November 16, 2006
Iftar and American Islam
— Matthew Weiner
Iftar (the breaking of daily fasts during the Islamic month of Ramadan) in interfaith settings is an increasingly widespread phenomenon. This year there were dozens of interfaith Iftar celebrations throughout New York City, where I live, and perhaps hundreds nation wide. Inviting non-Muslims to break fast has become a primary way in which Islam explains itself to the American public and extends friendship to the community.
Ramadan began on September 24 this year, and the holy month saw numerous public Iftar events, including, for example, the Brooklyn Borough President's Iftar and the Turkish Cultural Society's Iftar, which took place at the Waldorf Astoria and was attended by judges, scholars, religious leaders, and New York Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Meanwhile, an Iftar at the Dawood Mosque in Brooklyn included among its guests local shop owners, community leaders, two rabbis, and the Rev. Daniel Meeter of Old First Reformed Church of Brooklyn. At the end of the meal — which is always at the center of the program — the Jewish guests, along with Rev. Meeter and an imam from Egypt's Al-Azar University, sat together on the floor to engage in a long discussion about politics and religion for the community to hear.
Other such examples abound. Union Theological Seminary and the Muslim Consultative Network, with a little help from the Interfaith Center of New York and the Columbia Muslim Students Association, hosted an Iftar at James Chapel, where Reinhold Niebuhr, Paul Tillich, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer once preached. (Union removed the cross from the chapel so that Muslims could pray without facing it.) During dinner, there was public discussion on human rights, with Jewish, Christian, and Muslim speakers.
But not just monotheists are involved in interfaith Iftars. In Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, for example, an imam hosted Ven. Rey Fashi, a Chinese monk, pointing out that Chinese Buddhists and Arab Muslims share the neighborhood, have similar ethics, and should become better acquainted. There are also joint religious programs, such as Iftar-Sukkot gatherings, in which imams and rabbis explain to each other's congregations the significance of shelter, food, and hospitality in their respective traditions.
While mosques are likely locations for Iftar celebrations, many have been initiated by community leaders — often women — practicing outside traditional settings. In this way, these activists bring established religious authorities into contact with civil society, acting as important social interlocutors, and furthering alternative and complementary leadership models that reflect their communities. Organizers also use these opportunities to highlight social justice advocacy concerns, as with interfaith "fast-a-thons" for Darfur. Women's groups such as New York's Turning Point for Women and Families have hosted interfaith Iftars that provide religious context for highlighting the need to confront domestic violence.
What has led to the pronounced growth in interfaith Iftars? The disaster of September 11, 2001, has much to do with it. While they existed before, numerous interfaith Iftar practices — both in local mosques as well as between mosques, synagogues, and churches — emerged in the weeks following the tragedy. And today, as in 2001, such occasions serve in part as quiet, accommodating responses to an event that will forever be recalled near the time of Ramadan, while also providing further opportunities for bringing Islam into conversation with the wider public.
Indeed, for Muslims, breaking the fast during Ramadan is often very much a public event, an occasion for offering hospitality to their own community as well as the wider community. Here in America, it is rapidly becoming a primary way in which Muslims, especially among immigrant populations, can practice their religion while remaining open to other religious traditions and the public; the interfaith Iftar is therefore a way to be an "American Muslim," with equal emphasis on each element in that term.
Muslims have thus adapted a religious event into a civic activity in which local friends, civil authorities, and religious others may participate. In doing so, Muslims remain faithful to their tradition through acts of hospitality — hospitality that, one might hope, inspires reciprocity in our religiously pluralist America.
Matthew Weiner is Director of Program Development at the Interfaith Center of New York, and a doctoral candidate at Union Theological Seminary.