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.)
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.”
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.