Undoubtedly you have read the statement to the effect: "Ramadan is when Muslims seek God more than ever." With Ramadan of 2015 coming up around June 17th, we might want to ask, "Is this statement true?" In this short exploration we will look at how Muslims see Ramadan and how Christians should see it. We will also approach the subject of fasting on the basis that the Bible assumes it and that Christians often forget that.
Ramadan in the eyes of Muslims:
According to the Reliance of the Traveller, a manual of Islamic Law, a Muslim who is not a child, insane, sick, having a post-partum or menstrual discharge, traveling or too weak due to age is expected that during the "Holy Month of Ramadan" will abstain from the intake of food, water and tobacco as well as sexual intimacy during daylight hours. Ramadan is known as the "best of months" and prayers made during this month are worth as much as 70 x's as at all other times. According to Islamic traditions, Muhammad said the following about Ramadan:
"Who so ever performs a recommended prayer in this month Allah will keep the fire of Hell away from him ..." Whoever performs an obligatory prayer Allah will reward him with seventy prayers [worth] in this month."And who so ever prays a lot during this month will have his load lightened on the day of measure. "He who recites one verse of the Holy Quran will be given the rewards of reciting the whole Quran during other months."O People! Indeed during this month the doors of heaven are open, therefore ask Allah not to close them for you; the doors of hell are closed, so ask Allah to keep them closed for you. During this month Shaytan (Satan) is imprisoned so ask your Lord not to let him have power over you."
On the 27th day of Ramadan, the night in which the Qur'an is said to have descended down to Muhammad from the Mother of the Book kept in heaven, the gateway to heaven is said to be open and prayers are said to be even more valuable. This is also the "night of destiny" or layat al-qadr, and according to Muslims, and those found doing their religious duties like praying all night at the mosque on this night, will gain some extra rewards.
Ramadan and rewards:
In a manner not unlike loyalty reward points, Ramadan, as we see above, is constructed around the idea of reward. That is to say, it promises a higher level of reward due to the physical abstinence during daylight hours. (The aspect of daylight hours needs to be underscored as the amount of caloric intake by Muslims during the night hours sometimes exceeds normal daily average intake for the rest of the year.) This reward dynamic raises a few questions:
1. Q. Is this reward dynamic unique to Ramadan?
A. No. It is everywhere present in Islam. For instance Friday prayers in the Islamic congregation are said to be worth 25x more than those alone. Prayers done in Mecca are said to be worth as much as 100,000x as much as those done elsewhere. For every extra step taken to walk to a mosque, a certain number of sins are said to be effaced.
"A prayer in the Sacred Mosque [in Mecca] is worth 100,000 prayer more than in any other mosque, a prayer in my mosque [in Medina] is worth 1,000, and a prayer in Jerusalem [al-Aqsa Mosque] is worth 500.” (Reported by Bukhari)
2. Q. Who guarantees these rewards?
A. As the quotes above, the main guarantor of the rewards is Muhammad himself as he is the one who is reported to have made the statement about "my mosque" above. As well he frequently he makes obedience to himself and to Allah of Islam equivalent, that is to say, fasting done in obedience to Allah is fasting done in obedience to Muhammad.
3. Q. Is he a reliable guarantor?
A. This is a critical question. If the guarantor is found to be a fallible human, then the whole system can collapse.
4. Q. Is there any other basis for the reward dynamic?
A. Islam is very much based on merits and demerits and if a person can accumulate enough merits, then this can offset any demerits. As well Islamic writings would seem to indicate that by doing enough religious deeds one can oblige Allah to favor this person, or to make Allah somehow indebted to that person. We could compare it to a contractual obligation where it is assumed "if I scratch your back, then you will scratch mine."
5. Q. Is fasting only for the benefit of individuals?
A. Fasting especially in Islam is a way of showing allegiance to and conformity to the values of the whole Islamic community. That is to say it is a kind of "fellowship of suffering" and this has the reward of keeping one's status in the community and affirming to all others that Muslims are the "best community that has been brought forth to humankind" (Q. 3:110).
A Biblical Christian view of Ramadan:
Since the Bible assumes fasting, i.e., Jesus said, "when you fast...." (Matthew 6:16-18) we will not at all dispute that spiritual discipline. Archibald Alexander wrote a short piece on fasting as a means to "afflict our souls" and it contains wise advice. [http://www.gracegems.org/26/fasting.htm]. Thus we as Christians lament the fact that this practise is not done as it could or should be. But how should we view the Muslim fast?
- The Bible warns against giving undue consideration to "righteous deeds": "... and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment" (Isaiah 64:6).
- The Bible warns against public demonstrations of religiosity. Jesus said, "Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchers, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness" (Matthew 23:27 c.f. Isaiah 58:3–12).
- The Bible says that only the Triune God can be the promiser, provider, and guarantor of rewards and as one writer said, it flows out of His "gracious generosity." To Abraham God said in effect "I myself will be your very great reward" (Genesis 15:1); Jesus linked reward coming from the hand of the Heavenly Father and not from a Celestial Judge: “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven" (Matthew 6:1); the Holy Spirit is the "down payment" of future rewards about which Jesus said, “I am coming soon; my reward is with me” (Revelations 22:12).
- The Bible says that God's favour is not gained by religiosity, but rather by the wholesale dependence of a broken and contrite heart on the sacrifice of Jesus. "The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise" (Psalm 51:17); "Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates; they have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them" (Isaiah 1:14); "For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh" (Philippians 3:3).
- The Bible tells of a pseudo-seeking after God. That is to say, it is to seek after God on the person's terms, and not on His terms. King Saul was an example of this when he made sacrifices to God on his own schedule, on his own terms and on his own volition. (I Samuel 15) and Samuel responded "to obey is better than sacrifice" (v. 22). Thus Romans 3:11 says "There is none who seeks for God ..." that is to say, on His terms, in His way.
- The opening to the heavens is through the sacrifice of Jesus only. A promise for sins expiated by mosque attendance at the night of destiny, by giving alms during Ramadan, observing every detail of the fast without fail, all constitute human-made promises that will fail to deliver, as there are only One Author and Pioneer of the faith and that is Jesus. (Hebrews 5:9; 12:2)
In a word, to quote Jesus about the ultimate reward and fasting:
And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. "Truly. I say to you. they have received their reward. But when you fast. anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:16-18 ESV)
As a Christian you might take the challenge to fast and pray for the Muslim world seriously. This is not for reward from humans, but to plead that the Lord of the harvest would send forth workers, and that you are willing to "afflict your body" to seek first God's Kingdom and his righteousness, to give Him heartfelt thanks that your name is written in the "book of life" and to let the Heavenly Father
As you see your Muslim neighbors fasting this Ramadan, be careful not to cause un-needed offense by eating or drinking in front of them in a manner of flaunting your "freedom in Christ." As well it is not wise to affirm their acts of self-righteousness with an expectation of reward, but to affirm that Jesus said that "those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be filled" — but of course on His terms only. In a sensitive manner you can compare and contrast Christian fasting and Islamic fasting, and in a compassionate way observe with your Muslim friend that the most cruel kind of promise is one that pretends to hold out hope, but ultimately cannot deliver.