Over the last three weeks, I've been taken aback by the sheer number of people of different faiths (and without faith) who have begun to fast alongside Muslims this Ramadan. There’s pastor Wes Magruder in Texas, the team of #InterfaithFriday in London, and the staff at charity:water in New York, to name just a few. The latter were so inspired by Rebecca Minor and Nye Armstrong’s Ramadan fundraiser that they decided to fast in solidarity with their campaign.
As heart-warming and inspirational as these examples of faith-based activism are, there are potential problems with all this Interfaith Ramadan marlarky.
The main criticism of Interfaith Ramadan activities tends to be that they are almost exclusively on Muslim terms and on Muslim 'turf.' Yes, Muslims go to great efforts to prepare iftar meals, but it’s non-Muslims who have to leave their comfort zone and step into the Muslim world. Muslims extend the hand of welcome, but it’s the non-Muslims during all the leg work. Many of whom are not only observing and asking questions, but actively taking part in the physical fast and the spiritual aspects which that entails.
Then again, one could argue that the Muslim-centric activites of Ramadan are simply addressing the imbalance which is present for the rest of the year. The positive contributions of Muslims are often overlooked or wildly misrepresented in the Media and Ramadan is a brilliant opportunity to facilitate better understanding of Islam.
Clearing up misunderstandings and teaching people about Islam is called Dawah. The word Dawah though can also be interpreted as the attempt to convert someone. Harsh critics of Interfaith Ramadan have said that it's simply veiled dawah in the latter 'creeping sharia' variety. There's a fine line between education and evangelism which we should be careful not to cross that line.
Interfaith dialogue is not about throwing a net to catch potential converts. Learning about other religions allows us to gain insight into how others worship, have fellowship with others and, ideally, helps us to deepen our connection with God within our own faith tradition.
Let's go back to the issue of the possible imbalance between the efforts of Muslims and Non-Muslims during Interfaith Ramadan activities. We have to stop and ask ourselves - how many Muslims would be willing to fast during Lent?
This probing question is aimed first and foremost at myself. Would I be willing to fast for another month? This would mean I’d be spending a sixth of the year fasting? Can I honestly, hand on heart, answer yes to that? Probably not.
Therein lies a crucial issue for the Interfaith movement to deal with. It goes without saying that one sided gestures don’t get us very far. So, what can be done?
First, let's look at the differences between Lent and Ramadan. One could argue that Lent is not really the equivalent of Ramadan. First of all, Lent doesn't come with the huge fanfare that Ramadan does, at least not in the UK. Where Ramadan is loud and brash, Lent tends to go under the radar. Those who do fast, tend to do so privately, following the Biblical passage (Mark 6:16-18) which says,
16 “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you."
A casual observer might see faded crosses on foreheads on Ash Wednesday or dried palm leaf crosses poking out of handbags and Bibles after Palm Sunday but it’s highly unlikely that #Lent will be the trending on twitter every day as Ramadan has been for the last month. It's likely that if a Muslim fasted during Lent as an act of solidarity, there wouldn't be that many Christians to share the experience with. It wouldn't be on the same scale.
Although fasting is a Christian tradition too and there are those who observe it, nowadays fasting during Lent has mostly fizzled out to giving up a vice such as chocolate or coffee. Giving up something certainly has value and that shouldn't be dismissed out of hand. But I think for many Christians, and I speak from my own experience as a Christian, this act doesn't necessarily come with a deepened sense of spirituality. Sometimes it comes across as just a kickstarter for the Summer diet.
Although Lent may not currently be the same in terms of widespread fasting, Easter is just as spiritually significant to Christians as Ramadan is to Muslims. Many Christians take on extra devotional study or attend courses during Lent in preparation for Easter.
Perhaps one way of approaching Lent would be: what can we learn from this Ramadan which we can carry with us into Lent?
Reading and listening to the experiences of non-Muslims fasting is so uplifting and encouraging for Muslims. For me personally, their efforts and insights have really helped me to make the most out of my Ramadan. Not only does the fresh enthusiasm of non-Muslims re-energize Muslims who are fasting but it also helps Muslims to feel a welcome part of the community.
Sharing Lent with Muslims and other faiths, could help many Christians regain their enthusiasm for Lent as a truly spiritual preparatory period for Holy Week. Moreover, interfaith events and initiatives, during Christmas and Lent would be just as enriching for Muslims as it has been for many Christians this Ramadan. There's so much that Muslims can learn from the Christian tradition. My own faith would be so much poorer without my prior knowledge of the Bible.
So we are left with these considerations which we need to mull over, not only with our own religious communities, but as a larger interfaith community:
What can we do, as Muslims, to show solidarity with Christians during Christmas and Lent? What can we do, as Christians, to open the door to Muslims and share the experience of Christmas and Lent?
(Update) Wes Magruder wrote a thoughtful response to this piece here
I'd also like to thank Hind Makki and John Ager for their help on this topic.
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