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Coronavirus and Ramadan: How the Muslim month of fasting will differ this year

Covid-19 will impact Muslims celebrating Ramadan - but how? What will happen to holy month gatherings? Middle East Eye explains
Worshippers in Cairo perform the Eid al-Fitr prayers, marking the end of Ramadan (AFP)

With the spread of Covid-19 impacting millions of people worldwide, the holy month of Ramadan, which is scheduled to begin on or around Thursday 23 April, may look very different this year. 

What usually happens during Ramadan?

For Muslims around the world, Ramadan is one of the most revered months of the year. It is believed that during this ninth month of the Islamic calendar, God revealed the first verses of the Quran, the holy book, to the Prophet Muhammad.

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A Palestinian woman prays at the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem in May 2019 (AFP)

Many of the world's estimated 1.6 billion Muslims will fast every day, abstaining from food and drink from sunrise to sunset as an act of worship. Islam follows the lunar calendar, which means the dates of Ramadan change every year. Muslims believe that through fasting, they are able to strengthen their relationship with God, practise willpower and empathise with the less fortunate. 

Every day of the month, practising Muslims will also try to reconnect with their faith through acts of worship, such as praying, reading the Quran and charitable giving, as well as rekindling relationships with friends and family.

The breaking of the fast, or iftar, at sunset is usually a communal affair for Muslims in Ramadan, with people gathering either at home or in large public spaces to eat together. 

The hours of fasting depend on sunrise and sunset, which affects its length from place to place: this year, for example, the fast will last longer in London than in Sydney. Only those who are physically able are expected to fast, meaning Muslims who are unwell may be exempt.

Those observing fasts will often stay up late to maximise hours when eating and drinking is permitted. It is traditional to wake up for suhoor, a pre-dawn meal, which serves as an alternative to the breakfast which would otherwise be missed. 

It is believed that the Quran was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad on one of the last 10 nights of Ramadan, known as the "Night of Power". Some Muslims choose to live and sleep in a mosque during these final days, to focus entirely on increasing their religious knowledge.

How might Ramadan preparations differ in 2020?

Muslims observing Ramadan use the weeks in the run-up to ensure their kitchens are stocked with ingredients for traditional meals.

Ramadan decorations
Streets and homes are decorated to welcome in the holy month (AFP)

In the Middle East and elsewhere it is high season for shopping as stores stock traditional treats and themed decorations. Streets are laced with festive lanterns and colourful lights, while residents decorate their homes with ornaments, some shaped as crescents and stars, to mark the start of the month.

This year, curfews and lockdowns imposed in some countries, as well as reduced opening hours, mean that many Muslims will struggle to prepare as usual for the month ahead: in Egypt, for example, the government has imposed a curfew from 7pm to 6am.

Many shops have seen food shortages as shelves have been cleared of essentials. Some store owners have also rationed the number of products each customer can purchase, making shopping for larger families difficult. 

Businesses will also be impacted by the change - many have experienced lowered profits as a result of orders to self-isolate at home, and some have had to close indefinitely. New measures to deal with the pandemic include reducing staffing levels and limiting stock, as businesses struggle to source supplies from wholesalers.

Independent businesses and market sellers are likely to be some of the hardest hit by the pandemic as Ramadan is typically a key period for bakeries, restaurants and craft sellers. During the holy month, menus include seasonal treats, while markets sell produce unique to the month, including nuts and dates. 

How will coronavirus affect my fast?

Fasting during Ramadan is obligatory. Exemptions are made for children, women who are pregnant, menstruating, nursing and people who are ill or travelling. Those who are experiencing Covid-19 symptoms may not have to fast during Ramadan, if they are not physically able. 

The Ramadan day usually begins in many communities before the break of dawn. In narrow alleyways across the Middle East during Ramadan, a beating drum can sometimes be heard during the early hours. This is the musaharati, who wakes up residents in time for the pre-dawn suhoor and wishes residents a blessed month. In some close-knit neighbourhoods, the musaharati even call children by their individual names. This year the sound of the musaharati may be silenced as they abide by lockdown regulations. 

Musaharati
A man walks down the street to wake up local residents for food and prayer (AFP)

During the day itself, most Muslims who observe the fast continue to work and attend school, while abstaining from food.

But the coronavirus pandemic has forced thousands of schools to shut and millions of people to work from home. This could bring some relief to some of those who are fasting: the hours usually spent travelling to and from work can instead be used to be catch up on sleep lost during the late nights. 

How will Ramadan mealtimes differ?

Ramadan is a very communal festival through the month - but this too may be affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

Iftar - literally translated as "breaking the fast" - is a highly anticipated meal often shared with extended family, and friends.

ramadan tents
Tables are set up in the streets for worshippers to break their fast (AFP)

The spread of Covid-19 will likely stop larger families and groups from gathering, as governments worldwide urge people to physically distance from one another. It may also prevent those living in smaller households, who are often invited to join a larger gathering, from doing so.

Often charitable organisations or individuals erect large tents where Muslims can gather and break the fast: these are open to all, allowing the less fortunate to also share a meal. It is not known what will happen to these. 

Also likely to be affected are the pre-dawn suhoors, which some Middle East organisations use to replace office socials or press events that would otherwise take place during the day.

To get around the social distancing restrictions, some organisations and mosques have set up online webinars and video conferences. One such example is the UK's Ramadan Tent Project, which usually hosts an outdoor open iftar every Ramadan: this year it will host online webinars to address spiritual questions and offers advice on how to benefit from the holy month.

