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What Can Christians Learn from Ramadan?

Muslims praying toward Mecca.

Ramadan is the ninth and holiest month of the Islamic lunar calendar. It’s when 1.2 billion Muslims worldwide are told to fast from dawn to sunset, replacing food and water with increased prayers and recitation of their scripture, the Koran. Eating and drinking are allowed nightly. This year Ramadan began July 8 and will conclude tonight, on the evening of August 7.

In Understanding the Koran, Mateen Elass says, “Christians need to become much more familiar with the teachings of the Koran and the practices of Islam so as to more ably explain to Muslims the reason for the hope that lies within us because of Jesus Christ.” Another aspect to consider, however, is what Christians can learn from the devoted practices of Muslims, such as the observance of Ramadan.

Strictly speaking, fasting is simply the practice of abstaining from food, drink, or both for a certain period of time. But most major religions, including Christianity, assign to fasting a spiritual component that is at least as important as the physical component. Isaiah 58:6-7 says that an acceptable fast is more than abstaining from food or water; it’s intended to be a mark of a person’s decision to fully obey God’s command to care for the poor and oppressed. Fasting is a way for a person to pursue humility and appeal to God.

Because the New Testament church is not specifically commanded to fast, fasting is somewhat downplayed in the modern Christian church, particularly within its Protestant branch. But fasting was important to ancient believers in both the Old and New Testaments. Just as the Koran stipulates a time of fasting for Muslims, the Bible set aside one day a year when Israelites were expected to fast on the Day of Atonement. Jesus instructed his followers based on the assumption that they were already regularly fasting: when you fast, not if you fast. And of course Jesus himself fasted for 40 days. The late Dr. Bill Bright said, “Fasting is the most powerful spiritual discipline of all the Christian disciplines. Through fasting and prayer, the Holy Spirit can transform your life.”

There is no exact analogue of Ramadan within Christianity. What may be the closest Christian comparison to Ramadan is the season of Lent—the 40 days leading up to Easter every year. During these days Christians are encouraged (but not required) to observe some type of fast or self-denial to commemorate Jesus’ sacrifice and to reflect, repent, and pray in preparation to celebrate Christ’s resurrection on Easter Sunday. Too often, though, Christians are content to minimize their abstentions by laughingly asking, “What are you giving up for Lent?,” referring to a trite, comfortable sacrifice without considering the spiritual purpose behind abstaining.

Perhaps, as the fasting of Ramadan comes to an end, we Christians should reconsider how personal fasting can lead to a better understanding of our faith and a closer walk with God—and take it more seriously. Read through some of the Bible passages linked above to learn how fasting was understood by believers in ancient times. Ask yourself if fasting, or certain elements of fasting, might be an appropriate way to express and strengthen your faith.

On our Facebook page, tell us whether you fast and how it’s affected your personal faith. And tweet about it using #biblegateway.

Resources for further reading:

Photo of Muslims praying by Antonio Melina/Agência Brasil.

Filed under History