At 8 p.m. in mid-May, it’s starting to get dark outside the University Christian Church on the campus of the University of Texas, but it’s still 17 minutes before the official time that Muslims can break the Ramadan fast.
Muslims and non-Muslims have gathered for a community iftar, the meal at the end of the day during the holy month that can start only after the sun has dropped 18 degrees below the horizon.
Dates, one of the traditional foods eaten during an iftar, are on the buffet, along with Turkish meatballs called köfte, börek, a traditional Turkish dish of phyllo-wrapped cheese, and barbunya pilaki, made with cranberry beans.
A small crowd has gathered, and many families with small children, women wearing headscarves and members of the Christian church are sitting around tables in the fellowship hall. But it’s not time to eat just yet.
Instead, a UT Ph.D. student named Daniyar Saparov walks to the podium to welcome everyone to the event, which is one of the nightly Ramadan gatherings organized by the Dialogue Institute Austin. These iftars, which are free and open to the public, bring together people of all faiths at local churches, synagogues, mosques and community centers to learn about Muslim traditions and find connection through food and spirituality.
“For healthy adults, fasting during Ramadan is a pillar of Islam," he says, and it isn't limited to food and drink. "You're also fasting from being too angry, gossiping or other harmful behaviors or attitudes."
By doing this, you submit your mind and soul to God, an act of obedience that breaks the illusion of ego, he says.
Abstaining from even one sip of water teaches the value of small things, he says, and it breaks the cycle of both the ordinary and of bad habits, which is a means of bringing us closer to God, he says. "It reminds a person of his innate helplessness," he says.
As the sun travels, people are breaking fast all over the world, at all hours of the day, says Saparov, who is from Kazakhstan.
"It gives meaning to the word 'hunger,'" he says, and Muslims are also asked to show compassion and charity for people who are hungry not by their own choice.
"It does take a toll, and I get tired, but it's magical," says 19-year-old University of Texas student Zehra Tombul, who was with her friend, Aslinur Ozen. “You feel groggy at 5 p.m., but then you wake up and you are in touch with your body. You're aware of what's going on, and it keeps you in touch with what your body needs.”
This year, Ramadan started on May 5, and it ends on Tuesday with Eid al-Fitr, a feast not unlike Easter or Thanksgiving that is full of food, including lots of sweets, Tombul says, but the nightly iftars are also a time to gather with friends and loved ones.
Tombul moved to the United States with her family when she was 12, and her parents still live in Houston, so these community iftars provide a place for her to find fellowship with other Muslims and to make connections with non-Muslims who are curious about her faith.
“I enjoy the conversations we have with other people,” she says. “There’s usually someone who hasn’t been to these dinners, so you can tell them about what’s going on.”
Seyid Erkal, who is also from Turkey, sat at the table with Tombul and Ozen. His wife is one of the volunteers who cooked some of the food for this iftar — he was in charge of delivering it — but she had to stay back because their 9-year-old was going to bed early in preparation for STAAR exams.
Young children like his don’t usually fast; after puberty is when most young people start to observe a traditional Ramadan.
As with other religious traditions, such as a Passover seder, there's a continuity of practice that connects modern Muslims to their ancestors.
Muslims are asked to pray five times a day toward Kaaba in Mecca, and many use apps, such as Muslim Pro or Muezzin, to point them the right way or provide audio of a call to prayer.
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The apps also can tell you at what time the fasting begins and ends. Some people eat sahoor, a pre-dawn meal, to help them carry out tasks during the day. Students at UT can pick up sahoor kits from the dining facilities so they can eat before the dining halls open.
Ramadan falls during the ninth month of the lunar calendar, which means it falls a little earlier in the calendar each year. Some years, the holiday happens during the hottest times of the year, when the sun rises earlier and sets later.
Those 18-hour fast days are harder than the 12-hour fasts, says Erkal, but no matter what’s going on in the world around them during the fast, it's an intense time of worship.
“We abstain from anything that feels good, from talking too much to gossiping. The food and drinks are the easiest part of the fast," he says. "After two or three days, you're more comfortable.”
Suzanne Quenette, who has lived in Austin for 29 years, says the community iftars at University Christian Church are something she looks forward to every year. "Hearing the stories, making the connections, it's wonderful," she says.
Susan Cassano, who helps organize the dinners, is a Quaker whose faith is centered on an hour of stillness each week, and she’s long appreciated the Muslim practice of regular prayer throughout the day.
She recalls a trip to Big Bend where she saw a family stop on a trail to pray. "That's what makes interfaith so special," she says. "It's what we share. The differences mean so little compared to that."
Correction: An earlier version of this story included incorrect information about Islamic daily prayer rituals. Muslims pray five times a day.