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.