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Will COVID-19 impact the way we celebrate Ramadan in 2020?

By Zeynab Mohamed

“Not even water?’’ For Muslims around the world, this becomes one of the most commonly asked questions during the month of Ramadan. Once a year, 1.6 billion Muslims engage in the act of fasting during Ramadan. To put things into perspective, that’s around 24 per cent of the world’s population fasting from dawn to sunset for a month. The act of fasting might be individual, but there is a sense of solidarity in knowing billions of people are engaging in the same ritual at the same exact time.

Now, more than ever, we are looking for that sense of community.

Will COVID-19 impact the way we celebrate this year’s Ramadan?

The bare minimum that Ramadan requires from Muslims is abstaining from food and drink. The fast is the easy part. Ramadan is also about reflecting on your habits, refraining from having negative thoughts and practising gratefulness and charity.

During this period of spiritual consciousness, Muslims get the opportunity to foster their relationship with God and contemplate the words of the Quran, the Muslim holy book. From the end of April through the middle of May, Muslims will increase the Quran’s recitation and work in order to implement its teachings into their daily lives.

“Isn’t it hard?” is the other question I usually find myself answering during Ramadan. For a long time, I downplayed the difficulty of fasting and reassured people around me that it was easy. “An absolute breeze,” I would tell them in an effort to not alienate myself or draw too much attention to what people often reduced to a strange cleanse. Obviously, not eating or drinking during the majority of the daytime for 30 days is hard. But as the days go on and your body painfully accommodates to its new condition, the fasts become oddly mundane.

Growing up, and still to this day, my favourite aspect of Ramadan is the food. During Ramadan, I become conscious of all the foods I could be filling my day with. Throughout the day, I collect little snacks like memorabilia. Memory plays the cruel trick of reminding you just how good everything tastes at any given opportunity.

I would scour the entirety of the internet for recipes with as much zest as if I were preparing my application for a daytime cooking show. From the most extravagant to the most mouthwatering recipe, which isn’t hard when you’re fasting, I scroll through any recipe I can find.

This overzealous food obsession comes from growing up in a household where food would be put on the biggest spread with endless choices to break our fast. It was relentless, every Ramadan, every day there would be a feast. In the spirit of charity, we would always share our food with our neighbours and our local mosque. During the length of Ramadan, we were everyone’s favourite neighbours.

Functioning on very little food during the days of Ramadan, my mental capacity reduces to 10 per cent, if that. Forming the simplest of sentences becomes difficult. But there is something about the collectivity of this selfless act, along with reminding yourself why you’re actually fasting, that makes it easier.

Fasting is incredibly rewarding and is something that I look forward to every year. It isn’t mandatory for every Muslim, however—young children, pregnant women, people with illnesses, individuals travelling and women menstruating are all excused from fasting.

That’s why Ramadan, on top of the food obsession that it might represent for many, is similar to a spiritual retreat. As Muslims, we’re challenged to look at ourselves and redefine our values and habits in order to better ourselves. Ramadan may look a little different this year, but I welcome the certainty and familiarity that come with observing our yearly traditional practice. Fasting should not define Ramadan, and neither should COVID-19.

The many ways of being Muslim during Ramadan

I’m taking a fast from Instagram right now. I’m also taking a fast from food, water, bad habits, and only emulating good energy during sunlight hours—you guessed it, it’s the holy month of Ramadan.

For 30 days, 1.6 billion Muslims around the world take part in trying to unlearn any Earthly bad habits and essentially look beyond themselves. It’s way more than not eating food and trying to curb your ‘hangry’. It’s an act of being consciously grateful, giving as much as you can, especially to those who are not as fortunate as you.

It’s also the time when many Muslims rekindle with their faith. They may pick up the Quran again, they may start praying traditional salaat and even go to the mosque for nightly Taraweeh prayer. Every once in a while, when my thumb slips on the App Store and I download Instagram again, my timeline, the rest of my social media, and even within the discussions I’m having across various circles—we’re are all talking about Ramadan—the array of personal feelings people have around faith bubble up to the surface once again.

With the rise of Islamaphobia in response to terrorism,  a recent example being the racist and xenophobic Christ Church attacks in New Zealand, I’ve seen a noticeable amount of Muslims across generations from millennials to gen X, Y and Z take a stand—and be proud—to do Ramadan this year. I’ve also read the other side of the story.

Though a common sentence I hear from other Muslims, practising or not, is that the air feels different in Ramadan (which I completely agree with), those are not the only narratives we as Muslims should be considering. Journalist and debut author of The Greater Freedom: Life As a Middle Eastern Woman Outside the Stereotypes Alya Mooro, shared an Instagram story on the first day of Ramadan, celebrating the holiday with the words “Ramadan Kareem everyone!”. But it was her second story that hit home. “To everyone celebrating Ramadan (or not), #freedomfrom and #freedomof”.

The term ‘cultural Muslim’ is a phrase that is more common in my vernacular than it was in my parent’s generation. The label varies from person to person but it describes those who aren’t religious yet still respect the teachings Islam has to offer to those who have left the religion (and may or may not have come out to their parents about it). Ramadan is a time to reflect; it can also be difficult for those who are grappling with their different personal beliefs. For many who are ex-Muslims or aren’t simply as religious anymore, 30 holy days can bring a whole month of ‘Muslim guilt’.

For people like Fabliha Anbar, a queer Muslim womxn of colour, navigating communities that you are a part of, and that have also shunned you, makes Ramadan complicated. In a recent Instagram post, Anbar spoke openly about what it’s like for your personal connection to Allah to be policed and how this can then complicate what should be a celebratory month of practice and prayer.

These stories may seem like outliers, and some people may argue that Ramadan is about God and those who don’t have as much as us, but grappling with faith is something we all go through regardless of the outcome.

In conversations such as these—ones that can easily be disregarded as being ‘sinful’, narcissistic and even unholy—we need to unlearn and remember that fasting is also a cleanse from what you think you know while taking a step back to evaluate what’s missing, and what you need to pour into yourself and others. If this is a month about looking beyond yourself, that also means recognising other people’s pain through your own biased lens and frankly, humbling yourself.

For people to be ostracised and then generalised into the ‘bad’ category only because their connection to God doesn’t seem strong is an issue for our Muslim communities. To judge and act as though our way is the only way, especially towards young women in a time where patience, forgiveness, mercy but mainly, empathy is the foundation of this month is truly what is contradictory. Ramadan is a reminder of coming home to yourself, it shouldn’t be four weeks of having to explain your existence. Just like there isn’t one way to look Muslim, there isn’t one way to believe in Allah or anything you may feel is divine, regardless if you’re a part of this month or not.