Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Break Fast

Sometimes when I watch people of other faiths live out their rituals and practices, I feel inadequate, like my faith is nullified by my lack of piety.

Case in point: A few weeks ago I went to an iftar celebration at the Istanbul Center, a cultural institution in Atlanta that a missionary here described to me as a sort of "soft power" way for Muslims from Turkey to introduce their views into the community.

The iftar is the breaking of the daily fast during the month of Ramadan. Ramadan is observed during the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar. During the entire month, Muslims abstain from food, drink and sex during daylight hours. When the sun goes down, everyone gets together and eats a meal to celebrate the passing of a God-filled day.

You see, the idea behind Ramadan is that by forgoing bodily necessities, the practitioner is able to wean himself from self-dependence and focus more on devotion toward God. The idea is basically the same as Christian fasting: giving things up makes us realize how much they detract from our worship of God. Not eating makes us focus on Jesus as our food, just like he said we should do.

In Islam, the Qur'an requires that worshippers pray five times per day toward the holy city of Mecca. During Ramadan, they are expected to observe this minimum prayer threshold and even up the ante a bit. All the extra time that could have been spent eating is often devoted to what Muslims sometimes call "remembrance"of God through prayer.

Sins, already considered intolerable on normal days, are especially frowned upon during Ramadan. The facilitator at the Istanbul center read us a verse (or ayat) from the Qur'an that basically showed how God does not consider your hunger or thirst worthwhile if you're showing no regard for his commands. I see this as an echo of Jesus' call to avoid becoming like the Pharisees, who always wanted to pad their pride by making it obvious when they were fasting. To fast for personal gain - just like sinning while fasting - is a negation of the promise that the ritual represents.

The outside observer might assume that the special Ramadan month and the Islamic faith in general imposes considerable obligations on the adherent. That observer would be right, but it's the same in Christianity, and I think both are beautiful in that they point to this basic tenet: Loving God requires obedience, which often requires submission.

But here is where I get the most troubled about this whole thing. As far as I understand Islam, under its system the believer can never really tell whether he or she is saved. You can say the shahada, that there is no God but God and that Muhammad is his messenger, but that proclamation is not a fail-safe formula for salvation. Works and faith are needed to escape the great wrath of God.

To complicate matters, Islam has no doctrine of Original Sin. Instead of being an ingrained condition as it is in Christianity, people are considered inherently good, but they sin when they fail to remember God, when the devil draws them from the right path with his crafty temptations.

So, in my outsider's view, the act of faith in Islam is never a cold-turkey turn from death to life or the regeneration of spirit through grace that Christians believe occurs when we trust Jesus to repair our broken relationship with God through his sacrifice. In Islam it seems that salvation is always a guessing game, and those dreaded scales that weigh our deeds must be appeased.

Which brings me to my point (putting aside the question of how "backslidden" one must be to lose his Christian salvation or validate that it was never real in the first place). If Muslims can love God enough to sacrifice him even as they (on some level) try to earn his approval, shouldn't Christians, who have supposedly already received an unconditional pardon through the sacrifice and resurrection of Christ, be able to give up a few things for God?

Jesus said that if we love him we'll keep his commands. I feel like I love him, but in my experience, the second part is of that statement is much more difficult act out. But maybe that's the beauty of how we Christians believe that God dreamed it up. My lack of piety doesn't nullify my faith. It shows why I needed in the first place, why I keep returning to it when the scales aren't tipping in my favor. And that trust is the key to salvation. As the Bible says, perfect love casts out fear.

I welcome any corrections in the comments on this site about my interpretations of Muslim belief. I want to get it right, and I've been careful here to say "as I understand" as much as possible.

Captions: A tour through this mosque in Amman, Jordan, gave me a new appreciation for Muslim architecture - and modesty. I wore shorts that day and was forced to wear robes like the women.

Left: Ever wondered how people determine the direction of Mecca from 30,000 feet in the air? This screen is your answer.


Kemal said...


I enjoyed reading about your experience at a Ramadan Dinner. In your questions and comments about Islam I felt your sincere and truthful curiosity. I am a Muslim and I get to meet and talk with many Christians in the US. Once I asked a pastor I respect a lot "Why sometimes Muslim Christian Dialogue fails" or does not go beyond a formal introduction.
His answer was "It fails when we do not focus on God but focus on everything else"

At the end of the day you, me, all of us are after the same treasure that is a close loving relationship with The Creator.
This relationship is not always very visible. Actually it is like an iceberg; 90% not seen!

I do not know if you will agree with me but in any love relationship there is a certain amount of fear: "Fear of Rejection" "Fear of Loosing" etc. We all have done it: "Loves me, Loves me not... game." This is a form of courtship I think. This fear is stronger when two sides are not in the same class!

Me, a puny human loves the creator of the universe and hopes that He will love me too with all my mistakes. So I will often fail and ask his pardon again and again only to find him gracious and loving every time.
Only thing is "I must keep coming back to him" If I turn away from him or become uninterested in him then he will gently remind me to come back to him. If my heart became ill and became cold and hard then I may need stronger medicine to fix it. I may have an unexpected difficulty in my life that reminds me to come back to him for he is the only one who can help me. So I may cry and beg him to take me and keep me. And of course he does every time.

So you see the formal actions of worship and good deeds are nothing but an effort to keep the relationship alive and active so my heart does not grow cold and hard. I help the poor and the needy because "He" would like me to do that. I get up late night and put my face to the ground and cry and praise him because this is my time to be with him.
Love and Fear are twin sisters you cannot separate. We just need to be clear what we mean by fear.

I am sorry to keep going like this but I wanted you to know how an ordinary average Muslim like me feels and does the things he does.

May God have mercy on all of us and keep us searching for him in every face we look at.

Drew said...

Kemal, you say "in every relationship there is fear of..." Isn't that the point though that our relationship with God is not like every relationship. God loves me no matter what. There are no conditions. Among other things, isn't that what makes Him worthy of our worship?

Trevor Williams said...

Kemal and Drew, I appreciate the comments from both of you.

To your point about dialogue between Christians and Muslims, I think it often fails because we are sinful, and we find our identities in being able to say we believe A or B and not in the God for whose sake we believe these things. In essence, I agree with what you're saying.

But I also think it's important that we not gloss over our differences. To do so would render our dialogue meaningless because we wouldn't be speaking truth.

Muslims believe that Jesus is a prophet, but from my understanding, you find it appalling to think that God could have a Son, or that Christians could consider Jesus to be God. These are real, theological differences. The key to dialogue is realizing that both faiths charge us with loving the other, without necessarily accepting opposing beliefs as true.

With regard to fear, I think the issue here, and the issue I was trying to get at in my post, is what we have to do to please God. I agree that we must fear God, in the sense that we must respect his power and we must realize his otherness in order to have the right posture of humility toward him.

But I disagree with you, Kemal, when you say that every love relationship is based on amounts of fear. My obedience to God should be because I fear his holiness and wrath, not because I fear he doesn't love me. The beauty of Christianity is that it says that because God sent his Son to pay the penalty of my sins, I can be assured that he loves me. And if he loves me and sent his messenger to die for me while still a sinner (as the Bible says in the book of Romans), how much more will he accept me at his throne if I repent from those sins.

When we sin, we must fear self-imposed estrangement from him because he is holy. But if you disobey your father, your sonship is not negated. Your relationship might be damaged, but you're still in the family. In the book of Hebrews, the Bible says we are BOLDLY to approach the throne of God's grace because we have a high priest in Jesus who has endured all things we endure, yet was without sin.

I wonder, Kemal, and this is a sincere question: How do Muslims gauge salvation? Is it based on your belief and trust in God's mercy, or is it the balancing of the scales of good and evil? I'd be interested to hear.

By the way, I'm not ignoring the fact, like I said in my original post, that the Bible makes the argument that faith without works is dead. Deeds show the reality of our faith, but the deeds do not save. Good works come from us because we are saved. In Christianity's view, they are not the means that gets us to God's table.

Kemal said...

Dear Trevor,

I do agree with you that to have dialogue does NOT mean we should be the same.
We need to focus on similarities while acknowledging the differences.
3 Abrahamic faiths of Islam, Christianity and Judaism share a lot of ground
especially on moral values but we also have many differences that would
be difficult to reconcile. If we start talking about what makes us different from the first day we meet
then it will be a short talk that may turn into an argument because we have not
spent time to get to know each other.

Trevor, I felt that you may be thinking that Muslims have a lot of problems with Christians
so I wanted to share with you what Quran, our holly book, tells us about the Christians.

"They are not all alike. Among the people of the Scripture (i.e.Christians & Jews) there
is an upright community who during the night recite the revelation of God and fall prostrate before Him.
They believe in God and the Last Day, and enjoin what is right and forbid what is evil, and vie with
one another in good works. They are of the righteous. And whatever good they do, its reward will
not be denied to them. God is aware of those who are righteous." (3/113,114,115)

"...And you will find the nearest of them in affection to those who believe to be those who say
"We are Christians" This is because there are among them priests and monks, and because
they are not proud" (5/82)

About your question: (How do Muslims gauge salvation?)...

One day Prophet Muhammad told his companions that "no one can earn paradise with their good work and
only with God's mercy one can enter paradise" People around him asked "Even you? O Prophet of God"
he said "Even Me"

So you see "No One Has a Guarantee". Who has the right to make a claim against God?
Can anyone say "I did this this this so I earned entry into paradise" similarly
No One Can say "This Person is a sinner so he will go to hell"
In Islam God has the final judgment and he can forgive sins or not accept good actions.

At the same time God is "All Loving, All Merciful, All Forgiving" so we do our best and wait for the day
when we will stand before him. If this life is a test then we do not know the result while taking the test.

Also one more thing about "fear" : a "healthy" amount of fear keeps us active and prevent us taking things
for granted. Form God's side he is Loving and he is forgiving from my side I get relaxed too easily.

Perhaps "fear" is not the right word for it.

Believe me I hope and believe that God will show mercy to me on that day because it is only becoming of His majesty to be merciful.
But if he decides to punish me I can have no claim against Him.

In a final word: it is said that "In the day of judgment you will find God to be as you expected him to be"
So It is very important to live with the idea that "God will show mercy to me"

Prophet Muhammad told a story: On the day of Judgment one man is judged and found guilty by God.
As angels start taking this man to Hell he turns back and looks at God with sad eyes.
God tells angels to stop and ask this man why he looked back like that.
Man replies "O Lord when I was on earth I always believed that you would forgive me so that is why
I looked back like that. So God tells angels to stop and take this man to Paradise"

Idea here is this "No one can tell God what to do or Not to do. But God Himself has declared that his mercy is more than his anger"

May God have mercy on all of us.


Kemal said...

Dear Drew,

Our relationship with other people can only be the shadow of our relationship with God.
However, God deserves to be worshiped because He Is God.
He would still be worthy of worship and glory even if he decides to punish me.
But He is Most Merciful and Most Beautiful and Most Loving and this knowledge makes my heart beat faster when I think I may have offended him and every time I find Him waiting for me with forgiveness. Like a child who runs to his mother's arms crying after spilling a glass of milk.