This year in Bahrain the Islamic month of Ramadan begins whilst Christians are observing Lent. Fasting is traditionally associated with both, so, how do the two relate? Do they relate at all? Are they pursuing the same end? Are they simply two paths to the same place? Let’s see.
We’ve already answered the ‘what is lent?’ question here, but what about Ramadan?
What is Ramadan?
Ramadan is the ninth month of the lunar-based Islamic calendar. This means that each year the dates for beginning and ending the month move back around ten days on our Gregorian calendars. Maybe you’re surprised that it’s time for Ramadan to begin again because it hasn’t yet been a year since it finished!
Broadly speaking, what’s going on?
Ramadan is a holy month in the religion of Islam and is marked by a time of required fasting. Observance of Ramadan is one of the Five Pillars of Islam. By fasting during this month, Muslims believe they earn spiritual rewards and draw closer to Allah.
Fasting is widely seen in the Bible and is something that believers today (should) still practice (Matthew 6.16-18). Christian fasting is usually a way to express deep distress and dire need (2 Samuel 1.12), to seek God’s will on a given situation (Esther 4.16, Acts 14.23), or to simply draw closer to Jehovah-Jireh: the provider God (Acts 13.2).
Fitting with the Islamic belief that good deeds can outweigh sins (cf. Quran 11:114), during the month of Ramadan Muslims will fast as a commanded good deed from food, drink, smoking, and sexual contact from sunrise to sunset (2:183, 187). It is believed that fasting in Ramadan brings special blessings:
A good deed has a recompense of ten rewards in other months, while in Ramadan one good deed has a recompense of a thousand rewards.
(Questions on Islam)
Both faiths fast, then, but there are significant differences between a Christian fast and the Islamic fast of Ramadan.
Firstly, Christian fasts are voluntary and not obligatory:
“So I turned my attention to the Lord God to implore him by prayer and requests, with fasting, sackcloth, and ashes.”
(Daniel 9.3, emphasis added)
Muslims are, however, commanded to fast:
“O believers! Fasting is prescribed for you—as it was for those before you—so perhaps you will become mindful of Allah.”
Secondly, Christians do not believe that fasting will earn them any credit with God or tip the salvific-scales in their favour:
“…yet we know that no one is justified by the works of the law but by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by the faithfulness of Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.”
(Galatians 2.16a, cf. Ephesians 2.8-9)
Muslims, however, believe otherwise:
Abu Huraira related that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said:
“Whoever fasts during Ramadan with faith and seeking his reward from Allah will have his past sins forgiven.
Whoever prays during the nights in Ramadan with faith and seeking his reward from Allah will have his past sins forgiven.
And he who passes Lailat Al-Qadr in prayer with faith and seeking his reward from Allah will have his past sins forgiven.”
(ArabNews, emphasis added)
I recently read that
“The idea that a god will be appeased by works of charity, generosity, or the suppression of natural desires is almost universal in world religions. In fact, the only religion that does not believe in appeasing the gods with good deeds is Christianity…and, even when Christians falter and sin, [there is no] fear that God’s love will be revoked (Romans 8:1, 38). Muslims have no such assurance and must continually seek Allah’s approval by performing good works and fasting during the month of Ramadan.”
Lent and Ramadan: Same or different?
One is to earn, the other yearn.
One is motivated by religion, the other relationship.
One is framed as ‘you must do this to get this’, the other ‘you may do this to show this reality‘.
We can fast to show how sincere we are in our desire to be forgiven, or fast to show how sincerely thankful we are that we have been forgiven. We can fast to appease and to obey, or fast to draw deeper and closer. And, finally, I think of Jesus in the wilderness and the oh-so beautiful wording of Luke 4.2 wherein we see how Jesus proved (πειράζω) the power of God by denying the things of the world.
In summary, yes, both faiths fast. But, as we have seen from the briefest of looks, the mandates and the motivations are really quite different.
For further reading, try this.