I spend a few days each year fasting during Ramadan. I am not a Muslim. I am a Catholic, so fasting for me normally happens during Lent. This non-Catholic observance is not meant to offend Muslims, or Catholics. Nor am I merely "experimenting" on some spiritual journey; I'm secure in my own faith, insofar as religion is a process. I have never been "forced" into fasting, either. Observing Islamic tradition during Ramadan has always been a deeply personal choice for me, but I wasn't sure of the "why" until recently.
My first nearly full Ramadan observance came in 2009 during my Faiths Act Fellowship training in Tanzania. Every morning, we would rise between 4 and 4:15 a.m. to sit outside in the still darkness, listen for the call to prayer from the nearby mosque, and eat our breakfast. “We” in this case was Hafsa Arain and Nadeem Javaid (both Muslims), Amy McNair, a Christian who reflects beautifully on her experience at her blog, and me. People tend to be a little goofy in the middle of the night and we were no exception. I remember those mornings as unusually giggly affairs, as we did our best to chew up greasy chapati (tortillas), green bananas, and cold mandazi (fried dough). When we traveled to Chicago for further training, we continued the fasts, meeting early in the morning for Chicago-style pizza, which is especially delicious before 5 a.m.
I’m not a stranger to denying myself food. I do so during Lent, although I definitely don’t give up water (or tea, for that matter). What made that year different was that I was fasting around Muslims who knew that I was fasting. I know why I abstain from food during Lent, but I was never quite sure exactly why I was fasting along with Muslims. It just so happened that Pritpal, a Sikh friend, asked me, “Tim – why are you fasting during Ramadan? You’re a Catholic, not a Muslim.”
I didn’t have a quick answer for her. I flubbed the first few responses with generic excuses. “I do it for solidarity” or “Interfaith dialogue is important to me." I wasn't able to give Pritpal an answer that pleased either her or myself. In the end, I settled on "It deepens my understanding and respect and keeps my mind on the Holy."
During Lent the following year, my colleague Hafsa fasted with me, and I came to understand how odd I must have seemed during Ramadan. I now had to explain the history and features of Lent to a Muslim, and, at times, provide "backup" for the inevitable "why" that Hafsa faced. I felt closer to her when she shared in my experience, and my own Lenten observance was strengthened by her presence.
A quick survey of my religious life reveals numerous voluntary examples of participation in ceremonies and experiences outside of my faith tradition - sometimes very far outside. I've lit incense with Buddhists, shared langar with Sikhs, offered prasada to Ganesh, shouted MIGHTILY UNTO THE LORD with Pentecostals, and debated moral history with atheists. Each of these occasions has shed new light upon the faith and practice of others, and has, in many cases, shown me something interesting about my own faith.
I've been accused of being a wishy-washy syncretist, but I don't think that sincere participation in another's traditions makes one a syncretist. When I light incense or fast during Ramadan, I do it with friends (or people who will soon be friends). I keep an open heart and an open mind and respect others. I certainly don't abstain from food to make light of someone's customs; I recognize and affirm the sacredness of such things.
The demonization or ridicule of a particular religion (or all religions) is painfully common now. I'm reminded of how much richer my faith-life has been through contact with those from other traditions, and how hard it is to criticize an unknown religion once you've broken bread with those who practice it. And at the end of a long, hot, busy day, to sit down with friends across faith traditions and break the fast produces a deeply human resonance. We share food, but we share a much deeper exchange as well.