(CNN) Thursday marks the start of the holy month of Ramadan for many Muslims.But with so many places of worship closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, the holiday will be a bit different this year.Here’s a look at what traditions will remain in place, and how others might change.
How it’s normally celebrated
Ramadan starts on the evening of April 23 and culminates on May 23. Over the 30-day period, Muslims fast during the daylight hours, a practice that is seen as one of the five pillars of Islam. They can eat before sunrise, and break their fast after dusk each day.Muslims believe their Holy Book, the Quran, was revealed to the Prophet Mohammed during this holy month. Besides abstinence from food and water, Muslims are asked to abstain from sexual intercourse as well.During the month, Muslims also try to practice “zakat,” or charity, another one of the five pillars of Islam.According to a 2017 survey published by the Pew Research Center, 80% of American Muslims observe the holy month by fasting.The Arabic etymology of Ramadan references extreme heat. Fasting therefore becomes the spiritual process of burning away sin with good deeds. During Ramadan, two main meals are served to begin and end the daytime fast. “Suhoor” is served and eaten before dawn, and “iftar,” is served and eaten after sunset. Typically, these meals are enjoyed in group gatherings among family and friends.
Ramadan in the age of coronavirus
Islamic holy sites, including Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia and Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, will be empty during Ramadan after authorities advised worshipers to pray at home.The Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem — Islam’s third holiest place — will also remain closed during Ramadan, the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf Council said Thursday.For Muslims, a big part of the holy month consists of special night prayers called “taraweeh,”which are held daily at the mosque and performed by the imam, the mosque’s prayer leader.Historically speaking, mosques are packed with worshipers during the month of Ramadan, said Imam Omar Suleiman, the founder and president of the Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research.But, Suleiman said the night prayer can be performed at the mosque or at home, there’s no difference in the validity between the two.During this time, when people are self quarantining at home to avoid spreading the coronavirus, Suleiman said he wants to encourage Muslims to focus on individual prayer habits and turn isolation into inner peace.”When you tell people, it’s actually good for you to learn individual prayer habits right now, people have a hard time making the connection because they’re so used to praying at the mosque,” Suleiman, who is an adjunct professor of Islamic studies at Southern Methodist University, told CNN.Still, Suleiman said he does worry that the shift to temporary virtual worship could lead to an eventual lack of interest for in-person prayer. He said he’s concerned that when Muslims are able to ditch their screens and return to mosques, they won’t want to.
“There’s something about embrace and praying together and being together and upholding traditional ritualistic forms of worship,” he said. “And I don’t want to lose that because we’re feeling down about being quarantined this Ramadan. I don’t want us to do something that’s going to harm the trajectory later on.”
The last day
Eid al-Fitr, the last of day of Ramadan, is considered one of the most important days for Muslims. The holiday is known as the “festival of breaking the fast.”During the day, Muslims gather in large open spaces or mosques for special prayers, called Salat al-Eid, which are usually followed by a small breakfast — their first daytime meal in a month.Gifts are typically exchanged and almsgiving is also a common practice. Another custom involves donning new clothes for the day, which marks a spiritual renewal.Food is an important part of Eid al-Fitr, as feasting takes the place of fasting with community members, family and friends.Hind Makki, a Chicago-based interfaith educator at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, told CNN she sees this Ramadan as a good time for self-reflection, despite Ramadan being a solely communal experience.
“We can also return to the idea that Ramadan is a spiritual retreat,” she said. “And since we’re all in our homes, most of us, we don’t always have to be online,” she said.Still, Makki said she plans on attending some virtual iftars. She said at least that will provide her with an opportunity to interact with others when breaking her fast in the evening.
CNN’s Ryan Prior and Doug Criss, Mostafa Salem and Hamdi Alkhshali contributed to this report