This week marked the start of Ramadan, a 30-day season of fasting and celebrating observed by millions of Muslims around the world. Some Christian communities, especially in the Middle East, have for generations learned how to respect and connect with their Muslim neighbors during this time.
As more Americans convert to Islam and Muslims from other countries migrate to Europe and North America, the Western church has been slowly learning the history of this holiday and how to reach the mosque during this time.
Fasting is a great way for Christians to connect with Muslims during Ramadan, says Joseph Cumming, who works with Muslim, Christian, and Jewish leaders and scholars around the world to promote mutual understanding and reconciliation.
“Maybe you just fast one day in Ramadan to enter into that experience with them. What you find is when you do that and then you have a conversation with your Muslim friend and suddenly there’s this feeling of ‘We are in this together’ instead of this ‘I'm in one community and you're in a different community and never the twain shall meet,’” said Cumming. “Actually, we're part of a single group of people having this experience together, and it can lead to beautiful spiritual conversations.”
Cumming joined digital media producer Morgan Lee and editor in chief Mark Galli to discuss Christians’ complicated relationship with fasting, the origins and meaning of the season of Ramadan, and things Christians should be especially sensitive to during Ramadan.
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May 8 Transcription
Mark Galli: Joseph Cumming is pastor of the International Church at Yale University, and from this base he works with Muslim, Christian, and Jewish leaders and scholars around the world to promote mutual understanding and reconciliation among the Abrahamic faith communities. He has advanced degrees from Fuller Theological Seminary—my alma mater—and Yale University, and is completing his PhD at Yale in Islamic studies and Christian theology. He is an ordained Christian minister with the Assemblies of God. Welcome, Joseph.
Joseph Cumming: Thanks so much for having me.
Morgan Lee: I'm just a little curious before we begin, you are now on the East Coast, but you are also on the West Coast, it looks like when you were at Fuller. What part of the country did you grow up in?
Joseph Cumming: I was born and raised in New York City, but spent the majority of my adult life in North Africa and the Middle East. So, although I'm now living not far from where I grew up, it feels different. I don't know how much of that's because I've changed or how much it's because America changed, but when my wife and I came back to the US, we felt in some ways like foreigners here.
Morgan Lee: Were you in Tunisia, or Morocco, or Algeria, or all the above? Or?
Joseph Cumming: So we were living for 15 years in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania in northwest Africa, which is the far western end of the Muslim world. But we've I've also spent time in yes, I think you said Tunisia, yes. And Morocco, yes. And I forget what else. My wife and I have spent a lot of time in a lot of countries across North Africa, the Middle East, and to a lesser extent in Asia.
Morgan Lee: Well, great. I'm sure that will come up later in our discussion. Mark, maybe you can give us a little bit more context for our conversation about Ramadan.
Mark Galli: Context goes way back. When the prophet Muhammad was 40, he started spending more and more time alone pondering questions that troubled him. He made it a habit to retreat to a cave within a mountain called al-Hira for a month at a time and one year around 610 AD, the prophet Muhammad went up to al-Hira one day and was visited by the Archangel Gabriel, who grabbed Muhammad and commanded the terrified man to read. Or so begins the traditional Muslim story of the first Ramadan, but as these things go historically things are a bit more complicated and we'll get into that in a few minutes. I bring it up because as Morgan mentioned, this week Muslims around the world are just beginning this special season of prayer and fasting. Islam is the world's second-largest religion with over 1.8 billion followers or about a quarter of the world's population. Muslims make up a majority of the population in 50 countries. In our increasingly shrinking world, more and more Muslims are becoming neighbors to Christians, and we've talked about regions of the world where those relations are extremely hostile and even violent.
