Dinner with Friends: Day 23 of Ramadan

Last night, my wife and I were treated to an iftar dinner at Afrah, a Mediterranean restaurant in Richardson, by a family I had never met before.

Earlier in the week, a man named Armogahn contacted me by email, saying that he had heard the radio program and knew Yaseen, and that he would be honored if we would be his guests for dinner. I’m getting invitations like this all the time now, and as much as possible, have responded affirmatively.

The meal was incredible – a buffet spread containing naan and hummus, falafel, chicken kabob, Greek salad, and so many things I’d never tried before.

But the company was even better. Armogahn and his wife, Teemat, were a delight. We took turns asking each other questions about our faiths, our traditions, and our perspectives on life. His two teenage daughters were also present, and, when they looked up from their cell phones, took part in the conversation.

Every time I accept an invitation like this during Ramadan, I rediscover a virtue which Muslims, Christians, and Jews all value and prize highly – hospitality. For some reason, I think we American Christians have largely lost sight of this virtue, blinded by the fast-paced society in which we live.

But hospitality is supposed to be a central characteristic of our faith. Abraham, beloved and respected by all three faiths, set the standard when he extended hospitality to three strangers who happened to pass by his desert tent.

Last week, a new Muslim friend told me that very story after I’d expressed my gratitude for his invitation to dinner. He responded by saying, “Haven’t you heard the story of Abraham? Do you know what he did for the strangers? He roasted a whole cow for them! They couldn’t have eaten the whole thing, but he gave them all of it. Just for them. That’s hospitality!”

A well-known Arab Muslim proverb says, “The guest is a guest of God,” and another, “God comes to us in the person of a guest.” The practice of hospitality is a form of spiritual discipline, then, as it shapes one to assume the posture of service towards everyone and anyone.

So far, my experience of Islam has been one big lesson in hospitality, a lesson which I need to re-learn in my own tradition. This is not a stretch, because Jesus exuded hospitality; it was an essential part of his personality.

Once I read about an Arab Christian who thanked a Muslim for his hospitality to him. The Muslim replied, “Don’t forget that as an Easterner, Christ was very hospitable. He took his obligation as a host seriously and fed the five thousand.”

I had never before thought of the story of Jesus feeding the multitudes as an example of hospitality. Maybe that’s because the American lifestyle is molding us in another direction, pushing us toward being anti-hospitable, of ignoring the guest, and of rushing around in self-obsessed circles of worry.

Many of the world’s cultures still prize respect for the guest. I will never forget the day I visited the United Methodist Church in the town of Sa’a in Cameroon. While working there, I liked to pop in on different churches without announcing my arrival, to observe how the work was going. When I walked into the church, the pastor was clearly surprised but pleased to see me. After the service, he invited me to his home, and forced me and my two guests to sit down at the dinner table. His wife then fed us a beautiful dinner of chicken and plantains.

I noticed that he and his family were not eating, and I asked him why. He politely evaded the question, but it became obvious to me pretty quickly that his wife had served us the meal that she had originally prepared for her own family. I felt extremely guilty about this. I felt as if I had taken food from the mouth of his children!

But he assured me, again and again, that it was his pleasure, his duty, his joy to serve us.

I learned more about hospitality on that day than I ever had before.

I still find it hard to be as giving and generous as that. I still worry about what will be left for me. I operate so much of the time from a perspective of scarcity, rather than abundance.

I am praying that during this Ramadan, I will learn to be as generous and hospitable as the many Muslims I have met over these last few weeks. I want hospitality to become a part of my own personality.

Oh, and I learned one more valuable thing last night – buffets are a dangerous way to break a fast … I ate so much that I’m still in pain this morning!

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17 comments

  1. George Holcombe

    Wanda and I experienced this when we worked with village people in Asia. Maybe the UMC growth plans would be better served by reviving hospitality in its many forms in congregations, rather than the present church growth approaches.

  2. armoghanq

    Dear Rev. Wes it was an absolute pleasure to have you and your wife as our guests. Teenat and I thoroughly enjoyed your company and I got a fresh perspective on how better to communicate with my kids and about disciplined church services. I definitely learnt a few things from you. I pray to God for his blessings and to open our hearts so we can love, tolerate and understand each other and become an examplery society in the world and once again be leaders in Science and Technology. May God Almighty give you the strength to complete the fasting and share your experiences with everyone. Amin!

