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When a country fasts: Living in the Middle East during Ramadan

S* lives in the Middle East where she teaches English and leads a local church-planting team. She writes about her experience as a Christian living in a Muslim-majority country during the fasting month of Ramadan (26 May to 24 June in 2017).

My Muslim friends excitedly wait for Ramadan with the same sort of anticipation many in the west wait for Christmas.

I can see why. There are wonderful sights, smells and tastes this time of year. Each morning at 4 AM a little man bangs a loud drum through the street, waking the devout to eat and drink before daylight breaks and the 14-hour fasting day begins. People decorate windows with brightly coloured lights and paper lanterns dance in the street. At the break of fast, steaming plates of rice and chicken are shared by families who gather as the sun sets over the city in pastel pinks and purples. There are special moon-shaped pancakes that drip with sugar syrup to be gobbled as the mosque call bounces across the hills. And both men and women walk on the street late at night, shopping and eating ice cream.

But it is not all so picturesque. The traffic is awful, caffeine-deprived taxi drivers are erratic, car-honking fills the streets in the afternoon hours when peoples’ blood sugar dives and their patience runs out. Brawls erupt between grumpy shopkeepers and eating and drinking in public is banned for people of all faiths despite the scorching heat.

For a missionary in the Middle East there is a different pattern of life too. The English centre where I work closes down and I don’t take Arabic classes. There is more time for prayer, walks, private studying and catching up with Christian friends. And there are some invitations to the break of fast with locals and to join in the celebration of their holy month.

During these times, my friends proudly tell me about Ramadan. They love to share how fasting is good for your health and how it helps them feel sympathy for the poor. They tell me that any prayer offered on the Night of Power (during the last week of Ramadan) will certainly be answered and share how they feel a special sort of peace when they pray during this month.

And during Ramadan, my local friends often ask about how Christians fast. I usually explain that the Bible does not say much about the specifics of how believers fast, but that we need to have the right motivation when we do it – not fasting to impress those around us, but to please God.

Ramadan is hugely important to my friends and so I am grateful when they invite me into their families to break the fast with them. I try to respect their sincere efforts to please God rather than openly criticise their holy month. However, I think this time of year sometimes opens up opportunities to share something ‘salty’ too. This year, I’ve been trying to suggest to fasting friends that, just like a woman is not a good wife if she only obeys her husband and is faithful to him one month of the year but then ignores him the rest of the year, a believer who is only faithful to God one month of the year cannot possibly be acceptable to him. Our devotion to God needs to be sincere all year round if we truly want to please him. It has opened up some interesting conversations.

The devotion of my Muslim friends during Ramadan is deeply challenging. I have met few Christians who would fast in the scorching temperatures, few who read the Bible with the same passion and intensity as locals read the Qur’an this month, and few who give so generously to the poor as I’ve seen amongst Muslim friends during Ramadan. It deeply challenges me to think about the sincerity of my faith. But it also makes me incredibly thankful for grace. I know that even my best efforts to be devoted to God all year round are flawed and not enough to earn God’s love. I need the cross. And so this Ramadan I’m more thankful for the freedom I have to worship God in response to his love.

PRAY

Give thanks that Ramadan opens doors for Christians to speak with their Muslim friends about faith. Pray that the people living in S’s country would grow hungry for the grace of God.

*Name changed for security reasons.