Today on Quick to Listen, we want to talk about the majority of global situations in which Christians and Muslims live peaceably with one another, and in places where Christians have opportunity to befriend Muslims, and if there is an opportunity to share the Christian story of Jesus with them. Before we can do that of course, we need to take the trouble to learn about the customs and beliefs of Muslims. And one place to begin to learn that is to learn about the origins and meaning of the season of Ramadan and what it suggests about the tenor and tone of Islam. All right, we're off and running. So Joseph now, why don't you start by telling us—first of all, maybe describe how you tend to talk about Islam, especially the prophet Muhammad. And then maybe move into how you understand what happened to get Ramadan off and started.
Joseph Cumming: Yeah. Well, thank you. First, let me just thank all the listeners for joining us, and I greet you in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
When I talk about Islam, whether I'm talking with Muslim friends or with non-Muslim friends—Christian friends and others—I think it's very important to show respect. And that includes showing respect for what matters most as sacred to Muslims, just as we want them to show respect for us. Even if they don't agree with our faith, even if they don't approve of everything we believe, nonetheless we want to be shown respect and it's very important that we show Muslims respect. So as you mentioned, for example, I do when I'm speaking about Muhammad, I refer to him as the Prophet Muhammad. That's not because I believe everything Muslims believe about prophethood, but this is a way of showing respect for how they understand him. And of course for Christians, the term "prophet" has a much wider range of meaning—from false prophets to true prophets, to true prophets who sometimes get things wrong and need discernment, according to 1 Corinthians 14, etcetera. But I'm simply trying to show respect for my Muslim friends, and I think that respect in our relationship with Muslims is critically, critically important and has been.
I guess that actually leads nicely into the second part of your question Mark, which is what happened in that, when Muhammad, the prophet Muhammad got that first revelation, which was during the month of Ramadan. Interestingly, as you suggested, he initially was unsure. Is this real? Is this genuine? What's going on? And what he did was, according to the Islamic tradition, is he went, and he talked with a Christian relative who knew something about prophecy. And the Christian relative listened to the content of his prophecy, which at that point was something no Christian would ever objective to. It was basically turn away from idols, worship the true God, repent of your sins, prepare for God's final judgment. And his Christian relative said, hey this sounds legit to me, this sounds real, and encouraged him. And I think it's good to remember that the prophet Muhammad had many interactions with Christians during his lifetime, and generally they were positive ones during his lifetime and that's reflected in the Quran and in the traditions of what he said and taught.
Mark Galli: But you also mentioned to me, apart from this podcast, that Ramadan actually may have started, there are hints of it starting even before this incident.
Joseph Cumming: So that's right. The sources of information we have historically about pre-Islamic Arabia are somewhat fragmentary and somewhat contradictory, so scholars endlessly debate, and I don't want to bore our listeners with some of those technical debates. But it's clear that before Islam, the Arab tribes, or some of the Arab tribes of Arabia had a custom of, during certain months of the year, abstaining from fighting and warfare, or at least only engaging in self-defense, and that Ramadan may have been one of those months, or may not have. It's also pretty clear that before Islam, some Arabs had the custom of fasting on the day of Ashura, the 10th day of the month of Muharram, which coincided with the Jewish Yom Kippur day of fasting. And that perhaps some Arabs also, whether because they were Christians or because they were influenced by Christians, had a custom of fasting during Lent. And so many of those customs that you have before Islam then sort of crystallized during the lifetime of the prophet Muhammed.
He did not initially tell people that they needed to fast during the month of Ramadan. It was actually some years into his public ministry, after a famous battle called The Battle of Badr—which also took place in the month of Ramadan—when he began teaching that people should fast during the month of Ramadan, and also abstain from warfare and fighting and gossip and etcetera, and Ramadan took the form that we see today.
Morgan Lee: So, it sounds like then, kind of the—I don't know what the right word is—the modern rendition of Ramadan was really something that was actually developed during the lifetime of Muhammad.
Joseph Cumming: That's right. I mean, you can always find a critical Western scholar who will doubt the authenticity of those traditions, but most—certainly all Muslim scholars and most non-Muslim critical scholars would agree that yes, after the battle of Badr, during his lifetime, he gave instructions for how a Ramadan should be observed and it was essentially the form that we have today.
