‘A light within a very dark time’: Celebrating Ramadan during a pandemic

Posted 4/28/21

For the second Ramadan in a row, Chatham resident Delinda Otto hasn’t stepped foot in a mosque.

Last year — during what Otto calls a “super-COVID Ramadan” — at the beginning of the …

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‘A light within a very dark time’: Celebrating Ramadan during a pandemic

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Posted

For the second Ramadan in a row, Chatham resident Delinda Otto hasn’t stepped foot in a mosque.

Last year — during what Otto calls a “super-COVID Ramadan” — at the beginning of the pandemic, most mosques were closed. This year, COVID-19 gathering restrictions have forced Otto to break fast, recite the Quran and conduct Taraweeh Prayers with her family at home, instead of at the mosque or in large gatherings.

“Ramadan was difficult but not difficult,” said Otto, an ESL teacher at Siler City Elementary, of last year’s Ramadan.

Her daughter and son-in-law, Hanaan Salamah and Mohamed Abdou, had recently moved into her two-bedroom apartment in Clemmons with their four young children after Salamah graduated medical school.

“It was really fun — we all sat on the floor and ate dinner to break fast,” she said. “It was more gathering and more family time. It was small, but it made us closer. It was a light within a very dark time.”

The pandemic and COVID-19 restrictions make the communal aspects of Ramadan more challenging, and mosques and religious leaders are adapting in a variety of ways, including smaller gathering, drive-thru events and virtual prayers.

The Muslim holy month of Ramadan lasts for 29 or 30 days and is a time of celebration, devotion and spiritual discipline. During Ramadan, Muslims fast from food and water every day from dawn to sunset, and increase prayers, charity and study of the Quran. Ramadan follows the lunar calendar, which is 11 days shorter than the standard Gregorian calendar. That means the Islamic calendar moves backward approximately 11 days each year. Whereas Ramadan began April 23 last year, this year it began on April 12.

Otto is celebrating Ramadan with her daughter’s family in Chatham, after moving to their new house in February. The family attends Jamaat Ibad Ar-Rahman in Durham, though Otto hasn’t yet been inside the mosque.

Typically, Iftar — the evening meal to break the fast — is celebrated in community with large parties. Due to safety concerns, Otto said this year her family has gathered a few times with nearby families in smaller settings to break fast after Maghrib prayer, the fourth of five daily Muslim prayer times which takes place around sunset.

“This year, we’re in a nice, beautiful, big house,” she said. “We’re trying to slowly get back to the norm of Ramadan, because the enjoyment of breaking fast with friends and family is really important.”

‘You really have to have it in your heart’

Mohamed AbuTaleb, the Imam of the Islamic Association of Raleigh, said while fasting is a large part of Ramadan, the meaning “is much broader than that.”

“The idea is that by quieting what is normally allowed, right, the normal impulses of the body, that a person cultivates mindfulness, piety, empathy with the condition of others, particularly the poor who may be experiencing hunger or loss or hardship,” AbuTaleb said. “(One is) able to motivate oneself toward a space of being a better person — better for themselves, better for their family and better for their society.”

While generosity is an important value to most Muslims throughout the year, charity is especially emphasized during Ramadan through thigs like food drives, community dinners, fundraising and more. In addition to the five obligatory prayers throughout the year, during Ramadan Muslims can participate in optional nighttime prayers where people typically gather together at a mosque for worship. During a normal year, AbuTaleb said these kinds of gatherings at the Islamic Association of Raleigh would include hundreds — sometimes thousands — of people.

“So COVID obviously impacts a lot of this,” he said.

The mosque has made adhering to public health recommendations a priority, he added, abiding by COVID-19 protocol and offering distanced in-person, drive-thru and online gatherings.

“For Muslims, worship is something that goes beyond just the spoken word, or the message or the sermon, kind of the presence in ranks and in congregation and the physical presence is something that is very important to us,” he said.

That doesn’t mean individual worship isn’t possible, AbuTaleb said, but it’s more challenging. Some prayers, like the nightly Taraweeh prayers, are established congregationally. For that reason, the mosque livestreams those prayers.

“But that live stream is more of a community connection,” he said. “It’s not a substitute for the worship activities.”

Otto primarily celebrates with her daughter and son-in-law, as her grandchildren — Maya, 7, Monaya, 6, Maraya, 4 and Mazen, 18 months — aren’t old enough to fully participate, particularly when it comes to fasting.

Fasting is not forced on anyone, Otto emphasized, and is sometimes discouraged for young children in Islam because it’s difficult for them to know the meaning behind the fasting. Many children are encouraged to begin fasting once they’ve reached puberty.

“I want to fast with them!” her oldest grandchild Maya tells her. She’s fasted through breakfast a few times, joining her siblings for lunch — which is “good training,” Otto said.

“We don’t start early, and we don’t force because if it’s not in here,” she said, motioning to her heart, “it’s not gonna happen. If it’s not in here, it’s going to be extremely hard and you’re not going to continue with it. You really have to have it in your heart, and that’s what we try to instill in the kids as they’re growing up.”

‘American Muslims are our neighbors’

While celebrating Ramadan this year still has its challenges, AbuTaleb said it’s been a relief to resume some semblance of normal meetings, especially during a time when overt racial injustice coupled with COVID-19 created so much pain.

In addition to bringing peace to Muslims, AbuTaleb said he hopes Ramadan will serve as a reminder to all Americans that American Muslims are a diverse and populous group of people. More than 75 nationalities are represented at the Islamic Association, he said, and no single ethnicity makes up the majority, despite many people associating Islam primarily with Arab people.

Many Americans say they haven’t met a Muslim person, AbuTaleb said, citing a Pew Research Center study, though there are about 3.45 million Muslims in the U.S.

“Something I just wish people knew during this month and after this month, is that, you know, American Muslims are our neighbors, right? They’re our teachers. They’re our frontline workers at the grocery store, or medical providers. They’re our friends,” he said. “There are relationships waiting to rekindle and build and deepen, particularly during this time, where we see racial tensions, ethnic tensions, religious tensions, placing our country at such a point of unrest and hardship.

“We can be demonstrations that it doesn’t need to be like that at any time of the year,” he said, “But Ramadan is a particularly ripe opportunity for that conversation.”

AbuTaleb said many Muslims are glad to share their faith, especially during Ramadan when their spiritual disciplines are more apparent. Otto said she wishes more people would ask her about Ramadan. While some ask about fasting and prayers the rest of the year, she said most people avoid the subject entirely during Ramadan itself.

Halfway through the month, Otto said she will likely join virtual Taraweeh services for the last 10 days of Ramadan, which are considered the most important.

While Ramadan is always a special time for Muslims, she said the last two years have been especially meaningful because of pandemic’s challenges.

“It’s helped me to remember that we can make it. Allah is there for us,” she said, wiping away tears. “You realize, I can do this — Allah is helping me. Not only can I fast, I can teach, I can make it through this COVID. I’m going to survive, no matter how hard it is. … Faith has helped me get through a lot of this.”

Reporter Hannah McClellan can be reached at hannah@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @HannerMcClellan.

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