Latter-day Saint and Muslim youth in Maryland find commonality in the principle of fasting

Over 350 Latter-day Saint and Muslim youth in the Baltimore, Maryland, and Washington, D.C., area participated in a webinar conference on May 19 to learn about the role of fasting in each other’s faith tradition.

“We fast for similar reasons, and I didn’t know that,” said Sebastien Spencer, a youth of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Maryland. “I think it’s important to build relationships with other cultures and religions because we are all God’s children.”

Several youth submitted comments saying they look forward to meeting each other in person and working on service projects together.

Since fasting is integral to both faiths, it became the impetus for a discussion during the closing days of Ramadan, a holy month of fasting and prayer for Muslims worldwide.

The virtual event, scheduled as a digital gathering because of COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, was the first in what is hoped to be more dialogue among youth of faith to promote better understanding and good will.

Chris Mathews, the multi-stake director of communications for outreach and former Latter-day Saint bishop, was looking for a way to bring youth within the interfaith community together. He arranged this event with help from Hoda Fahmy and her husband, Yeshia Hannanein, both members of the Dar Al-Taqwa Mosque southwest of Baltimore. Church members Cari Larkins and Chris Medrum also helped. Discussion leaders on the video were Mufti Syed Haneef Ahmed and Matthew McKnight.

“The future is in the hands of our youth, particularly those youth of faith,” Mathews said, adding that building bridges between groups is a way to build “a loving and caring society.”

In coming weeks, the groups will explore other shared faith traditions, including belief in God, family and charity. This first meeting underscored the importance of the fast to both groups as a means of focusing on God and on the needs of God’s children around the world.

Haneef was raised in Brooklyn, New York, and is a youth director and resident scholar at the Dar Al-Taqwa Mosque. He applauded the coming together of youth to learn about each other, saying “if we publish the good, the hate will go away.”

He discussed the purpose and traditions of the Ramadan fast, pointing out that fasting is one of the five pillars of Islam. Muslims fast, he said, to “achieve God consciousness.” 

Over the 30 days of Ramadan, Muslims refrain from eating, drinking and marital relations from sunup to sunset (astronomic twilight) as a form of spiritual discipline to focus attention on God. Haneef explained that everyone from around the age of puberty on up is expected to fast, except those who have a chronic illness or need to take medicine, the aged, travelers, and women who are pregnant or breastfeeding.

“Health is given preference over worship,” Haneef said, pointing out that children begin a limited fast when they are young to instill the habit and prepare them for the full fast later.

He stressed that during Ramadan, Muslims are encouraged to recite the Quran often, engage in the “tarawih” (additional ritual prayers), perform acts of charity, and help the poor and needy. The meals during the month are also significant, he said, noting the importance of the date fruit as a source of energy before and after the fast. He explained that Muslim families gather for a predawn meal called the “suhoor” and then break their fast after sunset with the “iftar,” a meal that reflects the cultural traditions and foods of various areas. People of other faiths are often invited to the “iftar,” and many Latter-day Saints have shared this with their Muslim friends.

Matthew McKnight is the Seneca Maryland Stake communication director and an analyst for the federal government. He discussed elements of the Latter-day Saint fast while giving some historical perspective. The two main purposes of the fast, he said, are to “align our will with God’s” and to promote empathy for others. He referred to ancient scriptures in the Old Testament and the Book of Mormon that explain and encourage fasting, such as Isaiah 58:5-7, which includes the question, “Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry?” 

In the Book of Mormon, McKnight noted “there are at least 14 references where both prayer and fasting are listed together, highlighting the significance of both working in tandem.” An example, he said, is Alma 6:6: “Nevertheless the children of God were commanded that they should gather themselves together oft and join in fasting and mighty prayer in behalf of the welfare of the souls of those who knew not God.” 

McKnight also explained that the Latter-day Saint fast originated in 1830, in Kirtland, Ohio, when Church members gathered food once a month on Thursdays to give to the poor. Over time, the day of fasting was changed to Sunday.

Charity is fundamental to Latter-day Saint belief, and today members engage in 12 fast Sundays of the year, McKnight said. They forgo two consecutive meals and generously donate what they would have paid for those meals as a fast offering to the bishop of their congregation. He then distributes the funds to those who are in need. McKnight added that members can also fast for a special purpose, as when President Russell M. Nelson asked the youth in 2018 to fast from social media for seven days.