With the approach of Ramadan, the Atlas Foundation decided it was the perfect time to examine the fasting practices of Islam, Judaism and Christianity.
A small, congenial group representing all three religions gathered at the foundation’s headquarters a week ago for a three-hour seminar featuring Geralyn Stark, Wendy Herschman and Turkan Aksoylu.
The group was welcomed by Ditek Suslu, who explained that the main mission of the Atlas Foundation, which is not affiliated with any political entity or governmental agency, is to promote understanding among people of different faiths through panels, conferences and forums. Members are mostly Islamic and primarily of Turkish decent.
Islam: Several types practiced often in year
In Islam, the faithful often fast. As Turkan Aksoylu explained, there are three types of fasts.
One is to fulfill a vow, such as for penance, she said.
Another is a voluntary fast. “This fast is typically done on a Monday or Thursday but you can do it any time,” Aksoylu said. “It makes you closer to being like an angel, to tilt the scale toward being more spiritual.”
The third and final type of fast is the 30-day fast of Ramadan. Ramadan takes place during the ninth month of the Islamic calendar and celebrates the revealing of the Koran to the Prophet Mohammad. “It is the main fast of Islam,” continued Aksoylu. “Everyone fasts — young and old, men and women.”
The fast calls for all Muslims to abstain completely from food, drink, intimate intercourse and smoking from before the break of the dawn until sunset. Once the sun sets, though, food and drink may be consumed, usually with family and friends. The faithful also invite the poor to join them in the meals.
“The nights are lively; the days quieter,” said Aksoylu, adding the days are often spent in prayer, reading the Koran or doing charitable deeds. “You understand others going without food, so you have more empathy.”
There are no specific foods associated with the Ramadan fast, but many people’s first sustenance will be dates. If an illness or journey keeps Muslims from fasting, they can make it up another time, day for day. However, if someone intentionally breaks the fast, there are prescribed ways to atone. “You can fast for 60 days and feed the poor for 60 days, fast for one and feed 60 people for one day or fast for 60 days and free a slave,” explained Aksoylu, adding that the last prescription doesn’t apply anymore.
The end of the Ramadan fast leads to a three-day festival. But Aksoylu confessed that she and many others have mixed emotions about that conclusion. “Food is something that is given by God, and you can’t eat it until he says it’s OK. Fasting is not a punishment; it’s a joyous activity. There’s something unifying about everybody fasting at the same time.”
While Islam calls for its practitioners to make up missed days in a fast, Judaism and Christianity do not, as Herschman and Stark explained.