American Muslims face a lonely Ramadan during lockdown

Shaista Shiraz, 34, doesn’t have many friends in Westchester county, north of Manhattan. She left her hometown of Atlanta, Georgia, five years ago after her divorce to settle in New York, the only other place she had family.

Between settling in a new city and raising her two children, Shiraz didn’t have many friends. During Ramadan, the lack of companionship always hit the hardest. This year will be even more difficult for her.

With Ramadan starting on 23 April, Muslims around the world will refrain from food and drink every day from sunrise to sunset during the holiest month in Islam. But this year, Covid-19 will rob millions of Muslims across the US from congregating for prayers, iftar and other Ramadan customs.

Mosques don’t just host daily free iftar (the meal eaten after sunset). They host fundraisers, mixers and lectures, all an integral part of the celebration. Following most iftars, Muslims go to the mosque for a communal prayer that can only be done during Ramadan, tarawih.

This year, Muslims will have to go the virtual route.

‘It is a test from God and we have a lot of lessons to learn’

The Islamic Center of Central Missouri hosts upwards of 1,000 people at its weekly Friday service. Now, only 20 to 40 people are logging in to online events. Mosque leaders hope the turnout will increase as Ramadan starts.

“It is an experiment, it is a test from God and we have a lot of lessons to learn,” said Shakir Hamoodi, an imam.

In March, the mosque closed, just a few weeks before Missouri issued a stay-at-home order. Soon, members came to terms with the new reality.

Mohannad Al-Sammaraie and his wife, Eman, are physicians at the University of Missouri hospital. Mohannad and Eman have three children, including an infant.

As Ramadan starts, the Al-Sammaraie family will have to face that new reality – while fasting.

“The human interaction is going to be missed and the tranquillity and the peace that one feels in the vicinity of the masjid [the mosque] is going to be missed,” Hamoodi said. “But all of us now understand the magnitude of the crisis.”

“The other day, my son Saif was counting the blessings of being home,” Mohannad said. The blessings include going to sleep and waking up whenever he wants, and attending school virtually in his pajamas.

But when the pandemic first hit the US, Saif, who is seven, became worried about the virus. With an iPad in hand, the seven-year-old would continually ask, “Hey Siri, how many cases of coronavirus in Missouri today?”

Despite this fear, the Al-Sammaraies are doing their best to keep up the Ramadan spirit at home. They’ve made a daily schedule assigning one person to teach the rest of the family a short Islamic lesson.

Grocery shopping has also proved challenging. Eman went to a local Arab market two weeks ago to get ingredients for Ramadan meals, like lentils and dates. She’s also been using a grocery delivery app to get other groceries – including 10 loaves of bread she ordered last week. “Being able to shop was something that we never thought to be something we’ll miss, but it’s the new reality,” Mohannad said.

For iftar, the Al-Sammaraies typically break their fast with some water and a date, followed by lentil soup and a main course with rice or pasta.

After the meal, the Al-Sammaraies would normally go to the mosque for tarawih. Mohannad looked forward to listening to the Qur’an being recited by the imam, while his teenage daughter, Rawan, was excited to see her friends.

Instead, Rawan will be keeping up with her friends through Zoom calls hosted by the mosque’s youth program. They meet for an hour online three days a week to learn about Islam and play games like Pictionary together.

Mohannad, on the other hand, feels a major part of his own spirituality – praying side by side with his community – will sadly be curtailed. “You are sharing the same ritual, the same actions, the same emotions with others,” Mohannad said. “You feel that you are not a minority, with our large community that shares the same values.”

There are 3.45 million Muslims in the US as of 2017, according to Pewresearch. A fast-growing population, by 2040, Muslims are expected to be the second-largest religious group, after Christians.

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