For a Muslim to be a good practicing Muslim, he or she must believe in certain things and must do certain things. His tenets of belief are known as the Articles of Faith and his religious works are known as the Pillars of Islam. These religious works are the critical pillars that uphold the system of Islam and provide strength, meaning, and preservation. What a Muslim believes is an internal matter that remains invisible to the outside world. What he does—his religious works—provides external evidence giving credence to his Islamic identity and loyalty. Thus a Muslim’s devotion is measured more by what he does than by what he believes. This explains the emphasis on religious works, the Pillars.
Muslims believe that by observing the fast of Ramadan, they will earn more merit with Allah, and, thus, possibility of the forgiveness of sin. This concept of forgiveness of sin during Ramadan is closely associated with the initial history of the fast.
After Muhammad took his 200-mile trip to Medina from Mecca in 622 A.D., he began courting large numbers of followers to his monotheistic fold. While many Medinans accepted his message, the large Jewish population there remained resistant. In order to win them over, Muhammad declared Friday as an official Sabbath and taught his followers to pray facing the holy city of Jerusalem. It was quite important that Muhammad win over the Jewish population if he was going to convince the world that he was the last of a long line of biblical prophets. In addition, Muhammad participated in the Day of Atonement, a Jewish day of fasting and making restitution for sins. Jews celebrate this day on the 10th of the Hebraic month Tishri, and during the early years of Muhammad’s time in Medina, he taught Muslims to observe this somber day on the corresponding 10th of Muharram, the first month of the Muslim calendar.
During the Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur, Jewish people fast from sundown one night until sundown the following night. Known as one of the holiest days of the Jewish calendar, Jews imbibe no food or drink during this period, including water. This day of fasting, which falls shortly after the Jewish New Year celebration, is a time for Jews to repent of their sins. According to the Law of Moses, it is to be a somber day of fasting and rest (see Lev. 23:26-32). This is a day dedicated to seeking Yahweh’s forgiveness and being reconciled to Him.
Ultimately, the Jews of Medina rejected Muhammad as a prophet from God. In reaction, the man from Mecca made sweeping changes to his religious practice. Though he kept Friday as a holy day for Muslims, he shifted the direction of prayer from Jerusalem to Mecca, and he changed the Day of Atonement into a month-long fasting season during Ramadan. Hence, the fast of Ramadan is rooted in a quest for sin’s recompense.
The idea of sin requiring atonement or payment is a familiar one in both Judaism and Christianity. Jewish people, on the Day of Atonement, paid for their sins by fasting, offering sacrifices, and abstaining from work (see Lev. 23:27-28). In Islam, shadows of this same thinking exist throughout Ramadan, as Muslims seek to follow this all-important Pillar in the hope that forgiveness may be attained through their meritorious abstinence. Unfortunately for Muslims, however, the expectation of sin’s recompense hangs in the balance between their works and Allah’s unpredictable benevolence. One’s insecurity concerning his or her eternal standing is only mitigated by the possibility that Allah will live up to the name Muslims emphasize during Ramadan: Rahman-ur-Rahim, which means, “The Merciful and Compassionate.” Simply put, the people of Islam have no assurance that their sins are forgiven or that Allah will show them mercy on the Day of Judgment. As one South Asian Muslim told me, “If I ask Allah to forgive me, maybe he will, maybe he won’t.”
Why is this? In Islamic theology, there is no payment for sins, except the works (practicing the Five Pillars) that one does. Unfortunately, this leaves many Muslims wondering if their works are ever enough. How could Allah ever forgive them? Some may wonder, knowing their own sin, if Allah could truly be both just and forgiving. Thus, without a payment for sins coming from outside of oneself, Muslims are left wondering what Judgment Day will have in store for them and if the works they bring to the celestial table will be enough to tip the scales in their favor.
A Christian Response
As Christians, it is easy to condemn Muslims for what we deem futile, but maybe a better alternative would be to commend them for their devotion. That does not mean that we endorse Islamic teaching, but rather recognize the reality of their spiritual hunger.
The Apostle Paul did not rebuke the Greeks for their idolatry when he saw their abominable idols (Acts 17). To the contrary, he said, “Men of Athens! I see that in every way, you are very religious.” The Apostle Paul found a way to keep the channel of communication open. And, indeed, when it comes to Muslims who devoutly keep the Ramadan fast, they are “very religious!”
Practicing Muslims are not lacking in “religiosity”—but religiosity will not save anyone. Speaking before the religious elite of his day, the Sanhedrin, Peter provided the clear antidote to religiosity: “There is no other name among men whereby we must be saved, except the name of Jesus” (Acts 10:32).