Most Americans would be unaware that Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, begins on Thursday. Many would only be casually aware that this is one of the five pillars of Islam, its date changing each year due to the lunar calendar. Faithful adherents fast from dawn to dusk until the month concludes with the Feast of Eid.
Having studied Islam, we were familiar with this expression of piety, but learned much more during the years we lived in a Muslim country—the largest Muslim country in the world, Indonesia. In more observant places, fasting is compulsory, though allowances are made for foreigners and non-Muslims. All do without food, but more devout Muslims refuse to drink water, and some don’t even swallow their saliva.
There is irony, however, in the fact that Muslims probably eat more during the month than at any other time. Women of the house arise in the early morning to prepare an elaborate breakfast to provide nourishment throughout the day. When the call to evening prayer signals the breaking of the fast, everyone hurries home to indulge in what could be described as a Thanksgiving dinner. Not much gets done during Ramadan as offices are open for only a few hours, no one has the strength for much physical labor, and it is easier to endure the denial of food by sleeping through the afternoon.
During Ramadan, we found our Muslim friends were more open to talking about spiritual things. We would ask them about their practice, why they were fasting, and what they hoped to gain by it. It was surprising to them when we shared our own practice of fasting from time to time to seek God. We do not fast to get something from God but out of a desire for God himself that exceeds our desire for food. Wonderfully, God does meet our needs and answer our prayers, but we should not fast presuming by our piety we are obligating God to do something for us.
While most Muslims observe the fast because they are commanded to and believe there is merit to be gained, many do it as a perfunctory obligation. Some want to avoid the condemnation from more pious family members. However, for the devout, the Muslim month of fasting is actually for the same purpose that we as Christians may occasionally fast: the desire to know God in a deeper more intimate relationship.
Fasting during Ramadan is intended to be a time to seek God, and many sincerely do. While recognizing the futility of seeking to please God by one’s own piety and works, we avoided expressing disrespect in conversation with Muslim friends. We shared our common desire to know God. It was an opportunity to bear witness to the futility of our own efforts and how we discovered the unmerited grace of God through Jesus Christ.
Among Muslims, you’ll hear of testimonies from those who had dreams and visions of Jesus appearing to them and saying, “Follow Me.” Others will be impressed to find someone with “the book” that tells the way to eternal life. None of these revelations are sufficient for salvation, but they break down the barriers in their heart and can lead to finding out who Jesus is or knowing what the Bible says.
What does this have to do with us?
When we first arrived in Indonesia we were irritated at the dissonant sound of the call to prayer from the mosque five times a day, especially when it awakened us at 4:30 a.m. But it became a call to us and a reminder to pray for Muslims as they were praying to Allah.
What if Christians fervently prayed during the month of Ramadan that God would reveal himself to Muslims in this time of seeking? What if we covered millions of fasting Muslims with 30 days of intense intercession that something would happen in their spiritual search? Believing in the power of prayer, could we not expect God to respond to our heartfelt burden for the lost millions of the world?
It is tragic that we should be so wrapped up in our self-interests and worldview that we would be indifferent to more than a billion followers of Islam in the world that are dying without Christ, but this month are seeking what only he can provide. We are repulsed by a religion that seems to justify terrorism and suicide bombers committed to the destruction of life, but don’t we realize that Jesus is the answer? Rather than hardening our hearts and dismissing their lostness to the judgment of God as something they deserve, we should plead for their hearts to be open to God revealing himself.
Join me this month in praying for Muslims in our own communities as well as those around the world. Pray that they would truly seek God and be open to revelation that would lead them to the truth. In seeking Allah, an impersonal deity that is aloof and cannot be known, may they find a loving, compassionate God who revealed himself through Jesus Christ and died for their sins.
We have a responsibility to observe Ramadan also, to pray for those who are far from the kingdom and for generations have been locked into the bondage of sin and futile religious traditions.
After all, Christ died for them, too. God loves them. Shouldn’t we?
Jerry Rankin is the executive director of the Zwemer Center and president emeritus of the Southern Baptist International Mission Board (IMB). He served with the IMB for 40 years, the last 17 years as president. Prior to becoming president of the IMB, Dr. Rankin and his wife Bobbye served for 23 years in Asia, initially as missionaries in Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world. This article originally appeared on the Zwemer Center for Muslim Studies website.
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