Despite what a lot of non-Muslims might believe, Ramadan is about much more than abstaining from food and drink. The month gives Muslims the opportunity to strengthen their relationship not only with God and their faith but also with the rest of the Muslim community. Typically, Ramadan would place a huge emphasis on togetherness, with Muslims not only congregating for daily prayers at the mosque but also celebrating the breaking of the fast (Iftar) every evening with their friends and family.
But once again, this Ramadan is expected to be significantly different from the usual festivities. The current restrictions mean that, for the second year in a row, Muslims in the UK as well as a number of other countries are having to adjust to another Ramadan in lockdown. Although lockdown measures are easing, there are still huge limits on what we can and cannot do this Ramadan.
Ramadan in my household was always typically spent with my extended family, including my grandparents and cousins. Over time, this became a tradition, with my cousins and I spending the long nights keeping one another company until Suhoor (starting the fast at sunrise) and spending the afternoons preparing chocolate-coated dates and samosas in time for Iftar. Our dinner table would always be chaotic, as dozens of us gathered around, anxiously waiting for the Adhaan (call to prayer) to begin and mark the end of a long day of fasting.
To say that the last Ramadan, so early on in this global crisis, felt unusual would be an understatement. The usual community spirit was largely missing and as we, along with the rest of the nation, adapted to the early months of lockdown, we tried our best to make sure that the true essence of Ramadan remained intact.
With my family scattered across the UK and unable to gather, we (like so many others) had to find new and innovative ways of celebrating the month together. Our Ramadan weekends were spent arguing with one another over Zoom family quizzes and debating who raised their hand first over lagging Wi-Fi connections. Despite the fact that we weren’t able to break our fasts together, it didn’t mean we couldn’t all dine on the same foods. Family members who lived close by would often receive bags of my latest lockdown bakes on their doorsteps, with detailed reviews texted to me just hours later. Although we weren’t physically together, this ensured that our family stayed connected and, in some ways, became closer than ever.
It wasn’t just us embracing new traditions. Mosques began to host Ramadan prayers and nightly Qur'an readings online. Charities held fundraising campaigns on social media rather than going door to door. And Iftar parties, like parties in general, began to take place on Zoom rather than in dining rooms and restaurants.
Twenty-four-year-old Mariam*, a student from the East Midlands, tells Refinery29 how her family is planning on observing Ramadan this year. After the recent deaths of her grandfather and friend, they need their community now more than ever. "I’m spending my Ramadan praying and reflecting on life this year. COVID has really taught me to value my family, health and life and how we need to be patient and not take things for granted because they can be easily taken away from you." Last Ramadan, Mariam and her family started the tradition of a "Ramadan table" which consisted of "dates, traditional oud, flowers, the Qur’an, candles and a prayer book". They also created their own "mini mosque" at home. "It’s where we would do Tarawih prayers each day, with one of my brothers taking turns to lead the prayer."
Similarly, Manchester journalist Yasmin Al-Najar found that putting up decorations in her home helped with spirituality and getting "in the zone". Even then, things didn’t feel the same. "The [Muslim] community feels like a family and so not being able to be with them during Ramadan meant that the month felt lonely and not the same as previous Ramadans… Even being in a mosque gives me a kind of peace and heightened sense of spirituality and closeness to God that I do not get anywhere else, so not being able to go last year was one of the most difficult things about Ramadan."
Although mosques have now opened, social distancing measures are still in place, with many mosques insisting worshippers book a slot ahead of attending. Sabah Ahmedi, one of Britain’s youngest imams, explained to Refinery29 how he’s planning on bringing people together this Ramadan. "This year, in limited numbers we will be offering prayers in our mosques according to the rules of social distancing and have also organised online events so that the members of our community are able to partake in the blessings Ramadan brings from the comfort of their homes.
"It’s great that Muslims can stay virtually connected during this blessed month. It’s an opportunity for us to pray for one another, support families who may be alone during this month and to share their own experiences of Ramadan to help motivate and encourage one another to become more righteous and better people," he says.
However, it’s not been as easy for everyone to adapt. Nottingham-based charity Village Food Project is one of many organisations working to provide home-cooked meals for refugees and the homeless. But unlike other organisations, Village Food Project ensures that its food is suited to those it is intended for: all meals are halal and from traditional cuisines. Founder Sameena Ali tells Refinery29 that the charity really struggled to meet its intended outcome last Ramadan and is just as concerned this year. "A lot of volunteers [are] having to shield and [there’s a] rising number of people in our community who are struggling financially. The demand definitely outweighs the supply." Nevertheless, she’s determined to do the best that she and her team can, despite the difficult circumstances.
Lockdown has taught us a lot and really given us the time to think and reconsider our priorities, and perhaps that’s the best mindset to adopt this year. As I prepare for my second Ramadan in lockdown, I can’t help but look forward to rekindling my relationship with God and reinforcing my religion. It’s been difficult not to be able to engage in our usual traditions and rituals but finding new ways to connect with our community has given us the opportunity to really strengthen and intensify our bonds with everyone in our lives.
Regardless of the fact that it’s been difficult, Ramadan will always be an immensely important month for the Muslim community. Not even a global pandemic can change that.
*Some names have been changed at the request of interviewees