Ramadan and the True Spirit of Islam

Whenever I have the opportunity to attend a Ramadan iftar--the festive meal held every evening at sunset to break the daily fast that Muslims observe for the entire Holy Month of month--I find myself awed by the self-sacrifice and inner discipline of untold millions of individual Muslims who go without food or even a sip of water from dusk to dawn every day for an entire month. I am also spiritually uplifted by the festive energy at the iftar dinners--typically attended not only by Muslims of all ages and stations in life but also by many non-Muslims like myself who are invited to share in the joyous meal and witness an age-old ritual at the very heart of Islam.

As an observant Jew -- who fasts from sundown until nightfall the next day on Tisha B'Av, when we mourn the destruction of the two Temples in Jerusalem, as well as on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when every Jew is enjoined to spend the day in prayer while doing a rigorous heshbon ha nefesh (self-accounting) -- I know viscerally how difficult, yet also how spiritually uplifting, it is to perform a religiously mandated fast. The strength and spiritual commitment of Muslims who are willing and able to forego food and water day after day for an entire month, especially when, as is the case this year, Ramadan falls in the summer with its long hours and oppressive heat is truly inspiring. (Each year the dates of Ramadan move several weeks earlier according to the lunar calendar.)

Through this act of month-long fasting, Muslims strive to become closer to God and attain greater control of their lives by transcending the elemental demands of hunger and thirst. Observing Ramadan also brings those Muslims who are used to a basic degree of comfort and security into closer community with the less fortunate who habitually do not have enough to eat or drink. During Ramadan, there is a pronounced emphasis on the doing of good deeds, including giving an even larger portion of sadaqah (voluntary charity) during this time of year. The giving of sadaqah (almost identical to the Hebrew word tzedakah) is reflective of the deep commitment in both Islam and Judaism to help those in society who are most in need.

On June 26, the sanctity of Ramadan was horribly violated by Islamist extremists who unleashed a series of murderous terrorist attacks in Tunisia, Kuwait and France directed against so-called 'infidels' (non-Muslims) and 'apostate Muslims' (Shiites) that took the lives of dozens of innocents. A spokesman for ISIS quickly took credit for the attacks--which may or may not have actually been coordinated with the organization--and boasted that these evil acts had special spiritual resonance because they were carried out during the month of Ramadan.

This is a brazen attempt to hijack a great religion that extolls justice and peace, not hatred and violence. As I have learned during the past eight years in which I have been engaged in the work of building ties of communication and cooperation between Muslims and Jews across America and around the world, people of all faiths abhor terrorism and violence and are sickened by the kind of savage attacks that took place last week. As the Fiqh Council of North America, the highest body of Islamic jurisprudence, wrote in a seminal fatwa (religious ruling) in 2005 and has repeatedly reaffirmed in the years since: "Islam strictly condemns religious extremism and the use of violence against innocent lives" adding, "It is haram (forbidden) for a Muslim to cooperate with any individual or group that is involved in any act of terrorism or prohibited violence." The idea that depraved acts of mass murder would have special sanction during the month of Ramadan--a holiday given over to exalting acts of charity and loving-kindness - is beyond grotesque.

Yes, the extremist Islamist movement, epitomized by ISIS and Al-Qaeda, is a very real phenomenon and represents a grave danger to the entire world that must be confronted and defeated, intellectually as well as militarily. Yet in order to accomplish that, we must stand with the vast majority of mainstream Muslims in rejecting the extremists' conceit that their sick ideology and perverted acts of violence in any way represent true Islam. If we allow our horror at these horrendous acts to cause us to lash out at mainstream Muslims and at Islam itself, we will be playing directly into the hands of the extremists.

Over the years, I have experienced the peace that comes from reflection and the joy that comes from sharing ones experiences and sacrifices with friends and family - be they Muslims or Jews or Christians or Buddhists or atheists. I truly believe that, infused with the inner strength and commitment to justice and peace that reaches its highest expression during Ramadan, a victory over an evil ideology is attainable. Now is the time for Jews, Christians and all people of conscience to forego fear, prejudice and Islamophobia. Whether it is through attending a Ramadan iftar, or simply a willingness to learn more about the purpose of Ramadan and the role it plays in the lives of Muslims and many others who benefit from its teachings, we can work to bridge the gap between ignorance and acceptance - and ultimately peace.

Rabbi Marc Schneier is President of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding and Co-Author with Imam Shamsi Ali of Sons of Abraham; A Candid Conversation about the Issues That Divide and Unite Jews and Muslims.