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Why I appreciate Ramadan

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Boats are seen as they wait to carry passengers ahead of the Muslim holiday Eid al-Fitr during dusk on the Buriganga river in Dhaka August 25, 2011 (Credit: Reuters/Andrew Biraj)

Ramadan is the holiest month of the Islamic calendar. Muslims believe that Muhammad received his first revelation from the angel Gabriel on the 17th day of this month in the year A.D. 610. The Qur’an (2:183-185) requires Muslims to fast during Ramadan, swallowing nothing from sunup to sundown.

At sunset, families gather for Iftar, their fast-breaking meal. The meal begins by eating three dates, a practice begun by Muhammad himself. Many Muslims read the entire Qur’an during this month. And they give to the poor, believing their charity to be rewarded 70 times more during Ramadan than at any other time. Tomorrow Muslims will observe Eid Al-Fitr, a special three-day celebration with new clothes and toys for children and a time for family gathering and feasting.

To me, Ramadan is one of the most attractive features of Islam. It provides the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims with an observance that unites their global community (the ummah). It spurs prayer, meditation, and alms-giving. It leads Muslims to set eternal priorities above temporal concerns. And its emphasis on fasting is consistent with Jesus’ expectation for his followers: “When you fast . . .” (Matthew 6:16).

At the same time, Ramadan illustrates the enormous difference between Christianity and Islam. The month is a clear illustration of the works-based righteousness that lies at the heart of Islam. The Qur’an teaches that a soul “gets every good that it earns, and it suffers every ill that it earns” (2:286). The sacrifice of Ramadan is just one way Muslims hope to demonstrate enough good works to earn a place in heaven with Allah.

Tragically, I have found many Christians over the years to be works-based in their faith as well. We go to church on Sunday so God will bless us on Monday. We give financially so we will be blessed financially. We read the Bible and pray at the start of the day so God will bless our day. We are like the ancient Romans with their sacrifices on the altars of their temples, seeking to purchase favor with their gods.

None of us intends this kind of implicit legalism—it’s just part of our cultural DNA. By contrast, God does not want a transactional religion, but a transformational relationship. The spiritual disciplines taught by Scripture do not earn his favor—they position us to receive what his grace intends to give.

When Ramadan ends, I encourage you to pray for Muslims to come to Jesus, the only One who can satisfy the longing of their souls? Muslims the world over are seeing Jesus in visions and dreams; more are becoming Christians than ever before in history. Join me in praying each day for a great spiritual awakening to sweep the Muslim world. And know that you can do nothing to earn or lose your Father’s love for you: “the Lord longs to be gracious to you; he rises to show you compassion” (Isaiah 30:18). Have you thanked him yet today?