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Demystifying the Essential Meaning of Ramadan: Ramadan Traditions Are Shared With the Traditions of Judaism and Christianity

By Mohammad bin Abdulkarim Al-Issa

June 3, 2019

In the weeks before the holy month of Ramadan, I travelled between New York and Washington, D.C., for a series of historic interfaith events with some of the most prominent religious leaders from around the world. One particularly significant part of my visit was the opportunity to demystify and speak about the essential meaning of Ramadan, which began on May 5.

My trip led to groundbreaking agreements with leaders of the American Jewish community, a new working relationship with Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the Archbishop of New York, and a large donation by my organization to U.N. refugee assistance, without any preference to nation or faith. As we gathered in unity in the aftermath of terrorist attacks targeting Muslims, Jews and Christians around the world, I was able to talk about the true spirit of this month’s sacred observances, which I found largely unknown to Western and non-Muslim audiences.

To most non-Muslims, Ramadan is vaguely understood as a longish, localized ritual involving fasting from dawn until sundown, rigorous personal discipline, and a rather perplexing calculation of lunar cycles. Yet what is so special about this “most Islamic” of customs, and one of the five pillars of the faith, is the fact that its practice is both universal and cross-cultural in terms of its theological foundation, history and tradition. For example, the most important part of this 30-day observance is the call to spiritual purification and renewal of the individual. That spiritual ethic is one that each of the three Abrahamic religions shares as a common tradition and practice.

In Islam, Ramadan was the month that the Holy Koran was revealed to Mohammad (peace be upon him), sent by revelation during the Laylat-Ul-Qadr, or the “night of power.” According to our “Hadith,” all Holy Scriptures were sent down on specific days during this month: the Scriptures to Abraham, the Torah to Moses, the Psalms to David, the Gospels to Christ and all followed by the revelation of the Quran itself. As such, our traditions are shared with the traditions of Judaism and Christianity through a focus on personal repentance and renewal. For example, the historian Philip Jenkins has compared Ramadan to the Lenten disciplines of eastern Christianity; writers in the West often refer to Ramadan as “the Muslim Lent.” There are deep resemblances between Ramadan and this Christian practice, exemplified by the observance by some Muslim Clerics that Jesus fasted during Ramadan. If true, one could interpret Islam as honouring and preserving aspects of authentic Christianity.

Within the Jewish tradition of Rosh Hashanah — the New Year of that faith — the restoration of personal virtue through repentance also is emphasized as in Ramadan. The Yom Kippur observance that then follows is a time of fasting, akin in its custom to the Islamic imperative of “divine cleansing.”

In some cultures, these cross-currents are particularly strong and all three faiths teach this essential principle of personal atonement and spiritual strength before God. It is a recognition that, ultimately, peace among nations may be gained only through the moral perfection of the individual. It is very important to understand and appreciate both religious diversity as well as the many common values among the religion

These reflections came to mind when my organization signed an unprecedented cooperation agreement at the headquarters of the American Jewish Committee last month, and later hosted one of the largest high-level assemblies of Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders at the United Nations. These events were all the more significant but also more poignant in that they took place in the highly-charged international atmosphere after the terror attacks in New Zealand, Sri Lanka and San Diego only weeks earlier. As I said to Cardinal Dolan in New York, whose meeting followed my first ever trip to the Vatican in 2017, our goal is to show “how much there is that unites us and to reject the messages of those who divide us.”

A guiding principle in Ramadan is the practice of Sawaab — that is, the necessity of performing good deeds with awareness that these are “being watched” by God. It is my sincere desire that as we continue to bridge our common human values at a level never seen before in history, through an open and honest dialogue among the world faith, such deeds and God’s watchfulness of them will secure, at last, peaceful results for all humanity.

Although this month is a celebration of “the best of times” for Muslims, I can only wish a Ramadan for the entire world. We hope that all may share in these best of times — for many months, if not years, to come.

• Mohammad bin Abdulkarim Al-Issa is secretary general of The Muslim World League, an international non-governmental Islamic organization based in the Holy City of Makkah.