Texas Monthly: “Texas Muslims Prepare for a Remote Ramadan”
April 24, 2020
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Masjid al-Islam, the oldest mosque in Dallas, has always been a bedrock in its community. In the mosque’s early days as the Nation of Islam’s temple number 48, it was a symbol of black nationalism and independence from segregated society. Half a century later, as the surrounding streets rapidly gentrify, the Sunni mosque now provides more than 15,000 meals to the homeless or those in need in the neighborhood every year, regardless of their religion. Board members are also certified to assist in filling out paperwork for food stamps and Medicaid.
“If we don’t do this, no one else will,” says Amir Makin, the chairman of the mosque’s board. “We have always risen to the occasion, and taken the lemons to make a sweet lemonade—but one of our strengthening bonds is being able to be together and create community.”
But now, as the coronavirus continues to spread across Texas, the doors at the mosque are locked—as they will be when Ramadan, the holiest month of the Islamic calendar, begins Friday. Dallas County’s initial stay-at-home order in late March mandated virtual services at the mosque, but Governor Greg Abbott’s statewide “stay at home” executive order a week later provided an exemption for religious services and houses of worship. But the board at Masjid al-Islam realized that there are far too many variables, and too much risk, in opening the mosque’s doors and filling the prayer halls with congregants. The five daily prayers are no longer being held in congregation, and the mosque’s food service has shifted to a drop-off system. Even if mandatory closures across the state and county lift soon, the mosque will likely choose to remain closed.
It’s a difficult decision to make, just a few days ahead of Ramadan. As COVID-19 shuts down many sectors of the state, imams across Texas are preparing to move sermons and lectures online, and will continue to administer counseling and other services virtually. But in the Islamic tradition, there is no replacement for in-person prayers in congregation. Though fasting from sunrise till sunset is an intensely individual act of worship, for many Muslims the holy month is defined by its communal aspects. “It seems almost impossible to have the same vibe and spiritual connection,” Saad Obaid, who leads prayers at the Islamic Association of Collin County during Ramadan, says. “It’s a big test, but I don’t think that Ramadan is ruined.”
During a typical Ramadan, every night after fast is broken, mosques are packed with worshippers attending an extra, twenty-unit prayer held in congregation, called taraweeh. The prayers are led by a reciter who’s spent months preparing by mastering not just memorization but the pacing and inflection of the holy book as well. One chapter of the Quran is recited over the course of the prayer so that by the end of the month, the whole book has been read aloud.
During the last ten nights of the month, prayers can extend until dawn. For many communities, Ramadan is one of the only times of the year that mosques spill over with people: men and women, young and old, new faces and familiar, worshipping in the prayer halls and classrooms, on the basketball court, or in any free corner of the masjid.
One of the hardest things for mosques to re-create digitally will be the camaraderie over shared worship and meals.
Syeda Sabeera, a 28-year-old Austin resident, says this will be her first Ramadan in a decade without attending prayers at a mosque. It’ll also be her first in so many years without breaking fast at a friend’s house or at mosques on the weekends.
“When I first moved here [from Pakistan], going to the North Austin Muslim Community Center during Ramadan was how I made friends,” Sabeera says. Though she’s planning on praying at home, she knows it won’t be the same. There’s a sense of calm that she feels in the mosque during the holy month that’s hard to find any other time of the year. And there’s also comfort in familiar faces, and a safe space at the end of a fifteen-hour fast.
Some of my own earliest memories of Ramadan are from years before I was old enough to fast: my sister and I would go to the mosque in Plano with my parents, bringing blankets and pillows. We’d pile in the back of the prayer hall as the imam’s recitation of Quran lulled us to sleep. As a teenager and, later, a college student, praying regularly at a mosque during Ramadan, surrounded by hundreds of people doing the same thing, was a way of reestablishing a spiritual connection that I had let lapse through the previous months.
This year would have been my first Ramadan in Austin: a chance to see what the Muslim community looks like at its busiest, most fulfilling time, and to share the experience with new friends in a city that I’m still learning to call home.
