This year Ramadan starts in the evening of Thursday 23 April and ends in the evening of Saturday 23 May. It is inevitable that this year’s Ramadan will be affected by the global COVID-19 pandemic and the new norms it is placing on all aspects of life. In a similar way, our own Christian seasons of Lent and Easter have been seriously affected this year.
Ramadan is the ninth month in the Islamic calendar (a lunar calendar) and is a prolonged period of prayer, fasting, charitable works and self-accountability. Those of us who observe Lent will have some sense of the significance of Ramadan for Muslims. Millions of Muslims around the world are praying, fasting and reading the Qur’an.
As with our Christian season of Lent, Ramadan is a time for Muslims to strive for purity in thought and deed. Lent, however, is an optional practice, not mandated by Sacred Scripture. Ramadan is a required observance for most Muslims, taking believers on a path to righteousness.
Fasting is obligatory for adult Muslims, except those who are suffering from an illness, those traveling, the elderly, pregnant women, breastfeeding women, diabetics and those going through menstrual bleeding. It commemorates the first revelation of the Qur’an to Muhammad according to Islamic belief.
Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset. Fasting is one of the five pillars of Islam. Muslims must follow these in the same way that Christians follow the Ten Commandments. Food and drink are provided each day before dawn and after sunset.
The meal before dawn is called the suhur. The meal that breaks the fast at sunset is the iftar. Spiritual rewards for fasting are multiplied during Ramadan.
Whatever our religious background, fasting is a powerful spiritual discipline. It is intentionally abstaining from or reduction from some or all food or drink for a certain period of time. Fasting has many advantages, not restricted to the physiological dimension.
It helps us to feel what those less fortunate feel. It also helps us to better dispose ourselves to experience a deeper relationship with God. Fasting is usually seen as one element in a broader religious practice. The Prophet Isaiah says that the acceptable fast includes a decision to care for the poor and oppressed. Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him (Isaiah 58:7).
Islamic fasting is part of a broader approach to deepen their convictions. In addition to fasting from food and drink, Muslims are encouraged to temper negative emotions such as anger and addiction, to refrain from any falsehood in speech and action, and to strive for patient self-control of their impulses.
By fasting, a Muslim draws closer to God by abandoning bodily pleasures. For some Muslims, fasting may help create a sense of fraternity and solidarity, as they believe they are feeling and experiencing what their needy and hungry brothers and sisters are feeling.
Although Christians don’t observe Ramadan, it’s helpful for us to be aware of it and to have an informed appreciation of what our Muslim neighbours are experiencing. We can grow in appreciation of the power of fasting. We can pray for Muslims, perhaps especially those who are unjustly judged and discriminated against because of our general Western ignorance of Islam.
Probably one of the most valuable things we can do for the Muslim community is to learn more about Islam and what motivates its believers. One of the most valuable means of learning more is to actually get to know, and even befriend, Muslims in your community. Let’s include in our prayer during Ramadan a desire to break down walls that separate us.