by John Speers
With nothing to show for our efforts at making some inroads into the Muslim community I decided that I would try to keep the Ramadan fast.
The shift from a fruitful ministry among nominal Catholics our first term to Muslim evangelism our second term had not been easy. Our transfer to a poor, urban Muslim community had coincided with Ramadan, the month of fasting. Strict prohibition applies to food, drink, cigarettes, and love-making during the 14 daylight hours throughout the 30-day period.
The nights had been noisy as people feasted, while the days found those same people more religiously minded than normal and very suspicious at our arrival. It had not been a good time for us. We decided Ramadan was perhaps the best time to go away for a vacation.
A year later, with nothing to show for our efforts at making some inroads into this resistant community, Ramadan came around again. Perhaps with some desperation, and certainly with some apprehension, we decided that I would try to keep the fast, while my wife Brenda would support and encourage me.
COMPROMISE OR CONTEXTUALIZATION?
When my missionary friends and some of our supporters heard about it, a lot of questions popped up. Generally, evangelicals are indifferent — if not hostile — toward missionaries who observe Ramadan. The team leader of one Muslim ministry told me that only four of his 20 members were keeping the fast. That ratio is probably a fair representation of missionaries’ attitudes. To keep Ramadan or not has serious theological repercussions. Does participation equal compromise?
Two conclusions freed me to keep the fast. First was the realization that equally devoted missionaries differ. A number of missionaries in evangelical agencies advocate a contextual approach to the fast. They withstand their critics with scriptural evidence, chiefly Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 9:22: “To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.”
Who would not keep the fast, if it were known that by so doing some people would come to faith in Christ? To me, emanating from Paul’s argument, is my second reason for keeping the fast: “…that by all means I might save some.” How can we know if identification with Muslims at this level will produce fruit, unless we try?
It would be gratifying to say that some have been saved as a direct result of my contextualized Ramadan fast. Regardless, the following benefits—perhaps neither conclusive nor spectacular—have convinced me of the potential of continuing to observe the fast.
1. Interpretation of presence. After looking at several potential homes to rent in our Muslim community, we stopped for a Coke at a local eatery. Soon a curious crowd gathered and the inevitable question arose, “Who are you and why do you want to move into our community?” We cringed as we sought an inoffensive yet ethical response.
“Missionary” is an acceptable title in many parts of the world. It is well understood and interpreted by the people in a way that gives both respect and an open door for telling the gospel. Among Muslims, however, many missionaries continue to seek a different term to explain their presence. Linguist, teacher, student, and language learner, among others, have been tried and often found lacking.
Without any point of reference, Muslims often stereotype missionaries first as Americans and then as Christians. Both are derogatory terms. They see missionaries through the lens of American mass media and conclude that we represent the antithesis to their own values. The missionary begins lower than “square one” in establishing a viable witness.
Ramadan offers the chance for a very different interpretation of the strange visitors. Because Ramadan is the essence of Muslim piety, anyone who observes it is recognized as a devoted seeker of God. In some languages a special word is used to mark those who have completed the entire 30 days without fault. I have found that as a direct result of my participation in Ramadan, I am being seen much differently by our community. This is most noticeable in people’s introductions: “This is John, a follower of the Prophet Jesus. He doesn’t eat pork and he kept the whole fast.” Spiritual conversations born of mutual respect, rather than the customary debate, repeatedly follow this introduction.
2. Initiation of friendships. In some Islamic nations shopkeepers report sales increases of up to 50 percent during Ramadan. The days of fasting are offset by evenings of feasting. Food, fellowship, and Koranic readings are the order of the night. The bond of the Islamic community grows deeper at Ramadan, as rich and poor alike share in the fast and the feast.
It is not surprising, then, that many missionaries find it difficult to maintain or initiate new friendships during this time. When the total focus for 30 days is piety and fellowship within the community, the Muslims easily forget their Christian friends. Missionaries are especially frustrated.
Participation in the fast offers a different perspective. Near the end of our first week, we ventured into the unknown and invited a family to break the fast in our home at sunset. The meal was so positive that Brenda’s suppporting role became primary. During the next three weeks we entertained another 50 people, many previously unknown to us, and sent food to an additional 100. Their response was remarkable.
Actually, Ramadan may be the best time to initiate new friendships, or to cultivate old ones to deeper spiritual levels. The natural tendency toward feasting offers ample opportunities for initiating new relationships. The prevailing spirit of piety opens the door for discussions about spiritual matters.
3. Instruction in culture. Without an appropriate understanding of our presence in their community, it’s hard to start friendships. Without friendships, it’s hard to learn language and culture. By participating in the fast we entered into the heart of both language and culture. We learned more about social structures, the Muslim faith, and felt needs during those 30 days than in the previous eight months.
4. Identification. From the outset we have sought an incarnational ministry. Our location, home, and lifestyle (including going without a car) have been part of our identification with the people. But we are still considered to be the wealthiest residents.
The fast gave us the chance for a truer assimilation into their society. I shared in their thirst, hunger, and the feast. I identified with them at the core of their lives. For the first time I felt more on the inside of their society than on the outside.
5. Intercession. Christians are instructed to fast in secret. Ramadan is a public display of perceived righteousness. It wasn’t easy to find the balance.
Before beginning the fast, I decided that Ramadan would simply be a method of identification, an experiment in empathy. However, Brenda and I agreed to cover the entire month in prayer. As the fast progressed, two things happened. More time for prayer, weakness, and a focus on the Lord deepened our intercessory burden. Our new friendships and freshly acquired knowledge of the culture in turn fueled our intercession.
6. Inspiration to persevere. Building deeper friendships is a slow process in the Muslim community. Our results are so negligible for so long that our supporters at home don’t understand what we are doing. Discouragement sets in.
However, we found that Ramadan gave us our first ministry encouragement in more than a year. Not only budding friendships, but the community’s new respect for our spirituality brightened our outlook and gave us new outlets for ministry. We were inspired to press on, both in our mundane daily tasks, and also in creative experiments to find other bridges to our Muslim friends.
Gaining benefits from keeping the fast does not come without risks. Misunderstandings arise, not just among fellow missionaries, but also among Muslims. Some of the latter thought I had converted. I had to make long explanations. However, not once did I get a negative response from a Muslim for keeping Ramadan.
Ramadan regresses 14 days each year on the Gregorian calendar. The next 10 years will be the easiest in a physical sense to keep the fast in the Muslim world, as it progressively falls in the cooler season with shorter days.
I suggest that an experimental approach, coupled with sensitive education of our supporters, mission colleagues, and Muslim friends can clear the way to a profitable Ramadan experience. Can we continue to neglect the Ramadan fast with such potential benefits?
EMQ, Vo. 27, No. 4, pp. 390-395. 356-361. Copyright © 1991 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.