you can be.” And the proof was clearly in the pudding (No word of a lie. We ate a savory Pakistani version of rice pudding)! I was enjoying the by-product of this discipline among MSA students, namely hospitality shown to me in the form of a sumptuous feast. Every night students representing the various cultures and ethnicities that make up the MSA have been taking turns preparing and serving the food for Iftaar. That night we enjoyed an authentic Pakistani meal, including desert. The previous night, students were treated to Turkish fare. Growing into a better person, enjoying wonderful food in community – “I could get used to this!” I thought.
If you haven’t had a chance to experience Ramadan, here’s a great opportunity and you don’t need to leave campus. Iftaar gatherings are taking place every night until Thursday June 14th. Ramadan concludes with a great celebration – Eid Al-Fitr on Friday, June 15 at the RBC Convention Centre, 375 York Avenue. All campus community members are invited to attend. For more information, visit the the MSA’s Facebook page: facebook.com/UManitobaMSA. Ramadan kareem!