Mark Galli: So what is the form we have today? Talk about that. What are the outlines of what it means to—I don't know, you call it to celebrate? Honor? —observe Ramadan today?
Joseph Cumming: I think all those words are legitimate. Because it is an observation and a celebration, and your other word. But they were all good words.
So, I think the most obvious thing from an outsider's, from the non-Muslims point of view, is that during the month of Ramadan, Muslims are supposed to fast from the first light in the morning—so not sunrise, but before that—the first light in the morning until just after sunset every evening, and that means no food and no drink—so including no water- and no sex, no smoking. Nothing that involves something penetrating the body from outside and going in. But they're also supposed to abstain from fighting, arguing, gossiping, bickering, bitterness, etcetera. They're supposed to emphasize forgiving one another and asking forgiveness from one another. And in common practice among communities around the world where Muslims and Christians live side by side, it's customary for Muslims and Christians to visit each other to say, "hey, forgive me for anything I've done wrong to you in the last year, and I forgive you for anything you did to me in the last year." And that's kind of a beautiful custom.
The other thing I'll mention that I think is very important for many Muslims, does not flow directly from the sort of rules that I described, but flows—well two things that flow indirectly from them. One is that, so in the evening after sunset you are supposed to pray the sunset prayer and you think you're supposed to have certain foods that are traditional, and after not eating all day you traditionally have some very nice foods to break your fast with. And most Muslims around the world grow up with very happy childhood memories of this one month every year when dad makes sure to get home from work before sunset, mom makes sure to get home from work before sunset, the whole family is together. And the kid was probably not fasting until they're old enough to fast, but they remember from the early childhood that happy long evenings together, mom and dad and the kids altogether, having delicious wonderful traditional foods together. And if you think about how people who grew up in Christian homes, or even in nominally Christian homes, or even formerly Christian homes, feel about the Christmas Advent season—the sort of joyful celebration of all those traditions—that's how many Muslims feel about their childhood memories of those happy family times, enjoying those meals together as a family in the evening, and emphasizing love, and forgiveness, and community. It's a very special time for Muslims.
The other thing is that, you know, Muslims like Christians are not always as devout as they aspire to be. But Ramadan is a time that reminds you to, "hey, I do want to get serious about my faith." And so many Muslims become much more serious about spiritual things, and that means they're interested in talking with each other about spiritual things, but they're also very interested in talking with their Christian neighbors and friends about spiritual things as well. And I've often found during Ramadan I have some of my best conversations about spiritual things with Muslim friends during the month of Ramadan. Sometimes, I would say, during our years living in Mauritania, I would say we had literally more rich spiritual conversations with people in the month of Ramadan that in the other 11 months of the year combined.
Mark Galli: That's very interesting, yeah.
Morgan Lee: So, I'm curious about the calendar that they use that sets the date each year for Ramadan.
Morgan Lee: Yeah, so Muslims follow a lunar calendar.
Joseph Cumming: So they have 12 lunar months. And if you have 12 lunar months that does not add up quite to 365 days. It's more like about three hundred and fifty-four and a half. Which means that each year, the month of Ramadan begins approximately 10 days earlier in the Gregorian calendar year than it did the year before. So over the course of about 30 years, you cycle through and it happens in all different times of the year.
Mark Galli: Yeah, because that's my memory—is that Ramadan seems to happen to any time of the year. I seem to remember it happening in the fall, and summer, and now in the spring. So that explains that.
Joseph Cumming: Yeah, so it's challenging for Muslims who are living in societies that are a majority non-Muslim, like the US. If Ramadan happens to fall in the middle of your final exam period for example, which is happening for many American Muslims right now, you still got to take that final exam when you're fasting, and that can be challenging. Or if you're an athlete training for major race, and Ramadan happens to come right at the time that you have your major race—that can be challenging for Muslims. But they try to be faithful and observe it.
