Muslims have just celebrated Eid al-Fitr, the festival that marks the end of Ramadan, the month of fasting. The month of fasting, which is demanding in itself, has been even harder this year with the current social distancing requirements. Usually the high point of each day would be gathering with family and friends to break the fast with the evening meal, known as iftar. This year these customary gatherings have not been possible in the same way as in other years, for Muslims across the world.
Religion and risk of infection
Places of worship, like other spaces where large numbers of people gather, were affected early on by the Covid-19 pandemic, and in some cases were early hotspots for spreading infection. A synagogue in New York, a church in the Philippines, and a mass religious gathering in Pakistan were all hotspots for spreading Covid-19 infection in early 2020.
In Norway, mosques were quick to shut their doors and take on an important role in efforts to stop the spread of infection by providing information and advice. Through their networks, mosques have reached out to people who were not easily reachable through the authorities’ established channels. Like for other religious leaders, the decision to ask the faithful to stay at home, away from mosques, has been difficult. In times of crisis, religious beliefs and rituals are important to many people. But the situation has demanded the opposite; not to gather, not to stand close together.
The vibrant collection of people celebrating the day after Eid al-Fitr at the Islamic Society of Western Massachusetts had to change because of the coronavirus.
This year, the mosque decided to provide food to hundreds of community members in need as the country remains in the midst of the unprecedented pandemic.
Eid al-Fitr begins on the evening of Saturday May 23 is an Islamic holiday that marks the end of Ramadan, a month-long period of fasting and deep reflection. Translated from Arabic as “the feast of the breaking of the fast”, Muslims observe the religious holiday by taking part in traditions such as holding prayer services and donating money to charity.
“We would have had a large congregational prayer at a park with probably two to three thousand people,” said Mohammed Dastigir, president of the Islamic Society of Western Massachusetts.
Dastigir told MassLive that usually the mosque would rent space in Stanley Park in Westfield or use one of the football fields at the high school.
“We usually work with the mayor (West Springfield Mayor William Reichelt) and we rent out the high school, which we obviously couldn’t do that this year. In our parking lot there’s tents and a bunch of food, like a buffet,” Dastigir said.
Faith communities around the world are leveraging tools like Zoom, Facebook Live and WhatsApp to tune in to services.
Though it’s typically a community affair, my family and I quietly welcomed Ramadan, the holy month of fasting, alone in our living room as the sun set on April 23. Instead of hearing an imam make the call to prayer, ushering in 30 days of heightened spiritual reflection, we listened as the call came in through a prayer app on our phones.
So began our journey of avoiding all food and drink, including water, during the daytime, and focusing on boosting our relationship with God through prayer and reflection.
Ramadan is different this year.
Shelter-in-place means worshipping at the mosque is out. So is inviting friends over for “iftar,” the meal that breaks the dawn-to-dusk fast. A holiday meant to bring the community together is being observed apart.
But not alone. Throughout Ramadan, Muslim religious leaders have used Instagram Live and Facebook to deliver lectures and conduct Q&As. Community centers, as well as friends, host virtual iftars on Zoom, where people share their experiences and offer religious reflections as they break the fast. Fundraisers for mosques and charities, which usually take place during the nightly communal prayers, have gone completely digital.
As the COVID-19 pandemic upends life, technology has kept communities of faith connected. Christians celebrated Easter by attending virtual services on Zoom and Facebook Live. Jews around the world attended virtual seders for Passover. Muslims have adopted the same technologies to celebrate Ramadan, which ends May 23.
Even as the COVID-19 pandemic devastates communities and causes suffering around the world, it is prayer that remains “a source of thousands of miracles,” Murabbi Mubasher Ahmad told an online audience across Maryland Saturday evening.
Ahmad, the imam of the Silver Spring-based Ahmadiyya Community USA, made the remark as part of a first-ever “virtual iftar” — a digital version of the ceremonial dinners Muslims traditionally use to break their daily fasts during the holy month of Ramadan.
Titled “The Power of Prayer During a Pandemic,” the event featured speakers representing Jewish, Christian, Hindu and Islamic communities in Maryland, each offering thoughts on the importance of prayer amid catastrophes such as the ongoing health crisis.
From Chicago to the West Bank, the coronavirus has closed mosques and altered traditions for Muslims during Islam’s holy month.
BY TASMIHA KHAN
Every year during Ramadan, Tarik Haque, a Bangladeshi army veteran who lives in Chicago, looks forward to breaking his fast at the end of the day alongside hundreds of others. He cherishes the traditions: After sunset, people standing shoulder to shoulder behind the imam for the fourth prayer of the day, known as maghrib. The mosque filling with the smell of crispy piajus (fried lentils and cilantro), fruit chat (a South Asian fruit salad), and rooh afza (an herbal drink mixed with water or milk).
The ninth and holiest month on the Muslim calendar, Ramadan is believed to be when God revealed the first verses of the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad, the central figure of Islam, the world’s second largest religion. In the U.S., 80 percent of Muslims say they fast from before dawn to dusk for the month, according to the Pew Research Center. That’s nearly double the number who say they pray five times a day or attend mosque every week during the rest of the year.
Imam Omar Suleiman is the founder and president of the Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research and an Islamic studies professor at Southern Methodist University.
For Muslims, Ramadan is a time in which we fast from God’s blessings that are readily available to us and that we often take for granted.
Among the wisdoms of fasting is that if we voluntarily abstain from food and drink, we will be able to better empathize with those who are facing hardships due to poverty.
