Sunday, May 5th marked the beginning of the Ramadan season for Muslims, which will conclude on Tuesday, June 4th. Ramadan is the most important month of the calendar for Muslims, and participating in the holiday is one of Islam’s five pillars or duties that every Muslim must observe.
The month-long holiday commemorates Allah (Arabic name for God) giving the first verses of the Quran (the Muslim holy book) to Muhammad in 610 A.D. During daylight hours, Muslims will abstain from eating and drinking, as they devote their time to prayer before gathering after sunset each day to feast.
Some evangelicals may be wondering: how can we be supportive neighbors during the Ramadan season? This is ever more important, as recent polls show that evangelicals stand out for their unfavorable opinions of Muslims. One recent finding showed that white evangelicals are more than three times as likely to have unfavorable opinions of Muslims as the other way around.
Data abounds disproving the negative stereotypes too many evangelicals hold against their Muslim neighbors. For example, Muslims are one of the most likely groups in the United States to reject violence. They are also more likely than other communities to be the victims of terrorist attacks. And what we aren’t hearing in the media is that Muslims are making valuable contributions to American society. In New York City alone, Muslims make up more than nine percent of the city’s medical doctors, 11.3 percent of the city’s engineers, over 1,000 officers in the NYPD and New York Fire Department, and nearly 10,000 teachers in K-12 schools. In 2016, Muslim New Yorkers donated $608 million for both domestic and international causes.
Ramadan is an opportunity for evangelical Christians to exercise a spiritual muscle often neglected in our communities: living a public faith.
The Ramadan season is a critical opportunity to set an example in our communities of loving our neighbors as God commanded (Mark 12:31). Even more, it is an opportunity to exercise a spiritual muscle often neglected in our communities: living a public faith. A public faith is one that proactively seeks the good of our neighbors without compromising our beliefs. A public faith is when we take our sermons and our quiet times with God to the streets.
1. Attend an Iftar Dinner
Every Ramadan season, mosques across the country invite their neighbors in the community to join them for a fast-breaking meal after sunset, called an Iftar. There, you will be warmly welcomed, enjoy delicious food, and have light conversation. You will not be asked or pressured to participate in any religious practices. Bring your family or your small group!
My friend Catherine Orsborn, Director of Shoulder to Shoulder, wrote an eye-opening piece for Religion News Service about the experience of her evangelical friends at an Iftar dinner: “Before sharing iftar, they thought of Muslims as ‘foreign’ to the United States. The dinner let them experience the diversity of the Muslim-American community…Since then, some have even hosted Muslims at their churches.”
2. Wish Your Muslim Neighbors a Happy Ramadan Season
This is a small, but very meaningful, gesture. Why? Because often, Muslims are not expecting evangelicals to do this. After all, Ramadan does not enjoy the privileged status that Christmas and Easter do in America. For many Muslims, Ramadan is actually a stressful time. Schools, for example, may or may not have a plan in place to support Muslim students during the month. Few restaurants with acceptable meal options are open before fasting begins at daybreak.
While we simply expect that society will bend around Christmas and Easter, Muslims can only hope that they will have advocates in public spaces that will understand the expectations placed on them during Ramadan.
While we simply expect that society will bend around Christmas and Easter, Muslims can only hope that they will have advocates in public spaces that will understand the expectations placed on them, though a recent bill out of Washington could be the catalyst for more supportive public environments for Muslims. Wishing our Muslim neighbors a happy Ramadan does not mean that you believe or endorse the events that Ramadan is celebrating, but rather that you are thinking of your neighbors. You could also ask if there are specific ways that you or your church could alleviate any stressors they encounter during the month.
3. Defend Your Muslim Neighbors Against Anti-Muslim Bigotry and Faulty Theology
Perhaps like me, you were bred to think about other religions through one lens: Satan’s handiwork. This line of thinking might resonate in the warm confines of our churches’ echo-chambers, but it is totally useless in the public square. It provides absolutely zero guidance for how to “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). Rather, it ensures that we live under a rock, or do nothing but throw rocks.
On top of that, there is absolutely no evidence from the life of Jesus that our posture toward our neighbors with differing religious beliefs should be defensive or alienating. Consider the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10). Consider Jesus’ interaction with the Roman Centurion (Matthew 8); or Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch (Acts 8); or Paul at the Areopagus in Athens (Acts 17). In each of these interactions, the “other” was ascribed dignity, respect, and most importantly, hope. There are some in our communities who will scoff at the idea of treating Muslims this way, some who will lash out publicly in ways that are hurtful and demeaning. In these circumstances, our responsibility is to stand with our Muslim neighbors: even if it comes at a cost.
This Ramadan, let’s write a new story about the evangelical church in the public square: a church marked by generosity, hospitality, and hope, with no shortage of boldness. Let’s ensure that Muslims are equipped to speak about our good works, not our bad habits. For too long, we have lived in fear of our Muslim neighbors. For too long, we have retained outlandish stereotypes that were spoon-fed to us for political gain.
This Ramadan season, let’s take the opportunity to meet and celebrate the Muslims living in our communities.
Kevin Singer is Co-Director of Neighborly Faith, an organization helping evangelicals to be good neighbors to people of other faiths.