What’s Ramadan all About?
“Forgiveness of sins? I love that thought,” said Ahmed as we sat enjoying our meal at a midwestern diner. We had been talking about Ramadan, a month set aside for fasting in commemoration of Muhammad’s first revelations from Allah.
During Ramadan, the ninth month in the Muslim calendar, adherents of Islam fast from dawn until dusk. The Arabic word for fasting is sawm, which literally means “abstinence.” Throughout the daylight hours of Ramadan, Muslims all over the world abstain from food, drink, and sexual activity, as well as impure thoughts and words. The most devout Muslims may even avoid swallowing their saliva during this month of fasting.
Abstaining from all food and drink during daylight hours can be a challenge wherever one lives, but especially in certain parts of the world. As former Muslim Nabeel Qureshi relates in Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus, practicing the fast as a boy in Scotland was very difficult because the sun rose as early as 4:30AM and set as late as 10:00PM during some parts of the year. Participating in the fast while living in a place with extended daylight hours, therefore, would be quite a test of self-denial.
In addition to geographic challenges, there are seasonal hardships. The Muslim calendar is based on a lunar year, which has roughly 354 days. The month of Ramadan, therefore, shifts on the solar calendar eleven days per year, causing it to fall on both cooler and warmer seasons during various years. Because it takes about thirty-three years for Ramadan to pass through the solar calendar, a Muslim will experience the spectrum of seasons many times over while fasting during his or her lifetime. Needless to say, the longer days and the heat of the summer months make completing this fast quite difficult. Conversely, the shorter days of winter bring sweet relief. As a Muslim friend recently told me, “During one Ramadan in winter, the sun set so early that I forgot to go to the iftar meal.” (Iftar is the nightly meal during Ramadan when Muslims break their fast.) This year, many Muslims in the West will enjoy milder temperatures as Ramadan is expected to begin on April 2 and end on May 1, depending on the sighting of the new moon. Muslims in South Asia, however, will be fasting during the height of heat and humidity.
Because participating in the Ramadan fast is one of the Five Pillars of Islam, many Muslims look forward to this time with great anticipation. Articulating the excitement of this month, another Muslim friend told me not long ago, “I feel Ramadan.” This is a jovial time of community celebration, as families gather around the nightly iftar meal to reflect on another day of a completed fast. Perhaps more than this, however, Ramadan is a time of spiritual awakening, when dormant religious matters running in the background of Muslims’ lives come to the fore. It is a time to draw close to Allah.
In this month of heightened spiritual sensitivity, many Muslims participate in a Turawih ceremony, in which adherents go to a prayer meeting at the mosque every night during Ramadan and hear portions of the Qur’an read. Because Islam’s holy book is easily divided into thirty parts, a Muslim who attends these ceremonies will have listened to the entire Qur’an in one month. Some especially devout Muslims even go on an extended prayer retreat, spending day and night of the final ten days of the fast in the mosque reading the Qur’an and praying, a practice called itikaf. The last ten days of Ramadan, which incorporate Laylat Al Qadr, or the Night of Power, are considered the holiest part of the fast.
“During Laylat Al Qadr, we pray to Allah that our sins will be forgiven,” reflected Ahmed. “It is one of the holiest nights of Ramadan.” The Night of Power is remembered as the night when Muhammed is said to have begun receiving revelations of the Qur’an from Allah. This special night for Muslims typically falls on the 27th of Ramadan. For many Muslims, the Night of Power and the whole of Ramadan, for that matter, hold the possibility of attaining forgiveness of sins. For people like Ahmed, this is a beautiful thought.
Building Bridges during Ramadan
If we are really serious about delivering the gospel message to Muslim people, we must find ways to build bridges into their lives. Unfortunately, we often begin by erecting walls that distance us. One sure way to erect a wall is to condemn Muslims for embracing a religious system of works and to label those works, such as fasting, entirely worthless. In our enthusiasm for God’s grace, which is a gift—not of works, we are often quick to cast judgment on Muslims. But think back to the story of the Apostle Peter and Cornelius, the Roman Gentile. Act 10 informs us that Cornelius’ religious works of prayer and gifts to the poor did not go unnoticed. Of course, these works did not directly save Cornelius, but they caught God’s attention and eventually led to his salvation. Who knows how many “Corneliuses” there are among the Muslims of the world or in your neighborhood, who are sincere about connecting with God!
During Ramadan, find ways to acknowledge a Muslim’s fast as this can open the way for dialogues regarding biblical examples and teaching on fasting. You could refer to the personal fasts of Moses (Exod. 34:27-29), Daniel (Dan. 9:3-9), and Jesus (Matt. 4:1-4). Community fasts of King Jehoshaphat and his subjects (2 Chron. 20:1, 3-7, 12) and the people of Judah (Joe 2:12-17) also provide great insight into fasting. Such a discussion could lead to the biblical teaching on holiness (Lev. 11:44; 1 Pet. 2:9-11; Titus 2:2-6).
Jesus expects His followers to fast, but fasting nowadays is not a common or popular practice. It is certainly a biblical practice and necessary when engaging in spiritual formation and spiritual warfare. Who knows what could happen if more Christians in America made their prayers fervent by adding the ingredient of fasting!