Hajjar Ahmed’s lofty goals this Ramadan include reading the Qur’an multiple times, joining virtual Iftar meals to break the fast, and engaging in online discussions with people from around the world. She also will volunteer with the Department of Family Services in her county.
At a time of uncertainty and when many are sheltered in place due to the coronavirus pandemic, Ahmed, a project manager who lives in Northern Virginia, is choosing to be optimistic during Ramadan, a month-long celebration traditionally met with anticipation and excitement by the Muslim community. This year many Muslims like Ahmed are finding a sense of community through technology.
“One of the greatest opportunities that’s going to be coming out of Ramadan 2020,” Ahmed said, “is that we get to celebrate in real time virtually with Muslims all over the world, so we’re not just participating and interacting with our family and friends in our local communities.”
Ahmed’s not alone in approaching this Ramadan, which began Thursday night, with hope. Osman Umarji, the director of survey research and evaluation at the Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research, cites a survey of 440 Muslims he conducted that found more than 60% say this will be a better Ramadan than last year.
Through his research, Umarji discovered many Muslims are more optimistic because they are actively seeking out the good in a difficult situation. He says there’s a connection to why many Muslim non-profit organizations nationally have surged in productivity, with many providing Zoom chats and webinars on a variety of topics.
“There’s people providing real life guidance on a day-to-day basis as this is unfolding in real time,” he said. “Being able to log on to the internet and get scholars to give answers we’re looking for, I think it’s been really a game changer.”
Easter and Passover were spent in isolation this year, with people tuning in to live-stream services and Zoom Seders, trying to find a virtual way to still celebrate.
In a similar way, Muslims are finding new ways to maintain the community connection they crave during this holy month, when gathering to pray together is as enjoyable as breaking bread on the same tables during the only two meals they can have.
Coronavirus, as it has with other holidays, is uprooting a lot of what makes Ramadan special.
Mosques closed their doors when the pandemic escalated, with the usual Friday prayers, Jummah, no longer taking place. This means the Ramadan prayers, called Taraweeh, often done in large congregation, are also canceled.
What is Ramadan?
Ramadan is a holiday with 29 to 30 days of fasting from sunrise to sunset. Muslims refrain from all food and drink during that time, and it is meant to be used as a month of spiritual reflection, fulfillment and reaffirming of faith through prayer and supplication.
It is also a time when Muslims come together for community service, large nightly group prayers at local mosques, and parties around Iftar, which is the main meal of the fasting day, occurring at sunset.
Ramadan, in the Islamic calendar, is the month when Muslims believe the Qur’an, the Islamic holy book, was handed down to the Prophet Muhammad. Reading and gaining a better understanding of the Qur’an is emphasized.
Islamic organizations open up virtual spaces
With mosques having to close their doors, many Islamic institutions and foundations have opened up more virtual spaces to help Muslims navigate these times, especially during Ramadan.
The Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research, a non-profit based in Irving, Texas, offers virtual spaces for learning and community, including extensive online classrooms and lectures. Along with the academic and worship programming, Omar Suleiman, founder and president of Yaqeen, said the group also holds weekly webinars addressing anxiety and spirituality, mental health, family relationships and individual growth, and guidance on how to manage communities while mosques are closed.
Leaders at Yaqeen and Center DC, a faith-based organization based in Washington D.C., want to help facilitate a sense of community and togetherness during Ramadan.
During normal times, Center DC’s Iftar League has volunteers host a themed Iftar each week, opening their homes to anyone who wants to join, said Lauren Schreiber, co-founder and executive director. Because of social distancing, the program is being shifted to Zoom breakout rooms, and a similar Zoom will open for Suhoor, the pre-dawn meal Muslims have before beginning their fast.
“A big part of the way people connect during Ramadan is by serving each other and doing good deeds,” Schreiber said. “But if everybody’s pent up in their house, we have to try and reimagine what that looks like.”
How some Muslims are making the most of it
Going out of your comfort zone and engaging with others virtually is especially important this year, said Najwa Awad. A mental health professional who lives in Clarksville, Maryland, Awad said building a social and spiritual connection online may be beneficial while we are staying inside, since isolation can sometimes lead to anxiety and depression.
For Awad, keeping the spirit up is essential, especially for her children. She doesn’t want to lose sight of celebrating such a major holiday, even if it must be done from the confines of home. For her, this means having family activities, such as buying gifts and finding ways to connect with extended family digitally.
Sarah Sultan, a mother of two children living in Houston, Texas, said this Ramadan she hopes to engage in more learning about Islam with her children and helping them to build a stronger relationship with God.
Sultan said the slowed-down pace of quarantine gives her family a chance to do more activities together, such as decorating their home with lights and baking Ramadan cookies.
Regardless, Sultan will miss the communal part of Ramadan, especially breaking the fast with extended family and friends.
“There’s something special about people gathering around food, that’s across cultures and across religions,” she said. “I think a lot of times people convey love through food. And so I think that’s a big part of why we’re going to be missing it so much.”
Finding peace in isolation
While social connection is often a cornerstone of Ramadan, others are striving to find peace in their isolation to experience personal spiritual growth.
Manal Moazzam, interim editor-in-chief of MuslimGirl.com and based in San Francisco, California, said she considers Ramadan a time for people to consciously check themselves and their habits and try to maintain discipline and patience. While she understands that community worship is a major aspect of Ramadan, Moazzam looks at the pandemic as a test of endurance.
“At the end of the day, as Muslims we believe that when we meet our Maker, we will be answerable for our own actions, and as such, perhaps we need to take this time to worship on our own, as individuals,” she said.
During isolation, Sultan, a licensed mental health counselor, encourages compassion for oneself. The pressure to fulfill Ramadan goals toward spiritual growth can be overwhelming, she said. Sometimes doing just enough is more than enough.
“First we need to accept that this is going to be different … and then picking very small, manageable goals,” Sultan said. “That will enrich our experience rather than making us feel guilty for not being able to accomplish them.”
Suleiman, who is also an Islamic scholar, said Muslims looking at the pandemic as a challenge to overcome and gain valuable habits from can benefit in the long run. He said it’s important to acknowledge that solitude can be a blessing.
“Faith and solitude is far more powerful and transformative than faith and community, and the individual life,” he said. “So, take it as a gift from (God) that you know we have a chance to really really get something valuable out of this Ramadan.”
And just because many are losing a physical community presence, it does not mean the community is any weaker. If anything, it will get stronger.
“People are so resilient.” Schreiber said. “Yes people are stressed out, but for a faithful community, we’re going to get through this and there’s some learning, there’s some benefit in it, and hearing that reminder from community members makes me feel more fortified because everybody’s going through the same thing, and people are persevering.”