This Ramadan was supposed to be a special one for Ameen Dalal. The 12-year-old’s parents finally planned to let him fast for the full 29 days, instead of a week or two at a time. Their decision to include him in the fast, which most children don’t begin until they have hit puberty, would bring him a step closer to adulthood.
Then mosques began to close in Forida, United States, amid the coronavirus pandemic. Ameen – along with millions of Muslims across the globe – soon realised that celebrating the month-long holiday that commemorates Allah revealing the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad would take a different tone.
“I was a little bit sad, ” said Ameen, later listing group prayers at the mosque and playing basketball as what he’ll miss the most during the month of fasting and prayer.
Although Florida’s statewide suspension of non-essential businesses does not include religious services, most in the Muslim community have pivoted to online prayers. But the month of Ramadan represents a different kind of loss for Muslims, who usually gather in the hundreds, celebrating in mosques every night during the holiday to break fast and pray.
“It’s like having 29 Thanksgivings. It’s something people have lived through their whole lives, and all of a sudden it becomes interrupted, ” said Wilfredo Ruiz, communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) in Florida.
“It’s like in all religions... those who never went to mosque, now was the time to do it.”Most daily prayers and the pre-dawn meal of sahur, which Muslims must eat an hour before the sun comes out, can still happen at home. But imams will no longer conduct daily terawih, or the extended prayer during Ramadan that usually takes place at mosques.
Muslims also won’t attend their local masjid to break fast for the post-sunset meal, iftar.
“There are some non-essential, but important, rituals that are tied to Ramadan, that now won’t be able to happen.... It’s going to cause some sadness, ” Ruiz said.
While Covid-19 might have changed Ameen’s first full Ramadan, the preteen said he understands that being able to participate with his family is enough. To his mother, Tehsin Siddiqui, witnessing Ameen and his two siblings’ journey in Islam is a gift in itself.
“That’s a blessing as well: that we have each other, ” she said.
Every house is a small masjid
Fasting is a key fixture of Ramadan.
Since sunrise on April 24, Muslims will not eat or drink between sunrise and sunset for 29 days as a way to practise self-restraint and gain awareness of those who are less fortunate. Abstaining from other vices to focus on prayer and reflection is also encouraged.
“One of the Five Pillars of Islam is to fast to understand how people feel when they don’t have food at home, ” said Shabbir Motorwala, a member of the Coalition of South Florida Muslim Organisations. “... This year, that carries much more for us because we see what’s going on in the community.”
But without open mosques, there will be a sliver of emptiness this Ramadan, Motorwala said.
The houses of worship usually transform into hubs of activity this time of year. Hundreds go to the mosques before sunset to break their fast among friends and participate in prayers. Caterers usually provide the Islamic Centre of Greater Miami in Miami Gardens with enough food to serve 500 people on the weekends.
While FaceTime and Zoom make the distance a bit easier, breaking with tradition has been difficult for some Muslims.
Ruiz of CAIR said he occasionally drives by local mosques and has recently noticed crowded parking lots. Across conservative and liberal circles within Islam, Ruiz says the community overwhelmingly agrees they should not come together, but smaller groups have continued to gather for prayer.
Like other mosques throughout Florida, the Islamic Centre of Greater Miami has been closed for nearly a month, said its imam, Dr Abdul Hamid Samra.
“I saw many messages sent to us, ‘Well, the governor says it’s OK for worship places to be open, why are you closing?’” said Abdul Hamid, who is originally from Syria. “Yes, we can open the place, but we cannot observe the six-feet separation and we do not want to put anyone in danger.
“What is important with our faith (is that) still you can do many things by yourself.... So always I give the message to the people. Now you have lost your mosque, or you cannot go to your mosque, make your home a mosque, ” he added.
Ruiz points out that some in the South Florida community understand that sacrifices have to be made, and note they have endured worse hardships in their native countries.
“There’s people here who are civil war refugees... who come from situations where, forget about eating in community, forget about all of that, they’re at war, surviving, ” Ruiz said.
And much of what is asked of people from stay-at-home orders is similar to the kind of restraint measures Muslims follow during the sacred holiday.
“During Ramadan, you’re not supposed to be doing a lot of going out to the movies, going out to restaurants, or baseball games.... You can do it, it’s not that you can’t, but that’s not really the mood, ” Ruiz said.Khalid Mirza, president of the Muslim Communities Association of South Florida, said he also views the need to stay at home as a positive gain.
“God is in more houses now, ” said Khalid. “Every house is a small masjid.”
Ramadan on the front lines
As someone who battles the coronavirus on the front lines, emergency room doctor Dr Aisha Subhani knows firsthand just how much the pandemic has altered day-to-day life.
“The pandemic has definitely reset things, ” said Dr Aisha, who works at the Cleveland Clinic Florida in Weston. “But with Ramadan here, it’ll just be a reminder that there are so many uncertainties of life, but despite all that, we’re here for one another.”
According to a study by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding in 2012, about 5% of American physicians identify as Muslim, giving them a special front row to serving those in need this Ramadan.
Service has been a big theme of this year’s pre-Ramadan celebration. Some mosques have opted to substitute prayer gatherings for food-sharing drives so Muslim families can break fast safely at home.
Recently, over a dozen men in masks and gloves gathered under the sweltering afternoon sun to give free food to families in the parking lot of the Islamic Centre of Greater Miami in Miami Gardens.“Now we have the feeling that we need to support, we need to help, ” said Abdul Hamid, the mosque’s religious director. “That’s a benefit.” – Tribune News Service/Miami Herald/C. Isaiah Small II and Bianca Padro Ocasio