Shall We Fast in Ramadan?

Posted on Jul 1, 2016

Seeking solidarity by joining in a Muslim tradition

by Francis X. Clooney, SJ*

The murderous event that occurred in Orlando early Sunday morning has of course captured the attention of us all, and it has been interpreted, rightly I think, from many angles. Omar Mateen was a disturbed young man, struggling with his own sexuality and disastrously lashing out; he was a terrorist dedicating himself to ISIS and its war on America; the event, as terrible as it was, is but a moment in the much larger scandal of our government—the Senate, the House, and we who elect them—and its abysmal failure to put even reasonable controls on guns; it was a hate crime once more victimizing the L.G.B.T. community, within the Latino/Latina community, a crime made worse by the leaders who cannot bear to mention the targeting of lesbian and gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people, when they lament the crime in general terms. All of this raises questions about how we are to act, when our brothers and sisters have been killed and wounded, when Congress fails to fulfill its duties, when the violence rampant in our society seems to get ever worse; what ought you and I do? And does prayer do any good, prayer with or without urgent action?

What did come to mind during the week, as we think about the still larger picture, is that this is the month of Ramadan (June 5-July 5), this holy and rigorous month, where nothing can be taken by mouth—even water—between sunrise and sunset. The observance of the Ramadan fast has over the centuries become one of the five pillars of Islam, and right now approximately a billion people worldwide are observing this fast, so very hard in the heat of summer and its very long days. The supports for this practice are deep-rooted in tradition, in custom, in traditional sayings (hadith) and in the Qur’an itself. My Study Qur’an highlights this passage:

    O you who believe! Fasting is prescribed for you as it was prescribed for those before you, that haply you may be reverent, for days numbered. But if any one of you be ill or on a journey, it is a number of other days, and for those who can bear it, the ransom of feeding an indigent person. Whosoever volunteers good, that is better for him, and to fast is better for you, if you knew. The month of Ramadan is that wherein the Quran was sent down as guidance to mankind, as clear proofs of guidance, and as the Criterion. Let him among you who is present fast during that month. And whosoever is ill or on a journey, it is a number of other days. God desires ease for you, and He does not desire hardship for you. It is so that you may complete the number and magnify God for having guided you, that haply you may give thanks. (2.183-185)

Fasting, with exceptions for those who are ill or on journeys; having less, and sharing it with the indigent; giving thanks to God the Protector, who protects us and does not test us beyond what we can do; marking the coming down of the Quran to earth, the criterion for separating the true from the false (2.53).

There are many hadith on this practice, including this beautiful one:

    The Messenger of Allah (saw) addressed his companions on the last day of Sha’ban, saying, “Oh people! A great month has come over you; a blessed month; a month in which is a night better than a thousand months; month in which Allah has made it compulsory upon you to fast by day, and voluntary to pray by night. Whoever draws nearer (to Allah) by performing any of the (optional) good deeds in (this month) shall receive the same reward as performing an obligatory deed at any other time, and whoever discharges an obligatory deed in (this month) shall receive the reward of performing seventy obligations at any other time. It is the month of patience, and the reward of patience is Heaven. It is the month of charity, and a month in which a believer’s sustenance is increased. Whoever gives food to a fasting person to break his fast, shall have his sins forgiven, and he will be saved from the Fire of Hell, and he shall have the same reward as the fasting person, without his reward being diminished at all.” [Narrated by Ibn Khuzaymah]

Multiplied a billion times over, this faith and this fast become a very powerful force indeed, greater than the violence, the hatred, the wall-building and immigration-banning that capture the headlines. Surely many readers have noticed yogis who every once in a while call for world-wide days of meditation and mind-focusing for peace; Ramadan is a much older, much more deeply rooted global practice for the better.

Really for the better? The New York Times (June 18) has a front page story on the ambivalence and distress of young Muslims in this particular Ramadan season, amidst the election politics and after Orlando. Worse, it has been reported that Mateen chose to carry out his murderous attack in Ramadan because it was Ramadan, to do his duty as a believer. Some politicians, in Europe at least, have claimed that Ramadan is a dangerous time because it drives Muslims to excessive fervor and some to erupt in violence. I cannot deny the possibility of sad exceptions, but such complaints surely miss the point, what Ramadan means for nearly all the Muslims on earth. It is a time of prayer and fasting, purification, charity, self-humbling before God, who alone metes out justice.

In 2001, when I was still teaching at Boston College, Ramadan fell in the month of December. To mark the three months commemoration of the 9/11 attacks, at Boston College we promoted a day of shared fasting, students, staff and faculty of all faiths. At sunset (early, in December), we shared a simple meal. It was a very good thing to do. One thing we can do—the billion-plus Christians in the world, with people of all faiths and spiritualities—is join with our Muslims neighbors and friends in some fasting, and, when possible, in the sharing of the post-sunset meal (iftar) that breaks the fast.

Now I admit that it would be hard, very hard, for most of us, to undertake a fast as radical as that of Muslims: nothing to eat or drink between sunrise and sunset. Even for experienced Muslims, it takes days to adjust to the new rhythm. I could not right now undertake a serious Ramadan fast on my own, not if I want to keep doing all the things I need to do each day. (For Jesuits, food is fuel, no working on an empty tank.) But something is better than nothing, and if—let’s say, we Catholics—can undertake some acts of fasting of the modest, small Catholic kind (skip a snack, skip a meal, don’t take that drink) during the rest of Ramadan, either by ourselves or right with our Muslims sisters and brothers, then we will be pushing back, spiritually and in solidarity, against the violence, against the irresponsible production and sale of weapons of mass murder, against the splintering of communities, against fanatics who think they own faith and own devotion, against the would-be wall-builders who only claim to be brave, against the cowardice of our elected representatives and our own stupidity in electing the wrong people again and again.

Check around; I am sure some people you know are thinking of fasting in a time like this, even if they are not Muslims.

But will small tokens of solidarity between now and July 5, make a difference? Throughout history, as Mahatma Gandhi showed us so clearly—and also Dorothy Day and Cesar Chavez and Buddhist monks during the Vietnam war—fasting can become a powerful tool, resistance to evil great and small and a force for unity and community. Or as Jesus says: Some demons can be driven out only by prayer and fasting (Mark 9:29).

* Francis X. Clooney, S.J., is the Parkman Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School, where he has taught since 2005, after teaching for 21 years at Boston College. Since 2010 he is the Director of Harvard’s Center for the Study of World Religions. He is the author most recently of Comparative Theology: Deep Learning Across Religious Borders (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), and of the forthcoming His Hiding Place is Darkness: A Hindu-Catholic Theopoetics of Divine Absence (Stanford University Press). He was the first president of the International Society for Hindu-Christian Studies, was elected a member of the British Academy in 2011 and, from 1998 to 2004, was the coordinator for interreligious dialogue for the Society of Jesus in the United States.

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