Rayhan Ahmed Topader:
Muslims around the world will be celebrating Ramadan in the midst of a pandemic for the second year in a row.The spread of Covid-19 has impacted much of the world’s population, with governments imposing lockdowns and strict measures to curb the spread of the virus.While many have found ways to adapt to the new normal and the rollout of vaccines has helped stymie the rise in cases in some countries, it is certain that the Muslim holy month will be affected. Middle East Eye takes a look at some of the ways Ramadan will be different for worshippers this year. Some Muslims choose to spend the weeks prior to Ramadan completing optional fasts and spiritually preparing for the holy month. Many also use the period to stock up on ingredients to make traditional foods for the duration of the month.Whereas last year many shops had their shelves cleared of products and store owners rationed goods between customers, people are now more accustomed to the pandemic and are panic-buying less, meaning items should be easier to source. A Palestinian man hangs street decorations in preparation for the holy month. Ramadan is not just about food, however; it is also a social month, in which family and friends come together. Traditionally, some people travel abroad to be with their loved ones or to perform minor pilgrimages, but as Covid-19 cases remain high in most countries and travel restrictions remain in place, it is unlikely many will be able to do so this year.
Fasting during Ramadan is obligatory for Muslim believers. Exemptions are made for children, women who are pregnant, menstruating or nursing, and people who are ill or travelling. Those who are experiencing Covid-19 symptoms do not have to fast during Ramadan, if they are not physically able to.This year, some countries are providing night-time vaccines for Muslims fasting. Although the majority of Islamic scholars and organisations have said that getting the Covid-19 vaccine would not nullify someone’s fast, the British government and National Health Service (NHS) have stated they hope to counter a potential drop in vaccine uptake among Muslims during the holy month. Many British Muslim doctors have been encouraging Muslims to take the Covid-19 vaccine, and are working to dispel myths or misinformation surrounding the jab. In many countries, mosques have been used as vaccination centres. In the UK, a mosque in Birmingham became the first in the UK to open as a Covid-19 vaccination centre. Many other mosques around the country have followed suit, such as the Dar Ul Isra mosque in Wales. Around the Middle East, the issue of vaccine inequality means that many will have to observe stricter social distancing measures or close mosques due to slow rollouts of the vaccines. Displaced Syrians break their fast together in a ruined neighbourhood.Will breaking the fast be different?
The eagerly awaited iftar, or the breaking of the fast, happens every day at sunset. It is usually a time where friends and families eat together, but due to current restrictions this may not be possible in many countries. Every evening during Ramadan, extended prayers, called tarawih, take place in mosques around the world. These communal acts of worship are held in the belief that there is greater reward for prayers made in congregation. Mosques usually fill with worshippers during the evening, but this year, some mosques in the Middle East remain closed, while others are open with restrictions and guidelines in place. Authorities at the Masjid al-Nabawi in Saudi Arabia have announced that the total intake of worshippers in Ramadan will be limited to 60,000 at any one time, with mandatory social distancing. The capacity of the mosque prior to the pandemic was 350,000 worshippers.Muslims in Senegal pray outdoors while observing social distancing (AFP) Last year, Saudi Arabia suspended tarawih prayers at the Masjid al-Haram in Mecca and the Masjid al-Nabawi in Medina in a bid to curb the spread of the virus. In the UAE, authorities have allowed tarawih prayers to go ahead after banning them last year. However, Ramadan tents and iftar gatherings are strictly prohibited. Restaurants have also been banned from distributing iftar meals inside or in front of their premises. In Egypt, mosques have started preparations for the holy month weeks in advance.
Tarawih prayers will be permitted in some mosques, with social distancing measures in place.The Ministry of Endowments has also provided guidance to officials in order to ensure prayers take place safely. Prayers in some mosques will be live-streamed, so worshippers can follow along at home. Religious lectures and sermons will also be broadcast online and through social media platforms. Due to the reverence Muslims have for Ramadan, many use the occasion to carry out extra acts of worship, which they hope will bring them closer to God.In a typical year, many would gather in study circles known as halaqah, where they discuss and teach one another about aspects of faith.The practice goes back to the time of the Prophet Mohammed.This year, due to restrictions on meeting in large numbers in many parts of the world, this tradition will probably be accommodated online again.The last 10 days of Ramadan are especially revered, and focus on intense worship, as it is believed that the Quran was revealed to the prophet during this period. Known as the night of power, the precise day is not known conclusively, but it is believed by most Muslims to be one of the odd-numbered nights during the last 10 days.Across the world, prayers and seminars have moved online due to the spread of Covid-19.As the Prophet Mohammed never specified the exact date of the night, Muslims use the entire 10-day period to increase their spirituality by reading and studying the Quran.
This year, restrictions on travel, movement and aid may take a toll on families who rely on charitable efforts. In certain countries hit by economic crises or war, such as Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Egypt, Ramadan is often the only time of year that some families get to eat meat. Ramadan pilgrimages to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina would attract millions of Muslims before the pandemic. Muslims believe that performing the Umrah, or minor pilgrimage, brings more spiritual reward during the month.Last year, Saudi Arabia temporarily suspended travel to the country’s holiest sites amid fears it would encourage the spread of coronavirus, leaving travel agents to scramble around and rearrange bookings. Many pilgrims simply cancelled their trips.Officials have reduced the capacity at holy sites in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.This year, Saudi Arabia has stated that all pilgrims wanting to complete Umrah must be immunised against Covid-19, starting from the month of Ramadan.Zamzam water coolers in Mecca will not be available, with bottled zamzam water to be provided instead. The sharing and distribution of food will also be forbidden inside the mosques.A big Ramadan tradition around the Middle East is the beating of drums around the streets and alleyways of some neighbourhoods before the break of dawn.The musaharati, or the one who wakes people up for the suhoor (pre-fast) meal, walks around beating a drum to remind people to get up and eat.In some close-knit neighbourhoods, the musaharati will even call children by their individual names.
The sound of the musaharati making their way down the street was largely silenced last year because of safety concerns relating to the pandemic. With curfews still in place in some parts of the Middle East and around the world, this tradition may be impacted once again. Last year, filming schedules were affected by the pandemic, but social distancing measures have since allowed productions to continue.Ramadan ends with the sighting of the next new moon. This marks the start of Eid al-Fitr, a three-day celebration. Early congregational prayers are held on the first morning of Eid and families usually have daytime meals together.In much of the Middle East, Eid is a national holiday, a time for food and festivities, when children wear new clothes, receive money or presents and eat sweets. Families typically organise days out, filled with activities for children and social gatherings for adults. Homes are decorated with lights and signs that read Eid Mubarak But due to the coronavirus pandemic, Eid is likely to be affected more than Ramadan this year. While the basic Ramadan traditions can be observed at home, including congregational prayers via streaming, Eid is typically a time when Muslims go out to celebrate. But with cinemas, theme parks and cafes closed this year, celebrations will have to be confined to the home. Given that religious authorities and governments are likely to ban large gatherings, we can expect Eid to be more muted and reflective this year.Eid Mubarak
Writer and Columnist