For our Muslim friends, colleagues and neighbours, March once again marks the start of one of the biggest moments in their calendar year – Ramadan.
Preparations have been made for weeks without eating or drinking in daylight hours from 22 March to 20 April, which this year overlaps with Lent, when many Christians are also fasting.
This March also celebrates the 30th anniversary of the 30 Days of Prayer for the Muslim World movement (30 Days of Prayer), which calls the church to make a more deliberate effort to learn about, pray for and reach out to our Muslim neighbours, both locally and overseas. The movement coincides annually with Ramadan, when many Muslims are focused on spiritual matters.
Knowing how to pray for our Muslim neighbours can feel like a difficult proposition, and we have not been helped by ill-informed narratives that influence how we feel and think about Islamic culture.
Sadly, these narratives have often overlooked all that there is to admire and learn from our Muslim neighbours, leaving us unable to connect with their culture and religious perspectives, and struggling to know how to pray. What a shame this is, as there is so much to celebrate! To help Christians better connect with, pray for and impact the Muslim world this year, the 30 Days of Prayer movement is encouraging participants to see beyond this narrative and give them a broader understanding of how to practically love their Muslim neighbours and appreciate their beautiful culture.
A celebration of hospitality, art and God's movements in Islamic communities
My friend of many years, Dr David Garrison, author of "A Wind in the House of Islam", notes that during the same period that the 30 Days of Prayer movement has been going, there has been a slow but steady movement of people with Muslim backgrounds coming to Christ. In fact, more Muslims have willingly decided to follow Christ in the last three decades than in all the previous 1,400 years of Christian-Muslim interaction put together. Prayer changes things!
Getting to know your Muslim neighbours can be both a fun and an eye-opening experience. When talking to my colleague Dennis recently at Operation Mobilisation – a global Christian movement seeking to share the love of Jesus around the world - he commented that the Turkish Muslim communities in London and the South East where he plants churches never meet together without offering hospitality. "There is never a meeting without food; it just wouldn't happen; everyone brings a dish to share."
It sounds so biblical! Many of the stories in the gospels are centred around sharing meals. Hospitality plays a huge part in Islamic culture too, and one of God's names in Islam is Al-Kareem which means 'the generous'. The view we have of God always shapes a culture and this importance placed on generosity impacts Muslims in the same way. When I go out with Muslim friends, I know there will be a fight about who will pay for the food and the drinks. Not because nobody wants to pay, but because everyone is trying to pay for everyone else!
Alongside hospitality, I have found art a powerful way of connecting with my Muslim neighbours. After living in Alexandria, Egypt, for 15 years where I taught industrial art, I became fascinated with Islamic art styles. My default medium to work in is wood, so when an artist friend gave me a piece of driftwood, made from Mahogany, which had washed ashore, I decided to carve it with Christian and Muslim symbols. Muslims believe your good deeds will be weighed against your bad deeds on the day of judgement. So, I took the balance and played with its shape, creating a cross within it and carving two of Allah's 99 names into each side of the scales - El Adel, the Just and El Rahman, the Merciful.
These art pieces have generated a lot of interest with my Muslim neighbours and sparked priceless conversations. Many of their responses have really surprised me. Some have been quizzical or confused, some have been moved to tears as they contemplate their meaning; the cross being where His justice and mercy meet.
God is Love. This is the door. Art, for many people, reaches places that words cannot penetrate, but it is not the only method of doing so. Understanding Muslim culture is key to unlocking more conversations and talking to our friends and neighbours about Jesus.
We have seen God move in Islamic communities in the UK and worldwide during the 30 years since the 30 Days of Prayer for the Muslim World started. But there is a lot we can still do to fully love our Muslim neighbours. Can we take the time to learn about, pray for and reach out to their communities, thanking God for how he is already moving amongst them?
Alan Hallmart serves with Operation Mobilisation (OM). To get involved in OM's 30 Days of Prayer, visit: https://www.uk.om.org/30-days-prayer