For the second year in a row, it feels as though Ramadan is leaving us just as quickly as it came.
Perhaps it is the fact that holidays always seem to sneak up on us when we least expect them to. Or maybe it's that time moves differently in a pandemic. It is safe to say that our festivities, how we spend them, and who we spend them with have changed these days, and Ramadan is no different. So much of Ramadan revolves around community and collective worship. Some of my fondest memories of Ramadan past are of small children giggling and running around our legs as we stood for Taraweeh, and later receiving stern religious advice in the mosque parking lot from elders while sipping iced coffee at 3:00 AM. These scenes don’t really exist anymore. Those who I would usually mark the time with; friends, aunties and uncles, cannot surround me for the sake of all our health and safety. This Ramadan, fasts are broken at smaller tables, with even smaller prayers, and faith is communicated over Zoom and long-distance phone calls. There is an immense feeling of loss for so many of us, but with two pandemic-altered Ramadan holidays under our belts, perhaps there is room for reflection as well. It can be both surprising and inspiring just how much we adapt when we have to, even when it’s hard.
What is Ramadan?
Ramadan (or Ramazan, Ramzan, Ramadhan or Ramathan, depending on where in the world you are from) is the name for the ninth month in the Islamic calendar. It is considered one of the holiest of the Islamic months, and one of the Five Pillars of the faith. Muslims eat before dawn, Suhoor or Sehri, and break their fast after sunset, iIftar or Fitoor. Ramadan is a time where discipline, worship, reflection, and community are emphasized, and when Muslims are encouraged to give to charity and extend compassion and patience to others and themselves.
It is important to note that not everyone can fast, and just like any other aspect of organized religion, people may struggle with meeting their obligations for a myriad of reasons. Mercy, consideration for the vulnerable, and extending the benefit of the doubt to others are important tenets of the Islamic faith. Those who experience physically exhausting bodily changes, such as menstruation, pregnancy and/or breastfeeding, or long-distance travelling, are exempt from fasting and are encouraged to make up their fasting at a later date. Muslims are also encouraged to pay Fidyah, a religious donation made when fasting is missed or broken. These donations can be of food and/or money, and it is meant to feed those in need. Many countries around the world and Islamic scholars across the diaspora differ on what exactly Fidyah should be, but there is some consensus that it should be enough to feed a person twice a day (or two people once), for every fast that is missed. For many Muslims, especially those who cannot fast again on a later date, such as those who live with mental illness, are neurodivergent or struggle with a chronic illness or eating disorder, this is their way of observing the holy month and remaining a part of something bigger than themselves.
Ramadan during the pandemic
Amid a global health crisis, a hectic vaccine roll-out, completing school finals, and just general feelings of ambivalence, fasting can seem like an added challenge. For so many Muslims, however, Ramadan this year was a welcomed observance. When asked how Ramadan during this second year of the pandemic has been, so many respondents, most of them young people from different cultural backgrounds and cities, lamented the communal aspects that usually accompany the holy month.
Saif Khan, a creative and student, said "Last year, I didn’t miss the sense of community that comes with Ramadan as much I do now - a year of the pandemic has lowered my spirits. Taraweeh at the mosque, Iftar with extended family: last year I thought that would all be back by 2021. Now, I’m not so sure." Suweda Afrah, a university student, echoed his thoughts, sharing, "Ramadan for me has always meant being surrounded by my family and friends, sending my favourite home-cooked meals to my neighbours and visiting the mosque to pray from dusk till dawn. This was my happy place. However, being in lockdown, I have had to make a lot of adjustments to how I choose to use my time."
When so much of a festivity is dependent on others, such as breaking fast and completing prayers in groups, there's so much to be missed. Ramadan in lockdown is a painful reminder of how quickly things we may have not considered consequential can become so when they are suddenly out of reach. "I think that the uncertainty has allowed me to be more grateful for what I have. Things certainly aren’t perfect, but I’ve been able to appreciate everything and everyone in my life at the moment. Because of that, I feel a greater sense of purpose in engaging with my faith." says Saif.
Abiha Sajid, another young creative and student, acknowledged a sense of a loss of control and disengagement this entire pandemic can make one feel. "It is now my second year observing Ramadan under a lockdown and I feel more disconnected from the holy month than ever. I have not truly recovered from the sudden lifestyle changes the COVID-19 pandemic forced upon us. Everything that has mattered most to me: school, family, friends, and my religion, has become more difficult to maintain."
"I find a lot of joy in reading Islamic novels, drawing or painting, reading the Quran and especially trying my best to have meaningful conversations with my family." Suweda continued, writing in a more optimistic and discerning tone. "With everything going on in the world, it’s important to take things easy and remember, as lost and hopeless as you may feel, Allah is always there to guide you."
For others, like Noor Ayn, this moment has been about shifting focus from what lockdown has taken from us to centering the hidden advantages. "Ramadan this year in lockdown has been quite a blessing for me.
“In the past, the anxiety of school and exams usually hindered my ability to fast properly, but this year those excuses were out of the way. I am proud to say this was the year I finally felt that I was able to set my mind properly on fasting. Though staying at home and distracting myself is easy and makes the hunger more bearable I have to say I took much for granted."
Haifa, an Instagram user, noted that "Ramadan has been good for the most part. Since school is online, it is easier to pray on time. Waking up and reading the Quran in place of getting ready for school. It really got me closer to my family and my deen [faith]." Aasiya, another Instagram user built on this sentiment of gratitude for the time lockdown has provided for getting back to basics. "I, for one, have loved fasting during the lockdown, so far. Working from home has reduced the burden of a daily commute, fixed work hours and pandering with worldly conversations at the office. I also find myself well rested and have the ability to focus on my work." She said. "It is easier to pray on time and I devote the lunch hour to do dhikr additionally. Usually, I struggle with carving time out for spirituality amid the daily grind. This is the first time Ramadan has come as a luxury to me. Having a routine is very important during Ramadan and this has helped during the lockdown as well."
That routine part is key for so many. Every Ramadan and subsequent Eid celebrations, Muslims across the world look to the moon for the sign to confirm festivities. It is a part of Islamic traditions to affirm one's faith in both the seen and unseen, and to do so in a collective manner. At a period of immense grief and instability, searching for moments of guidance could not be more relevant.
When asked about her Ramadan, Menat Allah El Attma, a student, shared a beautiful line from Octavia E. Butler's Parable of the Sower. “I had my recurring dream last night. I guess I should have expected it. It comes to me when I struggle—when I twist on my own personal hook and try to pretend that nothing unusual is happening. It comes to me when I try to be my father’s daughter.” (3) "I can remember neither a pleasant nor peaceful Ramadan before 2021." she said. "This year, the month of Ramadan has been everything of what it should be: holy and blessed. My prayers, dua'as, and connections to Allah have never been stronger. Alhamdulillah." My mother, at the start of this Ramadan, said to me she kept repeating one specific dua'a or declaration to herself during years of pain, and that is: yaqeeni billah yaqeeni meaning "My trust/certainty in Allah protects me". And that is how I now move.”