Understanding the Fourth Pillar: Ramadan

Most people don’t realize that India is one of the world’s three most Muslim-populated countries. This month Amy offers a personal perspective on Ramadan, a month of fasting and prayer that Muslims in India and around the world observe through July 17.

Over the winter, I was thrilled to hear a man from Azerbaijan speak at our church about his journey from Islam to Christianity. As a liaison between Muslim and Christian Students at Western Michigan University, he explained that his job was to bridge religious gaps – serving as an example of peace on campus. Having never fully understood Islam, this man captured my attention.

His gentle, Christ-like discussions inspired me to seek peace across faith lines so that I could understand Christ’s call more deeply. Through his three adult-education classes, I felt empowered. I also felt I was able to walk alongside him and ask questions openly. But most importantly, I understood why Christ won his heart in the end.

In the miraculous way that God works, a friend of mine told me about a book I might like to read.

It was a similar story of a man who found Christ. In his book, Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus, author Nabeel Qureshi details his dramatic and powerful discovery of the love of God. His walk speaks of his great struggles, and he lets his readers know that one cannot understand his former devotion “by merely sharing facts.” Instead, he invites the reader to share in a detailed picture of his childhood, stating, “If [parts of my book] seem pro-Islamic, they are serving their purpose of conveying a past love for my former faith.”

He shares his great love of Islam in order to build a relationship – a call to fellowship with him through his life-changing journey. In this way, he encourages Christians to understand the beliefs of Islam in order to be more knowledgeable followers of Jesus. At Mission India, our partners approach evangelism in much the same way. In order to share the love and truth of the Gospel, there must first be an effort to seek peace and understanding across all faith boundaries.

Christians must build relationships in order to share the Good News. And I felt called to start that journey by learning more and finding the common ground where we plant those first seeds of relationship.

And what better time to educate myself than now, during the Islamic observance of Ramadan?

Within Islam there are five pillars of faith – including Testimony of Faith; Prayer; Giving; Fasting; and Pilgrimage. Ramadan (also known as Ramzan in India) fulfills this fourth pillar, and from June 18 to July 17, nearly 1.6 billion Muslims all over the world will be engaged in one of their holiest traditions by participating in a month-long fast. Each day – from dawn to dusk – Muslims will take in no water, food, or other physical needs as a sign of his or her devotion to Allah.

But why does this concern Christians, and what can be learned in this journey toward relationship?

The first step toward understanding is realizing that this time of fasting and prayer is not only about denying the body’s basic needs.

It is also a way to sharpen the mind toward the suffering of others. During Ramadan, Muslims will increase their charitable giving by serving the homeless, feeding the hungry, or supplying a need for those Muslims who cannot meet the physical demands of the fasting experience. These acts of generosity are vital to the teachings of a peace-centered Islamic believer. It is easy to see that – during this time of great discipline – the link to Christian teaching is quite similar. Just as Christians believe it is vital to feed God’s sheep, Muslims cite the Qur’an’s verse, which states, ”The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said, ‘Feed the hungry, visit the sick and set free the captives.’” (Sahih Al-Bukhari, Volume 7, Hadith 552.)

In this shared identity as helpers of the poor, Christians and Muslims can begin a dialogue.

The second misnomer about Ramadan is that fasting is continual.

This is not true. As a matter of fact, more food is consumed in Islamic countries during Ramadan than at any other time in the year. Two meals are taken during each day of the holiday. Before the sun rises, a Muslim may eat sehri, and after the sun sets, another meal known as iftar is eaten. If a morning sehri is missed, then food may not be taken until the evening iftar. Depending on when Ramadan falls in the lunar calendar and where the person lives in the world, the fast can be as short as 9 hours or stretch as far as 21 hours.

But once the sun has set, many Muslim homes are filled with joyful family meals, prayers, and readings from the Qur’an. The meals are prepared in abundance, and feasts are often shared with family and friends. It is a time of gratitude, community, and celebration. In much the same way, Christians place a great emphasis on the meals shared among believers – so much so, that the holiest of Christian meals involves the breaking of Christ’s body.

With a sense of history, gravity, purpose, and love, believers can again meet around a common thread that both traditions value. 

The third thing Christians can remember is that Christians, Jews, and Muslims share the same Abrahamic roots.

Just as a shared meal and story are central to the Passover and Easter stories, this same importance is placed on the shared meals that occur during the holy month of Ramadan. Through the juxtaposition of daylight and night; hunger and feast; and meditation and prayer, Islamic believers come to this holiday with great devotion, joy, and anticipation. They tell the stories of Muhammad, recite the Qur’an several times each day, and are aware of why they sacrifice during this time of the year. Seeing Ramadan as a form of enlightenment and seeking Allah’s will, Christians can compare this time to Lent, where sacrifice and fasting lead to our celebration of the resurrected Christ.

So what is the call of Christians during the month of Ramadan?

During this time, I must admit that – as a Christian – I have to rely on the simplicity of being Christ-like. Although I say it is simple, I acknowledge that it takes great effort. This call means leading others through knowledge, relationship, and prayer. This call means educating myself and others on the ways we can first meet others where they are. This call means patience. And, although I do not have to know verses of the Qur’an or every holiday that Muslims celebrate, I do need to lead in a sometimes tumultuous conversation. The same way Jesus forged ahead in love, not fear. So, during this time, I will learn and pray and know the teachings of Christ – especially His command to love our neighbor.