Mark Galli: I do recall—maybe you'd remember the name—but there was a Muslim NBA player, who is in the middle Ramadan and during the playoffs, I believe, and he nonetheless stuck to his discipline. And that's an exhausting and water-draining sport, so that was quite impressive. Well, that's the thing I think most of us associate with Ramadan—it's just suffering. It's fasting from water and food, and it's suffering. So it's very helpful for you to see it from the perspective of the Muslims who consider it a joyous period.
Joseph Cumming: That's right. I mean, obviously fasting from food, and water, and sex—and even if you're addicted to cigarettes, fasting from cigarettes—from first light until sunset is difficult. And there is suffering involved, particularly in hot countries. And I had the privilege of keeping Ramadan myself in July in Mauritania, in the desert where the temperatures were 130 and higher, and we got pretty dehydrated by the end of the day. But at the same time it is this very joyful, happy time with family memories and community memories that are very precious to people. So you've got both elements there in the month of Ramadan.
I should emphasize also that both the Quran and the Islamic tradition make exceptions. So if you're sick, if you're traveling, if you're pregnant, if you're breastfeeding, if you're—you know any number of reasons why you might not be able to fast, or it might not be wise or healthy too fast, then you are not expected to fast. Although you are expected, if you can, to make up those days you missed later, sometime later in the year. Back in Mauritania, basically Ramadan de facto begins about a week or two before Ramadan because everybody waits till the last minute to make up the days they missed from the year before.
Morgan Lee: So question, are there significant differences between the way that Sunni, Shia, and Sufi communities observed Ramadan?
Joseph Cumming: Not huge differences between the ways they observe Ramadan. I think perhaps the most significant thing is that the prophet's son-in-law Ali, who according to Sunnis was his fourth successor, or the fourth caliph, and according to Shia, should have been his first successor—Ali was murdered during the month of Ramadan. And so that occasion is a very, very important occasion. Fasting for Shia takes on—that is very important for Shia and takes on an element of mourning for his martyrdom. For Sunnis, that's not such a significant thing though. But other than that, they're not huge differences between how Sunni and Shia observe. There are minor differences.
Mark Galli: So, I know it's hard to put a figure on this, the percentage of Muslims who actually try to follow Ramadan it with utmost seriousness. I ask this as a Christian because in general fasting has fallen out of favor among Christians. I remember going to a Catholic service on a Friday in the middle of Lent, after the service was out, I left the church and as I overheard a couple of Catholic parishioners talking about going out to breakfast that day. Well, Friday is supposed to be a fast day, so they didn't even blink about the fact that they were going to have food on that fast day. Just wonder how that works in in Islam today.
Joseph Cumming: Yeah, I think obviously it's going to vary from Muslim community to Muslim community, and from Muslim-majority country to Muslim-majority country. And I don't have firm statistics for you, but my observation of Muslims I've known both in Muslim-majority countries, and in the West, and all around the world is the large majority of Muslims around the world do try to—if they're healthy enough, do some amount of fasting in Ramadan. But often what happens is they will set out on the first day of Ramadan to take it quite seriously and then at some point in the course of the month, they kind of run out of steam and don't necessarily stick to it very strictly for the whole month. But obviously those who are more devout, they do.
Mark Galli: Well, I'll admit to that weakness in practicing passing for Lent. So there you go.
Joseph Cumming: And then let me just mention that although I think that fasting has very unfortunately fallen out of fashion for Western Christians—and I do see it as very unfortunate—I learned a lot about fasting from living with Muslims. And going back and looking at what the Bible teaches about fasting, and realizing, wow, this is really important in the Bible, and really important in the teachings and practices of our Lord Jesus, and we ought to be more serious about fasting. But also in other Christian communities around the world, outside of the West, fasting has not fallen out of favor at all. Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Christians, for example, not only do they fast for 55 days in Lent—and their practice generally is to eat a vegan diet for 55 days—but they have lots of other mandatory fasts throughout the year that they take very seriously. And when I talked with Egyptian Muslims, they say hey, I think it's harder to give up all animal products for 55 days than to give up food and water just during the daylight hours for 28 or 29 days. So they actually think that their Christian neighbors fast more than they do so. And I think Nigerian Muslim—I'm sorry, Nigerian Christians, Korean Christians, Chinese Christians take fasting very, very seriously. It's really, we Western Christians who could use to learn from both our Christian brothers and sisters around the world and our Muslim neighbors about taking fasting seriously.
