Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting, started June 18. This means Muslims don’t eat or drink between sunrise and sunset. In Djibouti, and many other places, this is incredibly difficult. I’ve fasted several times during Ramadan, though only once for the entire month, and my respect for those who maintain the fast is high. I’ve also fasted at other times of the year and in different ways. My personal faith conviction is that yes, I should fast, but also that Jesus didn’t lay down an exact methodology or time frame for it.
So, this week I wanted to look at some books that talk about fasting and also about Ramadan.
The first is one that has been significant for me. I read it in college, slowly and thoughtfully, and it left a massive impact on my beliefs and my actions. Though many authors tout the physical and mental benefits of fasting, I love food too much to relinquish it without this deeper, spiritual call to fast. In a world of gluttony and abundance and over abundance, of needing to be satisfied, needing things easy, going without food is absolutely contradicting this tidal wave of cultural pressure to be comfortable. People tell me they can’t fast because when they do, they feel dizzy and weak. Yup. You’re supposed to feel dizzy and weak, you’re designed to need food so going without it is hard. That’s partly the point, at least one of the points. To remind us of our weaknesses. Anyway, this is a great book.
7 Basic Steps to Successful Fasting & Prayer by Bill Bright
This is a really short booklet, just 24-pages, but it is a great resource for Christians wanting to grow in their discipline of fasting and who have questions on how to go about it. Practical and obviously a quick read.
Here is a link to a series of articles and videos about Ramadan. I have not had the chance to look through them, found them through Twitter.
I am assuming that not all Djibouti Jones readers have a background in Islam or knowledge about the month of Ramadan or other tenets of the faith. Karen Armstrong provides an accessible and interesting read on Islam, including Ramadan in Islam: A Short History.
And now I guess I have to confess that I haven’t read much more about fasting. Oh, chapters here and there in books about Islam or about Christianity. I could reference those books but instead I’ll send you to links from In Culture Parent. This post includes six books geared toward children about Ramadan. Here are a couple:
What I’m Reading This Week
Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright. What can I say? Fascinating. Fascinating. Creepy. Really well written, an excellent read.
Leaving Before the Rains Come by Alexandra Fuller (she also wrote Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood which I loved). I read her first memoir in one day. I had a little stomach bug, very minor, but took it as an excuse and spent the entire day in bed, reading. The kids were still little and it felt luxurious. I’m really enjoying this one so far as well, she seems to be writing from a more mature place, more reflective. So good for Third Culture Kids, expats, people from quirky families. Love it.
The Fear Project: What Our Most Primal Emotion Taught Me About Survival, Success, Surfing . . . and Love by Jaimal Yogis. Not the best book I’ve read in my life, but really interesting, entertaining, and insightful about how to conquer our fears. Also – why it might be perfectly safe to swim with great white sharks without a shark cage…
What are you reading?
For the next five weeks I plan on writing once per week about some of the things I have learned from Islam. I’m not saying the Muslims around me do these things perfectly. I’ll leave perfection to God. But I am saying there are things I’ve learned, that my Muslims friends have taught me, things that have begun to soak into me and the outworking of my faith. I’m also not saying I don’t see any of these things in Christianity or the Christians around me but it is important (to me at least) to acknowledge and honor some things Islam emphasizes and that Muslims do well.
Indeed, the Muslim men and Muslim women, the believing men and believing women, the obedient men and obedient women, the truthful men and truthful women, the patient men and patient women, the humble men and humble women, the charitable men and charitable women, the fasting men and fasting women, the men who guard their private parts and the women who do so, and the men who remember Allah often and the women who do so – for them Allah has prepared forgiveness and a great reward, Surah 33:35 Sahih International
Islam teaches humility before God and before humankind. Christianity also teaches humility before God and before humankind. Here, I want to discuss humility before God because honestly, I don’t see a lot of humility between humans. I see (in people of both religions and in my own heart) pride and fighting and greed and stealing (twice in one week) and I don’t want to delve into that.
So. Humility before God.
Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you 1 Peter 5:6
I have learned this before, the Bible is rife with references to the need to be humble before God. The idea that we are but dust and desperately sinful is woven all throughout the scriptures. That Christians express utter dependence on the saving work of Jesus is ultimate humility. The refusal to perform, the acknowledgement that all one’s good deeds will not save, this is deep, internal, faith-based humility.
But I haven’t seen a lot of physical humility before God. Perhaps this is because I grew up in the evangelical world, far outside liturgical structure, far outside the kneeling benches in Catholic churches. But the longer I am in Africa and the older I get, the more I understand how interconnected everything is. Our souls and bodies and minds and relationships. When my spirit is heavy, my runs slow down. When my body is weak, my relationship with friends suffer. When I raise my hands in church, my soul rises. When I bow my head low, my soul bows down.
This is what I see, vividly and every single day, in Islam. The physicality of humility through the five-times-daily prayer and then during Ramadan, through fasting.
I hear a lot of people say fasting is too hard, they have low blood sugar. They don’t fast because it makes them feel weak and tired.
As it well should.
This is what humility feels like and it is (partly) why fasting is a valuable practice for people of faith (reminder to self). The powerful, gurgling and grumbling, reminder that we are dependent on food is a picture of our dependency on God. The weakness fasting imposes reminds us that God is not weak, he does not rely on food for nourishment.
Even more clearly, the bowing of the salat, is a picture of humility. Putting the forehead to the ground, refusing to stand erect and firm.
I read The Shack, years ago, and one scene that always bothered me is when the man first meets the God character. She is African American, carrying a tray of chocolate chip cookies. His reaction is one of surprise, but he feels welcomed and loved.
