The God Squad: From a non-Muslim, praise of Ramadan

July 19, 2013|By Rabbi Marc Gellman

Happy Ramadan!

I confess that, directed by your letters, I do not write enough about Islam or Muslim spiritual life. To help to correct my lacuna, I've decided not to let the holy Muslim month of Ramadan pass this year without sending along to all of you non-Muslim readers a brief essay about what I truly love about Ramadan. To my Muslim readers, I hope this will serve as a belated apology for my lack of focus on your noble religious traditions in the past, and my most sincere wishes for a "Ramadan Mubarak," a blessed Ramadan.

This is what I love about Ramadan, which began July 10 and ends Aug. 9 — or, more accurately, which begins on the first of Ramadan and ends on the 29th of Ramadan:



Ramadan is a real fast! Lent has been, let us say, softened in its limitations for Catholics, and the Jewish fast day of Yom Kippur is, well, just one day. Ramadan requires the pious Muslim to refrain from all food and liquids for 18 hours a day, every day for a lunar month. It has been scorching hot in the Northeast, and for those observing Ramadan, this has meant hot days with no water. Sacrifice in performing our religious rituals is not that common, but Ramadan sets a very high bar and it is very impressive to me.


All religions include charity as a very high religious commandment, but during Ramadan, Muslims really give charity at very high levels. It is called zakat and, like fasting on Ramadan, it is one of the five central pillars of Islam (Shia Islam has 12 pillars). The other pillars are the confession of faith (shahadah), praying five times a day (salat) and making a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in a lifetime (hajj).

A Muslim must give at least 2.5% of his or her annual income (before taxes!) to charity. One is also encouraged to give far more. The extra is not called zakat but sedaka, which is exactly the same word as charity in Judaism. The pilgrimage/hajj is also the same as the Hebrew word for a pilgrimage to Jerusalem (hag).

During Ramadan, one's gifts of charity must be given immediately and must help the needy in one's community. In our secular world, charity is considered to be a good thing people do that they do not really have to do. It is something sort of above and beyond the call of duty. I love the fact that in Islam, and during Ramadan in particular, charity is a duty. Faith is linked to right action, not just right belief. We could all learn from Muslim practice of zakat on Ramadan.


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