What Growing up in a Muslim Country Taught Us About Christianity

Today’s post is co-authored by Robynn Bliss and Marilyn Gardner. Fast friends despite age differences (Marilyn is older!) they share many commonalities that include growing up in the Muslim world. Our hope, and indeed prayer, is that this post will build bridges and get people thinking. Thanks for reading!

Today begins the Holy month of Ramadan for Muslims. It will go for 30 days ending on Saturday, August 18 with celebration and a feast. Ramadan, one of the five pillars of Islam, is marked by fasting daily from sun up to sun down. As Christians raised in Pakistan our memories of Ramadan days are as strong as our memories of the Call to Prayer waking us at dawn.

As we think about Ramadan our minds and hearts remember what we have learned about our own faith from our Muslim friends.

  • At an early age we learned that God is not North American. He spans nation and ocean, culture and ethnicity. To bind him to one nation is idolatry. To attach Him to one country elevates our own perceptions of that country. Secretly believing that God is North American justifies our private beliefs that we are superior. It’s not true.
  • We learned that Christians are not the only ones with deep faith. Indeed the Muslims that we were surrounded by were zealous of keeping to the tenants of their faith. They were sincere. They were devoted.
  • We learned that worship has little to do with pews or worship bands; versions of scripture or language. Worship has everything to do with the heart.
  • We learned that as women with white skin we had arrogant tendencies, as though we had  birthrights. When our behavior reflected that it was ugly.
  • We learned that caring for women and children, the poor and the broken was never to be separated from the love of God and his call to holiness. We learned that the invitation of the Father that extends to the those in the “highways and byways” included the beggar woman, the street children, the dismembered, the leper.
  • We learned that the mud huts and dusty streets of Pakistan were far closer to the streets walked by Jesus than the clean suburbs and white steeples that we encountered every four years in the United States. Our Jesus was brown and slightly sweaty with dusty calloused feet; he wasn’t pink and pressed and clean. Blue eyes he did not have.
  • We learned that Christian community comes in all denominations and many interpretations, that sprinkling and dunking could be argued with equal passion but would ultimately not change our need for a Saviour. We learned that the strong cultural value of individualism in the west could make it harder to selflessly love. When Jesus reiterated that the greatest commandment was loving God and the second greatest was loving each other he meant it. Love is the language of the community. Any other dialect is suspect.
  • We learned that the word “Allah” is the Arabic word for God and, while one can argue character qualities of God, to be afraid of that word was not wise. Fear rarely motivates faith and holy conversation.
  • We learned that people are not the enemy. And costumes, like book covers, are not to be judged.
  • We learned that bridge-building often means drinking 25 cups of tea and serving 100. Hospitality fleshes out acceptance and leads to friendship and deep loyalty. Those are strong bridges built of steel and concrete.
  • We learned that Muslims make the best of friends; that to share our hearts with them grew our understanding and faith. We were shown kindness, generosity and acceptance. We grew to understand their love for a good joke;their loyalty, their devotion.  We learned that once you have a Muslim friend, you always have a friend.  They will grieve your losses as if they were their own. They will enter your celebrations with abandon!
  • We learned that being invited to break the fast was a gift, not something to refuse because of difference in belief, but something to enter with joy and prayer – prayer for our friends and prayer for their land. A land we called home.

And as we close this post we offer you a taste of breaking the fast. It is going from the simplicity of daily life and the discipline of fasting to the joyous contrast of colour, noise and taste of celebrations! It is deep-fried sweet sticky gulab jamin. It is colour infused sweet rice with chunks of fresh coconut and plump raisins; plain rice suddenly dressed up with fatty morsels of meat and sticks of cinnamon. Bread normally made on a flat dry pan-fried in oil and served with sweet oily cream of wheat cereal. Muslims knew how to celebrate. Christians in Pakistan learned that from their neighbors.

And we learned as well through the richness of our lives and watching life unfold at weddings, at Eid celebrations, and at the breaking of the fast. 

Purchase Passages Through Pakistan here

Eid Al Adha – Feast of Sacrifice

Beginning at sunset November 6th and all through November 7th, Eid Al Adha is being celebrated by Muslims world-wide. Eid Al Adha is the second of two feasts that occur after Ramadan. This feast is the biggest and most important holiday of the Muslim year and concludes the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca and one of the five pillars of Islam.

