Ramadan Discussions

The international student who is living with us for the next eight weeks is Muslim.  A beautiful, intelligent young woman eager to engage with Americans as she works on perfecting her English language skills.  She arrived late Friday night.  When my wife told her (while I was at work on Saturday) what my job was, she was very excited at the prospect of theological conversations, and Sunday night we had our first one after the kids vacated the dinner table.

I asked her about Ramadan and her family observance of it.  She indicated that her family observed Ramadan (along with all of the other five pillars of Islam – profession of Allah as God and Mohammed as his final prophet, payment of the zakat or annual tithe, prayer five times a day, and undertaking the Hajj to Mecca, though they are still in the planning stages to fulfill this final obligation).  She then indicated that she doesn’t pray five times a day because of her schedule as a student, and that she isn’t observing Ramadan this year while she is in the United States.

I asked her about how she felt about these departures from expected Muslim behavior.  There was hesitation, a recognition that she was not following her religion as closely as she ought to.

She asked me about my weekly routine, and then asked specifically if people came to me for confession.  I indicated that they did and that this was one of the most important aspects of my job, that I could communicate to people the forgiveness they have in Jesus Christ – that God has forgiven their sins.  I then asked her if confession is a tradition in Islam and she quickly said that it is, and that the Imam is the one who hears confession.  However, she said that the Imam cannot declare forgiveness.  When he hears confession he encourages the person to pray to Allah and ask for mercy, and agrees to pray to Allah on that person’s behalf for the same.  But the Imam cannot declare that the person is forgiven, as only Allah can do this, and Allah has not indicated in the Qur’an what things he will or won’t forgive.  There is no certainty of forgiveness.

I returned to her modified devotional practices, not observing Ramadan and not praying five times daily.  I asked her again how she feels knowing that she is not fulfilling the duties she should as stated in the Qur’an.  Again, uneasiness.  She talked about how the Qur’an was given a long time ago, when people didn’t have the choices and options they do today.  People did the same thing, vocationally.  But now you could go to school or study abroad – there were so many options that made the literal fulfillment of the prescribed practices difficult.  She isn’t alone in this recognition – there have been various articles talking about how Ramadan will affect Muslim soccer players.  They must decide whether to obey the literal requirements of no food or water during daylight hours.

I asked her if she thought Allah understood how much things have changed in the last 1400 years, if he would be merciful and forgiving to her and other Muslims who found the Five Pillars of Islam difficult or impossible to observe.  She smiled and shrugged and simply said “I hope so.”

I look forward to more conversations on this topic.  Forgiveness in Jesus Christ is something it is so easy for Christians to take for granted, yet it is one of the distinctive hallmarks of the faith, something that set it apart from many other belief systems.  In other religions, we must atone ourselves for our sins through ritual or sacrifice or specific action.  All of which leaves the person wondering if it was enough.  What about sins you aren’t aware you committed?  What if you weren’t devout enough in performing your atonement work?  Will the gods still accept it?  Is forgiveness really real?

In Christianity, our forgiveness is not dependent on ourselves and what we do.  Rather, it is dependent entirely on what the Son of God has done in coming into our world as one of us and dying in our place.  His resurrection from the dead is evidence that forgiveness is available, that the curse of death for sin has been lifted.  He calls us (and enables us) to accept this, to recognize it for the life-saving reality that it is.  In that hope, however wavering at times, we have assurance and confidence that we are forgiven.  What a blessing that confidence is!

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3 Responses to “Ramadan Discussions”

  1. Sonya Kassam Says:

    An interesting conversation

    • mrpaulnelson Says:

      Thank you Sonya. I very much enjoy these sorts of ‘interesting’ conversations, and hope to conduct them both faithfully and respectfully. You have some very beautiful poetry on your site, and I hope we’ll have a chance to talk further.

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