How will prayers be affected during the pandemic?

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 fill with worshippers during this time: the more popular venues are filled to overflowing, with the faithful following  prayers from the courtyard and surrounding streets.

Prayers Ramadan
As mosques fill up during Ramadan, people pour out into courtyards (AFP)

But this year, many mosques in the Middle East, such as the Masjid An Nabawi in Saudi Arabia, have already closed their doors to curb the spread of the virus.

In the UK, the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) has issued a statement saying there should be an immediate suspension of prayer services if the outbreak continues at the projected rate. In the US, the All Dulles Area Muslim Society said all five daily congregational prayers would be cancelled at its 10 mosques amid the threat of the virus. 

Some mosques, including the Atlanta Masjid in the US, have started to live stream the khutbah, the sermon given before the congregational Friday prayers. This virtual congregation may continue during Ramadan so that prayers can be observed from the safety of worshippers’ homes. 

Tarawih prayers
Tarawih prayers are a key part of Ramadan, which have already been cancelled by many mosques (AFP)

In some parts of the Middle East, the athaan, or call to prayer, which is amplified from mosques five times a day, has been used to encourage people to stay safe. In Kuwait, the call has been altered to include the phrase “pray in your homes” instead of the usual “come to pray”. 

How have coronavirus restrictions hit pilgrims? 

The months before and during Ramadan are some of the busiest for travel to the holy city of Mecca, the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad, in Saudi Arabia. It attracts millions of Muslims from around the world, who often save for years to complete Umrah, an optional pilgrimage, that allows them to reconnect with their faith, seek forgiveness and pray for their needs. 

Usually pilgrims need to provide proof of a meningitis vaccination when entering the kingdom - but the spread of coronavirus has increased the number of measures.

Umrah empty
Worshippers have been temporarily banned from visiting the holy sites in Mecca and Medina, where the mosques were seen empty for the first time in centuries (AFP)

On 27 February, Saudi Arabia temporarily suspended travel to the country’s holiest sites amid fears it would encourage spread of the coronavirus, leaving travel agents to scramble around and rearrange bookings. Many pilgrims have simply cancelled their trips. 

Earlier this month, Mecca’s Grand Mosque was emptied and cleaned to safeguard against the spread of the virus.

Which other forms of worship may be affected?

Some Muslims gather regularly to further knowledge of their faith in a study circle known as a halaqah. The practice goes back to the time of the Prophet, when a tradition of shared knowledge allowed Muslims to learn and ask questions.

Ramadan covid-19
During Ramadan, mosques are used for study circles (AFP)

These increase in frequency during Ramadan. Discussions are tailored to fit the demographic of the attendees. Prayers and supplications also usually take place in congregation during the meetings. 

Many mosques will offer online alternatives, such as video conference platforms or live streaming, as a substitute for the centuries-old tradition. 

What about charity efforts during the pandemic?

Central to the month of Ramadan are acts of charity and helping those who are less fortunate. Muslims believe this is key to their faith and that there are increased blessings for acts of kindness during the month. 

mosul ramadan charity
Members of an Iraqi charity organisation distribute food in Mosul in May 2018 (AFP)

Fundraising events are typically organised around communal events, such as a large iftar meal or after congregational prayers.

Usually, volunteers gather donations to pack Ramadan food bags for the less fortunate. This year, shortages of essential food items such as rice, pasta and lentils, as well as restrictions on movement, mean that households with little or no income will likely suffer. In certain countries hit by economic crises, such as Egypt, Ramadan is often the only time of year that some families get to eat meat if, for example, pieces of chicken are mixed in with the rice.

According to the Muslim Charities Forum (MCF), Muslims donate at least £130m [$160m] to charitable causes during the holy month.

This year, expect much of the fundraising to take place through online donation websites.

What other Ramadan traditions might be affected?

Although many Muslims focus during the holy month on strengthening their faith and avoiding worldly distractions, Ramadan is also when TV series find prime-time audiences. 

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Advertising promoting Ramadan TV in Cairo in 2018 (AFP)

The number of viewers can skyrocket, as followers find distraction while waiting to break their fast. Gripping daily dramas, with big-name casts, are specially produced for broadcast during the month, anticipating a large global audience.

But Ramadan TV has a short lead-in time, with around 70 percent of all TV series not finished shooting at the time of publication, according to an industry insider, who said that many series continue to film during the festival itself.

Hotels in MENA also host huge iftars, followed by entertainment, while concerts and festivals are likewise key features of the month. Expect these also to be hit.

What about Eid and coronavirus?    

Ramadan ends with the sighting of the next full moon. This is a signal to mark Eid al-Fitr, a three-day celebration.

Eid celebrations
Adults and children chase balloons after early morning Eid prayers in Cairo (AFP)

Early congregational prayers, held on the first morning of Eid, bring communities together to meet, pray and eat during daylight for the first time in a month. 

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, bunting and signs that read "Eid Mubarak ("Blessed Festival" in Arabic) to mark the occasion.

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 when Muslims go out to celebrate, visit family and friends and return to normal daily life.

Eid
A Syrian baker prepares traditional sweets for Eid celebrations (AFP)

But with cinemas, theme parks and cafes closed this year, children and celebrations will have to be confined to the home. 

Given how religious authorities and governments are likely to ban large gatherings, in keeping with lockdown measures, expect Eid to be more muted and reflective this year.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.