By Bola Bolawole
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Merriment apart, the feasts of the Ramadan have important lessons to teach all faithful. Pilgrimage to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina is one of the five pillars of Islam, the climax of which is “Ileya” (Let’s return home) celebrations when a ram is slaughtered or sacrificed. This is symbolic. Abraham is generally accepted as the father/originator of two of the world’s most widespread and accepted religions of Christianity and Islam. There are many other religions, such as Hinduism, Bhuddhism, Judaism, Sikhism, Zoroastrianism, Shinto, Baha’I Faith, Jainism, Confucianism, Taoism, Cao Dai, African traditional religions, and Modern Paganism. Africans have largely neglected, even derided, their own traditional religious beliefs while embracing Christianity and Islam, the two most prominent foreign religions patronised by Africans. The irony, however, is that the stone which the Africans rejected has become the head of the corner in many foreign countries such as Brazil, Cuba, Haiti, to mention but a few, where African customs, religions, and belief systems thrive.
Year 2020 statistics gave the world population of Christianity as 2,382 billion, Islam as 1.907 billion, and Hinduism, 1.251 billion. Secular/Nonreligious people followed closely at 1,193 billion. While it is agreed that Abraham (Ibrahim, to Muslims) fathered both Christianity and Islam, the narrative by adherents of both religions differs in significant respects. Christians posit that Abraham (“Exalted father” or “Father of a multitude”) fathered Isaac in his old age, after himself and his wife had lost all hopes of bearing children. God appeared to Abraham and promised him a child. With the promise late in coming – or so it seemed to Sarah (“Noblewoman” or “Princess”), Abraham’s wife – she encouraged her husband to take her maid, Hagar (“Forsaken”), who was younger and still within the child-bearing age. Sarai, well passed the stage of menopause, concluded that God had “restrained” her from bearing a child (Genesis 16: 2) and, therefore, did not set much store by God’s promise, such that she laughed when God again repeated the promise to her husband (Genesis 18: 12), saying “After I am waxed old shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?”
But because God is God, what He had promised came to pass and Abram and Sarai (both of whom experienced a name-change effected by God Himself) gave birth to the promised child, Isaac (“meaning one who laughs” or “one who rejoices”, so named by Sarah); but before Isaac was Ishmael (“God listens”), the son of Hagar, Sarah’s maid. Ishmael, thus, was Abraham’s first child and son; he was at least 14 years older than Isaac. Ishmael is venerated by Muslims as a prophet; he died at the age of 137 years while Isaac lived up to 180 years. According to some accounts, Abraham was 125 years old when his faith was tested by God who asked him to sacrifice his son unto God. It means Isaac would have been 25 years old when that event happened while Ishmael would have been 39. Yet, Genesis 27: 5 and 12 refer to the child to be sacrificed as a “lad”. The dictionary meaning of a lad is “a boy or young man” But note that people lived longer in those days and today’s adults would be seen and treated as “lads” in those days.
This is not the place to debate who out of Ishmael (39) and Isaac (25) was the “lad” intended for the sacrifice. Christians say it was Isaac while Muslims contend it was Ishmael. But only the Muslims still celebrate the event. My own father, a Muslim, celebrated Ramadan until he died. My maternal grandmother, whom I grew up with, and her first son (my uncle), both of them Muslims, celebrated Ramadan until they, too, died. Ramadan was an occasion when we gathered with my father to celebrate. My younger sister and I had a special portion of the ram reserved for us that was never given to any other person. We could, however, get additional portions of meat. Christians today do not celebrate Ramadan because of their belief that Jesus Christ had made the ultimate sacrifice for them dying on the Cross and that the blood of Jesus is more valued than the blood of rams, goats, cows, doves, turtles, and what-have-you (Hebrews 10: 1 – 14).
I dare to say that it is not all the word of God that we can fully comprehend with our finite wisdom, knowledge and understanding. Genesis 22: 1 – 2 says: And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, Behold, here I am. And he said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of” Was Isaac the “only son” of Abraham? What of his elder brother, Ishmael? Maybe what is meant is the “covenant” child, which Christians believe Isaac was. Did Abraham not love Ishmael? Genesis 17: 18 where Abraham groaned in supplication unto God concerning Ishmael (O that Ishmael might live before thee!) presupposes that he did! Perhaps, after the birth of Isaac, Abraham now loved Isaac more. In our own clime, we know that the child of the wife that is loved more enjoys more perks and perquisites than the one whose mother is loved less. Besides, Isaac’s mother was inside while Ishmael’s mother, according to the Bible narrative, had been sent packing.
I never stopped wondering why Abraham took Sarai’s advice to “marry” Hagar. Abraham is touted as the father of faith: Did he doubt God’s promise in this instance or did he consent to Sarai just to give peace a chance? And see how the same peace eluded him real time! And not only him but the entire region and the world at large. Adam heeded Eve’s advice and the result was calamitous (Genesis 3: 1 – 19) but Job spurned his own wife’s advice and lived to see a better and more glorious day (Job 2: 9; 42: 10 – 17). Abraham’s enduring credentials as the father of faith may have to do; first, with his obedience to God’s command to leave his father’s house for a place God had promised to show him. That was tantamount to leaving certainty for uncertainty (Hebrews 11: 8). Secondly, his passing the test of faith to sacrifice his son unto God was the seal or icing on the cake on his relationship with God. In Nigeria of today, only politicians and people of their ilk seeking position, fame, influence, and wealth go the extra mile of sacrificing their sons and whatever to achieve their goal. Those of today make their sacrifices in search of perishable, corruptible, and finite possessions but Abraham made his for something infinite and incorruptible (Hebrews 11: 10).
What are the lessons of Ramadan for Christians and Muslims alike? Power is finite, possession is finite, position is finite, influence is finite, wealth is finite and, wait for it, life itself is finite! They are all transient! One of my favourite songs is Tracy Chapman’s “All that you have is your soul”. I reframe a portion of it here: Oh my Mama told me/Because she says she learned it the hard way/She says she wants to spare the children/She says don’t give or sell your soul/Because all that you have is your soul/So don’t be tempted by the shiny apple/Don’t you eat of a bitter fruit/Hunger only for a taste of justice/Hunger only for a word of truth/Because all that you have is your soul”. Let me add another line from Chapman that has profoundly shaped my life: “I found out the hard way one cannot possess another”. Wife cannot possess husband; husband cannot possess wife; parents cannot possess their children and children cannot possess their parents. Dictators cannot possess their country! Ultimately, no one possesses the wealth they amass. In the final analysis, no one possesses anything outside of their soul!
But many Muslims celebrating Ramadan today have sold their soul to the devil and are empty inside. Father Abraham (Ibrahim) will be ashamed of them. They only acknowledge Abraham and the God of Abraham with their mouth and with outward observances to fulfil all righteousness – but their heart is far removed from God (Isaiah 29: 13). Their conscience is seared judging by the atrocities they connive at and are complicit in. How can we have so many Muslims in positions of authority and yet there is a seamless flow of blood in all the nooks and crannies of the country? Life and living have become hellish under their watch. Cost of living has hit the rooftops. Thomas Hobbes’ state of nature has its practical manifestation in the Nigeria of today. The troublers of Nigeria as of today are Boko Haram, Fulani herdsmen, and the bandits. Pray, which religion do they profess? Are they, too, celebrating Ramadan? It is up to genuine and God-fearing Muslims to do something about those tarnishing the image of their faith. It is only then that Ramadan can be made meaningful to each and every one of us. Ramadan Kareem! Ramadan Mubarak!!