Mark Galli: Yeah, I don't think—I hadn't focused on the centrality of eating bread and fasting until I read a book by Alexander Schmemann , who is an orthodox writer, and he noted that yeah from the celebration of the Eucharist, which is the high point in many Christian traditions, most Christians across the world in fact, to the very beginning where the first sin has to do with the eating of food, it's just a really crucial theme in scripture that it deserves more attention in Christian churches, I think. Which would include fasting.
Joseph Cumming: Well, that's right. And you know in the 2nd century AD we have a very interesting document called the Didicay and it has a very funny line where it says, "when you fast do not be like the hypocrites for, they fast on Mondays and Thursdays, but you shall fast on Wednesdays and Fridays." On the one hand, it kind of misses Jesus' point about what constitutes hypocrisy in fasting. On the other hand, it tells us, so the early church in the 2nd century AD used to fast two days a week. And you have later in the 3rd and 4th centuries also early church documents that talk about the custom of Christians that most Christians did fast on Wednesdays and Fridays, or at the very least on Fridays, at the very least until mid-afternoon, which was the time when Jesus died on Good Friday. And coming up to the modern evangelical movement, John Wesley thought that should be his practice. That he would fast Wednesdays and Fridays until sunset, and he did not want to ordain people unless they at least fasted on Fridays at least until that mid-afternoon when Jesus died.
Mark Galli: And this is in season and out of season of Lent?
Joseph Cumming: That's right. In the season and out of the season of Lent.
Mark Galli: How about that. Wow. Wow. Wow. So, since Ramadan seems to be the high season of the year for Islam, what about it do you think especially characterizes the faith of Muslims that can help us, give us insight into Islam?
Joseph Cumming: For Muslims, as for Christians, when you fast you have the experience that you find yourself saying, "God, I love you more than I love food." And after you've gone a certain number of hours without food, you feel like, you know, I love food and awful lot. Food is just seeming extremely, extremely attractive to me. And that constant decision, minute by minute: But I love God more, but I love God more, and I love God more. It deepens your feeling of love for God and that that happens I know for me as a Christian when I fast, and it similarly happens for Muslims as they are sort of forcing themselves to remind themselves, I love God more than I love food and at this point I love food and awful lot. And that very much happens for Muslims and it causes them to take more seriously their prayers, take more seriously spiritual reading and spiritual conversations.
And then the other thing that I think is interesting, so Muslims are supposed to abstain from fighting and arguing and bitterness, right? And of course we have that in the Bible, too. The Bible says, this is the fast that the Lord accepts, you know, it's not a fast in which you're getting into fights with each other. That's from, you know, it's what Isaiah tells us. And one of the reasons for that is, you know, when you have low blood sugar from faster you get irritable, and you get more petty, and more of a tendency to get into a fight. And so even though Muslims and Christians alike believe we should not fight when we're fasting, we actually frequently get tempted to fight. And then we repent of that and we try to do better. And so I think that some of those experiences that Muslims have are the same as what Christians would have when we fast.
Morgan Lee: I don't know if this is the context that Mark was talking about when he said fasting, but the fasting that I kind of was familiar with growing up was individual fasting. That you would practice kind of solo when you felt like you need to take the time to really figure out what God might be calling you to do in a particular situation. And I really think that the fact that they do so much corporate fasting in Ramadan is one of the parts that's that makes it so unique and such a powerful way to kind of live out your faith, is the fact that everyone is not just like in solidarity but like actually sacrificing alongside each other.
