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The Muslim Lent: Ramadan Explained

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Aleteia - published on 07/18/13

The Vatican's leader for Christian-Muslim dialogue explains its ancient origins and deeper spiritual meaning

Aleteia offers this exclusive interview on Ramadan with Muhammad al-Samak, Secretary General of the Committee for Dialogue between Christians and Muslims, and a member of the Permanent Islamic Committee and the World Conference of Religions for Peace. Muhammad al-Samak, a native of Beirut, Lebanon, was one of the invitees to the special Synod of Bishops on the Middle East at the Vatican in 2010.

What meaning does Islam give to Ramadan, and how do Muslims observe it?

Muslims believe in the word of the Holy Koran, and they believe that the Koranic texts were revealed from heaven during this month. That is why they consider Ramadan to be a blessed month. In fact, Ramadan is the name given to one month of the lunar year, with no particular meaning other than the symbolism of the revelation of the Holy Koran. God has imposed fasting on Muslims throughout this month and has made this commitment one of the five pillars of Islam: the profession of faith, prayer, almsgiving, and the Haaj, or pilgrimage to Mecca.

Fasting in Islam is not limited to simply abstaining from eating and drinking from dawn until sunset; it also involves refraining from saying and doing evil. The prophet Muhammad described a Muslim as “one who spares others his hand and his tongue,” and therefore spares them any malicious act and negative word. Ramadan is a spiritual month full of graces during which Muslims focus on praying, reading the Koran, and doing good deeds.

What difference is there between the fasting that Muslims and Christians do? Do they bear the same fruit?

The Koranic verse referring to fasting as a duty in Islam reminds us that God imposed fasting on the faithful even before Islam: “Fasting has been prescribed for you as it was prescribed for those before you.” This is why fasting is considered one of the defining symbols of the union of the People of the Book – Jews, Christians, and Muslims – in their faith in one God. According to Islamic doctrine, there is only one religion, but there are different laws and this explains the difference between how Christians and Muslims fast, keeping in mind that it is the same principle. Indeed, although it is different, fasting in the two communities requires them to refrain from responding to bodily passions and desires for a specified period in order to tame the soul and encourage them to devote themselves fully to the worship of God and … to remember that there are people in need who cannot get enough to eat. It is a reminder that brotherhood requires not only that we share that sense of deprivation with them, but that we also share the goods and graces that God has given us.

This is the same principle, although the practice differs between Christians and Muslims. The decisions of the Second Vatican Council clearly refer to the importance of the pillar of fasting in Islam accompanied by other pillars, namely prayer, alms, the worship of God, and belief in the final judgment. These different points relating to the faith laid the basis for the relations of friendship and respect that Vatican II wanted to establish with Islam.

Is there a difference between Ramadan for the Shiites and Ramadan for the Sunnis? How is this month lived by each of these two communities?

There is no major difference between Shiite and Sunni fasting practices. The only difference is in the form and the determination of the time for breaking the fast. For Sunnis, sunset marks the end of the day, while for Shiites, the appearance of the evening star marks the beginning of the night.  The difference is a matter of minutes. 

Whether they are Shiites or Sunnis, Muslims say an exceptional prayer called taraweeh throughout the month of Ramadan in the evening after breaking their fast. This prayer can be said either in mosques as a community (which is why mosques are generally crowded on the nights of Ramadan) or individually at home. All in all, Ramadan as a period for renewing the faith in the minds of Muslims, and as a time during which religious rites are observed on a daily basis.

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