On Tuesday, July 31st, the Institute of Interfaith Dialogue hosted its annual Dinner of Abrahamic Traditions event at the Raindrop Turkish House in Oklahoma City. The topic this year was Fasting in the Abrahamic Faiths. The event featured a panel discussion with guests Rabbi Abby Jacobson, Reverend Dr. William Tabbernee and Imam Dr. Imad Enchassi.
Orhan Osman, Executive Director of the Institute of Interfaith Dialogue, delivered the opening address, emphasizing the importance of embracing difference across religious traditions. He stated that prejudice is the greatest threat to humanity and that it is only by sitting down together at the same table and learning from one another that one is able to transcend misunderstanding and misconception. Mr. Osman discussed the work that the Institute of Interfaith Dialogue does as well as the influential figure of Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish Muslim religious scholar who has inspired an international movement which focuses on interfaith work and social justice.
Chelsea Scudder, intern at the Institute, introduced the panel and posed the following question: “What does fasting mean in your respective traditions, not only as practitioners of your faith, but as leaders in your religious communities?”
Rabbi Jacobson was the first to offer remarks, stating that fasting causes her to be more mindful of not only her body, but also of her place in the world, of her needs, her blessings, and of the many aspects of her life that inform her identity as a Jewish Rabbi. It heightens her focus and increases her reflection, both in relation to herself and to God. She discussed the Jewish conception of “tikkun olam,” or “repairing the universe,” stating that while many look to this as a call to outward action, it is in fact an internal concept stemming from the idea that each being is a microcosm of the universe. Thus, if one betters oneself, one betters the universe. She spoke about fasting as a mode of self-betterment through self-discipline and through the cultivation of a deeper relationship with God.
Reverend Dr. William Tabbernee spoke next and was not hesitant to state that Christianity historically has an ambiguous relationship with fasting. He said that in two of the Gospel accounts, Jesus fasts for forty days and forty nights and comes away with three insights: that “human existence is not based on bread alone,” that, following his temptation by the devil, “compromise with evil is never permissible,” and that God has provided the necessary resources to live. Later, when disciples of John the Baptist question Jesus’ lack of commitment to the extreme asceticism located in their own teacher, Jesus responds that fasting is not an end in itself, but rather a means to a deeper understanding. Christians have, therefore, throughout history had different understandings about the necessity of fasting and the degree to which it must be done. Nonetheless, it remains a powerful and instructive concept which holds spiritual significance.
Lastly, Imam Dr. Imad Enchassi spoke of fasting in the Islamic tradition as a prescription from God, the outcome of which is piety. He stated that the word “sawm” in Arabic can be translated to mean both “fasting” and “abstention.” Thus, when Muslims fast, it is said that they fast not only with their mouths, but with their ears, eyes, tongue, and limbs. Thus, they abstain from not only food and drink, but from sexual relations, and from negative or harmful thoughts, words, and actions. Their hearts, minds, and bodies are to be turned toward God. Imam Enchassi stated that it is not for God that Muslims fast (for God does not have need of anything that we can give Him), but rather to achieve a deeper awareness of Him and to cultivate a sense of righteousness that positively transforms our relationship to one another.
Following a Q&A with the audience, the Call to Prayer was heard, ending the long day of fasting for the Muslim brothers and sisters in attendance. The fast was broken with an incredible Turkish meal prepared by Sevda Zengindemir, Outreach Director of the Raindrop Turkish House. Guests stayed for food, continued conversation, and, of course, baklava.