Mark Galli: I think that's true also of the Eastern Orthodoxy when I've experienced it as well. That they have a fairly serious fast, even in the States. Probably not as much as the Coptics, as Joseph mentioned, but it strikes me that it's much—easier is not the right word, but there is a sense that when you do it with others in your family and your community, it's a different experience.
Morgan Lee: Well, and just to go back to Joseph's earlier point of when you're a tiny minority in a country, how much more challenging it is to practice this? As someone who has talked to some Muslim friends about doing this when it's definitely not socially supported in the same way. You know, it's not like here in the US the restaurants all stay open at hours that are adjusted to those, or get up early or yeah, that sports stuff is accommodated to that, sports stuff, games.
Joseph Cumming: Maybe I can say two things that would be edifying in relationship to this question. One is that, yes for Eastern Orthodox fasting, they have corporate fasts that are expected, but also Roman Catholics, just because they don't practice, it doesn't mean that they're not supposed to. Roman Catholics are supposed to be fast in Lent and are supposed to fast on Fridays all year round, and gradually through the centuries, the requirements of that fasting got milder and milder until you're just supposed to not eat meat on Fridays. And when I was growing up, even though the school I went to was about 85 percent Jewish, had very few Catholics in it, it was a totally secular school, we never meat in the cafeteria on Fridays out of respect for the Catholics who could not eat meat. We'd always have fish on Fridays. And I think now that has even stopped being a thing in most circles, even Catholic circles. But it's pretty recently dropped out of fashion with Catholics.
And meanwhile, among evangelicals, I think frankly we are being unscriptural when we do not do corporate fasts. It's pretty clear in the Bible that both in the Old Testament and the New Testament, people fast it as communities and I think the reason we don't is because of a misinterpretation of Jesus' teachings in Matthew 6 where he talked about fasting in secret. And we take that out of context. This is something that Samuel Zwemer, who is perhaps the greatest evangelical thinker and out-reacher to Muslims in history. Samuel Zwemer argued that Jesus did not intend that we should keep secret from our Muslim neighbors the fact that we are fasting. And he pointed to the context in Matthew 5, where Jesus said let your light so shine before people that they may see your good works and praise your Father in Heaven, and then goes on in Chapter 6 to say do these things in secret so that you will not get praised by human beings, but be rewarded by your Father who is in heaven.
And if you put those two together, the key—assuming Jesus isn't contradicting himself—the key concept, the key element is this "so that." And if your motivation is that your Father in Heaven would be praised, then you should not keep your fastest secret, but you should let it be seen. If your motivation is that you would get praise and credit, then you should keep it a secret. And so you need to work on your motivation. But if your motivation is right, there's all the reason why you should let it be known that you're fasting if that will have the effect of growing other people—whether your brothers and sisters in Christ to fast with you, or your non-Christian friends to know that you are a devout person.
That brings me to the second thing I wanted to say which is, when Muslims and Christians talk to each other about spiritual things, it's different from when Christians talk to, when evangelicals talk to nominal Christians about matters of faith. When evangelicals are talking to nominal Christians sometimes, we want to almost emphasize there's a difference, you know. It's not enough just to say I'm a Christian and I'm done, you know. You need, something needs to happen, you need to turn to Christ. With Muslims, it's the opposite problem. Generally when Muslims and Christians talk—and I'm generalizing, but 99% of the time when Muslims and Christians are talking there's a sense on both parts there's a huge gulf between us. You are the Muslims, way over there. We are the Christians, way over here. Or from the Muslim point of view, you are the Christians away over there and we are the Muslims way over here. And there is this huge chasm, an uncrossable chasm between us that we're almost having our spiritual conversation shouting across that chasm. And I think anything we can do to have that chasm feel emotionally narrow—I don't mean denying there are irreducible differences between Muslims and Christians, between Islam and Christianity, but just reducing that sense of an unbridgeable chasm between us is a good thing. And I think for that reason, it is great for Christians to fast in solidarity with our Muslim neighbors and friends during the month of Ramadan. Maybe you just fast one day in Ramadan to enter into that experience with them, because what you find is when you do that and then you have a conversation with your Muslim friend, suddenly there's this feeling of we are in this together instead of this, "I'm in one community and you're in a different community and never the twain shall meet." Actually, we're part of a single group of people having this experience together, and it can lead to beautiful spiritual conversations.
