|Ramadan 2015 begins Wednesday, June 17|
and ends Friday, July 17.
Fasting during the month of Ramadan is one of the Five Pillars of Islam. The month is spent by Muslims fasting during the daylight hours from dawn to sunset. Muslims believe that the Qur'an was sent down to the lowest heaven during this month, thus being prepared for gradual revelation by the angel Jibra'il (Gabriel) to the Islamic prophet Muhammad. Furthermore, Muhammad told his followers that the gates of Heaven would be open all the month and the gates of Hell (Jahannam) would be closed.
This is exactly how religion works. There are laws to be followed. There are acts of self-denial to be performed. There are unprovable—maybe even improbable—beliefs to be accepted, explanations of ‘why things are the way they are.’ Finally, there are promises—in reality a variety of perks, again unprovable—that give the average believer a motivation to follow the laws and perform the ceremonies and customs that will ensure him a better existence in whatever happens after physical death.
It's always about death, and the fear of it. Sometimes it's also about sex. Indeed, sexual instincts and death seem to be intertwined somehow, defying reason by insurmountable paradox. Maybe because sexual activity procreates, keeps living beings from extinction, preserves them from permanent death, as a species. So religion, like the funeral industry, has an inescapable relevance to humans everywhere, and the former usually incorporates the latter in every culture. That's religion for you, pacifying unanswerable need.
Whether or not the Word of God (that unwritten eternal Book, that incarnated in Jesus son of Mary) came down to man's level, or very close to it, by being revealed to Muhammad, Gabriel may know. I don't. To me it seems slightly less credible than what happened in the Incarnation, but both claims must seem like nonsense to the believing Jew. Everyone knows that there is only one YHWH, and therefore only one real religion, the one that was revealed to Moses at Sinai. Even Jesus son of Mary followed it.
Real religion—if there is such a thing—doesn't so much need to be in accord with man's power of reason, as to not offend common sense, which is not always the same thing. Laying down laws and making promises just for their own sake, now that is what we expect religions to do, at least the ones we've had to deal with so far. Adding a good dose of supernatural fantasy is also on the agenda. After all, if there is something or Someone ‘up there,’ they will have to keep our interest. Makers of religions know their stuff.
But I find plenty of assurances of Divine mercy, plenty of revelations of what and Who really exist in the pages of the Bible, starting with the Old Testament. There's nothing old about what I find there, except in the sense of ‘always being the same from before time was.’ If I had to start with that Book, and no other, I would be at a loss to create a religion for myself or for others. There's just something too real, too immediate, about that Book. Yet people use its text to erect religious towers, fortresses, armies, and banks.
Religion has a certain characteristic to it. It is almost always predictable. It will be rich in stories and legends. It will be colorful, even beautiful and seductive to the senses. It can be expected to mobilise people and employ them in tasks that have no earthly object. It always holds out a better tomorrow or hereafter. I doesn't have to limit itself, though, to the future life. The most pungent religions are those that completely take your life over, and use you for anything from sheep to be fleeced to soldiers to be sacrificed.
Heaven is the goal. Earth is just a waiting room, a school, a place of preparation, a ‘foyer leading into the world to come.’ Yes, I know. I believe some of these things too. No, actually, I believe all of them. Earth is temporary, but I still need to take it seriously. Why? Because it is my chance—possibly my only chance—to acquire a truly higher education. Knowing the curriculum, knowing what those lectures and labs should look like, helps me to stay away from schools that are not only unaccredited, but dangerous.
Well, what is it then? Religion or no religion? I believe in three facts that are unprovable, just as unprovable—and maybe just as improbable—as the stories one hears told of the founders and saints of mankind's religions. These three are, the Incarnation, the Resurrection, and the Ascension. People have founded religions on these three, and yet what they found themselves saddled with seems inconsistent, indeed often seems completely unrelated, to these three facts. How can this be? What is belief? Even mine?
Religions have to be maintained, cared for, in order to continue. They have no life in themselves, only what people give them. Just as the idols in a temple have to be washed, dressed and ‘fed’ daily, religions need us. The fact of God's becoming a human being in Jesus of Nazareth, the fact that He lives beyond His historical identity and still moves among us, the fact that He has opened paradise—not some ‘pie in the sky’ magical place where we can be rewarded after a life of unnecessary toil—that transcends religion.
We can recognize the door only when we have tried them all and found which one really opens and is not just a picture of a door. We can distinguish the truth only when we have listened to all the stories and found which one really lives and is not just a fairy tale. We can embark on the way only when we have walked our chosen path long enough to see that it leads nowhere, that it dead ends, and that beside us has been walking He who is the way we sought but could not find. Religion ends at His feet, and relationship begins.
There is no Ramadan, no fasting, no revelations, no religion where we find ourselves when we meet Him, and no paradise except Him who is, and in His presence is peace.