By Jihan Dubose and Meghan Zacher, Public and Global Affairs Interns
On Thursday July 2, 2015, Niagara’s Center of Interfaith Engagement had the distinct pleasure of hosting a discussion on Sufism and fasting. Dr. Senad Agic joined Friends in Faith to share his understanding of fasting during Ramadan and what fasting means to Sufi Muslims. Dr. Agic is the American Islamic Center’s Imam and author and editor of several books. He has also conducted many interviews on the Qur’an, religion, and Violence in Bosnia, the events of September 11th, 2001, and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam. Dr. Agic discussed peace and conflict within and among religions on, “National Public Radio,” “Voice of America,” “Radio Free Europe,” and “Islam Radio” (Chicago’s first daily Muslim Talk Show).
Imam Agic is founder and former Head Imam of Islamic Community of North-American Bosnians, a member of the Executive Committee of The Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago ( CIOGC), the former President of Northbrook Clergy Association, former professor of Islamic Studies and GTF, and Cloverdale College. Taking place during the holy month of Ramadan, Imam Agic’s presentation was a timely opportunity for Niagara guests and staff to learn about the origins of Ramadan and what it means to members of the Muslim community.
Dr. Agic presented the history of fasting and Ramadan as the story of Islam’s solidification into a community boasting a quarter of the world’s population. The Imam stressed that the solidification of Islam was not the creation of something new, but the reclaiming of old orders and traditions given a new form. Over the course of twenty-three years between the cities of Mecca and Medina, the great Prophet Muhammad had revelations about fasting. Fasting, he stated, refers to the Medin period in Mecca and didn’t start immediately. Ramadan became significant because the Final Revelation happened during this period. On the tenth of the first month of the lunar calendar, Muhammad fasted, in an act of gratitude to God for sparing Abraham. The charge to the Muslim community to fast is dictated in the verse:
Imam Agic interprets this verse as, “You that are believers, fasting has been prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you so that you may protect your connection with God.” The literal translation of the verse is: “O ye who believe! Fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you, that ye may (learn) self-restraint.”
The literal and Imam Agic’s translation differ slightly because significant meaning is lost without context and interpretation, specifically in the differentiation between the words ‘Muslim’ and ‘Mu’min’ and in the meaning of the word ‘taqwa’. The Imam clarified to attendees that someone may culturally and religiously identify as a Muslim, but this does not make that individual a believer, in other words, a “Mu’min’. Imam Agic also noted that the translation of ‘taqwa’ can vary. In his interpretation, the word means ‘to protect’ and dictates that one must fast in order to protect his/her ( soul) connection to God.
In regards to Sufism, Imam Agic said that Ramadan is important to Sufi believers, but that they take a more generalized approach to fasting. The month of Ramadan is not just about abstaining from food, but from all thoughts, deeds, and words that warrant self-gratification or selfishness. Imam Agic stated that Sufis believe that one must not only fast with the stomach but with the mouth, the ears, and the eyes as well. He also specified that one must not have any desires during the period of fasting, including religious desires, such as Heaven or a reward for the sacrifice. The reward for fasting is not specified, but believers hope that through fasting, their piety will open the door to paradise with God after they pass away.
It was an insightful experience, to learn about Islam from someone who is both a respected Muslim but also a religious scholar. Imam Agic ended his talk with a quote from St. Augustine: “If you want your prayer to fly to God, you must give it two wings, prayer, and fasting.” As-salamu alaykum ( May the peace of God be upon you.)