Mark Galli: So, what would be other things whereas Christians are talking to Muslims, especially during the season of Ramadan, that they might, that Christians tend to misunderstand about Islam.
Joseph Cumming: Well one thing I'll often hear Christians say, "Sure, the Muslims fast during the day, but really they just sleep all day and then they party all night. So it's really just a party month." And what I would say to that is, first of all, yeah, you try fasting from first light until sunset with no food or water or anything, and then tell me whether it's just partying. And you won't. Second thing, that feasting in the evening, that's actually just like, that's not just like immoral partying—although sometimes obviously, I'm not saying all Muslims are very devout. Obviously, there are immoral Muslims who don't fast and then they do just party in the evening. But, think of those happy family times. You know, when we think of our Advent celebrations with our children, our spouses and children, on how precious they are to us and we have eggnog or whatever is it be having our culture, an outsider might look and say well they are just partying. But to us, that's not just partying. That's a holy thing and a happy thing. A beautiful thing.
The other thing, this isn't so much a misunderstanding, it's just something to be sensitive to, and that is if you are a Christian who does fast and you have experience with fasting, you know that if somebody sits in front of you and eats food in front of you and you smell that food it makes it harder to fast. And of course, if they don't know that you're fasting then they're not being inconsiderate. But if they do know that you're fasting and then they eat in front of you, it's a little bit rude. And in the same way, if Christians are not fasting during Ramadan—and actually for Catholics, it's forbidden to fast during the Easter season, so you're not actually not supposed to fast right now if you're a Catholic—then at least don't eat right in front of your Muslim friends during the day, because that's kind of hard for them. Although Muslims will say that, will joke that they get more baraka, more blessing from God. That their fast gets even more blessed.
Another thing, this is not so much a point of misunderstanding or insensitivity, it's I will simply say a point of opportunity for sensitivity is Ramadan is a great opportunity to get together with your Muslim neighbors and friends in the evening for a social meal. That's what they're geared to do. And if you have a Muslim friend or neighbor, and you say hey, I would like to learn about you know, how you keep Ramadan in your family, and could I come over in the evening for your evening meal? They, 99% of Muslims, will be delighted to have you over to join them for the evening meal. And similarly if you invite them, say listen, I don't know how I ought to do the meal correctly, but I will buy the halal meat, the permissible meat, and I'll get whatever foods—usually want to break the fast initially with some dates—but yeah, I'll get the food you tell me to get, and your family come over and spend the evening with us and you tell me how to serve the foods that are the right foods. That could be a beautiful time of developing relationships.
If you don't have a relationship with Muslims, you can reach out to the imam of your mosque in your community, and 99% of imams in the US would be delighted if you reach out to them and say hey, I would like to take this opportunity during Ramadan, my family and I, to get to know some Muslims in the community and perhaps share an iftar meal with them—Iftar being the Muslim term for the fast-breaking meal in the evening. Sometimes mosques in America hold if iftar meals in the mosque, to which they explicitly invite non-Muslims. But you can also say I'd like to get together with a family in their home, or invite a family over to my home and they explained to me how to do it right—I think you'll find 99% of imams of mosques are delighted to welcome that, and then you can develop beautiful relationships coming out of that.
Morgan Lee: We published an article a couple of years ago about how Middle Eastern Christians tend to kind of—I don't know what the best word would be—just relate to the season of Ramadan, and there were some examples in there of Christians actually organizing iftars, which I thought was interesting and also per your point how they try to do their best to refrain from eating and drinking in front of Muslims during that particular season. And to that end, I was wondering if there are any examples of how Christians who may be the minority faith, or just one of the faiths there in other countries, have done a really great job of bridge-building during this time that you might want to highlight or point out.
