I was chatting with a taxi driver the other day. He was talking to me about Ramadan. He is not well and said he was under the impression that he was able to not partake and could make up the difference by giving to the poor instead. But he had a conversation with an imam who insisted this was not acceptable.
I am obviously not an expert in Islamic law so I wasn’t going to be much help to him resolving the matter. I had certainly heard – and was under the impression – that you are excused from fasting on grounds of ill health and are able to make up for it through giving to the poor. But I have also come across those who are desperate to partake of the fast – and really make themselves quite ill in the process – so that they do not miss out. I don’t know whose view was exactly right but I do know what lies behind it.
Underlying this vexed question for them is a belief that there are extra blessings available from Allah during Ramadan. Not only extra blessing, but also extra forgiveness. More sin can be dealt with during Ramadan, more blessing is available and Allah himself may even make himself known to you in ways that he does not at other times. Whilst ill health is deemed legitimate grounds not to participate – you are not stacking up extra sin on that ground – you nonetheless miss out on the super-blessing and forgiveness available when you don’t join in. The question is less whether it is sinful not to join in but more whether you can afford not to do so.
Whilst, as I say, I am not any sort of expert in Islamic law, I was able to share that I am a Christian pastor. I was able to share that these things are not at issue for us because we worship a God of grace. When we turn from our sin and trust in Christ, all of our sin is dealt with in him. We don’t have to ‘make up ground’ – everything has been forgiven already. What is more, because Yahweh is a gracious God, he has already granted us every spiritual blessing in Christ. We don’t have to wait for specific times, and do religious exercises for God, in order to access them. All these things are ours in him already. That, I said, is why – though I deeply respect those who fast during Ramadan for their endurance – I think Christians are onto a much better deal.
On the return leg of my journey, I was chatting with another driver who was also Muslim. He was telling me how he lost his wife a few years ago. He was telling me about how hard that has been for him. I felt a great deal of sympathy for him and could see how tough it was.
We, again, got onto the fact that I am a pastor. I said that the comforting thing for a Christian is that – as hard as it is to lose a loved one – we can have comfort that, if they are a believer in Jesus Christ, we will see them again. The driver said, ‘I have heard this said before. But how do you know that you will see them again? What ground have you got for that?’ The Lord has a habit of opening up opportunities that it just feels wrong not to take. Even at 6:30am in the morning, I wasn’t so tired as not to notice that one!
So, I explained that when one becomes a Christian, Jesus pays for all of our sin. The difference between Christianity and Islam is that we believe that our access to Heaven is not based on our work, but on Jesus’ death on our behalf. We can have certainty of Heaven – and that any of our loved ones who trust in him are there too – because Jesus’ perfect life has been transferred to our account and our sin has been transferred and punished in him. The grounds of our entry, then, is not our deeds for God, but our faith in Christ. Islam, by contrast, offers a basic scales system of good deeds stacked against bad with nobody ever certain that they have done enough. We are sure of Heaven whilst Muslims never really know. We can know whether we will see our loved ones again whereas Muslims are never quite sure.
My taxi driver had never heard this before. He had never understood it before. Whether he was particularly convinced it was true, I have no idea. But even a little conversation on the way to a train station can present gospel opportunities. Next time you are travelling anywhere, why not strike up conversation and see what the Lord does with it? He has a habit of opening up doors where you might not be expecting them.