Remote Ramadan: How pandemic alters month of fasting, philanthropy

Why We Wrote This

Outwardly, at least, Ramadan this year is unrecognizable to the world’s Muslims. Yet, as a South African teacher tells the Monitor, the coronavirus lockdown has drawn into focus what is important about the holy month.

Raneen Sawafta/Reuters
A Palestinian Musharati wearing a mask beats a drum to wake Muslims to have the predawn meal before they start their daylong fast, as they observe the holy month of Ramadan in Nablus, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, April 28, 2020.

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The images across the Muslim world are startling this Ramadan: Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem’s Al Aqsa Mosque, the three holiest sites in Islam, are empty. Cosmopolitan Arab cities like Cairo have lost their late-night bustle.

Shuttered mosques, separated families, and muted festivities: The Muslim world has never seen a Ramadan like this in over 1,300 years as followers mark a holy month defined by community and charity in self-isolation.

But amid the coronavirus lockdowns, Muslims are adapting to not only observe but amplify the pillars of a month of fasting, prayer, and giving.

Mariam Adams, a high school teacher in Cape Town, South Africa, says what is important about Ramadan has not been lost. “Even under lockdown, charity is still possible,” she says. Instead of baking treats for her neighbors, this year she says she will use her savings to donate more to local Muslim charities that are assisting South Africans who have lost their income.

“Of course, you miss the warmth of seeing people and spending time together,” she says. “But I think there will also be a lot more giving.”

For Jordanian lawyer Abu Jihad, this marks the first Ramadan that he will not share the sunset fast-breaking meal of iftar with his 72-year-old mother, who lives five miles away on the other side of Amman.

As sunset approaches, Abu Jihad and his family video-chat and send his mother photos of their tables set for the nightly meals. And as soon as he breaks his fast, he is on the phone with his mother and brothers.

“If we cannot break bread physically, we can still reach out and connect verbally,” he says, noting that he now makes 10 to 20 phone calls between sunset and midnight each evening.

Shuttered mosques, separated families, and muted festivities – the Muslim world has never seen a Ramadan like this in over 1,300 years as followers mark a holy month defined by community and charity in self-isolation.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

But amid COVID-19 lockdowns from South Africa to Afghanistan, Chicago to Cairo, Muslims are adapting to not only observe but amplify the pillars of a month of fasting, prayer, and giving.

Iftar from afar

One of the largest changes for the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims is to iftar.

Extended families, friends, neighbors, and even complete strangers normally gather for iftar for 30 nights, as Muslims revel in each other’s company in a spiritual social season. But not this year.

Post-iftar gatherings, when families and friends sit for tea, coffee, and snacks late into the night, have now evolved to evening phone calls and Facebook live-streams of living-room debates and impromptu dessert-making.

Yet sharing is still possible.         

Shortly before sunset, wearing gloves and a mask, Amira Nedal places a platter of spicy rice and chicken kabseh on the floor of the elevator of her Amman apartment building and sends it up to her fourth-floor neighbor.

Within minutes the elevator returns with a bowl of her neighbor’s famous lentil soup.

“We can still share iftar if we cannot share a room,” Ms. Nedal says.

“Ramadan was usually time for people to be closer to each other. This is a very different Ramadan,” says Mojtaba Mousavi, a Tehran journalist who methodically washes packaged sweets he orders via an app to remove any virus traces.

This year, rather than frequenting shops or souks, Iranians are ordering homemade holiday staples of zoolbiya – saffron-infused curls of sugar-syrup-encrusted dough – and bamiya dough balls via an app and brought by gloved deliverymen.

Quieted Cairo

Arab cities have lost their late-night bustle. There is a Ramadan-shaped hole in Cairo, where the month is normally celebrated with a nighttime festival of lights, lanterns, colorful tents, music, and food amid packed street markets.

This year, mosques and homes remain lit and colorful banners hang between Cairo streets. But without people, residents say it is not the same.

Akbar Tado/Antara Foto/Reuters
A man reads the Quran inside a mosque as the holy month of Ramadan is observed amid the coronavirus outbreak, in Mamuju, West Sulawesi province, Indonesia, April 24, 2020.

“We can see the lights, we can cook the food, but we cannot actually live or taste the Ramadan experience,” says Shareef Fadl, a Cairo business-owner, who watches Ramadan lights from his apartment balcony. “It is as if we are watching a play without any actors.”

Instead, some Cairo residents have decided to hold mini concerts, playing music and even religious songs from their balconies to their neighborhoods.

‘Pray at home’ orders

The images are startling: Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem’s Al Aqsa Mosque, the three holiest sites in Islam, are empty. In Iran, the famous Quranic reading gatherings in the holy cities of Qom and Mashhad, a staple of the holy month, have been canceled.

But one of the biggest losses for Muslim communities is the shuttering of local mosques and the banning of public tarawih prayers, the communal late-night prayers held each night of Ramadan.

Arab states, Israel, and Turkey have issued nighttime curfews starting before or just after sunset to prevent citizens from forming their own public late night tarawih prayers, gatherings that could reach the hundreds to thousands.

Clerics in Egypt and Saudi Arabia have issued fatwas declaring that prayers via Skype or other online platforms are invalid communal prayers. Instead, their solution is simple: pray at home with loved ones.

In Iran, one of the countries hardest hit by COVID-19, religious services, prayers, speeches, and Quranic recitations are placed on live feeds via social media. Even Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, held his annual Quranic recitation via video conference.

“It has become normal today to be invited to a live Instagram religious ceremony,” says Mr. Mousavi, the Iranian journalist.

Across the Muslim and Arab world, soulful Quranic recitations and tarawih prayers from mosques that would ring throughout the night air like a spiritual soundtrack are absent.

Charity amid uncertainty

The coronavirus has disrupted another basic pillar of Ramadan: charity.

With markets and mosques closed and social distancing costing many people their jobs, Afghans who normally scrape by through manual labor are in even more dire straits.

While charitable organizations step up efforts and Afghans abroad send money for relief efforts back home, Kabul residents roam their neighborhoods before sunset and pass out meals of meat and rice to the growing number of Afghans being pushed below the poverty level.

“The Afghan government, social media, religious people, and clerics emphasize charity and encourage people to give,” says Hidayatullah Noorzai, head of a Kabul-based NGO Afghanistan Social Growth, which focuses on literacy and women’s and children’s rights. “Everyone is trying to share their food with the poorest.”

For Nigerian conservationist Tijjani Ahmed, Ramadan was always synonymous with giving. As a broke college student three decades ago, he would rely on his neighbors’ generosity for iftar meals.

Now head of veterinary education at the Maiduguri zoo, he in normal years invites his neighbors and extended family to iftars and delivers boxes of meals to his mosque for the less fortunate in his neighborhood.

“In sharing what I have during Ramadan, I feel more like a human being,” Dr. Ahmed says.

Yet there will be no big gatherings of family and friends or food drops at the mosque this Ramadan as Mr. Ahmed enters his first full week living under a lockdown.

“We share what we have during Ramadan, because that’s what’s in the interest of our collective humanity,” he says. “But this year, what is in the interest of our collective humanity is also staying at home to stop this virus.” 

At the other end of the continent, South African Muslims began Ramadan as the country’s strict lockdown entered its fifth week, forgoing pastimes such as smoking shisha and eating dates in the tiny cafes that dot Johannesburg’s Fordsburg neighborhood or strolling door-to-door in Cape Town with plates of samosas and vetkoek – savory donuts – to share with their neighbors.

Mariam Adams, a Cape Town high school teacher, says Ramadan under lockdown has drawn into focus what is important about the holiday.

“Even under lockdown, charity is still possible,” Ms. Adams says.

Instead of baking treats for her neighbors, this year she says she will use her savings to donate more to local Muslim charities that are assisting South Africans who have lost their income.

“Of course, you miss the warmth of seeing people and spending time together,” she says. “The social part is quieter, but I think there will also be a lot more giving.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

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