Joseph Cumming: You know, pretty much every Muslim-majority country that has a traditional Christian minority that I know of and I've spent time—and I'm thinking of Egypt, I'm thinking of Palestinian territories, I'm thinking of Jordan, I'm thinking of Lebanon, there's a little bit of a debate whether the Muslims or the Christians are a minority or majority, or Pakistan, for example—in all those countries, Christians, and not all Christians, but many Christians use this as an opportunity to get together socially with their Muslim neighbors. They often will bring them gifts of food to share in the evening. And they'll also use it as an occasion to say, "hey, I want you to forgive me for anything I've done to wrong you in the last year." And then the person replies, "no, you forgive me for anything I've wronged you on over the last year." And you assure them that you do. And those are practiced in virtually every country I know where Muslims are the majority and you have a long-standing Christian community. So, they're beautiful, beautiful opportunities to do that.
You're absolutely right, not only in Muslim-majority countries but in America many Christians either host iftar meals for Muslim friends or will jointly, churches will jointly organized with a mosque. A jointly sponsored and hosted iftar meal, which they may hold in the church's community room or something like that, and those can be beautiful opportunities to develop relationships.
Mark Galli: Are there particular, in terms of having that conversation— where you know you said Muslims like to discuss religion. I found that just generally true, but I would think it's especially true in Ramadan—are there particular themes or entry points in which it's easy to begin talking about Christian faith with our Muslim friends?
Joseph Cumming: So, yes, absolutely. First, I think it's very important to say respect is really important for Muslims. Muslims have felt disrespected by Christians through the centuries, and they feel very cutely today almost, it's almost—I don't want to generalize about 100% of Muslims in the world, but it's almost universal among Muslims that they feel disrespected by Christians. Which means that if you do respect them and you respect their faith, even if you don't agree with everything of their faith, if you respect their faith, it's important to make that clear. Don't just take it for granted and say well if I don't act disrespectful, they'll know I respect them. No, you need to make an extra effort to show respect for them, and to show respect for what is sacred to them. Which means that it's not appropriate to say let's get together for an iftar meal, and then let me tell you why your religion is the bad Religion and our religion is the right religion. Your prophet is a bad guy and our savior is perfect. Even if you believe that's true, that's not a helpful way to make them feel the love of Jesus. That's a helpful way to make them not feel the love of Jesus.
But if you show respect for them, we show respect for their faith, show respect for what sacred to them regardless of whether you agree with it or not, and in that context having expressed that talk about your faith and what your faith means to you, generally Muslims are very happy to have that conversation. Again, not all. Some just want to get into an argument with you, but most Muslims are delighted to have that conversation with you. And I think because Ramadan is a time when people are thinking about forgiveness of sins, asking God to forgive their sins, seeking to reconcile with other people—that emphasis on forgiveness both vertical view towards God and horizontal towards one another—well, that's obvious starting place to talk about what forgiveness means to you as a follower of Jesus Christ.
If you do reach out to Muslim friends or neighbors during this month of Ramadan, or particularly if you reach out to the imam of your local mosque, I think it's important to bear in mind that this is a scary time for the Muslim community in America. I think everybody is aware of course of the shocking New Zealand massacres, terrorist attacks in New Zealand on the mosques there. The general public is less aware that there are constantly attacks on mosques and on Muslims, hate crimes and vandalism of mosques, and threats against mosques, pretty much every day. And a lot of, particularly imams of mosques, are wondering when our people come together to pray at our mosque during Ramadan, will we be safe? Or will there be another terrorist attack? And I think anything you can say as a Christian friend to express that you understand that, you care about that, your concern for the safety of your Muslim neighbors, you're even willing to volunteer to do what you can to help assure their safety, that I think will go a long way to helping them feel the love of Christ being a reflected through you.
Mark Galli: The old classical evangelical phrase, you've convicted me to maybe go visit the local imam and do that very thing.
Joseph Cumming: God bless you for that, and God bless everybody who's listening.
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