by Rita Johnson, Associate Director
“Is that the sort of fast that pleases me, a day when a person inflicts pain on herself?” —Isaiah 58:5a (New Jerusalem)
One summer a few years ago in Central Asia, two women I knew told me they were no longer fasting, yet Ramadan wasn’t over. One of these ladies was a former colleague; the other was my house helper who came to clean once a week. Both shared that they tried to keep the fast but had to stop because they became so physically weak and ill they could no longer continue. It’s extremely difficult to go for 16 or more hours without anything to drink when it’s 100°F!
Those who advocate a strict interpretation of Islamic law would judge that God wouldn’t honor even the weeks (about two of the four) these women had fasted because they hadn’t been able to do the entire month. I wonder if these women shared with me because I was a safe person for them: I wasn’t in the “fasting competition” (under social pressure to comply), and hopefully I was trusted as a God-honoring and kind person. I don’t remember my exact words, but I assured them God is merciful and understood their circumstances. I hope this offered them some of God’s peace.
“Is not this the sort of fast that pleases me: to break unjust fetters, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the opposed go free…” —Isaiah 58:6 (New Jerusalem)
Less strict Muslims acknowledge that some are freed from the current year’s obligation to fast: children, the elderly, people with chronic illnesses and pregnant and nursing women. But for women, there can be a catch. It’s as if they accumulate “fasting debt” when they don’t observe Ramadan because of child bearing and rearing. Some religious leaders teach that they need to repay this debt by adding extra days and weeks in future years. If a woman has several children, she can be months behind in her obligation. To me, this seems the opposite of what Isaiah writes—that God sees compassion for others as better than strict observance of the law.
“If you do away with the yoke, the clenched fist and malicious words…Yahweh will always guide you, will satisfy your needs…and you will be like a watered garden, like a flowing spring whose waters never run dry.” —Isaiah 58:9b, 11 (New Jerusalem)
I respect Muslims who make a vow to fast during Ramadan, especially those who are looking to God and seeking an answer to prayer. It’s a challenging promise to keep, especially during summer when days are long and temperatures high. Though we’re not compelled to keep specific days and hours, in what ways might we fast to turn our hearts toward prayer? Could we make a commitment to meditatively read a book of the Bible during Ramadan this year (May 15–June 14), such as Matthew, Proverbs or Deuteronomy? I invite you to bring Muslims before God in prayer with an attitude of mercy and grace. During their holy month, let’s ask the Holy One to respond with signs of compassion beyond what they can imagine—with living water to quench their thirst!