Mohammad bin Abdulkarim Al-Issa
weeks before the holy month of Ramadan, I travelled between New York and
Washington, D.C., for a series of historic interfaith events with some of the
most prominent religious leaders from around the world. One particularly
significant part of my visit was the opportunity to demystify and speak about
the essential meaning of Ramadan, which began on May 5.
My trip led
to groundbreaking agreements with leaders of the American Jewish community, a
new working relationship with Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the Archbishop of New
York, and a large donation by my organization to U.N. refugee assistance,
without any preference to nation or faith. As we gathered in unity in the
aftermath of terrorist attacks targeting Muslims, Jews and Christians around
the world, I was able to talk about the true spirit of this month’s sacred
observances, which I found largely unknown to Western and non-Muslim audiences.
non-Muslims, Ramadan is vaguely understood as a longish, localized ritual
involving fasting from dawn until sundown, rigorous personal discipline, and a
rather perplexing calculation of lunar cycles. Yet what is so special about
this “most Islamic” of customs, and one of the five pillars of the faith, is
the fact that its practice is both universal and cross-cultural in terms of its
theological foundation, history and tradition. For example, the most important
part of this 30-day observance is the call to spiritual purification and
renewal of the individual. That spiritual ethic is one that each of the three
Abrahamic religions shares as a common tradition and practice.
Ramadan was the month that the Holy Koran was revealed to Mohammad (peace be
upon him), sent by revelation during the Laylat-Ul-Qadr, or the “night
of power.” According to our “Hadith,” all Holy Scriptures were sent down on
specific days during this month: the Scriptures to Abraham, the Torah to Moses,
the Psalms to David, the Gospels to Christ and all followed by the revelation
of the Quran itself. As such, our traditions are shared with the traditions of
Judaism and Christianity through a focus on personal repentance and renewal.
For example, the historian Philip Jenkins has compared Ramadan to the Lenten
disciplines of eastern Christianity; writers in the West often refer to Ramadan
as “the Muslim Lent.” There are deep resemblances between Ramadan and this
Christian practice, exemplified by the observance by some Muslim Clerics that
Jesus fasted during Ramadan. If true, one could interpret Islam as honouring
and preserving aspects of authentic Christianity.
Jewish tradition of Rosh Hashanah — the New Year of that faith — the
restoration of personal virtue through repentance also is emphasized as in
Ramadan. The Yom Kippur observance that then follows is a time of fasting, akin
in its custom to the Islamic imperative of “divine cleansing.”
cultures, these cross-currents are particularly strong and all three faiths
teach this essential principle of personal atonement and spiritual strength
before God. It is a recognition that, ultimately, peace among nations may be
gained only through the moral perfection of the individual. It is very
important to understand and appreciate both religious diversity as well as the many
common values among the religion
reflections came to mind when my organization signed an unprecedented
cooperation agreement at the headquarters of the American Jewish Committee last
month, and later hosted one of the largest high-level assemblies of Hindu,
Buddhist, Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders at the United Nations. These
events were all the more significant but also more poignant in that they took
place in the highly-charged international atmosphere after the terror attacks
in New Zealand, Sri Lanka and San Diego only weeks earlier. As I said to
Cardinal Dolan in New York, whose meeting followed my first ever trip to the
Vatican in 2017, our goal is to show “how much there is that unites us and to
reject the messages of those who divide us.”
principle in Ramadan is the practice of Sawaab — that is, the necessity
of performing good deeds with awareness that these are “being watched” by God.
It is my sincere desire that as we continue to bridge our common human values
at a level never seen before in history, through an open and honest dialogue
among the world faith, such deeds and God’s watchfulness of them will secure,
at last, peaceful results for all humanity.
this month is a celebration of “the best of times” for Muslims, I can only wish
a Ramadan for the entire world. We hope that all may share in these best of
times — for many months, if not years, to come.
• Mohammad bin Abdulkarim Al-Issa is secretary
general of The Muslim World League, an international non-governmental Islamic
organization based in the Holy City of Makkah.