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One fifth of the world is now engaged in a month-long fast

 

Did you know that 20 percent of the world’s population is observing Ramadan right now?

So what exactly is it and why should we know something about it? I’m not a Muslim but I have many Muslim friends and I’ve studied the Muslim faith (Islam) for many years. This is what I’ve learned.

“Ramadan” is the name of a month on the Muslim calendar, which is lunar. For centuries, this month has been chosen as the time—about 30 days— for Muslims to observe a fast during daylight hours. The lunar calendar is also used to determine festival or holiday dates in other faiths as well, such as the Christian Easter, the Jewish Rosh Hashanah, the Hindu Diwali, and various Asian New Years.

From sunrise to sunset, faithful Muslims abstain from eating food, sexual activity, smoking, and very strict Muslims even abstain from drinking. That’s not easy if you live in the Middle East (where many Muslims do), or in Indonesia, on the equator (home to over 12% of the world’s Muslim population), when temperatures can reach 30 C-plus.

It can also be a challenge if you’re a Muslim living in a northern country (like my wife’s homeland of Finland). Because lunar months are shorter than the months of the Gregorian calendar used by most of the world, Ramadan moves forward by about 10 days each year, meaning that in any location not near the equator, the fasting month will eventually occur during the northern (or southern) summer, when days are long and nights are short. The trick, I’m told, is to eat quickly.

There are about 1.6 billion Muslims in our world of 7.7 billion souls and most of them are now fasting. Muslims are exempted from the Ramadan fast if they are ill or very elderly, pregnant, menstruating or breastfeeding, not of sound mind, travelling, or children. In all cases except for that of unsound mind, fasting days must either be made up, one-for-one, later in the year, or, in the case of the ill and elderly, they must feed one poor person per day of missed fasting.

Otherwise it is one of the five pillars of Islam that an obedient Muslim should observe. I remember the five pillars with five words beginning with the letter “P”:

Proclamation: that there is only one God, Allah, and Mohammad (peace be upon him) is his prophet.

Prayers: five daily from early morning to late at night.

Pilgrimage: to Mecca (Saudi Arabia) once in a lifetime if health and finances permit.

Partial Tithe: 2.5 % of disposable income (the biblical tithe is 10%).

Partial Fast: Ramadan (partial because it’s only during daylight hours).

The purpose of Ramadan is to teach self-control and devotion to Allah (the Arabic and Muslim word for God). Near the end of the month-long fast is “The Night of Power,” when Muslims pray with extra fervour for Allah to answer their prayers and grant them his favour.

At the end of the fasting month is a celebration called “Eid al-Fitr,” also known as “Hari Raya” in some countries, when Muslims break the final day of fasting with a feast, and often exchange cards and gifts. It is by far the most important holiday in the faith, and has been described as akin to Christmas and Thanksgiving combined, with distant family members travelling whatever distance may be necessary to return home to celebrate.

When we lived in the Sudbury region for 23 years, my wife and I were once invited by our Muslim friends to an “Eid” celebration. We enjoyed the potluck dinner of Middle Eastern dishes and made new friends with Muslims from various countries.

Several years ago I was in Halifax leading a week-long cross-cultural Christian training program. One of our activities was to meet internationals and learn about their beliefs and practices. One team member met an older Muslim man living alone. He invited our whole team (about six) to join him for dinner. Since it was during Ramadan we had to wait until the sun fell below the horizon. We were amazed to see his table full of delicious food. We had a very enjoyable evening of sharing together and we learned again the importance of hospitality in eastern cultures.

So now you know a bit about Ramadan. I challenge my fellow Christians to learn about other world faiths such as Islam. In this way we will not be ignorant (“I don’t know”), indifferent (“I don’t care”) or intimidated (“I don’t like and am a bit afraid of”). Instead we can be informed, interested and involved in the lives of Muslim friends whom God puts in our path.

That’s why I was part of a small dialogue group called “Truth-Seekers” of Muslims and Christians for 12 years. But more about that another time!

Pastor Rob Weatherby served congregations in Nova Scotia and Ontario and as a missionary met many Muslims in Europe, Africa, Asia and North America over the last 40 years.

 

 

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