By Matthew Brown, 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.