  3. armoghanq

    On another note May God take away hate and enmity from our hearts and incidents like the ones which happened in Joplin and Wisconsin never happen again. Amin!

    • JanAsker

      Insha allah sister…I am ill this Ramadan annd am unable to fast – which was at first unsettling since this is my first real Ramadan since my conversion to Islam. My research on line and with speaking with the Imam was that I would feed a hungry person each day of Ramadan as a sort of substitute. At first I was sad because I was not going to be experiencing the same as my fellow muslims. However, 23 days into this, I have to tell you that the blessing that I have received from sharing what I have…which is not much…with others less fortunate than I has provided me with so many blessings and lessons. I’m actually looking forward to serving someone each day! I’m a southern woman and we are known for being courteous and hospitable from our kitchens at our homes (well, the women of my family are any way… you never leave my home hungry or thirsty if I can help it no matter who you are). However, this is different. This is being hospitable to a stranger. I am going out at dinner time before I have my own meal, and I feed a homeless person from the same food I will eat that night. We’re not to feed them from our spoils, but from what we have, our best. I search out these folks who are homeless, dirty, smelly … these people who stand with the signs “Will work for food” and or who sit in the shadows of the rest of us as we busily go about our lives. These people are strangers, and they have a real need for a blessing…Last night I found a man who was behind a grocery store digging through their garbabe for food. I saw him and immediately was moved that he was my guest for the day. I drove up and motioned him to come to the car. I asked him if he could use some dinner. He said yes. I said tonight I have corndogs, do you like them? He said Mamme, if you’re gonna give me a meal I will eat anything. Thank you so so much. The tears in his eyes, the gratitude of having received this gift of food from a stranger (fresh cooked corndogs opposed to whatever he would find in the garbage that night). I gave him just half of what I had and it made such a huge impact for him for the night. He cried as he received my offering of hospitality to him (a sincere gesture of kindness, non-judging, just a gift without asking anything in return) and I cried as I received the blessing from Allah for showing me what I have, my daily blessings I often overlook and take for granted (like fresh food without digging through the garbage) a lesson of being hospitable to a stranger. I drove away thinking, Alhamdulillah for showing me this lesson. Even Jesus (pbuh) said, “the way you have treated these, so you have treated me.” This lesson wasin hospitality…of how you can grow spiritually by feeding someone for a day… So, even though I have not been able to fast, this month of Ramadan has still held such beauty for me. Try it, learning to ge generous toward a stranger rather than just a friend who you invite into your home … I hope to remember this lesson forever. Good luck sister “growing heart”… Salam

      • Umm Abdullah

        I can’t say anything better than what simplyme said: “Jazakallah khairen for sharing that beautiful story.”

        Often people give those meals by donating a certain amount of money to an organization that will provide meals, but what you’re doing is so much more!

  4. WadudH.

    Inspiring! Reminds me of this beautiful story of the companions (Sahaba) of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him):

    Sahaba Preferring Others Over Themselves
    Abu Hurairah, a distinguished companion of the Prophe, narrates that once a poor man came to the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) asking for food.

    So the Prophet (pbuh) asked of his family if they had anything at home to give to this poor man. Unfortunately, they had nothing to offer him. The Messenger of God announced to his companions, “Is there anyone who will feed this guest tonight, so that God may have mercy upon him?”

    So a man from the Ansar of Madina stood up and said, “I will take care of him tonight O Prophet of God (pbuh)!”

    This Ansari man took the man to his house and told his wife, “Let us feed the guest of the Prophet of God (pbuh) tonight.”
    She replied, “By Allah, we have nothing except some food for the children.”
    The companion said, “That’s okay we’ll make a plan. When the kids ask for food, then we’ll occupy them and then put them to sleep. Then we’ll go and put out the lantern so the guest doesn’t see us and we’ll act like we’re eating too.”
    They did this and the guest ate to his full and happily went on his way.

    In the morning, the following verses of the Quran were revealed to the Prophet (pbuh) in their favor,

    “…and they give others preference over themselves, even though they themselves are in need. And whosoever is saved from his own greed, then they are the one’s who will be the successful.” (Quran 59:9)

    (This story has been narrated by Bukhari, Muslim Tirmizi, Nasa`i and others….)

