For the next 30 days, Muslims across the world, including 3.8m people in the UK, will be observing Ramadan. Imtiaz Khan explains what Ramadan is, and how Christians can reach out with the free gift of grace during this time
What comes to mind when you think of Ramadan?
Maybe you’ve noticed dedicated aisles in your local supermarket, catering for everything Muslims might need to get them through the next month. You might know someone who’s preparing to fast. If they’re a colleague, they may even have decided to take the month off work. Muslim charities will be upping their advertising, encouraging Muslims to give generously especially during Ramadan.
Muslims observe Ramadan to varying degrees but, at its heart, the end goal of the next 30 days for every Muslim is the same – forgiveness.
The big opportunity
It’s believed that more than any other time of the year, Muslims can atone for their sins during Ramadan, not just through fasting from dawn till dusk, but through giving and reading the whole of the Koran. Their efforts during Ramadan are 700 times more effective, according to their holy book. This is the big opportunity to make things right with Allah and secure your place in paradise for eternity. The gates of hell are believed to be closed throughout Ramadan, giving the believer a clearer mind and a purer soul to come before him.
More often than not, Muslims are very open to talking about life’s bigger questions
The really big opportunity comes in the last ten days, on the Night of Power, known in Arabic as Laylat al-Qadr. During this period, the blessings received by praying are believed to be better than that of 1,000 months of worship and devotion.
In it together
Growing up in Pakistan, even my most liberal Muslim friends became very religious during Ramadan. And this wasn’t just because you could be sent to jail or fined for eating or drinking in public during the month. There’s a big communal aspect to it – you’re fasting in solidarity with your friends and family. And at the end of the month, you’re celebrating and partying with those same friends and family during the Eid al-fitr celebration. It’s a bit like Christmas in that respect.
There’s also a social stigma around not observing Ramadan. If you’re not fasting, you’re an atheist who doesn’t have respect for your religion. But I believe it goes deeper than this. Even if you don’t observe the teaching of Islam for the rest of the year, as a Muslim, it’s embedded in your psyche: “Yeah, I’m a bad Muslim, but here is my chance for forgiveness.”
And so, even for more nominal Muslims that I meet, there is an underlying belief that they need to prove themselves, and Ramadan offers a way of doing that.
But it’s precarious. There’s no guarantee that even with the extra points you can score over Ramadan, it will be enough to avoid hell and secure your place in paradise.
A better way
Looking from the outside in, I wonder what our reaction is to all this.
It’s tempting to be judgmental of Muslims for following this strange system of works-based righteousness. Or we might be tempted to admire this devotion to prayer and fasting, especially when we compare it to our own spiritual disciplines.
But as Christians, I want to encourage us to consider the underlying burden that so many Muslims live with, not just during Ramadan, but every day. And to respond with compassion.
As we all know, trying to earn your salvation – whether it’s through money, being nice, good deeds or obedience – is exhausting. As Christians, it’s a trap we can still so easily fall into. It’s the human condition – and something that everyone has in common.
It’s for this reason that Jesus invited “all you who are weary and burdened” to come to him so that he might give them rest.
“Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light,” he says in Matthew 11:29-30.
Jesus promises to break this enslavement to works-based righteousness. “If the son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36).
This is the distinction – freedom.
During Lent, you might be fasting, but although the practice might look similar from the outside, for Christians the difference is like night and day. Our place in God’s family has been secured; as sons and daughters, we belong to it forever. And so we fast not to earn God’s mercy, but because of it.
This is why the gospel is such good news for Muslims – especially during Ramadan.
So, we have this precious, timely news. But how do we even begin to share it with a Muslim friend, neighbour or colleague?
So often Christians would like to speak with our Muslim friends and neighbours about our faith, but we lack confidence. The prospect can feel overwhelming. We worry we won’t have the answers we need and so we often avoid the conversations altogether.
There’s no guarantee that the extra points you can score over Ramadan will be enough to avoid hell
Fouad Masri has been training Christians to share their faith with Muslims for over 30 years. He says one of the biggest barriers is that we tell ourselves: They won’t be interested in talking about Jesus, or they’ll be offended.
“We make that judgement on their behalf,” says Fouad. “But it’s not true. More often than not, they are very open to talking about life’s bigger questions. There’s not the sense of taboo or discomfort that people from other backgrounds might react with.”
Especially during Ramadan, we have a lot to talk about with Muslims. Let’s not assume they won’t want to listen.
If you’d like to build your confidence in talking about your faith in Jesus to your Muslim friends, colleagues and neighbours, come along to LCM’s Muslim Engagement conference on 17 June at Westminster Chapel, where Fouad Masri will be speaking. Visit lcm.org.uk/sharingjesus to find out more and book your ticket.