Striving to be a better Muslim is a thought that’s on my mind a lot. It’s something I know I should be acting upon and somehow, when I look back at my religious track record, it’s like I’m stuck on replay and no real progress has been made. Like the false starts to consistently praying five times a day to previous Ramadans where it’s been tricky to get away from work to break my fast on time.
Except for this past year.
I’m still not quite a model example of a practicing Muslimah and I’m not where I’d like to be in terms of my religious goals, but, having spent a lot of time with myself the last 12 months, I think I’ve gotten a little closer to it. We all know that people turn to religion in times of stress (Google searches for prayer surged to the highest level ever recorded last March), but for me, and many other young Muslims, without the distractions of “normal” life, we’ve had the opportunity to form a deeper connection with Islam.
Almost 70% of Muslims reported having an improved relationship with God since the pandemic started, according to yet-to-be-published research by psychiatry professor Dr. Rania Awaad and her colleagues at the Stanford Muslim Mental Health and Islamic Psychology Lab. “If you think about what’s happening with the COVID experience, we’re talking about something that’s microscopic that has caused the entire world to come to a standstill. Something we can’t see changed the complete course of the way we live our lives, how we work, how we travel, and the way we interact with each other,” she tells Refinery29. “When something this drastic happens, I think people search for what’s greater than themselves.”
“I’ve definitely had to fall back on it more,” says Furqan Mohamed, 19, a second-year university student from Brampton, ON. “There’s something about being alone that makes you go back to God. If you can’t articulate your struggles or frustrations, you go back to the source," she says. (She adds that tapping into the web for podcasts or lectures has made practising easier.)
Which, for some, maybe wasn’t the easiest thing to do before given the noise of our pre-pandemic lives. Dr. Awaad, who also has a background in Islamic Studies, explains the relationship between religion and mental health is intrinsically woven into the fabric of Islam. She draws on examples from the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), who spent much time contemplating and meditating upon his feelings. In spiritual seclusion, Muslims reflect on their faith, their relationship with Allah (SWT), their relationships with others, where their life is going, and the hereafter. “It’s a very inward-facing time. In this modern life that’s very busy and plugged-in, there’s not a lot of time to do that. Islam really builds in these systems where you’re meant to take some time away from others to slow down and reflect.” The pandemic has mimicked a lot of this by forcing many of us to contemplate the state of our lives. In many ways, for those who hoped for a spiritual experience, it has been.
The pandemic has forced many of us to contemplate the state of our lives. In many ways, for those who hoped for a spiritual experience, it has been.
This is especially true during Ramadan, which looked a lot different before COVID. Mrwa Abbas, 27, from Kitchener, ON, explains how growing up Muslim in the western world presented itself with obstacles to practising the religion when it came to daily prayers or working long hours while fasting. This was suddenly no longer an issue for many once stay-at-home orders came into effect. According to Dr. Awaad’s research, 73% of Muslims reported having a better Ramadan in 2020 than the previous year as a result of slowing down and finding other ways to connect.
“To be able to pray five times a day before the pandemic would’ve been really hard. Of course there are those who do it, but I couldn’t find the strength,” Abbas says, adding that she has plans to read the translation of the Quran this month. “Now, working remotely, it’s easier for me to take a few minutes out of my day to pray.” I’ve also felt this. Working from home is a privilege and it’s this very experience that has kept me mentally grounded by having the time and space to be able to pray when I need to.
Ramadan brings a familiar sense of normalcy (as I’m writing this, Ontario is about to issue new stay-at-home orders), and many are looking forward to this holy month because it’s considered a cleanse of the mind, body, and soul. At the most basic level, we abstain from food and drink between sunrise and sunset to surrender to God, gain self-discipline over worldly desires, and empathize with those who are less fortunate. This is a sacred opportunity any year — but is even more special when going through a global health crisis where many might feel a stronger need for self-reflection and healing.
For many Muslims, keeping up with faith commitments is as much about community as it is introspection. The pandemic has disrupted many communal aspects of Ramadan such as breaking fast with family and friends or gathering to pray shoulder-to-shoulder with your neighbours, which are as important to our faith as they are our mental health.
That’s why The Rahma Foundation, a Muslim women’s educational organization where Dr. Awaad is a mentor, welcomed 8,000 women last Ramadan via virtual programming including Quran recitations, prayer, and speaker events with scholars and women activists. By doing this, the Bay Area-based organization was able to expand their community of Muslim women of all backgrounds without geographic limitations. Here at home, the ANNISAA Organization of Canada, a Toronto-based group dedicated to Muslim women’s empowerment, hosts year-round virtual workshops with different themes from self-care strategies to healthy goal setting.
For those readjusting to work in the office, it might be worthwhile to ask your manager about a designated praying area where Muslims, people of other faiths, or those looking to meditate on their lunch can go for a mental break. Another suggestion is to actually schedule prayer times into your work calendar. Dr. Awaad says it’s all about taking time out of your day and designating space that can be a spiritual haven for you to connect with Allah (SWT) without having a global pandemic that makes you pause. “Our five daily prayers are built in to remind us to do just that.” Even if it’s just where the prayer rug is, it’s all about maintaining your spirituality by making the time for it.
If it’s anything this past year has taught me, it’s thinking deeply about what my priorities are. That’s a lesson I’ll be carrying on post-pandemic. As Abbas says, "Life doesn’t always go how you want. I think my privilege has a lot to do with that awakening. It showed me that my religion is there to give patience and peace during rough times. Now, I feel like it’ll help me face obstacles going forward and I hope it’s not only then but also when I’m at peace.”
Keeping up with prayer in relation to mental health is sufficient for some, but for those who are dealing with mental health concerns, please seek help without feeling shame for it: If you’re struggling and seeking religious sensitive counselling in North America, please call Naseeha confidential helpline at 1-866-627-3342 between 12p.m. and 9p.m. ET, 7 days a week.