Academic Dean of Bethlehem Bible College and Galilee Bible College
How should the followers of Christ respond to Ramadan and to the socio-religious activities of Muslims in this month? From a Muslim’s point of view, Ramadan is the time of spiritual revival. It is the Islamic spiritual awakening in which a Muslim seeks to pursue purity of mind and heart in words and action. In Ramadan, faithful Muslims fast from sunset to sundown, read the whole Quran, and help the poor as well as needy. They turn away from immoralities, from the vices of the tongue, and evil thoughts. These things are indeed good and, as Christians, we should value all the good deeds that Muslims do. We should further be provoked to affirm our commitment to the teachings of Jesus Christ concerning fasting (Matt 6: 16 – 18), alms giving (Matt 6: 1 – 4), and prayer (Matt 6: 5 – 15). Perhaps, God placed Muslims amongst us to remind us of the sermon of the mount that taught us about fasting, alms giving, and prayer.
In the Middle East, Christians live among a Muslim majority. During Ramadan, we enjoy several aspects of the Islamic culture such as some Arabic TV programs, and traditional sweets that we find in the market. But how do we respond to Ramadan from a Christian point of view? I am not here talking about a mere social interaction but I am talking about a healthy relationship between Christians and Muslims. Some Christians, out of respect, don’t eat in public places in order not to offend the fasting Muslims. Some invite Muslims at the end of their day of fasting to a party offering them food. Should we do these parties or is it forbidden by our Bible? Should we ignore Islamic festivities around us or condemn it because some claim that it is not compatible with our biblical beliefs? Should we even talk about this issue or just ignore it and be silent? In light of these questions or concerns, I am providing below some biblical principles that I hope will be helpful as we seek to develop a healthy relationship with our Muslim neighbors. I will consider some insights from the apostles Peter and Paul.
First, let us consider the apostle Peter. The book of acts informs us of the interaction that occurred between Peter, the follower of Jesus, and Cornelius the religious gentile. Cornelius was a devout man who feared God and gave much alms and prayed continually (Acts 10: 2). At first, Peter considered himself to be religiously superior and refused to interact with Cornelius. But God helped Peter to recognize that Cornelius is a fellow human being even though he is religiously different and is a centurion involved in military activities against Peter (Acts 10: 26). Nevertheless, both of them are equal in their humanity. Both are created by the same creator. No doubt, Peter’s discovery concerning Cornelius is relevant to the ways in which we see our Muslim neighbors whom we share with them many common values. They are our brothers and sisters in creation and are also our partners in our society. Peter recognized that bigotry leads to isolation and even to condemning those who are different. It leads to boycotting all forms of fellowship with those who belong to a different faith. We don’t go to their homes, we don’t eat their food. We don’t look for anything that is worth admiring in their habits and traditions. But God showed Peter a different path. It is a better path for we become open to consider those who are different and interact with them. It is not the interaction between the righteous and the defiled but the interaction between two fellow human beings who are equally sinful before God.
Second, we need to follow in the footsteps of the apostle Paul who sometimes highlighted the common theological grounds before addressing the doctrinal differences. Maybe, we need to affirm that God is the creator of both Muslims and Christians and He is the source of life for both (Acts 17: 24 – 25). It is even okay to read and quote the Quran or the Hadith following the example of Paul who was aware of the poetry of the people of Athens (Acts 17: 28). Like Paul, we might discover common grounds with those who are different from us. Christians and Muslims will benefit from highlighting the common theological grounds especially those related to Jesus Christ, his birth, and life. These common grounds have the potential to be major building blocks in bridging the gaps between the two pertinent religious communities. The goal is not syncretism but creating good channels for expressing respect and love without compromising biblical truth. Consequently, it is important for Christians to study the Islamic thought and faith reading the Quran. Perhaps, we can affirm whatever is true in the Quran and is congruent with the biblical worldview. At the same time, we need to point out our differences with love and respect.
Third, Paul witnessed that the Jews are zealous for God even though he disagreed with their perspective (Rom 10: 2). In the footsteps of Paul, we admit that Muslims are zealous for God. They continually pray in mosques and even in the streets before the whole world. They fast and are diligent in practicing their faith and in calling all people to join them in prayer every day through loud speakers whenever possible. They even put big signs in the streets quoting Quranic verses. The same verses appear in their shops and homes. It seems that their desire to spread their faith is strong. Sometimes, I pray that the lord will give me as well as our churches a similar zeal to spread our faith without fear or hesitance following Jesus publicly.
After talking about the insights that we learn from Peter and Paul, we are still left with the question: how should we interact with our beloved Muslim brothers and sisters with respect and love without attacking them or compromising our faith? In the following, I provide few ways in which we can start to relate in Christian ways with our Muslim neighbors. First, we need to look for common vocabulary in expressing our struggles, fears, and hopes. We also need to look for common theological grounds that are indispensible for building bridges towards the other. In our search, it is important to highlight their contributions and learn from it. Second, we must leave our isolated intellectual castle in which we imprisoned ourselves. In other words, we have to be willing to interact with Muslims at all levels in a holistic way. We cannot relate to Muslims only from a doctrinal point of view or only through the internet. A Muslim is a human being like us who fears, rejoices, plays, and is sometimes sad. A Muslim could be a gifted musician or an artist or an athlete, or a prominent scientist. Put differently, we need to expand our doctrinal interaction and move towards a holistic interaction following in the footsteps of Jesus incarnational ministry. The Christian message and ministry to Muslims need to be clothed with and shaped by Arabic as well as Muslim cultures. Consequently, more studies are needed to highlight the contribution of Arab Christians. Third, Christians must pray and plan conferences seeking to put healthy strategies of interaction between Christians and Muslims. How should we love them? How can we serve them? How can we be salt and light among them? How can we be the voice of love and forgiveness in their midst? How can we proclaim the Kingdom of God in the Muslim world? These questions should motivate us to be followers of Jesus in the midst of our Muslim neighbors not in isolation from them. Fourth, how do we expect as a church to interact with our Muslim neighbors if our sermons and Bible studies are devoid from any form of interaction with the Islamic worldview, and if we don’t have programs to address our common theological grounds and differences? Perhaps, Ramadan is a good time for churches to consider the aforementioned issues.
Indeed, Ramadan has come. I therefore pray for all of my Muslim neighbors hoping that God will pour His blessings upon them. I affirm in this Ramadan my love for Muslims without overlooking what distinguishes us from each other. As a Christian I accept the Bible as the inspired Word of God and I accept everything and anything in the Quran that is compatible with the Bible. May we all enlarge our hearts and provoke our churches to go to our Muslim neighbors as messengers of Jesus Christ who is always full of love, peace, and Justice.