Sacrifice is a common feature among fast-growing faiths

Ramadan highlights religions that require sacrifice — a feature of fast-growing faiths

Published: Thursday, Aug. 2 2012 6:00 p.m. MDT

Mohmmad Jbailat, right, and Abdifatah Mohmmad pose Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2012 outside the Kadeeja Islamic Center in West Valley.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

WEST VALLEY CITY — On Aug. 19, Mohmmad Jbailat will have fasted for 29 days, a pillar of his Islamic faith and an opportunity to show his devotion to God, develop charity toward others and instill confidence within himself to resist temptation.

But Ramadan is not the only specified time in the Islamic year he can forgo food and drink from dawn until dusk. Following the month-long and well-publicized Ramadan fast is the month of Shawwal, during which Jbailat can choose an additional six days to fast. That's in addition to the two days a week and the three other days per month he can fast. All told, an observant Muslim can fast roughly one-third of the year.

"It challenges you on how much you can control yourself," Jbailat says energetically, despite having not eaten for 9 hours on an afternoon that feels like 90 degrees both outside and inside the Khadeeja Islamic Center mosque.

Fasting is practiced in many faiths, but its observance during Ramadan has received heightened attention this year as the annual month-long fast for Muslims around the world coincides with the Summer Olympics in London, where some 3,000 Muslims are competing while finding a way to comply with one of the five pillars of their faith. That attention has also shined a light on a curious aspect of religion more generally — that many people of faith are drawn to belief systems that expect followers to sacrifice and obey as a way to live and get closer to God.

"It makes it more credible. If you ask for nothing (from your followers) it doesn't sound like it is worth much," said Rodney Stark, a Baylor University sociologist whose groundbreaking book with Roger Finke, "The Churching of America, 1776-2005: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy," found that in America's religious history, faiths that exacted a cost to belong grew, while those that were "cheap" or "free" faltered.

In their examination of religion as a commodity, they found the market share of churchgoers fell dramatically for mainline Protestant faiths from 1940-2000, as those faiths became more accommodating and less demanding of followers. At the same time, evangelical and other churches that were higher cost in terms of commitment grew — some by more than 1,000 percent.

A higher purpose

In Islam, one of the costs of belonging is Ramadan, an entire month in which observant Muslims begin the day at dawn with prayers and a meal, then do not eat or drink until sundown, when they break their fast with prayers and a meal.

For Jbailat, the meaning of Ramadan changes and deepens each year. It has always made him more empathetic toward those who suffer and reach out to others, he said. But this year, it has instilled in him a sense of urgency to pass along his Islamic heritage to his children, ages 15 and 7. He says he and his wife are training their young daughter in the rudiments of fasting and his teenage son is sorting out the purpose and meaning of Ramadan.

Muhammed Shoayb Mehtar, the imam who leads the Islamic Center of Greater Salt Lake, explained that Ramadan is a month of spiritual and physical conditioning for the remainder of the year, a time to overcome sin, to stop gossiping and become more charitable.

"It is the turnkey for the remaining 11 months," he said. "If you can't rectify yourself during this month, it will become more difficult and challenging for you the rest of year."

As a Muslim matures, Ramadan becomes less about not eating and more about what one can do for God, Mehtar said.

That evolution toward understanding a higher purpose for sacrificing to obey religious laws and codes of conduct is common to many faiths.

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