Should we observe Ramadan?

Brian McLaren has decided to celebrate Ramadan this year:

This year, I, along with a few Christian friends … will be joining Muslim friends in the fast which begins August 21. We are not doing so in order to become Muslims: we are deeply committed Christians. But as Christians, we want to come close to our Muslim neighbors and to share this important part of life with them.

You can read the rest at Brian McLaren’s blog, but I want to ask, could this be a case of offering food to idols (or in this case foodlessness)? Or is it contextual witness?

Before answering, consider the Shahadah, “There is no god but Allah and Muḥammad is the prophet of Allah.” What would contextualisation look like here?

10 Comments

  1. Matt,
    When you reference food sacrificed to idols were you thinking along the lines of Paul’s blurb in 1 Corinthians 8? If you are it takes the discussion into very interesting areas.

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  2. Having just finished the Dormition fast (which I doubt that any Muslims keep), I don’t feel like embarking on another.
    But if members of all religions kept the fasts of other religions as well as their own, a lot of businesses in the food industry would go broke.

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  3. It’s wonderful that McLaren et al have the choice to fast to show soidarity with their neighbours. Many in the world are starving.
    If they feel right and good about doing it, I’m not sure that the
    Christian God would really mind the loving gesture, although as long as it’s not thinly disguising an excuse to lose some weight.
    Not sure of any Bible stories about Jesus practising observances for friends of other religions. Maybe somebody else knows of some?

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  4. Isaiah, yes I was thinking of 1 Corinthians 8, but also Colossians 3:17 and 1 Timothy 4:3-4 amongst other verses. From these teachings we can derive a number of contextualization principles. Firstly, we can exercise freedom when it comes to culture (so far so good). But we need to bring it all back to God (which begs the question, which God?). Is McLaren practising contextualization or syncretism?
    I have this question: in his fasting with Muslims, is McLaren affirming, “There is no god but Allah and Jesus is the incarnation of Allah”, or is he affirming a generic God whom would let the Shahadah slide?

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  5. Lucy, what do you mean by practising the observances of other religions though? We have no monopoly on giving and praying and fasting. They are the practices of many religions, not just Christianity, not just Islam. What makes an observance Christian or Muslim or otherwise generally isn’t the practice per se but the stories and teaching and intentions that go behind them. And that is where we run smack into the incompatabilities. Ramadan is a time for Muslims to fast for the sake of God, understood as the God revealed by Mohammed. It’s not the mere abstaining from food that makes Ramadan a Muslim practice, or even the time of year when you really get down to it, it’s the God it’s directed towards, a God who (this is the important bit) regards the Christian affirmation of Issa as Allah incarnate as blasphemous.
    This is a long way of saying, I think Christians can only practice Ramadan to the extent that they Christianize it, and if we think that’s gonna give Muslims a warm fuzzy we need to think again.

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  6. I’ll leave the question of whether Christians can observe Ramadan to the Christians (and possibly the Muslims). I have no dog in that particular race, if you’ll forgive a bit of idiomatic color. 😉
    What I’m more interested in is what the purpose of Christians observing Ramadan. I also find myself wondering whether observing Ramadan is the most effective and reasonable way to achieve that purpose. Is the whole point of this exercise to give Muslims (and Christians for that matter) a “warm fuzzy,” as Matt suggests in passing? Is that desirable? I’m not too keen on warm fuzzies, myself. Too often, they’re too superficial.
    Brian McLaren mentions solidarity. But is fasting together based on two separate religious traditions really a good way to promote solidarity. Do either religions’ teachings on meditation even indicate that building solidarity is a valid reason or expected outcome for fasting? Again, to me, it seems a bit superficial.
    One of the definitions I found for solidarity is a “union or fellowship arising from common responsibilities and interests.” So what are common responsibilities and interests for Christians and Muslim’s alike?
    One possible answer for me lies where McLaren talks about Ramadan being about sacrificial generosity. To me, it would have made more sense to focus on this rather than the discipline of fasting. There are plenty of charitable projects that Christians and Muslims could work on together, demonstrating that common theme of sacrificial generosity in their religions. Building a Habitat for Humanity home comes to mind as one example. And there’s nothing like working on a project like that for building solidarity.
    I will note that Brian has posted some interesting blog posts during Ramadan, and it looks like some great conversations are happening due to his venture. As such, I think it’s good to recognize that. But I’m still not sure it’s the approach I would’ve taken, regardless of whether a Christian can or should ultimately observe Ramadan.

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  7. Lucy J,
    You wrote: “Not sure of any Bible stories about Jesus practising observances for friends of other religions. Maybe somebody else knows of some?”
    (le-havdil). Do you mean the first century historical man Ribi Yehoshua (the Messiah) from Nazareth?
    A logical analysis of the first centuries Jewish and Hellenistic documents and archaeology shows what he taught (including what he taught about participation in participation of other religions celebrations) and how to follow him. Read it here: http://www.netzarim.co.il

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  8. Jarred, you’re speaking my language. Likewise, to me the whole thing sounds a bit superficial. Likewise, I think a joint project would be a more effective way of building solidarity. I mean, what if I were to say, “Jarod, I’ve decided to worship skyclad for a month to break down barriers with Pagans” Would you be impressed? Or is the fact that Christianity Today publically supported the Pagan headstone campaign (see http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2006/juneweb-only/123-12.0.html) more substantial? I am reminded of a Christian archbishop in Palastine who once spoke to us of a project he is working on, for a multi-religious school in the Middle East where Muslims, Christians and Jews could learn together. Building relationships between children of different faiths for long term solidarity. Now that had substance!
    As for Christians observing Ramadan, I suppose what I am saying is, for the action to be inoffensive to Muslims it would HAVE to be superficial and play down the Christian distinctiveness of the Christian act. I’ve learnt this the hard way from interacting with Pagans. Worship practices are not the best place to begin bridge building, particularly not for religions with exclusivist worship orientations. Much better begin in places where there is genuine mutual interest, such as the mutual desire to consign the crucades and the burning times to history.

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  9. Sorry, I haven’t been able to reply sooner, but I am sooooo busy at work these days since a new company took over, that I have no time to blog during my lunch break…
    In regards to your question, Matt, about my comment on practising observances of other religions, I appreciate your comments about the stories and intentions behind the practices being points of differentiation, since the actual practices themselves are held in common(e.g. fasting, praying) and really, that was the kind of thing I was hinting at. Did Jesus enter into practices of other relgions to share important parts of peoples’ lives? Maybe he did and it’s not recorded? I don’t know, but it doesn’t seem consistent with his modus operandi, to me. He was pretty radical even to Jewish practices of the day, from what I can gather.
    Thank you for the link, Anders. However, although I could get to the homepage, the link to the particular information you mention would not work. So, perhaps you could cut and paste some relevant sections into a blog post for us all to view?
    Meanwhile, Brian McLaren is coming to Sydney next month, so no doubt I’ll get to ask him personally about what he felt he achieved by the Ramadan sympathy senario…

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