A Former Muslim Looks at Lent and Ramadan

A Muslim fasts to draw nearer to a distant God. A Christian fasts to draw nearer to a God who became man and dwelt among us.

Old Muslim decorations for Ramadan showing the star and crescent symbol are pictured with the belltowers of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem’s Manger Square on Christmas Eve, Dec. 24, 2023.
Old Muslim decorations for Ramadan showing the star and crescent symbol are pictured with the belltowers of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem’s Manger Square on Christmas Eve, Dec. 24, 2023. (photo: Hazem Bader / AFP via Getty Images)

From the mouth of the Cave of Mount Hira he could see the moon and countless stars hovering in the firmament above. He was an illiterate merchant, 40 lunar years of age, a descendant of Ishmael. He was an honest man who’d been orphaned at a tender age, hailing from a city filled to the brim with greedy and depraved idol-worshippers: Mecca. The customs of so many of his neighbors deeply disturbed him. It was to the caves that Muhammad periodically withdrew from them, for several weeks at a time, to contemplate the ways of the true God in solitude.

“Read!” a voice suddenly told him. As the story goes, it was that of the angel Gabriel.

“I cannot read,” Muhammad, terrified as he was, tried to explain. 

“Read!” the voice said again.

Muhammad tried to explain that he was unable to read again, and then yet again. 

“Read! In the name of your Lord who created man from a clinging substance. Read: Your Lord is most generous — he who taught by the pen — taught man that which he knew not …”

Thus, according to Islamic tradition, Muhammad’s career as God’s “final messenger” had begun. It was on this particular night, called Laylat al-Qadr (the Night of Power), that the earliest verses of the Quran were said to have been revealed to him. The Night of Power, considered by Muslims to be the single most holy night to pray, is said to have occurred during one of the last 10 nights of the lunar month of Ramadan, circa A.D. 610.

The month of Ramadan is coming to a close for this year. Muslims throughout the world have been abstaining from all food and beverage (including water) from dawn until sunset, throughout the lunar month. Fasting during Ramadan is one of the Five Pillars of Islam (mandatory acts), along with the profession of faith (Shahada), five daily prayers (Salat), almsgiving (Zakat) and a pilgrimage to Mecca (Hajj).

I have many fond memories of Ramadan. For me, it had once been a month to spend quality time with my family — a month of all of us being groggy while devouring an opening meal (Suhoor) together before dawn. It was the time in which I’d gotten to feast, several times during the month, with fellow members of the local Muslim community for the breaking of fast (Iftar) at sunset. It was the month in which I most strongly felt a sense of identity as a Muslim.

Such fasting, though some would consider it rather extreme, is very much practical for most people. In my case, my stomach would growl a few complaints during the first day or two and then get used to the new arrangement. Hundreds of millions of Muslims around the world, including my parents who are in their 70s, found themselves perfectly capable of doing it these past few weeks. 

I often wonder how the world would change for the better if only more of us Christians would elect to embrace such discipline during Lent. 

A lunar year strictly consists of 12 lunar months, about 354 days. Although Ramadan began on the evening of March 10 this year, it will begin Feb. 28 next year, and Feb. 17 the year after that. In 33 years, Ramadan will roughly span over the same dates as it did this year. This year, as will also be the case next case year, Ramadan and Lent overlap for three weeks.

“Look!” an outside observer, perhaps a “spiritual-but-not-religious”-type, may point out. “It goes to show that at the heart of it, all of the religions are really teaching people the same thing: to be a good person.”

As an aside, I’ve yet to meet a self-proclaimed “spiritual-but-not-religious”-person who has impressed me as genuinely being spiritual.  

Yes, there is indeed much overlap between Christianity and Islam. Many of the biblical prophets are mentioned in the Quran. One chapter in the Quran is titled after Mary (the only woman mentioned by name in the book). The belief in Heaven and hell, in angels, in the Second Coming of Jesus (albeit very different accounts of what will happen), and in a Day of Judgment are all contained within the Quran and hadiths (purported sayings of Muhammad). 

But the purpose of any religion reaches far beyond simply teaching all of us to be “nice” people. Superficially glancing at some “what” doesn’t necessarily explain the “why” that drives it. The serious Christian, and the serious Muslim, both easily enough comprehend that there are differences in teachings in each of their faiths, thus resulting in very different worldviews. 

Why do the adherents of Christianity and Islam each fast?

