Social Justice and Interfaith Ramadan Fasting

Ramadan, the Muslim celebration of the Quran, is about to begin, and in Palestine, it has a special meaning. When observed faithfully, Ramadan changes both the individual and society. Several times over the last fifteen years, I have taken groups of North American students and led public delegations to visit Golan for Development, a human rights organization located in Majdal Shams in Syria’s Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. I ask the Siraj Center in Beit Sahour to arrange these meetings to introduce my groups to the Druze, their religion, and Israel’s military occupation of the Golan.

Golan for Development resists Israel’s unlawful occupation and works for freedom, equality, and social justice by offering agricultural services to Druze farmers, by providing basic health services in the five remaining Druze villages of Golan, and by establishing a kindergarten, community theater, and music center for children. Beautiful, nonviolent resistance to Israel’s brutal occupation has given the Druze of Golan a higher quality of life than would otherwise have been possible, although they still suffer under Israel’s relentless domination. 

During the briefings, one of the leaders from Golan for Development explains that some Druzi consider their faith to be a legitimate form of Islam while other Druzi consider it a separate religion and that most Muslims think of it as deviant. After the presentation, I often ask a question for the group, the answer to which I already know and respect: “If the Druze are Muslims, why don’t they fast for Ramadan [because they don’t]?” The answer: “We believe that all of life is to be lived as a prayer and a fast in the work of justice.”

For faithful Druze, all day, every day is to be a fast of justice. Fasting for these Druze is not abstinence from food and water, but to resist Israel’s military occupation by providing healthcare to the sick and building schools for children.

In the Jewish Bible, what Christians call the Old Testament, the Prophet Isaiah criticizes his Jewish brothers and sisters for hypocritical fasting and public religious devotion while in private they cheat their employees and fight among themselves. Through Isaiah, God condemns their false fasts and declares the nature of a true fast:

Is this not that fast that I choose?
To loose the bonds of injustice,
To undo the thongs of the yoke,
To let the oppressed go free,
And to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
And to bring the homeless poor into your house;
When you see the naked, to cover them,
And not to hide yourself from your own kin?

If you remove the yoke from among you,
And the pointing finger, and the speaking of evil,
If you offer your food to the hungry,
And satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
Then your light shall rise in the darkness,
And your gloom shall be like the noonday. (Isaiah 58:5-7, 9b-10)

For the Prophet Isaiah and many Druzi, justice, freedom, and compassion for the needy are the marks of a fast that God accepts.

Jesus, Issa in the Quran, who is recognized by Muslims and Christians alike as the Messiah, followed Isaiah’s critique of hypocritical fasting and his affirmation of the fast of justice, freedom, compassion, and humility. Other than Jesus’ 40-day fast at the beginning of his ministry, the New Testament does not contain much information about fasting. And what Jesus is remembered to have said about fasting is more of a warning than an encouragement. Jesus taught:

When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. (Matt. 6:16-18)

All New Testament scholars agree (a rarity indeed!) that the focus of Jesus’ ministry was not fasting, but what he called “the kingdom of God” or the sovereignty of God. The New Testament writers remember Jesus saying, “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God…. because I was sent for this purpose.” (Lk 4:43) And Jesus quotes the Prophet Isaiah (Isa. 61:1-2a) to explain his purpose further:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me
To bring good news to the poor,
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives,
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To let the oppressed go free.
To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Lk 4:18)

These coalescing commitments of the Druze, the Jewish Prophet Isaiah, the Muslim and Christian Messiah Jesus of Nazareth is also the work that many religious and secular Palestinian civic society organizations have been doing for the last century: feeding the hungry, clothing the poor, strengthening the weak, and working for equality, freedom, and justice. In contemporary legal terms, they have been implementing international humanitarian law. Under harsh conditions, Palestinian civil society has established hospitals, clinics, libraries, schools, universities, museums, research institutions, human rights organizations by the dozens, and prisoner support groups. Of course, there are countervailing instances of violence, but most Palestinians have never thrown a stone, brandished a knife, fired a gun, or planted a bomb—and they never will.

In the month of Ramadan, many fast in celebration of the Glorious Quran, to open themselves to God, to learn self-disciple, and to grow in compassion for those in need.

More deeply, those who fast for Ramadan – and all who commit themselves to the fast of God’s inclusive justice – will bring good news to the poor by demanding fair wages so that every worker in Palestine and around the world earns a livable wage; all the sick have access to timely and quality healthcare; all children receive an excellent education in fully equipped schools; everyone is equal, Palestinian and Israeli, Jew, Druze, Muslim, Christian, Samaritan, and secularist; and the natural environment is nourished rather than ravaged.  

Those who fast God’s fast of inclusive justice and equal rights will work relentlessly to break the chains of the oppressed, whether they are Mizrahi Jewish Israelis, the Palestinians in Israeli, Gaza, the West Bank, or in refugee camps across West Asia. 

The God of the universe calls us to change in ourselves what needs to be changed and to join Him in the work of inclusive justice and equality. This Ramadan, and every day of the year, God calls everyone to make the world more just, loving, peaceful, inclusive, and egalitarian. This is the fast of all God’s people, and it is the fast of Ramadan.

By an anonymous professor in Palestine. Any views or opinions contained herein are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP).