What is Ramadan? (And Why You Should Know)

Last week, while waiting for a plane, I accidentally overheard the phone conversation of a Muslim man sitting behind me. He was telling the person on the other end of the line how happy and excited he was that Ramadan was around the corner, starting today.

Why would someone be happy at the prospect of abstaining from eating or drinking daily from dawn to dusk for an entire month while still going to work and accomplishing their daily routine? In countries with scorching heat many Muslims don’t even swallow their saliva for fear that this would invalidate the fast.

Although fasting may be hard, Ramadan can also be pleasant. Like Christmas or Thanksgiving it is a time when families come closer together. Even Muslims who do not practice their faith love to join others for the iftar evening meal at sunset when they break the fast.

I have been invited to scores of iftars. In Muslim homes, the dining table usually displays a rich spread of dishes. Family and hosts drink tea and coffee until late in the evening, savoring a large assortment of pastries prepared fresh daily in local bakeries. They watch TV, play games or chat with the endless stream of guests visiting. In Muslim majority countries this festive atmosphere spills over into the streets. After sunset, restaurants and shops are open and families leisurely stroll in the animated streets of their city or village.

I have been invited to scores of iftars. In Muslim homes, the dining table usually displays a rich spread of dishes. Family and hosts drink tea and coffee until late in the evening, savoring a large assortment of pastries prepared fresh daily in local bakeries.

Ramadan also has a spiritual significance. It is a month of religious revival. It is a time when Muslims not only focus on God but also on others through acts of generosity and solidarity. Muslims believe that during Ramadan, the gates of mercy are opened and the gates of hell are closed. Thus, Ramadan is not just about self-discipline and resisting passions (no Muslim is allowed to have sexual intercourse between sunrise and sunset during the month of Ramadan). Fasting is also a practice that encourages believers to strengthen their relationship with God, remember his ways, and practice abstaining from evil.

One of my seminary students told me the other day that she had listened to a khutbah (Friday sermon at the mosque) and was surprised that the words from the imam (Muslim religious leader) were quite similar to what her pastor preached at church during Lent. The imam was calling the mosque attendees to take advantage of the month of Ramadan to refocus on God and his teachings; to be more fervent in their prayer life and read the Qur’an more assiduously.

The spiritual significance of Ramadan is even more evident during the night of destiny (Laylat Al Qadr) which—during the last week of Ramadan—commemorates the time when the first verses of the Qur’an were revealed to Muhammad. I will never forget watching Muslim friends praying all night long at the mosque during that night, and hoping for God’s response and intervention in their life. They expected visions from God, forgiveness and salvation.

Ramadan can be a season of deepening relationships with Muslim friends. Many Christians have been introduced to Muslim homes for the first time during these festive evenings. Some even made durable connections. Although not all Muslims practice equally or with the same intensity the religious duties besides fasting, Ramadan is still a time that highlights the spiritual quests and needs of Muslims. As Christians, we may seize the occasion of this month to observe, ask questions, and perhaps engage in spiritual discussions with Muslims in which we might be able to share about our own spiritual needs met in Christ.

As Christians, we may seize the occasion of this month to observe, ask questions, and perhaps engage in spiritual discussions with Muslims in which we might be able to share about our own spiritual needs met in Christ.

As a Christian growing up in a tradition that did not talk about fasting, watching Muslims fast during Ramadan encouraged me to reflect on my own understanding and practice of fasting. Fasting exists in most faith traditions, although in various forms and meanings. Buddhist monks and nuns take their last meal of the day at noon. Hindus also fast at various occasions. Scholars believe that Muhammad adopted fasting after he observed the fast of the Jewish community living in his city. The Bible contains many references to fasting (see Zachariah 8:19, Isaiah 58:4-9, Matthew 6:16; Acts 13:2). Jesus himself fasted. And while salvation is only found in Jesus Christ (and not in fasting), I believe there is joy and blessing in fasting.

If you’re a Christian who believes fasting is not a necessary practice, you can still enjoy sharing with Muslim friends during this season the biblical narratives of fasting which highlight the relationship between people and the triune God. If you’re a Christian who practices fasting, you may want to boldly share with Muslims why—as a Christian—you fast. Many Muslims have no idea why Christians fast or don’t. Perhaps this Ramadan they will have an opportunity to learn why from us, as we seek to better know them, pray for them and meet with them.

Open Doors is launching a prayer campaign during Ramadan (June 18th - July 17th) to unite Christians around the world in prayer for the persecuted church. Sign up here to receive prayer resources during Ramadan.

Hear more from Evelyne Reisacher at Urbana 15.

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Comments

It was very interesting and heartwarming to read this. Even though I am Christian, I like to learn about other religions and their practices. I wish more Christians would not be so hateful towards Muslims and other groups they don't know about or wish to know about.

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