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On July 9th, 2015, IDI York University and Islamic Arts of York hosted one of the Ramadan Interfaith dinners at the Underground Restaurant on York’s Keele campus.
The emcee for the evening was Kasim Dogan, himself an alumnus of York University. He introduced the topic for the evening which was hunger and fasting from the perspectives of three major Abrahamic religions.
Among the welcome remarks for the evening was Mario Sergio, MPP of York West, who brought greetings from Premier Kathleen Wynne and applauded the chosen theme. Veysi Inci, President of Islamic Arts of York welcomed the attendees and thanked the volunteers, adding remarks about how laudable it is to build bridges and understanding between faiths. Rahime Yalcin, Vice-President of IDI York University explained that the intercultural and interfaith aspects of Ramadan are essential to the Iftar dinner events as a way of building empathy and respect among cultures. The final speaker before the panel began was Jeff O’Hagan, Vice President of York University who expressed his welcome in hosting such an interactive community event.
The first panelist for the evening was Dr. Shari Golberg, a Jewish and Islamic scholar, involved in scripture and environmental based dialogue through her Seed, Sprouts, and Scriptures initiative. She spoke on the concept of fasting and hunger in the Jewish tradition. Dr. Shari Golberg focused on the two main fasts (25 hours each): Tisha b’Av, which commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem, and Yom Kippur, which is the Day of Atonement.
She explained that in the Torah, Yom Kippur is the day when one’s deeds are evaluated and so Jews spend the day fasting and praying to God for forgiveness and did not use to hold an element of social awareness. The concept of fasting bringing awareness to the poor and hungry in one’s community comes from the later writings of the biblical prophet Isaiah in the 5th century BCE. Dr. Shari Golberg quotes chapter 58, in which Isaiah says that it is an empty gesture to fast without helping the poor. She explains that we only have a fraction of insight into hunger itself and if we don’t help others once we have experienced this, then the fasting has been wasted.
Dr. Shari Golberg went on to explain that the Abrahamic traditions have a strong commitment to feeding and helping the poor in the community outside of fasting. This includes environmental sustainability in the Jewish and Islamic traditions. She included mention of the kinds of gifts to the poor in the Jewish tradition.
Reverend Meggie Helwig, Anglican from the Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, spoke on the night’s topic from a Christian perspective commenting on the many different facets of Christianity, like one finds in Judaism and Islam. It is a perspective that is also heavily influenced by the writings of Isaiah.
Though there are many Christians these days who do not take the practice of fasting as seriously as they used to or should, she said, there are many designated fast days. The 40 days of Lent, during which Jesus spent in the wilderness and was not tempted by Satan, the 4 week Advent leading up to Christmas, and every Wednesday and Friday. As with Isaiah, for Jesus fasting in and of itself is an empty gesture and does not accomplish much if it does not hold the aspect of social awareness.
Rev. Meggie Helwig finished with stories from the Christian faith, concerning Jesus’ temptations in the desert to turn stone into bread, which would not help as food and hunger are a community issue. For her, the two stories that echo this are the Feeding of the Multitude—in which Jesus commands his disciples to share what little food they have with four or five thousand people and in the sharing it becomes enough for everyone—and the Last Supper, illustrating how God comes to us in ordinary bread broken and shared in the community.
The final speaker for the panel was Muneeb Nasir, President of the Olive Tree Foundation, to expand on the purpose of fasting in the Islamic tradition. It is not a way to punish oneself but a way to achieve greater mindfulness of God, to prioritize Him. Mr. Muneeb Nasir reworded the theme for the night as involuntary fasting and pushes fasting beyond its spiritual purpose and into a call to action. For him, fasting forces us to think of the 850 000 Canadians who go to food banks.
Mr. Muneeb Nasir described the Prophet Mohammad as “not a believer whose belly is full while his neighbour is hungry.” In the Islamic tradition Zakat exists to rebalance the wealth in society and disowns those who do not care about the suffering of the hungry. The Prophet Mohammad was, after all, an orphan.
Though there have been many resolutions to abolish child hunger in Canada, he explains, the number is rising and the proliferation of food banks is increasing, due to numerous causes. For Mr. Muneeb Nasir, those with enough must become the “voices of the voiceless” to avoid blaming the poor and stigmatizing them, but to help them.
The panel ended with some questions, before the call to prayer and dinner served.