A Muslim fasts, first and foremost, as an act of obedience. Taqwa (which roughly translates as the consciousness of God) is considered to be one of the great benefits of this practice. Greater compassion for the poor, by experiencing hunger throughout the day (never mind that Iftar meals are often huge enough to easily negate any loss in caloric intake), is considered to be yet another benefit.

It wasn’t until I was in RCIA, and on my way to becoming a Catholic, that I first became very heavily exposed to the understanding that fasting was to be considered penitential. 

A practicing Christian has every reason to favorably look upon such a concept as Taqwa, and for having greater compassion for the poor among us. A practicing Muslim doesn’t have any reason to be against fasting as penance. But the language surrounding “why” we fast, in each case, is a little different. This may very well be the result of a very different understanding of the character of God.

The claims surrounding Jesus Christ, in each of these two religions, make them mutually exclusive. “I have not come to bring peace,” said Our Lord, “but a sword.” The differing claims about the true identity of Our Lord each have very powerful implications.

Islam affirms the prophethood of Jesus, his miraculous birth to the Virgin Mary, that he worked many miracles, and that he will return at a later date. But it explicitly denies the divinity, as well as the crucifixion, of Our Lord. The Quran says:

  • “And on Judgment Day Allah will say, ‘O Jesus, son of Mary! Did you ever ask the people to worship you and your mother as gods besides Allah?’ He will answer, ‘Glory be to You! How could I ever say what I had no right to say?’” (5:116)
  • “But they neither killed nor crucified him — it was only made to appear so. Even those who argue for this crucifixion are in doubt. They have no knowledge whatsoever — only making assumptions. They certainly did not kill him.” (4:157)
  • “So believe in Allah and His messengers and do not say, ‘Trinity.’ Stop! — for your own good. Allah is only One God. Glory be to Him! He is far above having a son!” (4:171)
  • “Indeed, those who say, ‘Allah is the Messiah, son of Mary,’ have fallen into disbelief.” (5:17)

And along with the denial of the Son of God comes the denial that the Holy Spirit may dwell within us. Shirk (associating “partners” with Allah) is regarded to be among the gravest sins of all in Islam.

And so why would Allah, being far too majestic to ever dwell among us, create humanity in the first place? The Quran also has an answer: “And I did not create jinn and mankind except to worship me” (51:56).

We Christians certainly don’t disagree that we were made to worship God. But it is the Incarnation that teaches us that we were likewise made for so much more than simply that. The Creator himself became an active part of his own creation, living as a man, experiencing the joys and sorrows that we ourselves are so very familiar with. This understanding dramatically alters what it means to be human: that we, the created, were made to live in fellowship with the Creator!

Though no serious Muslim would dare accuse God of being arrogant, it is the Incarnation that demonstrates God’s humility. The death of Jesus Christ on the Cross demonstrates that he was indeed human, and a very courageous one. The Resurrection of Our Lord demonstrates his divinity. What one does speaks far more volumes than what one says. These historical events give a far richer meaning to the love of God. 

The Incarnation sheds much light on the love of God, and the true purpose and potential of humanity. The Crucifixion shows us how far humanity, originally made in the image of God, descended after the Fall.

The concept of Original Sin is absent in Islam. It’s taught in Islam that we’re sinners because we sin. Christianity, on the other hand, properly insists that we sin because we are sinners. Our redemption could only be purchased by the sinless One, and at a tremendous cost. 

The Muslim fasts to draw himself nearer to a distant God. The Christian, on the other hand, fasts to turn himself away from that which distracts him from the God who is nearer to him than his very breath. The Muslim fasts because he is taught that proper belief, and proper acts, can gain him entry into Heaven. The Christian fasts to remember that he is indeed a sinner, sorrowful and weak, whose hope must rely on the One who purchased entry into Heaven for us. 

The answers to our “why” is based upon what we know about God, and what we know about ourselves.

It’s taught in Islam that God has 99 names. Included among those names are Ar-Rahmaan (the Most Merciful), Al-Azeez (the Almighty), Al-Khaaliq (the Creator), Al-’Adl (the Utterly Just) and Al-Wadood (the Most Loving). God is indeed transcendent, as it is taught in Islam. But we know that God is likewise very personal, and that we can approach the Transcendent as children of God, because of another name by which we know him: Jesus Christ.  

Glory be to the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

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