A few days ago, a billion and a half Muslims around the world entered the month of Ramadan, the ninth month of their lunar calendar year. During this 30 day month, Muslim adults are required to fast from food, drink and all pleasurable activities from sunrise to sunset. To be more precise, fasting is to begin with the earliest of the five mandatory daily prayers, the Fajr prayer, and it ends with the call to the Maghrib prayer after sunset. In a place like Cairo, as summer approaches, that means a Muslim will have to fast close to fifteen and a half hours! Today, May 17th, the fajr prayer call began at 3:21 AM local time, and the Magrhib prayer call will commence at 6:42 PM. As summer approaches, high temperatures in Cairo are approaching 100 F, and will crest that next week. When Ramadan occurs during summer months, maintaining ones’ personal equilibrium is always challenging.
Recently, I have been reading the Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to al-Medina and Mecca, by famed British explorer Sir Richard F. Burton, first published in 1855. Recorded on pp. 74-76 of volume 1 of my copy of the Memorial edition (published 1893), Burton shares his impressions of life in a Muslim city during Ramadan. A self-described atheist, Burton was an equal opportunity lampooner of the fasting rituals of various religions, but here focuses principally upon the effects of Ramadan fasting on the life of the community. It’s a fascinating snapshot of fallen human attempts to be sufficiently religious:
Like the Italian, the Anglo-Catholic, and the Greek fasts, the chief effect of the “blessed month” [i.e., Ramadan] is to darken their [i.e., Muslim] tempers into positive gloom. Their voices, never of the softest, acquire, especially after noon, a terribly harsh and creaking tone. The men curse one another and beat the women. The women slap and abuse the children, and these in their turn cruelly entreat, and use bad language to, the dogs and cats. You can scarcely spend ten minutes in any populous part of the city without hearing some violent dispute. The “Karakun,” or station-houses [police stations], are filled with lords who have administered an undue dose of chastisement to their ladies, and with ladies who have scratched, bitten, and otherwise injured the bodies of their lords. The Mosques are crowded with a sulky, grumbling population, making themselves offensive to one another on earth whilst working their way to heaven; and in the shade, under the outer walls, the little boys who have been expelled [from] the church [i.e., mosque] attempt to forget their miseries in spiritless play. In the bazars (sic) and streets, pale long-drawn faces, looking for the most part intolerably cross, catch your eye, and at this season a stranger will sometimes meet with positive incivility….In fine, the Ramadan, for many classes, is one-twelfth of the year wantonly thrown away.
It’s ironic, isn’t it, how the sin-stained heart, in striving to prove its allegiance to God by prodigious fleshly efforts, only succeeds in sinning more by taking its misery out on “innocent bystanders”? Even dogs and cats cannot escape! “He who says he is in the light and hates his brother is in the darkness still” (1 Jn 2:9)
For all that is said in the Qur’an about Allah being a god of mercy and compassion, Islam in practice is anything but a religion of grace and freedom. Muslims feel compelled to strive to keep the minimum commandments of prayer, fasting and alms-giving at the very least, and if possible to outdo their neighbors, hoping Allah will notice them with blessing and reward. But, of course, they have no assurance of Allah’s favor, and cannot know until Judgment Day whether they have made the celestial cut.
How different is the message of the gospel, and Jesus’ words of welcome and acceptance: “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Mt. 11:28-30).
Assaad is an Iraqi friend of mine, who has lived in the USA for less than two years. Now in his 40s, Assaad identified himself as a Shi’ite Muslim all his life, until about a month ago when he gave his heart to Jesus Christ. A group of us were sitting around talking with him two days ago, and someone asked him how he felt about the onset of the month of Ramadan and the fasting it required. “Good riddance,” he answered in Arabic. “My only regret is that for 1400 years Muslims have been enslaved by the chains of this ritual.” Another person asked him, “What attracted you to Christianity?” His answer was simple: “Jesus. Jesus loves me.”
In the next thirty days, as Muslims stagger under the weight of the chains of Ramadan, would you join me in praying for them, that the love of Jesus will break through the darkness that keeps them enslaved in fear and bondage, and that many more “Assaads” will be brought by Christ “…out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet. 2:9)? Only the Lord can set the captive free!
It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. A billion and a half Muslims desperately need to meet Jesus, “for if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed!” (John 8:36). There is no greater gift we can offer a Muslim than to introduce him to Jesus, or if we don’t have that chance, then at least to pray for his redemption from captivity! Such prayers, I am convinced, are deeply pleasing to God.