Ramadan in the time of COVID-19

By Thaqif Ismail

This year, there will be no mass gatherings of Muslims breaking fast. No prayers at the mosque from dawn till dusk. No relatives visiting each other’s home and sharing their platters of food. With the extension of the circuit-breaker till June 1, there will likely be no celebration of the end of Ramadan with our extended families.

Ramadan serves two purposes. For individuals, it is a moment to practice self-discipline and piety through a month-long fasting. For the Muslim community, Ramadan is an opportunity for us to reinvigorate our bonds with each other. This is done either by praying or volunteering at mosques.

My parents usually volunteer to prepare meals at the mosque for lower-income families during this month. These meal sessions – known as iftar – are not simply an act of altruism on their part. It is also a means to keep themselves busy throughout the month and meet fellow Muslims. With the circuit breaker in place however, the iftar sessions at the mosque have ceased. All mosques have been closed and social gatherings are suspended indefinitely. We’ve tried to remain connected through online methods, but it cannot replace the experience of physically distributing food to others in the community.

My family still has dinner together to break our day-long fast. Yet, it is unusual as there is something missing from our dinner plates. During Ramadan, my parents would meet up with our family friends and relatives to exchange food. It is a way to re-establish bonds and casually show how our family’s cooking has improved over the course of one year. This year, there was neither any sharing of food nor light conversation with other Muslims. As traditions remain only when they are routinely practiced, I am unsure if many of our small traditions like the sharing of dishes will continue after COVID-19.

My parents would also source food from friends during the month of Ramadan. It is a way to support their home-based businesses and at the same time, have additional curry puffs on the table. However, with the circuit breaker remaining intact through the month, many of these home-based businesses selling kuih (Malay snacks) are not opened for business due to circuit breaker measures.

After placing their order, my parents would visit our family friend’s home to collect the food and touch base with her family. This year, my parents informed me that their friend has temporarily closed her business until after Hari Raya on May 24. It is unfortunate as orders for these home-based businesses often shoot up during this month, providing many with an additional source of income.

Moreover, a statement by the government recently reaffirmed guidelines requiring home-based businesses to operate online and rely on contactless delivery. But for my family’s friend, who sells curry puffs during the month of Ramadan, adhering to the guidelines is impossible as she is neither tech-savvy nor familiar with how to carry out contactless delivery. 

The circuit breaker has been especially tough on my grandfather. He’s used to visiting the mosque during Ramadan to meet other older adults in the Muslim community. On occasion, he would lead night prayers. However, since the closure of all mosques, he hasn’t had any reason to leave home. He said he’s tried to keep himself busy throughout the day either by watching television or using the computer. But he wishes he could venture out, especially during the month of Ramadan.

But not all is doom and gloom. For the past few Ramadans, I would usually feel tired when leaving home to visit school or meet up with my friends. This year, with the circuit breaker measure in place, fasting throughout the day will be much easier as I am stuck at home.

Every year, some of us might take a moment for self-reflection. For most, it is the period during the New Year. For me, it is one of the days in the month of Ramadan. I would traditionally visit a mosque and stay there for a few hours, contemplating on my experiences and achievements in the past year. Personally, I found the mosque at night to be a great place for self-reflection as it is quite serene in the late hours of the night. Granted, I will likely still be having my “contemplation session” during this month of Ramadan, but within the confines of my home.

And then there is Hari Raya Puasa, also known as Eid al-Fitr. It is a day of celebration after a month of fasting. The date (May 24) sits well within the circuit breaker period, meaning that there will not be any home visits to our relatives.

The author (right) and his family during Hari Raya last year.

PHOTO: Thaqif Ismail

My parents have never experienced Ramadan during a health crisis. There is no rule book on how to carry out Hari Raya during COVID-19. We might have our first-ever Hari Raya teleconferencing session perhaps? But given the size of an extended Malay family which ranges between ten to thirty people, I am certain that such a strategy would fail spectacularly. Even when the circuit breaker is lifted after June 1, it is likely that Hari Raya home visits would be cancelled or restricted due to fears of virus transmission. It would also be safer for older adults like my grandfather who are more vulnerable to the virus. 

At the very least, I can take comfort in the knowledge that my family is not going through this alone. Around the world, an estimated 1.8 billion Muslims are facing a similar challenge. In Indonesia, the country with the highest Muslim population in the world, the government recently banned all forms of domestic travel by road, air and sea. The ban, although necessary to stem the spread of COVID-19, affects the annual tradition of mudik where millions make their way home to be reunited with their loved ones.

Singapore is an exception because given its small size, Muslims can always visit their families at any time of the year. But for a majority of the Muslim community overseas, the end of Ramadan might be the only opportunity for them to meet their loved ones that year. The thought of waiting a whole other year before reconnecting with our families is a frightening one. 

But the spirit of Ramadan may help us overcome this crisis. Muslims consider it a month for testing our resilience during times of hardship. We abstain from food and water during the day to empathise with the less privileged in our community.  But for this year’s Ramadan, Muslims across the world face a singular collective hardship of fighting COVID-19. It is a hardship that everyone, whether Muslim or non-Muslim, can empathise with. And that is an encouraging thought, isn’t it? 

By NUS Communications and New Media

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