Significant to Eid Al Adha is the sacrifice of an animal. A goat, sheep, camel and sometimes even a cow, is sacrificed and cooked to perfection, a feast for family and friends.

While living in Egypt our children had yearly experiences with Eid Al Adha that included a deep and lasting attachment to sheep. Every year a sheep was purchased by our neighbors and made it’s home in our stairwell. In the absence of a household pet, our children bonded with the sheep, delighted with the friendly “baa” that greeted us every time we came and went from our apartment. All the while my husband and I knew that this sheep was being held and fattened in anticipation of the Feast of Sacrifice. The leftover vegetables on our stairwell were indicative that this would be one fat sheep to slaughter. And so the day would inevitably arrive. The stairwell was silent as our children trooped downstairs. “Where’s the sheep? What happened to the sheep”. Every year the questions were the same.

As parents we were in a predicament. Not only did we know that the “pet” sheep had been sacrificed, we knew that we would be offered tasty meat from our neighbor’s kitchen later in the day. What do you tell your kids? Well, you tell them the truth. That it was never their pet, and that our family would be invited to share a feast with people who have graciously invited us to witness and celebrate something that means a great deal to them, and includes the sheep.

When you are raising children in a country where you are graciously received as a guest, you learn valuable lessons of what is important. As guests in the country of Egypt, we were treated kindly despite our frequent mistakes and gaffes in both language and culture. My own parents had modeled well respect and love for their adopted country of Pakistan so it was not difficult to remember what the bottom line was — and that is relationships and loving your neighbor as yourself. Growing up in Pakistan I don’t remember big religious debates, but I do remember a lot of tea being served, a lot of laughter, and some wonderful talks. It was this that was important as we celebrated Eid Al Adha with our neighbors and friends. Sheep were going to come and go but our neighbors and friends? They would be staying.

A common theme of this blog is communicating beyond difference. Celebrating the religious feast of another can be a tremendous act of bridge building. I have been grateful for those who have wished me a Merry Christmas or a “Blessed Big Day” even though they do not hold to those truth claims. Today, if you have Muslims in your world, remember this important celebration and wish them well. Bridges aren’t built in a day, but one days actions can bring about huge steps toward understanding.

A Look at Ramadan from an Outsider

Ramadan Lanterns, Cairo, Egypt

Today marks the first day of Ramadan for Muslims around the world. Ramadan is held during the 9th month of the Islamic calendar and commemorates the time where the Koran was revealed to the prophet Mohammad. Ramadan is a month of fasting and is one of the 5 pillars of Islam, the others being belief in one God, charitable giving or tithe, the call to pray five times a day, and if financially and physically possible, a pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca..

It is a time of fasting and prayer where Muslims are to abstain from food and drink as well as smoking and sex daily from the time the sun comes up until dusk. At sun down the fast breaks with a special fruit drink and dates, after which a meal is eaten. This ritual is held daily for a month. All are to take part except for the very young, the sick, the elderly and those who are pregnant. Ramadan is also a time when calls for Zakat, or charitable giving, increase.

Just like the diversity of Muslims world-wide, the practical practice of this month-long period of fasting varies from family to family and country to country. I was probably around 9 years old, and had already witnessed several years of the practice of Ramadan when I began to understand a bit of what it meant for those surrounding me in Pakistan. As a Christian white kid, it was an annoyance. Why couldn’t we buy Fanta when we were on a family trip? Why did we have to be careful where we had our picnics, to not eat publicly lest we offend?

As my age grew, so did my understanding of this faith tradition and the truth claims of Muslims. When I moved to Egypt I would have talks with our Muslim friends about the significance and discipline of fasting and prayer, a reminder of something bigger than we were. We would be warmly invited to attend the iftar (breaking of the fast) celebrations at sunset, eating, laughing and talking with our friends. While during the day the world surrounding us felt oppressive, once the Call to Prayer signified the breaking of the fast, people would break into party mode, eating special foods and drinks late into the night. Colorful Ramadan lanterns were hung on balconies and trees bringing a festive air during the evening, a stark contrast from the heavy atmosphere during the day.