Ladies and Gentlemen, As-Salam-Alaikum and Ramadan Mubarek.
Thank you, Jena Hanem, for the introduction. I will say a few words about the significance of this blessed month of Ramadan for Muslims; the importance of dialogue for religious and social cohesion; and the work of the Rumi Forum to promote this.
So much has been said by so many and so well on each of these themes. So what better way could there be than to draw on the words of eminent sages, scholars and imams. In line with Muslim tradition, I must first ask God’s forgiveness and your indulgence for any mistakes I may make.
The fast in Ramadan consists of abstinence from eating or drinking from dawn to dusk and, more importantly, abiding by certain principles of purity. Imam Johari in a recent article in the Washington Post wrote: “Iftar, the breaking of the fast, is like having Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner every night for 30 days.” – a fitting tribute to the very strong tradition of hospitality which, Emre Bey, you alluded to earlier. Johari goes on to say: “It is a time you feel empathy for the hungry. You tame you appetite for this world to feed your spirit for the next — through prayer and reading of the Quran. It is a time for seeking forgiveness from those you have wronged and after the month, to start anew, forgiven.”
The Quran (Chapter 2, Verse 183) prescribes fasting as a means of acquiring Taqwaa – a faithful and conscious connection with God. Thus, fasting during Ramadan has a deep spiritual dimension — of compassion, of self-sacrifice and of introspection. Shaykh Tosun Bayrak of the Turkish Jarrahi Sufi Order maintains that the motivation for fasting is not from fear for our lives or fear of retribution in the hereafter. The true motivation is love. He states: “We would not necessarily do what a tyrant ordered out of fear, but we would do anything which a truly loved one would ask. Love requires selflessness, sacrifice, consideration, obedience to the wishes of the beloved, and preference of the beloved over oneself. All these are also conditions of fasting. Love is at the center of faith and of the concept of God.” In Islam, one the ninety-nine names of God is al-Wadud, the All-Loving One, whose love is unlimited, endless, unconditional, and without expectations of return.
Shaykh Tosun sees fasting as an “incredibly complete form of worship and an intense exercise for spiritual advancement, if done consciously, and conscientiously — not automatically and heedlessly, with only hunger as the result.” He reminds us that it would really be a pity to pass a whole month of hunger and thirst and not achieve anything but hunger and thirst itself. In even stronger terms, The Sahih Bokhari Hadith reports Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) as saying: “Whoever does not abandon falsehood in word and action, then Allah will not accept that he should leave his food and drink.”
Shaikh Tosum goes on to say: “Fasting is not just curbing our appetite for food, but it is controlling all of our physical parts. The fast of the tongue is to protect our tongue from lying, gossiping, saying things which may hurt peoples’ feelings. The fast of the eyes is to observe true reality. The fast of the ears is to censor falsity, and to listen only to truth. The fast of the ego [and this I consider to be the most significant observation] is to throw off the mask of hypocrisy, to curb pride and arrogance, and to resist the outrageous demands of luxury, and gluttony.”
With respect to the ego, Shaykh Hisham Kabbani, the deputy leader of the Naqshbandi-Haqqani Sufi Order recounts a story of the great Sufi saint, Bayazid Bistami. A renowned scholar of religion once asked Bayazid why he, the scholar, despite his vast knowledge and adherence to fasting and prayers, did not feel the truth within his heart. Bayazid’s reply, which epitomizes the importance of harnessing the ego, was: “Because you are veiled by your own self.”
One of the greatest Sufi saints of Islam Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi speaks of fasting in his profoundly beautiful way and I quote excerpts from a translation of the Divan-e-Shams-e-Tabriz:
“There’s hidden sweetness in the stomach’s emptiness.
We are lutes, no more, no less.”
“If the soundbox is stuffed full, there is no music.
If the brain and belly are burning clean with fasting,
Every moment a new song comes out of the fire.
The fog clears, and new energy makes you run
up the steps in front of you.”
Mevlana refers here to the steps of spiritual attainment.
“Be emptier and cry like reed instruments cry…
Emptier, write secrets with the reed pen…
Fasting is Solomon’s ring.”
“The will and control you have lost …come back when you fast,
like soldiers appearing out of the ground, pennants flying.”
