Muslims and Christians: Breaking Fast Together

By Josh Hayden
Washington, DC

Sunset on November 9, 2004 at the elegant and palatial home of Imran and Tehmina Khan began with a Muslim call to prayer and the breaking of the Ramadan fast where Muslim and Christian leaders gathered together in the name of understanding, friendship and trust. This endeavor called the Buxton Dialogue, sprouted from a friendship between former Ambassador and Partner of Park Avenue Equity, Doug Holladay and Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University, Dr. Akbar Ahmed.

Influential men and women of both faiths gathered together to celebrate and educate one another on Muslim and Christian perspectives on the spiritual discipline of fasting, to listen and understand and to inspire further interfaith dialogue around the world.

The attendees included the Jordanian Ambassador, the Chairman of the Senate of Pakistan, distinguished Pakistani Ministers and Advisors, a member of Pakistani Parliament, US government leaders, religious scholars and pastors, businessmen and women, and public officials, all of whom believe their faith is vital to their vocation and lifestyle. The evening began with a welcome and short discussion of the Muslim traditional breaking of the Ramadan fast followed by an authentic Pakistani dinner and dialogue led by Dr. Akbar Ahmed and the Honorable Doug Holladay.

Dr. Ahmed opened the discussion by explaining the Buxton Initiative’s purpose of building a “momentum based on trust” not based in politics, but rather as “friends exploring issues” built on a common understanding of each other’s faith. Ahmed and Holladay emphasized the timeliness and vitality of dialogue in which according to Holladay, “the stakes couldn’t be higher” in the midst of a world in political, religious and ethnic rivalry. Symbolically, they concurred that such dialogue could lead a troubled world in “lighting a candle instead of cursing the darkness.”

On the theme of fasting, two special and distinguished guests launched the discussion. Dr. Luder Whitlock, Executive Director of the Trinity Forum and Former President of Reformed Theological Seminary and Dr. Iman Magid, prominent Islamic scholar and head of the most important Islamic Center in Washington DC, presented the respective viewpoints.

The fundamental position that fasting is more than just a religious exercise — it is an inward journey of heartfelt devotion to God — was strikingly similar between the two. Dr. Whitlock spoke of the life of Jesus and followers, such as the Apostle Paul, in four basic insights:
(1) there is a right time to fast,
(2) fasting provides an emphasis on the inner, as apposed to the outwardly pious, dimension of a life of faith,
(3) fasting is often an accompaniment to prayer in major decisions and
(4) fasting is an _expression of a dependence on God and not ourselves.

Dr. Magid, in a similar vein spoke of fasting among Muslims to be an inward dimension, a means of self-control, an _expression of gratefulness to Allah, a reaching out to the poor and a means of enacting a devotion to God. If one decides to go without food and drink and treats his neighbor poorly, he said, then the person has not fasted according to the Qur’an. Dr. Whitlock provided the Christian importance of meditative time with God in fasting to strengthen the inner life of faith.

As a moderator, Dr. Ahmed followed the distinguished guests by pitting the reality of Islam against the modern destructive views propagated by the media. He pointed out that the Ramadan fast is broken at sunset by eating dates, the favorite food of the Prophet of Islam to show deep respect and reverence, and how harmful and destructive it is when their central figure is attacked by Christians. Ahmed pointed out that the Western media has been primarily dominated, even during the peaceful withdrawal of Ramadan, by the portrayal and emphasis on violence and uprising among Muslims “expected to run amok.” “There is much anger and misunderstanding,” he posited, “and perhaps the West does not want to understand.”

Continuing the dialogue, a slew of speakers added further content on fasting by sharing their personal history and perspective on the issue. Distinguished Advisor to the Chief Minister of Pakistan, Mowahid Shah, held the position that religious extremism is a two-way street and that we should “judge these dialogues by the action on the ground.” The message must reach the people, especially in a crucial hub such as Pakistan, the Advisor held, where residents feel the force of hypocrisy and discrimination. Former Secretary of the Navy, the Honorable John H. Dalton stressed that the greatest commandment for Christians is to love God and neighbor, neighbors being Muslims. This must be “a revelation to us,” he said and we must do this by communication and personal relationships with one another. Pakistani Minister Omar Ghuman and Parliamentary Member Shaikh spoke of the impact of the love of Jesus has had on their lives, moral courage and what they deemed the mo st important issue in life: “to find one’s Lord.” Ghuman praised the courage and “guts” of his friend Shaikh, who defeated an extremist opponent in an election for a Parliamentary seat and in his commitment to overcoming terrorism, made a stand for his beliefs and faith.

The hostess, Mrs. Khan, a businesswoman gave a personal account of growing up in school with Muslim and Christian teachers undifferentiated and united in their message. This was in contrast to the present day situation of “religious marginalization” and “profiling” by the media. The overarching focus of the dialogue was the similarity of the faiths on the issue of fasting and the deep seeded traditional support and admiration for one another shared long ago and perhaps a revitalization of this bond in the future.

Doug Holladay concluded with a “take away:” that we must create safe places to talk about the pain and challenges we face in our world, hear each other’s stories and connect on a human level. To the leaders in the room he conveyed respect and deep admiration for their moral courage. As a prayer adjourned the evening gathering, “Amens” echoed through the room, pronounced by both Muslims and Christians.


Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
2004 . All Rights Reserved.