Ramadan challenges Christians

With the appearance of the new crescent moon last Thursday, the holy month of Ramadan commenced for the Muslim world. During this month, Muslims recall the first time the one God dictated verses of the Holy Qur’an through the Angel Gabriel to the Prophet Muhammed. His mission would be to call people to obedience to the one God and to righteousness. Ramadan is thus a holy month marked by rigorous fasting; from dawn to dusk, Muslims refrain from eating, drinking, and even sexual activities. Fasting at Ramadan is a serious obligation for the Muslim. It is not easy. The pre-dawn breakfast, the Suhoor, is taken around 4 a.m. No matter how generous this may be, hunger pangs are real by noon, stomach grumbling by afternoon. Persevering to Iftar, the evening meal that breaks the day’s fast, is challenging – especially when one must fast in a school or workplace surrounded by people where non-stop eating has become part of the culture. After Iftar, the Tarawih prayers. In the course of Ramadan, the entire Qur’an is read at Tarawih.

Christians may be reminded of the 40 days of Lent, during which the 40 days of Jesus’ fasting in the desert is commemorated. In my youth, fasting was a requirement for adults during Lent. It meant not eating more than one meal a day, i.e., being permitted to eat one meal and cumulatively just shy of another. But drinking anything liquid did not break the Lenten fast; a soft drink did not break the fast, not a milkshake, not even a mug of beer. In Germany, the best dark beers were developed and brewed for the season of Lent; strong beers sustained the robust worker in the field, as they now enhance the sedentary worker’s beer belly. Today, even this gentle form of fasting has yielded to the junk food, the fast food, the family feasts and the culinary extravaganzas that leave little room in a modern world for the oddity of fasting.

Unless, of course, one’s vanity requires one to lose weight to appease the frowning mirror. Lent is always a good time for that!

For the serious Christian, however, self-denial through fasting is an ascetical practice aimed at greater personal freedom in a world filled with pernicious compulsions. It is a way of humbly experiencing through grace the redemptive compassion of God expressed in the passion of Jesus on the Cross.

For the Muslim, fasting fosters compassion for those who are less fortunate and underprivileged. It builds self-control and willpower, helpful in battling temptations and peer pressure. It brings purification of body and soul, through a heightened sense of humility, spirituality, and community. It occasions a greater sense of generosity and forgiveness.

For Christians, the fasting of the Muslims at Ramadan may be an occasion to reflect on the quality of their obedience to the One God in whom they believe and the quality of their relationships to their fellow sojourners on this planet which they share as home.

A half century after the Vatican Council challenged Christians to more deeply appreciate elements in diverse religions that unite, rather than divide us, it may be beneficial during this Ramadan to recall the remarkable initiative undertaken in 2007 by Jordan’s Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad bin Talaland and 138 Muslim muftis, religious leaders, academics and scholars representing 43 nations towards Muslim-Christian understanding and dialogue. Without denying inevitable differences in religion, the Muslim leaders, representing a growing consensus or ijmanin in the Muslim world, focused on what unites rather than what divides the two religions. To then Pope Benedict XVI and all the major leaders of the Christian world the Muslims sent a message “In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful” entitled “A Common Word Between Us and You.”

It stressed the importance of peace between Muslims and Christians who together claim the allegiance of more than half of the world’s population. “The basis for this peace and understanding already exists. It is part of the very foundational principles of both faiths: love of the One God, and love of the neighbor. These principles are found over and over again in the sacred texts of Islam and Christianity. The Unity of God, the necessity of love for Him, and the necessity of love of the neighbor is thus the common ground between Islam and Christianity.” The Muslim will appreciate that “the common ground” or “the common word” is mentioned in the Surat 3.64 of the Holy Qur’an. Obedience to human beings should never be in disobedience to the One God. But “justice and freedom of religion are a crucial part of love of the neighbor.”

“Thus, in obedience to the Qur’an, we as Muslims invite Christians to come together with us on the basis of what is common to us, which is also what is most essential to our faith and practice: the Two Commandments of Love.”

The text of this remarkable letter and the positive yet critical responses of Christian leaders worldwide may be found in the website www.acommonword.com. I would like however to underscore the realistic challenge with which the letter ends: “So let our differences not cause hatred and strife between us. Let us vie with each other only in righteousness and good works. Let us respect each other, be fair, just and kind to another and live in sincere peace, harmony and mutual good wills. God says in the Holy Qur’an ‘…Had God willed he could have made you one community. But that he may try you with that which He hath given you (He hath made you as you are). So vie with one another in good works. Unto God ye will all return, and he will then inform you of that wherein ye differ’” (Al-Ma’idah, 5:48).

For us in the Philippines, this may mean: Let us vie with one another in stepping away from violence and making peace. Let us vie with one another in pulling away mutually from instruments of war. Let us vie with one another in building structures where we can live with our differences in peace, but in our differences prove we love the One God and our neighbor in good works.