By Josiah Idowu-Fearon
As in previous articles, this piece is written for those who wish to see Nigerians united in spite of their religious differences. It is the hope of the writer that, reading this piece will open up discussions between those who profess these two faiths ( Islam and Christianity)and, eventually, result in deep respect for each other’s faith practices and lead to a more eirenic relationship.
Last Wednesday (Ash Wednesday) Christians all over this country joined millions of others all over the world to begin a forty-day fasting period called Lenten Season. The Muslim equivalent to this religious duty is Ramadhan. Are there similarities in their observance, do they have similar expectations during and after the periods and could faithfulness to the expectations bring about individual transformation, unity among Nigerian Christians and Muslims leading to even development especially in the Northern parts of the country?
In the Christian liturgical calendar, Lent is the penitential period of 40 days from Ash Wednesday to Easter. Traditional Christian observances of Lent include fasting and penitence, both in preparation for Easter and as a way of spiritually “joining” Jesus with the fasting and meditation he did in the wilderness. For early Christians and for Eastern Orthodox Christians today, the rules of fasting are strict: just one meal a day, in the evening, and no meat, fish, eggs, or butter is permitted.
Origins of Lent:
The name lent is a Germanic word originally used to refer to the spring season generally. Over time, it replaced the Latin quadragesima, which means “forty days.” Lent lasts forty days because, according to biblical accounts, Jesus went into the wilderness for forty days of fasting, meditation and reflection before beginning his ministry ( Lk.4:1-12). In Western Christendom as well as in Africa, Lent begins on Ash Wednesday; for Eastern Orthodox Churches, it is called “Great Lent” and begins on Clean Monday (one of my uncles, though an Anglican, follows this tradition).
Lent & Ash Wednesday:
Where do the ashes come in for Ash Wednesday? It was traditional in ancient times for people engaged in special times of fasting, prayer, repentance, or remorse by rubbing ashes on their foreheads as an outward symbol of what they are experiencing internally. This custom entered Christianity through Judaism, and Christians today may apply ashes on their foreheads to mark the beginning of Lent. Ideally, one should use ashes from the burning of palm fronds from the previous year’s Easter celebrations.
Lent and Fasting Today:
In Western Christendom today, the strictest fasting rules were eliminated in the Roman Catholic Church in 1966. Only Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are required to be strict fasting days for Roman Catholics. Penance, however, is still observed and marked by alms giving, devoting time to prayer and Bible reading, and other forms of religious study.
In the Anglican communion, Lent and Fridays are set aside as days of fasting and abstinence, however, individual Anglicans are free to determine for themselves what particular measures of abstinence they will follow in the observance of these days, though certain parishes and dioceses are more encouraging of fasting than others. While in Kaduna diocese for example, everyone is encouraged to fast all through the Lenten season, in the Anglican Diocese of Sydney its people are discouraged from fasting during Lent. During the early days of the church, this period was also one in which those who wanted to become Christians prepared for their baptismal rites.
Days of Lent:
Calculating the days of Lent varies between Western (Protestants, Catholics, Anglicans) and Eastern (Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, eastern-rite churches affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church) churches. In Western churches, Sundays are skipped when counting because Sundays commemorate the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. In the Catholic Church, the official end of Lent occurs on Holy Thursday with the mass of the Lord’s Supper.
These details are presented here to inform our readers that in the Christian faith, this annual ritual, unlike the Muslim equivalent is not an obligation as we shall see from the Muslim ritual equivalence in Islam. However, it would be educative to note some of the common practices between the two faith traditions.
Ramadhan. In Islam, this season is the prescribed period when every Muslim is expected to faithfully observe the forth pillar of Islam. This observance involves fasting during the holy month of Ramadan, which is probably the most notable time for fasting among Muslims. In Islam, fasting for a month is an obligatory practice, from fajr (dawn), until the maghrib (dusk).
Muslims are prohibited from eating, drinking (including water), and engaging in sexual activity. They are also encouraged to temper negative emotions such as anger and addiction. By fasting, whether during Ramadan or other times, a Muslim draws closer to God by abandoning bodily pleasures, such as food and drink. This makes the sincerity of their faith and their devotion to God all the more evident.
The Qur’an states that fasting was prescribed for those before them – the Jews and Christians- ( Baqarah: 183-185) and that by fasting a Muslim gains taqwa, which can be described in one word as ‘God-consciousness’.
Similar teachings on the main event of the two seasons: Fasting
A significant number of Christians within mainland Christianity and most Muslims believe that fasting is more than abstaining from food and drink. Fasting also includes abstaining from any falsehood in speech and action, abstaining from any ignorant and indecent speech, and from arguing, fighting, and having lustful thoughts. Therefore, fasting strengthens control of impulses and helps develop good behaviour. Particularly during the Lenten season and the sacred month of Ramadhan, believers strive to purify body and soul and increase their taqwa (good deeds and God-consciousness).
This purification of body and soul harmonizes the inner and outer spheres of an individual. Christians and Muslims who take part in the observance of these seasons, aim to improve their body by reducing food intake and maintaining a healthier lifestyle. Over-indulgence in food is discouraged and eating only enough to silence the pain of hunger is encouraged.
On a moral level, believers strive to attain the most virtuous characteristics and apply them to their daily situations. They try to show compassion, generosity and mercy to others, exercise patience, and control their anger. In essence, by observing these important seasons and the religious duties prescribed, Christians and Muslims are trying to improve what they believe to be good moral character and habits.
Fasting is the soul of prayer; mercy is the lifeblood of fasting. Let no one try to separate them; they cannot be separated. If you have only one of them or not all together, you have nothing. So if you pray, fast; if you fast, show mercy; if you want your petition to be heard, hear the petition of others. If you do not close your ear to others you open God’s ear to yourself (St. Peter Chrysologus, c. 400-450, Bishop of Revenna).
Over 80% of Nigerians belong to one or the other of these two religious traditions with such excellent common rituals. If we are so blessed with such rich religious practices, it becomes incumbent on Christians and Muslims to live-out these rich religious disciplines. We challenge Christians and Muslims in this country to become humble and begin to respect each other’s religious traditions which, as shown above, have a lot in common.
It has been observed that there has been a significant increase in the goodwill messages sent to the Christian community when the Lenten season took-off on ash-Wednesday. It should not go unnoticed, the message from His Eminence, The Sultan of Sokoto, the Spiritual Head of the Muslim Umma in Nigeria. We do hope that the discipline of this Lenten Season will continue to play out as we pray for one another, study our Bible with the determination to live it out and go out of our way to show mercy to those around us who are suffering.
Josiah Idowu-Fearon, Ph.D.(ABU) Diocesan bishop of Kaduna (Anglican Communion).