A global look inside a Ramadan dampened by coronavirus

From Chicago to the West Bank, the coronavirus has closed mosques and altered traditions for Muslims during Islam’s holy month.

Photograph by Mostafa Bassim
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During Ramadan, Islam’s holy month, observant Muslims fast from dawn to dusk. Here, a group of men perform the fourth prayer of the day, the maghrib, in front of the At-Taqwa Mosque in Brooklyn, New York, which has been closed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Photograph by Mostafa Bassim

Every year during Ramadan, Tarik Haque, a Bangladeshi army veteran who lives in Chicago, looks forward to breaking his fast at the end of the day alongside hundreds of others. He cherishes the traditions: After sunset, people standing shoulder to shoulder behind the imam for the fourth prayer of the day, known as maghrib. The mosque filling with the smell of crispy piajus (fried lentils and cilantro), fruit chat (a South Asian fruit salad), and rooh afza (an herbal drink mixed with water or milk).

The ninth and holiest month on the Muslim calendar, Ramadan is believed to be when God revealed the first verses of the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad, the central figure of Islam, the world’s second largest religion. In the U.S., 80 percent of Muslims say they fast from before dawn to dusk for the month, according to the Pew Research Center. That’s nearly double the number who say they pray five times a day or attend mosque every week during the rest of the year.

This year for Ramadan (which began at sunset on April 23), much of the world is on lockdown because of the coronavirus pandemic. As a result, many of the communal rituals that are part of the sacred month have been interrupted. If they’re observing social distancing, Muslims can no longer eat together at group iftars—the fast-breaking meal after sunset—or gather for prayers known as taraweeh in mosques at night. Pilgrims have been banned from the sacred cities of Mecca and Medina. Mosques around the world, normally bustling during Ramadan, are quiet.

Because Chicago has imposed a stay-at-home order, Haque, who is in his late 60s, observes Ramadan this year by communicating with his imam on the phone and praying five times a day alone in his apartment. He grows emotional watching YouTube live streams of an empty Mecca, the sacred place that all Muslims are supposed to visit at least once in their lifetime if they can afford to. Occasionally, he will gather with neighbors in his apartment building to pray without going outside. “I’m missing community more than anything,” he says. To help him cope, a few women from his mosque have delivered eggrolls and chapli kababs for his solitary iftars. (See pictures of American Muslims celebrating Eid al-Fitr.)

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Chicago middle school teacher Saadia Shariff is quarantining at home with her family but has found a creative way to share food with her siblings during Ramadan.

Across the world, Muslims are finding ways to share food and community as best they can. Saadia Shariff, a middle school teacher, lives in the Chicago neighborhood with the highest number of COVID-19 cases. But she and her siblings have established a workaround: “It consists of me dropping food off at their homes without contact,” she says. “I leave the food in my trunk and someone will come out and grab it and put food they made in return.”

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High school English teacher Sakina Syeda has rallied her Chicago community to raise money and donate food to the needy in Pakistan

On the other side of the city, Sakina Syeda, a high school English teacher who has also trained at an Islamic traditional seminary, conducts online classes for Muslim women across the country. Some of her lessons are on the Quran, others on the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, and some are specific to Ramadan. On Zoom, she teaches proper behavior for the fast—not only to withhold from eating, drinking, and having sex from sunrise to sunset but also to avoid lying, swearing, and other forms of malice.(Read about Ramadan with your kids.)

Giving to the poor is important during Ramadan, and all the more so at a time when millions of people have lost their jobs and access to food. Using social media to gather donations, Syeda put together 650 packages containing lentils, butter, sugar, rice, and flour for the poor in Pakistan. Islam teaches that one person’s food can be shared by two, she says. “What we have is not the same for people in third-world countries. Therefore we must give.”

From Chicago to the West Bank, Bangladesh to New York, the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims are coping with a Ramadan like no other. This is what that looks like.

Palestinian Territories, West Bank

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Amina Tanatra, a mother of eight, prepares to break her fast with her family in the West Bank. They spent the day together making musakhan, the national dish of Palestine. It consists of roasted chicken with sautéed onions, sumac, and fried pine nuts, served on Taboon bread soaked in olive oil.

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The West Bank is usually bustling during Ramadan, but has fallen quiet this year. Mosques are shut, festive Ramadan lights decorating homes and mosques are few and far between. People can visit their families but no movement is allowed after 7:30 p.m

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Tanatra with two of her sons just before iftar, the fast-breaking meal at the end of each day. Jamal, far left, was recently given permission to return to work as a baker of kanafa, a popular sweet, and is excited to make money and save for his wedding, which was delayed because of the pandemic.

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Hanadi Kobari’s four daughters observe Ramadan this year at home with their mother. The two older girls help care for the younger ones, especially with their father absent. A construction worker, he came home briefly between jobs but slept on the balcony to keep the family safe. It’s their first Ramadan without him.

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Tanatra, known as “Im Jihad” around her tiny village of Im Safa, is an in-demand housecleaner in Ramallah. Here, she gazes at her 17-year-old son, Jasem, the youngest of her eight children. The family likes to say, “We know every name and story door-to-door in this village.”

New York, USA

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A volunteer calls for the nighttime isha prayer at the Muslim Community Center in Brooklyn, New York, which has been closed since March. Ramadan is usually the busiest time of year for mosques.

Dhaka, Bangladesh & Islamabad, Pakistan

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Mosques around the world have closed and people are encouraged to say their prayers at home. Here, a man prays at a mosque in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Missouri, USA

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Sameeh and Suhad Eid, the photographer’s parents, pray together after iftar at their home in St. Charles, Missouri. The photographer traveled home from New York on the first day of Ramadan, but kept her distance because she may have been exposed to the coronavirus. “I was there and I wasn’t,” she said.

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Sameeh Eid, the photographer’s father, does the Tahiyat al-Masjid prayer, or the prayer of greeting the mosque, after entering Dar Al Jalal Masjid in Hazelwood, Missouri, on the first day of Ramadan. Because of his disability, he prays using a chair.

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The photographer watched her parents and sister break their fast from another room. Her mother brought her food in Tupperware.

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The photographer’s mother waves to her from the front door of their home. “I was surprised at how thrilled she was to see me, despite the distance,” the photographer said. “She texted me exactly a week later, after I’d returned to New York: ‘It’s like a dream.’ My being home so suddenly, so briefly, and still so far away.”

This project was supported in part by the National Geographic Society. Learn more about the National Geographic Society's COVID-19 Emergency Fund for Journalists.
Tasmiha Khan writes frequently about Muslim American life. Follow her @CraftOurStory.