This year, the holy months of Ramadan and Elul begin on the same day, this Friday, September 21. Muslims will fast for thirty days and, every evening, break the fast with a joyous meal with family and friends. During the course of this month, pious Muslims will read the entire Qur’an–a short book, about the length of the New Testament–pray for guidance, and purify their minds through self-restraint.This is a holy month, not least because the Qur’an is believed to have been revealed to Muhammad during one of the last ten days of Ramadan. If you have never observed Ramadan or never been lucky enough to have been invited to an iftar, a breaking of the fast, you can get a glimpse in a day-by-day blog on Ramadan on Beliefnet.
For Jews, too, the upcoming month of Elul brings a time of reflection and preparation for the new year and for Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, the Day of Atonement. The Talmud explains that the Hebrew word “Elul” is an acronym standing in for “Ani L’dodi V’dodi Li” (I am to my Beloved and my Beloved is to me) of recent Victoria Beckham fame. A popular motto for weddings for obvious reasons, ani l’dodi stresses the relationship between the individuum and the divine. Elul is a time of intense chashbon nefesh, taking account of one’s deeds.
Having returned from Jerusalem just a few days ago, where the divisions between Jews and Muslims are particularly glaring, I remember that Muslim tradition holds that the holiday was reportedly established when Muhammad and his followers arrived in Medina, in 622 and fasted on the same day as the Jews, namely Yom Kippur or Ashura, as it was then called and prayed in the same direction, Jerusalem. It was only later, in the Medinan period, that these key practices changed. Ramadan replaced Ashura and Mecca became the direction of prayer. Usually, this development is interpreted as a break with Judaism and the beginning of Islam as a religion in its own right.
Whether one follows this theory or accepts the parallels in observance, it is today easy to forget how close Judaism and Islam in fact are, in spite of all their obvious differences: both are strictly monotheistic, cherish the text and its interpretation, are governed by religious laws, follow similar dietary laws etc.
Ramadan mubarak & May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year.