But it is not enough to merely experience hunger for the sake of your own spiritual discipline. One must also be activated toward fighting collective hunger. The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said, “He is not a believer who sleeps with his stomach filled while his neighbor goes to bed hungry.” If a person cannot fast due to a permanent medical condition, they are to feed a poor person for every day they miss. And before the community gathers at the end of the month to feast on the day of Eid, each able person is obligated to provide what is called Zakat al-Fitr, a small charitable donation that is taken a few days before the Eid to ensure that the poor are able to feast as well.
Every night in Ramadan, in normal times, mosques around the world host charity representatives who fundraise between prayers. In 2004, I was sitting in my mosque in New Orleans and the representative that night was raising funds to build water wells in Somalia. He broke down in tears as he recalled the story of a woman he had met. In Islam, a person should break their fast even with a sip of water as soon as the sun sets. She asked him whether God would forgive her for not having anything to break her fast with during Ramadan. Moved by the woman’s concern to maintain faith as she fought off hunger, the speaker implored us to imagine being in her shoes. Though his emotion touched the audience, none of us could really relate to the experience.
A year later, Hurricane Katrina hit our community in New Orleans. A 61-year-old convert to Islam who lost everything that year confessed to me in a shelter with tears in his eyes that he got so hungry one night that he dug through his suitcase only to find a container of years-old lard from his cupboard to break his fast with. He laughed and recalled the Somali woman. He never thought he would be in a situation like hers.
That’s why the Muslim community in Dearborn, Michigan, decided to start a new tradition this year, one that could be done while still abiding by social distancing guidelines.
The community is hosting a Ramadan lights competition in hopes of spreading joy and bringing back some of the holiday spirit.
While many Muslims decorate their homes during the month, a similar tradition to hanging Christmas lights, this year, the Dearborn community has turned the custom into a challenge.
Residents are invited to nominate their own houses, or their neighbor’s, by sharing their address and a photo of their decorated home by May 11. The photos will be shared on social media and the public can vote on their 10 favorite houses from each district. Judges will then pick the best lit-up homes in the city.
Documentary filmmaker Razi Jafri, who works for the Center for Arab American Studies at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, launched the challenge in collaboration with the Michigan Muslim Community Council and the city’s annual Ramadan Suhoor Festival.
The competition is also a part of Halal Metropolis, a project Jafri works on at the center to document the lives of Muslims in Southeast Michigan.
“This will help raise spirits by providing a positive, pro-social project for the community to get involved with,” Jafri told CNN. “It’s amazing because both Muslims and non-Muslims in the community are getting so excited about it. There’s been so much positive energy that has come out of this already. “
As the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims begin observing the holy month of Ramadan, traditionally a time of dawn-to-dusk fasting, festivities and communal prayer, an unprecedented global pandemic is changing the celebration this year in equally unprecedented ways.
Mosques usually brimming with the faithful during Ramadan are closed, including in Saudi Arabia, home to Mecca and Medina, the holiest cities in Islam. The kingdom has some 14,000 confirmed cases, with more than 120 deaths from COVID-19, according to a tally kept by Johns Hopkins University.
Ramadan, the month that Muslims believe God revealed the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad, officially begins at the first sighting of the waxing crescent after the new moon, leading to different countries declaring its start a day or two apart.
In Saudi Arabia, the start of the holy month began Friday. In Egypt, it began Thursday. And in Iran, Ramadan begins Saturday.
In a statement, Saudi King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud lamented the necessity to maintain social distancing to halt the spread of the novel coronavirus and the damper it would place on this year’s celebrations.
Shaista Shiraz, 34, doesn’t have many friends in Westchester county, north of Manhattan. She left her hometown of Atlanta, Georgia, five years ago after her divorce to settle in New York, the only other place she had family.
Between settling in a new city and raising her two children, Shiraz didn’t have many friends. During Ramadan, the lack of companionship always hit the hardest. This year will be even more difficult for her.
With Ramadan starting on 23 April, Muslims around the world will refrain from food and drink every day from sunrise to sunset during the holiest month in Islam. But this year, Covid-19 will rob millions of Muslims across the US from congregating for prayers, iftar and other Ramadan customs.
Mosques don’t just host daily free iftar (the meal eaten after sunset). They host fundraisers, mixers and lectures, all an integral part of the celebration. Following most iftars, Muslims go to the mosque for a communal prayer that can only be done during Ramadan, tarawih.
This year, Muslims will have to go the virtual route.
‘It is a test from God and we have a lot of lessons to learn’
The Islamic Center of Central Missouri hosts upwards of 1,000 people at its weekly Friday service. Now, only 20 to 40 people are logging in to online events. Mosque leaders hope the turnout will increase as Ramadan starts
The coronavirus pandemic is affecting all three of the world’s major religions.
Easter and Passover gatherings for Christians and Jews were curtailed last week. This coming week, it will impact Muslims as they enter of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan beginning Thursday.
Ramadan is a month of fasting, of charity and of prayer, but it also is a time when friends and family break the fast together.
Imam Dawud Walid, executive director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Michigan, told ABC News that “People should take proper precautions, but don’t fall into despair. We look at these times as a test that comes from God, and with proper precautions and patience, we can get out of this.”
Dr. Shahid Babar, chief of the Division of General Internal Medicaine at Lancaster General Hospital, has urged Muslims to remain at home, wash their hands and practice patience.
“Islam teaches us to take reasonable precautions when such epidemics occur,” he said. “Legal and health officials asked us to stop all gatherings.”
That includes Ramadan. Typically Muslims break their fast with extended family and friends and attend services together. Those events, Babar said, cannot and should not be held while the virus threat continues.
He urged fellow Muslims in the Lancaster area to follow the guidelines put in place by the Centers for Disease Control and by Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf.