Fasting is one pathway toward God-consciousness. That's how Regina Mustafa, the founder of Community Interfaith Dialogue on Islam (CIDI), described the practice which stretches back across millennia.
I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Mustafa to talk about fasting as a spiritual practice for this year's Lenten column series.
Between our sips of coffee and tea in a sunny spot at Cafe Steam in downtown Rochester, Mustafa shared that her most significant periods of fasting happen annually during the season of Ramadan. During Ramadan, practitioners of the Muslim faith abstain from water, food and sex during the daylight hours.
Like Islam, most other faith traditions also have a history of inviting members to fast in some way, including (but not limited to) Christianity, Judaism, and Hinduism. Some abstain from food for a particular day each week. Others avoid food and water during specific times each day or month. Fasting practices vary immensely across religions, as do the motivations of those who choose to abstain.
Mustafa said, "Fasting isn't unique to Islam. The Koran reminds us that it's prescribed for us as it was for the people before us so that we may have taqwa, which is the Arabic word for God-consciousness."
The special closeness to God that she feels during Ramadan is one of the aspects of the season Mustafa appreciates most. "When I'm fasting, I'm a lot more centered," she said. The five daily prayers are one of the main pillars of Islam. She described that the prayers take on another layer of meaning during the time of fasting. "I find that the prayers are more deep when you're fasting because you have more of that God-consciousness and you're in more of a spiritual zone … I feel like I can concentrate more during the prayers."
An awareness of those who regularly go without food and water is another important component Mustafa receives from fasting. "It helps you relate better to people who don't have access to food and water every day … it shows me what I take for granted."
This consciousness of the needs and struggles of others inspires many people to be especially generous with charitable giving during Ramadan.
Thinking about giving fasting a try at some point this Lent? Mustafa's advice: "Go for it. It's very spiritual. Start with half a day. Muslims do not have the copyright on headscarves, and we don't have a copyright on fasting."
If you do decide to experiment with fasting as a spiritual practice, do so carefully and thoughtfully. Consider consulting both your doctor and a spiritual leader you trust. Be conscious of your body's needs, and don't be surprised if your experience of fasting changes over time.
Mustafa's first encounter with fasting happened during Ramadan when she was a young adult teaching English in South Korea.
"I remember that it was tricky because none of my coworkers were fasting and I was teaching all day," she said. "When it came time to eat and drink, I remember feeling so thankful and grateful to God for that sip of water."
These days, she finds that only the first week is really challenging physically. Then it gets easier. "The time actually goes by so quickly. You have such a sense of accomplishment when it comes to a close … it's almost like a rebirth when (Ramadan) is over. But there's also a sadness, too. You miss that special connection to God."
It was a gift for me to spend time with Mustafa and hear the depth of spiritual connectedness to God that she derives from fasting during the season of Ramadan. While I'm not sure when or if I'll develop a fasting practice of my own, I certainly have a new awareness of how much it can expand the taqwa of those who incorporate it into their lives.