As Covid-19 continues its devastating advance, for the first time in living memory, millions of Muslims around the world are observing Ramadan under lockdown. At no other time in history has the Holy Month been so comprehensively disrupted.
Mosques have been closed, social gatherings have been prohibited, and Saudi Arabia has temporarily banned pilgrimage to both Mecca and Medina. The latter has left two of Islam’s holiest sites – the Kaaba in Mecca’s Grand Mosque and the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina – empty during the most sacred time of the year.
Combined with strict curfews and social distancing, these measures are having a profound impact on the rituals and traditions of Ramadan. What is usually a time of communal worship, of iftar and the shared breaking of the fast, of charity and suhour gatherings, has been robbed of its social interaction. No worshipers will be allowed to attend Taraweeh prayers, no Ramadan tents will host community iftars, and the hustle and bustle of Ramadan nights has been greatly curtailed.
“Mosques are still closed, which makes it difficult to practice Salat Al-Jama’ah and Salat Al-Taraweeh with friends and extended family,” says Ban Samara, an associate director at OMD UAE. “Also, suhour tents are no longer an option. Therefore we’re losing a portion of the gathering piece, which is very unfortunate as it’s one of Ramadan’s beautiful aspects. Nonetheless, our close families are with us and we can practice everything we used to do outside… simply inside the house. We must make the best of it even with the limitations we have at hand.”
Even Ramadan TV series – a staple of family viewing during the Holy Month – have been impacted, with filming disrupted in March and shows left unfinished. Earlier this month, Ashraf Zaki, the head of Egypt’s Actors Syndicate, said only 10 of the 40 shows planned to be broadcast had been finalized.
Yet it is the inability to pray and eat together that will have the biggest impact. “Prophetic narrations and even the Holy Quran itself encourage people to know one another and to practice togetherness,” says Tahaab Rais, regional head of strategy at FP7 McCann. “Prayers and breaking fast together with others are recommended and recognised more than praying or breaking fast in isolation, for a few meaningful reasons. They help strengthen bonds between people – you meet each other a few times a day, you feel less alone and more part of a collective, you make friends, you help each other.
“When fasts are broken with those who don’t practice Islam or Ramadan it leads to a connection that’s again based on a lot of empathy and understanding. These are all the basics of what makes us human, but are oft-forgotten in today’s increasingly siloed and selfish world. Hence, doing that together helps us remind and constantly re-engineer ourselves.”
“The sense of togetherness felt during both praying and having iftar with people is amongst the best feeling in the world,” adds Aliaa Abdelsalam, a media planning manager and colleague of Samara. “Life is extremely fast-paced and dynamic and Ramadan is the only time when you can slow down, sit back, take a breather, and truly appreciate the simple things in life. It brings solace – and this is what Ramadan means to me.”
In the UAE, iftar and suhour gatherings have been limited to family and close friends, with Dubai restricting such gatherings to a maximum of five people. And although the lockdown was recently eased, physical contact is strictly prohibited, group prayers can only be held among immediate household members, and charitable donations can only be made through authorized bodies.
Despite all of these restrictions, the spirit of the Holy Month is being maintained, either virtually or in reduced numbers. Taraweeh prayers are being broadcast live from the two holy mosques in Mecca and Medina and from Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi; UAE charities are delivering iftar meals rather than serving them in Ramadan tents; and restaurants across the Middle East are offering iftar home deliveries to families in lockdown.
“As I was telling my seven-year-old daughter, mosques may be closed, group gatherings may be cancelled, but Ramadan is not,” says Rais, who undertook Umrah to Mecca in March, just prior to the borders being closed. “The spirit of the month and what it entails upon those practicing it is far, far bigger than the restrictions on it. The spirit of the month travels, even though we can’t. And the good we do – as people, as communities, as brands – is what will best represent how much of the spirit lives in us.”
People are eternally adaptable, believes Rais. Abdelsalam is holding virtual iftars with her family, friends are connecting via Zoom and Skype, and Muslims all over the world are actively seeking out the good in what is an extremely challenging time. Rais and his family have decorated their home with simple handmade decorations and lights (something they do every year) and created a month-long calendar of activities. They are also calculating their zakah (charitable donation) together, arranging video calls with family members, and sharing stories.
“Given the circumstances, we have to be responsible,” he says. “It’s unprecedented for us today. But the religion and the prophetic narrations tell us that if there’s a plague in a city or in a place, you stay at home and you pray at home and you are responsible for keeping your fellow people safe. There’s wisdom in that worth following.”
However, the unprecedented circumstances have also given rise to hate. Islamophobia has risen in certain parts of the world, particularly in India where Covid-19 is being exploited to generate hostility against Muslims. Not only are they being blamed for spreading the virus, they are increasingly the victims of intimidation and violence.
“Any crisis brings out the worst in us as humanity, but it also brings out the best in us,” says Rais. “So, while there have been unfortunate cases and movements of Islamophobia in certain parts of the world, in many others we have seen more openness towards Islam. Seeing the call for prayer resonating in parts of the US and Europe felt like the world we should be living in. More inclusive. More open. More tolerant. On the other side, seeing majority Muslim countries like the UAE state that everyone is equal here and that tolerance is key, feels good too. So, as our doors and borders closed, I’ve been glad to see something else opening up.”