During the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, 1.6 billion Muslims around the world fast from dawn to dusk each day. Getting through the day’s fast can feel like a solitary struggle, but this Ramadan, one group of friends is working to connect the global Muslim community.
The team behind Voices of Iftar sought to find the shared beliefs binding Muslims together by asking one simple question – why is fasting special to you?
At the beginning of Ramadan, Ali Bandeali and Ahmed Elessawi teamed up with their friend Parham Ghaffarian to interview people about their experience fasting. They posed the same question each time and aimed to showcase the array of places Muslims gathered for iftar, the nightly meal to break their fasts. Voices of Iftar has conducted interviews across languages and borders, from Istanbul to Rome to Dallas, Texas.
Elessawi, 24, said they wanted to make a positive contribution to the dialogue surrounding Islam.
“We wanted to do something that helped focus on all the common threads that tie the Muslim world rather than talking about the oft-reported noise of differences within the community,” he said.
The Voices of Iftar team spoke to anyone who tried fasting regardless of their religious affiliation. Bandeali, 26, said living in a city as diverse as Istanbul provided the perfect opportunity to examine commonalities across faiths.
“You could be an atheist, you could be any variety of the Muslim sects,” Bandeali said. “We tried to make it as open and accepting as possible as long as you actually tried fasting.”
This led to some fascinating discussions on the power of fasting. Bandeali said one of his favorite interviews took place in Rome with a man who identified as agnostic but fasted to challenge his self-discipline and honor the passing of his grandfather. One American interviewee described his experience fasting while visiting Cairo, Egypt and gaining newfound friendships over the iftar meal.
How would the Voices of Iftar team answer their own question of why fasting is special? Elessawi said fasting offers an uplifting experience that transcends worldly divisions.
“To me, it is simply an act of self-awareness and understanding, self-discipline and a spiritual connection with our common higher being, whether you call that Allah or otherwise,” he said.
Bandeali said he finds fasting to be an opportunity for growth and self-reflection.
“Fasting is special to me because it’s like you’re constantly carrying around an empty cup in a town without water,” he said. “The basic source of physical life is absent in your cup, so you search around for something elsewhere, maybe in a fountain of desires, or in somebody else’s cup, or perhaps even in what seems to be the esoteric air. It becomes a difficult trial, and you may not find anything. But you don’t want this storm to pass – how else can the raindrops replenish your cup?”
Voices of Iftar is currently accepting video submissions. After Ramadan, Bandeali hopes to expand the project to broader interfaith discussions.
“We’re talking about fasting in Islam, but how about giving up something for Lent?” Bandeali said. “It might be interesting to focus on something that people give up to see the similarities of why that ritual is important to them.”
You can find the full archive of videos and share your own on the Voices of Iftar Facebook page.
Syeda Hasan is a freelance journalist living between Houston, Texas and Karachi, Pakistan. She loves coffee, the Real Housewives and all things French. She is a proud Texas Longhorn and has previously reported for Houston Public Media, the Daily Texan and KUT News in Austin.