Fr Joseph Victor Edwin SJ writes:
Dear Muslim sisters and brothers,
In the month of April this year we will celebrate the advent of the month of Ramadan. I consciously use the word 'celebrate', because I have personally experienced and seen Muslim friends-sisters and brothers-really looking forward to the fasting month of Ramadan.
Let me begin with an anecdote from my days in Aligarh. On the day before the advent of the month of Ramadan in the year 2003, a Muslim journalist friend of mine, Shafi, and I went for an evening stroll. There was a lot of expectation in the air. There were people in the streets and on rooftops trying to spot the crescent moon, waiting for the announcement of the commencement of the month of Ramadan. The thought came to my mind how intently these people were looking forward to seeing a sign of God-the crescent moon. It was really beautiful! I felt very happy for that great awareness-looking for a sign of God in Nature.
God is the Creator of all things, and, using the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins, a Jesuit poet, "The world is charged with the grandeur of God". God's signs are everywhere. One needs to pay attention to them to realise their significance.
I heard an announcement saying that the crescent moon had been sighted. Shafi and I looked in the direction of the moon. An elderly gentleman was before us. Two little children-a boy and a girl-were holding his hands. They were perhaps his grandchildren. The gentleman raised his hands in prayer. He said something, facing the crescent moon. I was moved to see the two little children also raise their hands in prayer. How wonderful it was that this grandfather was teaching, through his own example, these two little children to recognise a sign of God! Even these little children were aware of God! I felt very happy for that.
Dear friends, the Holy Quran says that fasting is prescribed for you. It is a means for developing God-consciousness. This is something very attractive for me. The month of Ramadan is about focussing on God-consciousness. To experience a deep experience of God-consciousness, fasting, prayer and charity are a means. They help us in awareness of the presence of God in the world.
So, God-consciousness is something that the Muslim tradition teaches me, including through the significance of the month of Ramadan in the lives of Muslims. The way Muslim brothers and sisters celebrate the month of Ramadan helps me grow in God-consciousness as a Christian.
Dear sisters and brothers, as a student of Christian-Muslim relations I have asked a number of Muslim sisters and brothers, 'Why do you fast?' Many of you have said that fasting is for purification, fasting is to please God, fasting is an act of obedience to God. Everything that you have said I know you are saying it from your own experience, because I know my Muslim friends and their deep faith in God and their commitment to God. For me, this is a very beautiful experience. What you have said is from the heart of your experience. It inspires me to become God-oriented in my own life. It is an invitation to lead a life that is based on God-consciousness.
As a Christian, something else strikes me very much. The Bible says, in the Gospel of Matthew (6:17-18):
But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
Dear friends, many years ago, I was a student at the Department of Islamic Studies at the Aligarh Muslim University. There was a professor in the Department who was a wonderful teacher and a very pious person. During the month of Ramadan I would notice that he would be extra careful to look fresh, with oiled and neatly-combed hair and well-ironed clothes. In the other months, he would sit and teach, while in the month of Ramadan he would teach while standing. He would not show any signs of tiredness on account of fasting. He would be fully ready to spend enough time especially with me to explain things. And he would never make any reference to his tiredness or about the time the fast would end. On some occasions I would say to him, 'You must be tired, Sir', but he would reply, 'Victor, it is important that I should explain things to you.'
How beautiful is the message of the Gospel (referred to above) in a way it comes to me through the life of a Muslim! I was able to see the meaning and depth of those Bible verses through my Muslim professor. This was something really amazing, a beautiful experience for me.
While I was a teacher at St. Joseph's School in Baramulla, there would be young Muslim boys telling me, 'Father, this year I am going to start fasting!'. They would say this with great joy. We think fasting must be something very tiring, very difficult. But never in my experience did I find my Muslim friends say that fasting in the month of Ramadan is difficult. They have always looked forward to the month with joy. This joy is on account of fasting being ordained by God in the Quran.
At the same time, I also want to share with you some anxiety that I have experienced on occasion. A few friends have a slightly narrow way of seeing religion. For instance, in some Muslim-majority countries, there may be some unreasonable restrictions on people of other faiths during the month of Ramadan. And so on. But I feel such things have nothing to do with Islam, for the Quran (2:256) says, 'There shall be no compulsion in religion'. In line with this, one could say that pressurising others is not in the spirit of Islam.
Dear sisters and brothers, I pray with you as a Christian brother that this month of Ramadan be a blessing for all of us who desire to grow in God-consciousness, all of us who thirst for God in their lives. May all of us put our heart and soul, hands and feet, together and worship the One God according to our faith traditions. And together as brothers and sisters may we all spread peace, joy and harmony.
May God bless us all.
Joseph Victor Edwin SJ
Fr Victor Edwin is a Jesuit priest who teaches Christian-Muslim Relations at Vidyajyoti, a Catholic centre for higher theological learning in Delhi. He is deeply engaged in seeking to promote understanding and goodwill between Christians and Muslims. He has a PhD in Islamic Studies from Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, and has written widely on issues related to interfaith relations.