Muslims find new Ramadan fast partners: Christians

Stephen James Johnson

From the Associated Press.

Like Muslims worldwide, Ben Ries has refrained from food and drink from sunrise to sundown in an act of self-restraint during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which ends this weekend.

Each evening, the 31-year-old Ries joins Muslim families in a room above a hardware store in Bellingham, Wash., to find fellowship and break the fast with a handful of dates and a welcome glass of water.

Only Ries is not a Muslim. He is pastor of 70-member Sterling Drive Church of Christ and a self-described committed Christian who just a few weeks ago had to turn to Google to find a Muslim in his community.

Ries is among a small group of Christians who’ve joined well-known evangelical author and speaker Brian McLaren in observing a Ramadan fast, opening a new chapter in interfaith relations between two traditions often at odds.

To McLaren and his Christian and Muslim fasting partners, it’s a neighborly gesture of solidarity that deepens their respective faiths and sends a message about finding peace and common ground.

But the project also has faced fierce criticism. Some evangelicals say that fasting alongside Muslims at Ramadan, however well-intentioned, is a dangerous blurring of the lines and runs contrary to Christianity.

McLaren, 53, is the godfather of the “emerging” or “emergent” church, a loose-knit movement that seeks to recover ancient Christian worship practices and, in some cases, question traditional evangelical theology.

While fasting is part of Christian tradition, it isn’t exactly a widespread practice. Some college students from different faiths have started interfaith “Fast-A-Thons” during Ramadan to raise money to fight poverty. But that usually involves fasting for a day, not committing to an entire month.

In announcing his Ramadan fast plans on his blog last month, McLaren wrote, “We are not doing so in order to become Muslims: we are deeply committed Christians. But as Christians, we want to come close to our Muslim neighbors and to share this important part of life with them.” The goal is to join Muslims in the observance as “a God-honoring expression of peace, fellowship and neighborliness,” he wrote.

McLaren, a former pastor, said his Ramadan fast is also part of his post-9-11 worldview.

“Some Christians in the U.S. are becoming more anti-Muslim,” he said in an interview. “They are retrenching in a fearful, angry posture. Other Christians are saying now, in the aftermath of Sept. 11, we have to recommit ourselves to the work of peacemaking like never before. That has been my response.”

Before Ramadan, McLaren sought a Muslim fasting partner. He found one in Eboo Patel, executive director of Chicago-based Interfaith Youth Core, which promotes interfaith cooperation.

Patel said there are important differences in his fast and McLaren’s. As a Muslim, Patel said he fasts during Ramadan because the Prophet Muhammad fasted then, and because the first revelation of the Quran occurred that month.

“That is not something Brian shares, at least not in the same way,” Patel said.

McLaren said he has discovered a handful of fellow Christians fasting during Ramadan. One has quietly been doing it for more than 20 years. Others are new to it — like Ries in Washington state.

Ries considers the idea consistent with his own efforts to reach out to people who are different. Only problem was, he didn’t know any Muslims in Bellingham, a college town of 75,000 on the Northwest coast.

An Internet search introduced him to Monem Salam, the subject of the documentary “On a Wing and a Prayer,” which followed Salam’s journey of learning to fly and obtaining a pilot’s license after Sept. 11.

The two had coffee a couple of days before Ramadan, hit it off, and a fast friendship was born.

“When you have a leader of a church or a community go through the experience of fasting an entire month of Ramadan, what happens is not only does he understand a little more about the Muslim or Islamic culture, but he has the podium, or the pulpit, to teach that to other people as well,” said Salam, 37, who works for an investment firm that manages a large Sharia-compliant mutual fund.

Ries had fasted before, but not from water. About two weeks in, he said, his body adjusted. Ries also has been reading the Quran, not for spiritual sustenance but to learn something, he said. Joining the Muslim community to break fast each night has opened this eyes to their graciousness and hospitality, he said.

Ries said he faced questions from some in his flock and criticism from others who read about his fast.

“There is no violation of my own faith in this,” Ries said. “The concern is that somehow, I’m endorsing this other path. But I tell people I believe Jesus is the son of God. I believe he is the way and the truth and the life. But I believe I don’t get to say who goes to hell and who doesn’t. That’s God’s job.”

Of the anger he’s encountered from some Christians who object, Ries said: “A major factor is fear … if we move the line here, we’ll move it further, and this is the beginning of the end.”

Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., said the idea of Christians fasting at Ramadan appears at first to be neighborly solidarity, but it’s more than that.

“The logic of Islam is obedience and submission,” Mohler said. “It’s by following these practices that a Muslim demonstrates his obedience to the rule of the law through the Quran. For a Christian to do the same automatically implies a submission to the same rule. And beyond that, it’s an explicit affirmation that this is a good and holy thing. From a New Testament perspective, it is not a good and holy thing.”

Christians should have friendships with people of other faith, but engaging in other traditions’ worship practices is problematic, said Mark Driscoll, lead preaching pastor at Mars Hill Church in Seattle. Driscoll said that in this case, Christians and Muslims fast for different purposes and do not worship the same God.

Christians observing a Ramadan fast is “insane at best … Sad, tragic, horrific, misguided, dangerous, wrong,” Driscoll said. “If Christians want to pray during Ramadan, they should pray not with Muslims but for Muslims — that Muslims would come to know Jesus. To pray with Muslims absolutely dishonors Jesus.”

There is disagreement among evangelicals about whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God; Muslims believe Jesus was a prophet and a teacher, but not the son of God.

Among Muslims, McLaren’s Ramadan fast and invitation to other Christians to join him would be widely welcomed, with a “very small minority” wondering whether it’s an effort to infiltrate and convert the Muslim community, said Akbar Ahmed, chairman of the Islamic studies department at American University.

“There is a high level of anti-Americanism in the Muslim world,” Ahmed said. “Now they are going to say this propaganda that America hates us is not true. Here is a pastor who wants to understand us, who does not want to convert us, and who is even prepared to walk with us, to fast with us. That is a big gesture.”

As Ramadan nears it end, McLaren said his fast has made him more sensitive to people who endure hunger every day without the promise of relief at sundown. And he said the commitment and self-discipline the fast requires has increased his respect for Muslims.

“I have felt Muslims don’t want me to compromise and say belief doesn’t matter,” he said. “They want me to be a faithful Christian — a faithful Christian that doesn’t want to destroy all Muslims.”