It was August of 2009 and we were a little over a month into our time living in the Arabian Gulf. It was crazy hot (and humid) and Ramadan had just begun. We knew what to expect from a religious aspect. We had gone through training just a few months before on what Ramadan is and what it means to those who practice it. However, we had no idea what it looked like actually lived out…both for locals and expats.
So a little background: Ramadan is actually the 9th month of the Islamic calendar. This calendar is lunar-based so the actual 1st day of the month is decided on whether or not the imam (Islamic religious leader) sees the moon on the last night of the previous month, Sha’ban. And to decide the final night of Ramadan, the moon must be seen on the 28th day of Ramadan. If it can't be observed, an extra day is added. Some countries simply follow whatever Saudi Arabia says, since the Muslim holy city of Mecca is there. Outside of the pilgrimage to Mecca, this is the holiest time of the year for Muslims. According to the stories of Mohammad, this was the month in which the Qur’an was revealed to him. It is a time of intense prayer, fasting (from sun-up to sun-down), and seeking to be closer to the god they worship. Truly devout Muslims will fast from all food, drink, and really anything that can distract them from their religious duty. I have even met folks who will spit instead of swallowing their saliva as they see it as digesting liquid. Now you can imagine fasting when it’s 100˚+ can be quite difficult, as it is in the Arabian Gulf. This is why the less devout prefer to just sleep until noon or later so their “fasting” is only a few hours.
Early on in our time there, life during Ramadan was strange to us. It’s almost like the day was flipped. Most of the businesses closed around 1 pm or 2 pm, except grocery stores, then reopened after breaking the fast, and stayed open well after midnight. And about those grocery stores…those were the busiest places in town, which may sound weird for a month of fasting. You see, many people, the less devout actually, gained weight during this month. We usually want what we cannot have, and during Ramadan, that’s food. We would see families with multiple grocery carts piled up walking out during the daytime to prepare for the evening meal. I mean the old saying goes, don’t grocery shop while you’re hungry, right? Not everyone is like this, though. I do have one friend who is mutawa (the Arabic word for “very devout”) and he would break his fast with only a few dates and water, followed by a meal of a small portion of rice and meat. But I can say from experience this was not the norm where we lived. Breaking the fast, or Iftar, was a lot of food, usually well sugared and fried, and the meal after evening prayer was even more food. It was most often a huge smorgasbord of rice, meat, vegetables, and fried doughy goodness. My devout friend would always say these families who ate this way were not following the true meaning behind Ramadan. For us though, it was always a great time to meet with our friends, eat some great food, and have really good conversations about what prayer, fasting, and seeking God look like for Christians compared to Muslims.
The most important time of this month is called Laylat Al-Qadr, or Night of Power. According to Islamic tradition, this night occurs during the last 10 days of Ramadan. The catch is, humans, don’t know when this night is, only god does. Because of this, you will see devout Muslims praying constantly during this time, many never leaving the mosque during these 10 days. The reason is this Night of Power is said to have the equivalent of 1000 nights of prayer. They say it’s like getting a “bonus” from God. Works-based salvation says you must earn your way to God. This is not the gospel of Jesus Christ. This is the main issue with Ramadan and Islam in general. Everything done is to get a “bonus” from God. However, Paul tells us we have no ability to bring anything to God. Our work here is like “filthy rags” according to Isaiah and there is no righteousness in us, as Paul says in Romans 3 and in Psalm 14. The only righteousness we can obtain is to, by faith, believe in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Through faith in him, we are made righteous. Romans 3:21-24 says:
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus
The Reformers summed it up well when they testified: Salvation is by grace alone, with faith alone, through Christ alone, according to Scripture alone, to the glory of God alone.
One thing we learned during our time in the Middle East - Jesus is working. He is there. It may not be obvious, but the relationships he is growing through times like Iftar and Ramadan and then Eid celebrations after Ramadan are vital to the spread of his gospel throughout the Muslim world. Let us pray for our Muslim friends, and for our Christian friends living and working among them. What would it look like if you opened your doors to a Muslim neighbor to learn about their holidays and then took the time to teach them about the true God of the Bible?
Ramadan lasts 28 days and started on March 22 for most of the world, so for the next 3 weeks here are some prayer points:
- Pray for the true God of the Bible to reveal his true nature to them.
- Pray they would see their works are “filthy rags” and only true righteousness is found in Jesus.
- Pray for God to use dreams and visions to open their eyes.
- Pray for workers who are serving Muslims. Pray for opportunities to share meals and conversations about the gospel.
If you would like more information, please reach out to the Global Team.