    • Umm Abdullah

      That was what this post reminded me of, too, Wadud. And your post mentioned that the man was of the Ansar, which is another lesson in hospitality for all of us.

      When the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and many of his followers left Makkah (because of persecution) and moved to Madinah, the people of Madinah who offered them refuge and support were called the Ansar (helpers). The Prophet (pbuh) paired one person of the Ansar with each person who had fled Makkah; he called them brothers, and they shared food, accommodations, etc., with them.

      A year or two ago, I was reading about areas of Pakistan where people had fled (I don’t remember if it was because of war or flooding), and large numbers of people were taken in by completely strangers in another area – strangers who were not well off themselves. Yet they told the reporter, “How could we not take them in?” and they referred to the example of the Ansar…

  5. Ayeen (@Ayeenlin)

    Reverend, I have been enjoying your posts and reflections on Islam and fasting. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences with us.

    I am a first generation American with Chinese background. I am also a first generation Muslim. Growing up in America all my life, and after becoming Muslim in 2001, hospitality was one of the areas where I noticed a significant and well appreciated difference between all cultures. In my native culture, honoring your guest is practiced but without an intention to please your Lord. In my experience with American culture, honoring your guest is nearly never practiced. In Islam, honoring guests are accompanied with a beautiful intention that makes your efforts special and sweet. There is a certain sweetness that comes with hosting and serving your guests. In fact, it gives great pleasure to the host when they honor their guest. There’s something about it they sincerely enjoy, and likewise, it gives the guest a feeling of warmth and enjoyment as well. Everyone benefits. It is a beautiful feeling to honor and to be honored. I have been to homes where the family’s cupboards were nearly empty, but they quickly and happily offer you from whatever little they do have. Hospitality in Islam is more about being generous with your grace than with your food and drink. Grace and honor are two things that seem to be scarce in today’s society and youth. If only we had more grace and honor in our actions, for the pleasure of our Creator, it would make all our actions so much sweeter. A sweetness like no other.

    “Let whoever believes in Allah and in the Last Day either speak good or be silent. Let whoever believes in Allah and in the Last Day honor his neighbour. Let whoever believes in Allah and in the Last Day honor his guest.”
    [Al-Bukhari & Muslim]

    The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: Allah would show mercy to him who will entertain this guest (in need) tonight. A person from the Ansar stood up and said: Messenger of Allah, I (am ready to entertain). He took him to his house and said to his wife: Is there anything with you (to serve the guest)? She said: No, but only a subsistence for our children. He said: Distract their attention with something, and when the guest enters extinguish the lamp and give him the impression that we are eating. So they sat down. and the guest had his meal. When it was morning he went to Allah’s Apostle (may peace be upon him) who said: Allah was well pleased with what you both did for your guest this night.
    (Muslim)

  6. Dayle

    I’ve posted before, but as a reminder, my husband and I are American Christians, living and working in Libya on post revolution relief and development projects. We have been fasting and sharing this experience with many of our Libyan Mulsim friends.

    This post about hospitality cannot be underestimated. The family that we are staying near had us share the F’tur the first 20 days of the fast because we didn’t have a gas bottle yet to cook. Now that we are cooking ourselves, each day, just after the mosque’s sound there will be soft knocks on the door to deliver sharba (soup) and other yummy portions.

    Then, when we go shopping together, which is often because they don’t want us to walk in the heat, there will be an exchange in Arabic between the shopkeeper and our friends. I find out that “her money is no good here”.

    At first, it was hard to accept such consistent and unequalled hospitality. Learning to be humble rather than shying away from receiving these blessings has given us a precious window into cultural and religious norms.

    As Americans, we have much to learn about hospitality.

  7. djdfr

    Generosity is something I work on since it seems common”wisdom” is all about not being had.

    It’s not always easy to determine where the middle path is.

  8. garudaeph

    Assalamu alaikum
    Mr. Magruder , I just want to sincerely commend on your great efforts this Ramadan – something we can all learn from to branch out of our own spheres and try to engage and understand in “the other.” I know you might have done a bit already, but I just want to strongly recommend that you to read the Qu’ran, if not the whole thing, then maybe the first three chapters or so. The real essence of Ramadan is not abstaining from food or water, or from your desires (although these are very important) but about engaging with the Qu’ran during the month it was revealed. Insha’Allah this will make more your Ramadan experience more complete (you’ve gone so far already, why not?). All the best.

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