It is a nice picture.
But ‘nice’ or safe and homey are not what I see when Muslims meet God in prayer and not what I think will happen the first time I meet God, no matter how many chocolate chip cookies he might be carrying.
I think we will fall on our faces, trembling, forehead to the ground, arms outstretched in the ultimate, “I am not worthy,” pose. We might feel welcomed and loved but we will also be completely, totally, humbled before God’s power, perfection, and awesome glory.
When I see Muslims praying the salat in front of the grocery store and outside houses, beside construction sites and inside my living room, it is a moving visual of the necessity of the soul’s humility before God.
If you are a Muslim, do prayer and fasting affect your heart attitude toward God? If you are not a Muslim, what do you do in your spiritual life to grow in humility?
*image via Flickr
*image via wikimedia
Ramadan begins this week, the month of fasting for Muslims around the world. Off and on this month I plan on either writing about Ramadan or linking you up to Muslims as they experience this month of physical deprivation and heightened spiritual awareness. To begin the month, I’m reposting this piece from a few months ago…
I grew up Baptist. Not only did I never observe Lent, I thought anyone who did observe Lent put too much emphasis on a man-made tradition. These Catholics and Methodists and Episcopalians didn’t love the Bible as much as I did. They didn’t experience Jesus as deeply as I did.
Ancient, liturgical Church traditions held little meaning. What this translated to were brief religious holidays, one to two days long, preceded by a month of Christmas cookie baking and scouring malls for gifts or a week of purchasing chocolate eggs and fake plastic grass. Consumerism settled in quite nicely, yet I managed to maintain an aura of smug superiority. None of which helped me focus on Jesus or the meaning of these holidays.
Easter, in particular, arrived with the sudden abruptness of a humanoid bunny leaping across my path. The Sunday before Easter, church was filled with children waving palm branches, and then voila, the next Sunday Jesus rose from the dead and we got solid white chocolate bunnies from Grandma. More candy than sorrow or somber reflection.
Nothing is wrong with palm branches or white chocolate bunnies, which will forever remind me of Estée Lauder perfume. But a decade of living in Muslim countries in the Horn of Africa has, equally forever, changed the way I think about liturgical religion.
Of the five major pillars of Islam, only the first one, the Shahaadah, deals explicitly with faith. The others: prayer, giving, fasting, and pilgrimage are actions. Islam emphasizes orthopraxy, the rituals and traditions of faith in contrast to the orthodoxy of evangelical Christians, who emphasize matters of faith and theology over rites.
I watched Muslims in Somalia and in Djibouti pray five times per day and fast for an entire month during daylight hours. I attended parties when friends returned from pilgrimage to Mecca and splashed water from the well of ZamZam on my face. I saw homeless women give coins to blind beggars in the name of Allah. And what I discovered in these traditions was not a weakness of faith but the strength of community, the reinforcing power of continuity, and an intimacy with God achieved through intentional and purposeful action.
Two of the Islamic pillars seemed most enlightening as I considered Lent this year.
Ramadan is an entire lunar month devoted to fasting and preparation for the Eid holiday when sheep or goats are sacrificed to symbolize forgiveness. The feasting that follows is rich with meaning and celebration. Eating in the middle of a sunny afternoon! Ice cold water whenever one is thirsty! The entire community has been through a month of hunger and thirst and the anticipation of Eid is thick, the rejoicing on the morning of Eid filled with relief and a sense of victory.
The hajj takes place over the course of a month and while not every Muslims goes to Mecca, many know a relative, friend, or coworker who does. The month is a time of increased reflection on the rituals of the hajj which include circling the Ka’ba, symbolically stoning the devil, and running between two hills in remembrance of Hagar and her son searching for water. There is a powerful sense of community, humility, and equality. The month ends with another sacrifice, which Muslims around the world participate in.
After living among these Islamic traditions, these months of anticipation and spiritual emphasis, communal rituals, and the celebrations that come at the end of a period of trial, when I was invited to an Ash Wednesday service, I was eager to attend.
It was only the second Ash Wednesday service of my life, hosted by a US diplomat and his wife who is a Methodist priest. The service was brief and serious and quiet. A sense of reflection and even sorrow permeated the room as we each contemplated our sin and the ways we needed to grow in faith, the ways we needed Jesus.
This service launched me into a 40-day period reminiscent of Ramadan, though considerably less challenging. I merely am trying to limit my intake of sugar and internet but don’t abstain from all food, water, or sex during daylight. I read on-line about others who have made choices to increase their focus on God during this month. I read special prayers. I felt part of a larger community because people around the world were thinking and experiencing similar things those 40 days.
This wasn’t a time of corporate New Year’s resolutions. This was a time of corporate brokenness and dependency and eager anticipation.
These 40 days also end in sacrifice, not the blood of a sheep or a goat. The sacrifice is the shed blood of the perfect lamb of God. What this month of Lent reminded me of every day is that the sacrifice wasn’t once. It is always and every day. It is forgiveness purchased and celebrated for now and forgiveness purchased and celebrated and guaranteed for always.
I realized, as Djiboutians celebrated Islamic holidays and as the Methodist priest drew an ashy cross on my forehead, that I had been wrong in thinking people of liturgical traditions didn’t love the Bible as much as I did and didn’t experience Jesus like I did. The practice of rituals revealed not the lack of a deep commitment, but the physicality of and a longing for a unique encounter with the divine.
People who practiced Lent didn’t love the Bible the same as I did. They didn’t experience Jesus the same as I did. Which is exactly why I have so much to learn from them and why, this year, I finally observed the season of Lent.
What have you learned from another faith that informed or changed your own?