Last Ramadan, Asad Dandia broke his fast surrounded by friends, old and new, at the Islamic Center at New York University, a major community center that he’s been a part of for many years. As they broke their fast at sunset, Muslims from varying communities bonded over their shared meals.
“I use ‘communities’ in the plural because Muslims of New York come from all national, ethnic, social, and denominational backgrounds, and I consider myself blessed to be part of so many,” Dandia, a Brooklyn-born graduate student, told me.
But with most countries still in varying degrees of lockdown due to the coronavirus, Dandia and many other Muslims around the world will see a starkly different Ramadan this year. “With the ongoing pandemic, Ramadan won’t be the same. A lot of community activities will probably be curtailed, but the show must go on,” said Dandia.
The Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins this year on the evening of April 23, marks the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar. Muslims believe that during this month, the Quran — the Muslim holy book — was initially revealed to the Prophet Mohammed, and fasting during this month is one of the five “pillars” or core requirements of the Islamic faith.
During this month, from dawn until sunset, Muslims are expected to abstain from food, water, and any activity that is deemed sinful. People also tend to increase their spiritual activities, such as charity-giving, prayer, and the recitation of the Quran.
However, because of the worldwide instruction for people to stay at home to flatten the curve and to reduce the spread of Covid-19, many traditional activities during this month that involve group events and communal worship will not be able to take place or will have to take different forms, including moving online. Mosques around the world have closed in order to curb the further spread of the disease.
“If, God forbid, the pandemic continues during Ramadan, Muslims will not be able to pray Taraweeh [the nightly prayer during Ramadan] in the mosques,” Hassan Fawzy, an Islamic studies scholar who previously taught at Qatar University, told me. “Socially, people will be deprived of traditions like swapping dishes between community members, or hosting and attending any community gatherings,” he says, which are major aspects of Ramadan that have been practiced for more than 1,000 years.
Fawzy told me that, as far as he knows, it is unknown whether Islamic religious activities were ever affected this way in the past. “We do know that there have been major pandemics in the past, such as the Plague. However, we do not know what Islamic scholars or scientists did during that time in terms of managing group religious obligations such as prayer and worship,” Fawzy said.
“The mosques will be sad and thus our hearts will also be sad”
With Ramadan just around the corner, Muslims from the United States to Malaysia to the Gaza Strip are preparing for a dramatic shift in their normal Ramadan practices and activities.
In New York, the current epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the US, Asad Dandia told me that annual activities such as social justice campaigns and other community programs in which he usually partakes will likely get canceled due to the pandemic.
“I always look forward to getting involved in these activities because I don’t think we can separate our personal spiritual development from being present among people and working to uplift them,” he told me. But this year, continuing these activities from afar may prove challenging and force Muslims to find new ways to maintain that sense of community.
In Kuala Lumpur, Faizal Hamssin reminisced about the sense of community that comes with Ramadan. “The Iftar feasts [breaking the daily fast] in Malaysia tend to be inclusive, in the way that it also includes friends who are of different religious backgrounds, eating together and enjoying each other’s company,” he told me. “During the second half of Ramadan, the bazaars and local vendors selling traditional Eid attires are usually very busy, it’s the best time to look for good once-in-a-year bargains.”
Recalling last year’s busy Ramadan festivities, Hamssin said he expects Ramadan will change this year. “There won’t be any Ramadan bazaars in most parts of the country this year, and if the Movement Control Order continues throughout Ramadan, there also won’t be any Taraweeh congregation prayers this year,” he said.
In the Gaza Strip, where a years-long Israeli blockade has left Palestinians who live there with scant access to medical supplies and aid, daily survival is already a struggle. Aya Saleem, a humanitarian and philanthropic activist in Gaza, told me that Ramadan usually brings joy to the people of Gaza as they begin preparing for a month of charity, family, and worship.
“But in 2020, because of the coronavirus, this will change. We won’t be able to pray Taraweeh in the mosque in fear of further spreading the virus. The mosques will be sad and thus our hearts will also be sad,” Saleem said. “We won’t be able to visit or host our families and friends, everything will be very difficult.”
“Perhaps the pandemic will bring us together in new ways we hadn’t considered before”
Although both religious and social group activities that occur every Ramadan will likely not exist this year, Fawzy, the Islamic studies scholar, says that doesn’t necessarily mean people can’t attain the same level of spiritual fulfillment they ordinarily would.
For instance, Taraweeh, he said, can be prayed at home. “Praying Taraweeh in a group inside a mosque is not obligatory; the Prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him, used to pray it individually.”
Fawzy suggests a different method of prayer for Muslim families. “A good alternative would be for families to create their own at-home prayer program. Fathers could, for example, lead the prayer at home — or even his kids if they’re old and capable enough.”
But a worry remains: Muslims, especially converts, who may not be surrounded by people who fast at home and therefore rely more heavily on community activities to get them through the month, will likely feel a sense of loss this year.
Dandia said that although that’ll likely be the case, there might be a silver lining: “As a community, we’ll be more conscious and intentional about how we serve our people. We’ll have to rethink what it means to remember and center the voices of those in our communities who’ve been pushed to the margins, who may not have Muslim families or a community to break fast with.
“Perhaps the pandemic will bring us together in new ways we hadn’t considered before,” Dandia said.