Now, I suspect that what I’ll miss the most isn’t the sense of calm and spiritual stillness I crave during Ramadan. It’s the noise: children running around before they get tired out, the booming voices of men in the tiled foyer of the mosque, the chatter of women in the carpeted prayer halls, the board member over the speaker system letting everyone know that the silver Toyota parked illegally will be towed. And, most of all, the tranquil call to prayer, or adhan, in Arabic that gently brings everyone back to a reflective silence. In recent weeks across the world, the call has been modified so that a line that translates to “come to prayers” now says “pray in your homes.”
This Ramadan was going to be Obaid’s last one leading taraweeh prayers at the mosque he grew up going to in Collin County, since he’s planning to attend graduate school in a different city in the fall. Leading prayers can be a stressful task, and is a responsibility that he takes seriously. He’d already started preparing in January, two months before the Islamic Center of Collin County made the decision to close its doors. “This mosque has always been a second home to me,” he says. “I grew up here, going to Sunday school and [Quran classes]—I spent my whole childhood here. It took a few weeks to get used to the mosque being closed.”
Obaid will still lead the prayers at home with his family. Normally, he’d have to rush to the mosque shortly after breaking fast, but praying at home gives him the chance to spend more time with his loved ones during the holy month, and a chance for quiet evenings spent in reflection.
The Islamic Center of San Antonio was one of the few mosques in Texas that initially kept its doors open during the COVID-19 pandemic. The imam would lead prayer at the mosque five times a day, and a handful of people would still show up to pray in congregation, though they had been advised not to by the mosque’s board. They brought their own prayer mats to lay over the carpeted floor of the prayer hall, and no longer stood shoulder to shoulder when they formed rows behind the imam facing northeast.
When I spoke to Mike Martin, a member of the mosque’s board, in early April, he was cautiously optimistic that the mosque could remain open through Ramadan, though certainly not packed with worshippers like usual. But four days before Ramadan, the mosque closed completely, and its president, Suleiman Hamideh, advised congregants to pray at home. “Brothers and sisters, this is God’s will,” Hamideh said in a video posted online. “This is for our own good.”
In other communities, the loss of a physical gathering place will be felt acutely. In Lubbock, Imam Samer Altabaa is adjusting to the need to be online and on social media more often now to attend to the city’s small, close-knit community. “We don’t have a big community like in Houston or Dallas,” he says. “Everyone knows everyone. People can’t believe that this is the situation, when we used to see each other every day.” He’s turned to Facebook Live and WhatsApp to help fulfill his duties in the era of social distancing, and plans to offer sermons in the evenings during Ramadan as well, for community members to tune into after they complete their prayers at home.
Another important aspect of Ramadan affected by the pandemic is charity. During the holy month, Muslims are encouraged to increase their charitable contributions, and many take the opportunity to pay zakat, an annual 2.5 percent wealth tax that forms one of the core tenants of the faith. In affluent suburban communities, representatives from various nonprofits get a few minutes between prayers to pitch their cause and collect funds. This Ramadan, Masjid al-Islam was seeking to complete its $2.2 million fundraiser for a new facility in South Dallas. The fundraiser is about halfway there, but the pandemic has slowed the pace of donations. Even so, Makin is hopeful that the spirit of generosity will translate digitally, too.
For community leaders throughout Texas who have seen their roles change dramatically in the past few weeks, there’s now an opportunity, and a challenge, to inspire the best in their congregation from afar. “I keep thinking that the prophet of God was sent as a mercy to this world,” Suleiman tells me over the phone, as he delivers food for refugee families in the Dallas area. “There’s a saying that in Ramadan he was more generous than the blowing wind—you can be there for those who don’t have anyone else, for the elderly and the disabled, those living paycheck to paycheck, or the homeless.”
And while many Texans have never found themselves in this situation before, it’s not all uncharted waters. Suleiman was an imam in Louisiana during Hurricane Katrina, which shut down the entire city of New Orleans for months. “A lot of people are asking me, ‘Why is this happening?’” Suleiman says. “It seems like an apocalyptic moment. But God doesn’t take away one opportunity for worship without giving you another.”