“A table descends to your tents, Jesus’ table.
Expect to see it, when you fast.”
In Islam, Jesus epitomizes purity and love.
The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) declared “Fasting is the light which enlightens the heart” and “the one who fasts assumes the truth of humanity”–difficult to imagine a stronger endorsement of the importance of fasting and one which makes the connection with all humanity. Thus fasting also connects Muslims to people of other religions. The Quran itself (Chapter 2, Verse 183) presents fasting as the continuation of a tradition that was “prescribed to those (Jews, Christians and others) who came before.”
Perhaps never before in modern history has there been so urgent a need for dialogue among faiths and, indeed within faiths. I feel that combating divisiveness has now become a moral imperative. Professor Cantwell Smith’s response, when asked if he was a Christian, was “Ask my neighbour”. This underscores another facet of the same need — social responsibility and cohesion which can only come through connecting with others and developing mutual respect.
Martin Buber, the Jewish thinker, maintains that “true dialogue expresses an essential aspect of the human spirit, when we listen and respond to one another with an authenticity that forges a bond between us.” But in doing so, Professor Liyakat Takim of McMaster University reminds us that dialogue needs to progress beyond negating misconceptions and simply understanding the beliefs of others. He states: “Dialogue is also interwoven with understanding in a fundamental way what it means to believe in a particular religious tradition and to attempt to enter the heart of the partner in dialogue.
An essential component is the willingness to re-examine one’s own faith in the light of how others relate to their tradition.” This idea is embodied in the profound words of Fethullah Gulen who acknowledges the universality of belief in “the oneness and basic unity of religion, which is a symphony of God’s blessings and mercy…..So, religion is a system of belief that embraces all races and all beliefs, a road that brings everyone together in brotherhood. Regardless of how their adherents implement their faith in their daily lives, such generally accepted values as love, respect, tolerance, forgiveness, mercy, human rights, peace, brotherhood, and freedom are all values exalted by religion.”
Interfaith and intra-faith dialogue was never meant to achieve agreement among doctrines but to enhance sensitivity. In fact, scholars would argue that true appreciation of other faiths leads to the strengthening of belief in one’s own traditions. The Quran (Chapter 30, Verse 22) tells us that “among His wonders are the creation of heavens and earth and the diversity of your tongues and colours”. Note that, in this verse, human diversity is elevated to a position next to the creation of the universe itself. And there is of course the oft-quoted verse (Chapter 49, Verse 13) which stipulates that God has “made you into nations and tribes so that you might come to know one another.” In addition to the celebration of diversity, I see in this verse a clear injunction for interaction and dialogue. But to my mind, perhaps the following verses in the Quran (Chapter 3, Verses 113 and 114) best open the way to dialogue among faiths by making a spiritual connection from the covenant of pre-existence through all time.
“Of the People of the Book (Jews and Christians) are a portion that stand (for the right); they rehearse the Signs of God all night long, and they prostrate themselves in adoration. They believe in God and the Last Day; they enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong; and they hasten (in emulation) in (all) good works: They are in the ranks of the righteous.”
The verses assume that the people of the Book (and some Muslim thinkers extend the meaning to include all major religions) have the sense of worship, of right and wrong hard-wired into them from the time of pre-creation. And in that sense, the Books of the great religions are simply a reminder, a nudge, for followers to search their own conscience. In explaining the steps of advanced spiritual attainment, Shaykh Hisham Kabbani, writes: “Remembrance is higher than contemplation… You begin to tap into your subconscious memory, which can recall even the smallest atom that God brought into existence, and the purpose it serves in creation.”
The Rumi Forum plays an important role in bringing together people of diverse backgrounds for the benefit of social harmony and cohesion within the community. Its mission is to promote peace in the world and contribute towards peaceful coexistence among people of different faiths, cultures, ethnicities and races.
It is part of a wider global movement – the Gulen movement – which Muhammad Cetin describes as “apolitical, philanthropic, and inter-civilizational” and “whose efforts are most succinctly and aptly described as collective social altruism.” The movement is active in more than 130 countries implementing an impressive array of activities dedicated to and living up to these lofty goals.
Thank you and, once again, Ramadan Mubarek.