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Share Ramadan’s mighty prayer

On Nov. 17, over 1.5 billion Muslims worldwide, including some 8 million people in North America, began Ramadan, the holiest month of the Islamic lunar year, by observing a month-long period of prayer, almsgiving and fasting from all food and drink during daylight hours. Fasting is one of the five Pillars (duties) of Islam, and all able-bodied Muslims are expected to take part, beginning at about age 12. The purpose of Ramadan is to intensify devotion to God (Allah) and to sharpen a believer’s awareness of the needs of the poor and hungry of the world.

Fasting, an ancient religious practice common to all world religions, is a proven way to awaken the spiritual senses in a body dulled by satisfaction.

Voluntary fasting, even for short periods, reminds us that hunger is not an idea but a visceral assault on our most basic human instinct to survive. Wealth, it has been said, is the power to eat, whatever and whenever you wish. Fasting interrupts that security momentarily and brings us into solidarity with those millions who fast involuntarily in a world where feast and famine are neighbors, often in the same city.

Fasting reminds the strong that hunger and poverty are the worst forms of violence against the weak, an insult to human dignity and an affront to basic fairness in our world.

The coincidence of the dates of Ramadan (Nov. 17-Dec. 17) this year to the Christian observance of Advent (Dec. 2-25), as well as key Jewish holy days such as Hanukkah (Dec. 10-17), offers some rare common ground to three major world religions of the Bible, which share a spiritual ancestor in the figure of the Patriarch Abraham, called the “Father of the Faith” by the world’s Muslims, Jews and Christians.

The events and aftermath of Sept. 11 have exposed the roots of global suffering in a way we could never have imagined. All of us, rich and poor, hungry and sated, now know a deep and common vulnerability. Nineteen men committing suicide have shaken the stability of the world economy, redrawn geopolitical alignments and threatened the security of billions of people. Terrorism has shown that it can infect and strike from the very heart of civilization, using its technologies, transportation, communications and financial systems to hold the world hostage.

But crisis has also forced to the surface an urgent, shared desire worldwide among ordinary people of goodwill to quickly build bridges of understanding between cultures and faith traditions. The beliefs and energies of those traditions might offer the only hope for resolving conflict before it spirals out of control in what some suggest is the intended and ultimate terrorist act, to precipitate an explosion of hatred between major world religions. In biblical terms, the threat we face together is the sort of baleful, poisonous spirit that can be confronted only by prayer and fasting.

Many groups around the world have long been calling for prayer and fasting as the only path that can lead us beyond ancient quarrels and systemic injustice to a future without terror.

For Christians, the invitation is a chance to recover spiritual resources that have lain fallow and unused. Prayer and fasting are good for body and soul and offer a chance to recapture the meaning of Jesus’ words, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they will be satisfied.”

Christians will soon mark the end of a liturgical year with scripture readings filled with feverish apocalyptic imagery. We are about to enter Endtimes. Then Christians will enter the season of Advent, a time of penance and preparation for proclaiming the core mystery of the Incarnation, the belief that, whatever state the world is in, God is with us, intimately sharing our human journey toward the hope of universal, all encompassing wholeness.

Ramadan is impressive in its potential to marshal spiritual discipline and power to create an enormous community of purpose. Christians might take note and be inspired to share in so mighty a prayer for justice for the poor and hungry. Imagine the world that could emerge beyond our present terror if we all joined to pray and fast together.

National Catholic Reporter, November 23, 2001