Redefining Ramadan in the Era of Social Distancing

This story was produced in partnership with Yes! Magazine.

I used to barely sleep during Ramadan. In years past, I would wake up before dawn to prepare the sehri or suhoor—the pre-dawn meal. Then my husband and I would pray, read the Quran, and go back to sleep for two hours. At seven, we’d wake and feed our three kids, drop them off at school, and rush to work. By the time I got home, I’d be shuffling the kids in the door, preparing iftar—the meal to break the fast—and trying to unload from the day.

Each evening during Ramadan, I’d prepare a large batch of iftar foods—chicken biryani, chana masala, and neatly stuffed samosas. Once a week throughout the month, we’d carry plates to share with friends and neighbors. On weekends, my husband’s family would rotate hosting iftar for 28 people at their homes. At night, the men would go off to the mosque with the boys, while the women would tend to the younger kids.

During Ramadan, which began April 24 and runs through May 23, Muslims around the world fast from dawn until dusk. But the coronavirus pandemic has changed how we’re observing and celebrating Ramadan this year. Now I let my three kids, ages four, seven and ten, sleep in while I do some freelance work, and then transition to home schooling them. I am no longer preparing iftar for others. We haven’t figured out how to share food and observe the social distancing rules for COVID-19.

In Detroit, all of our mosques are closed, though nationally, some mosques are providing services such as lectures, sermons, and Islamic courses via Zoom, Facebook or Instagram. Parking lots are empty. Streets are deserted, devoid of the hustle and bustle typical of Southeast Michigan, where an estimated 300,000 Muslims live.

Last year, in Dearborn Heights, the Ramadan Suhoor Festival, a fun and lively event serving halal food, attracted thousands to the streets during the hours between sundown and sunrise, when Muslims are permitted to eat. This year it was canceled. There will be no late-night pancake runs for sehri at the local IHOP, an American Muslim tradition for some.

Nargis Rahman’s seven-year-old daughter makes dua, a supplication, after completing the Isha prayer, the last of the five daily prayers. Photo by Nargis Rahman

The past few weeks have been a roller coaster for our family. Right before the COVID-19 outbreak, I lost my full-time job and had to quickly pivot to being a stay-at-home mom. On March 16, when Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced a stay-at-home order, my husband, an accountant, transitioned to working from home. Coinciding with Ramadan, this makes this all even more complicated.

Many of us are at a loss for how to socialize during Ramadan. We miss breaking bread together at our homes. We’re unable to hug each other at the mosque, to stand side-by-side in rows to pray behind the imam. We don’t hear the beautiful recitations of the Quran, soothing our souls in prayer. We miss the inconvenience of searching for parking in packed, moonlit lots. We aren’t staying up to do qiyams—retreats at the mosque to engage in worship.

But it’s not all about what we have lost. In many ways, this forced pause embodies the spirit of Ramadan—focusing on slowing down and making deeper spiritual connections. We can dedicate more time to worship.

We’re creating mosques in our homes; at our house, for example, we lay out prayer mats in the living room with a backdrop of sparkling lights to create an atmosphere of serenity. The kids join us for some of the prayers when they’re awake. My ten-year-old son recites aloud the adhan, or call to prayer, while my seven-year-old daughter places prayer mats neatly in three rows, my husband leading prayer, the boys in the middle and women behind. My four-year-old son either joins us or karate chops the air as we all bow in worship.

In the evenings, the kids and I prepare the table to break the fast, as my husband wraps up his work. Some days, he’s working from 9 a.m. until 1 a.m., taking short breaks for prayer. Iftar is the only time he can step away and breathe.

The kids began practicing fasting half days last year. Then nine and six, the oldest would fast from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. and the youngest from 8 a.m. until lunch, at noon. Now at home, with less strenuous days, the older children are fasting eight to ten hours. Our youngest does not fast.

These days, my daughter’s favorite part of iftar is setting the table with our gold-trimmed, pink rose china. Occasionally, she’ll pop a fresh batch of brownies into the oven for a late-night snack. My ten-year-old son is usually exhausted by iftar, and sits eagerly at the table, asking the Google home mini, “Hey Google, what time is it?” until it’s sundown. My four-year-old giggles as he watches all the commotion.

Rahman’s daughter closes off her prayer with a dua, or supplication. Photo by Nargis Rahman

We break our fast with dua, saying grace and supplicating for everyone to stay safe, before we eat. My youngest will tell us a story or ask questions about what we’ll do post-corona. “Mom, after the coronavirus, can our family come over for iftar?” I’ll tell him yes, knowing that Ramadan will soon end. We can dedicate more time for worship in a few weeks, but the virus may remain.

As a family, we’re having more meals together than ever. We’re praying and worshipping together. We’ve decorated the walls with lights and handmade crafts. We’ve had more time to go over scripture and teach the kids the aspects of religion that matter—building character, working together, reading about Prophets and righteous people from the past.

The month of fasting will come to an end soon. Gov. Whitmer extended the stay-at-home order until May 28. Eid Al-Fitr, the celebration marking the end of Ramadan, will most likely be celebrated at home on May 24, much like Passover and Easter were.

Our extended family has been talking about whether or not to purchase new outfits for the occasion and asking whether we’ll be getting together then. One of the local mosques, the Islamic Organization of North America, will host an Eid program via Zoom. Other local mosques are still grappling with what Eid will look like. But for now, we’re prepared to spend it over Zoom with family—to stay home and save lives.

Fi2W is supported by The Ford Foundation, the David and Katherine Moore Family Foundation, the Ralph E. Odgen Foundation, the J.M. Kaplan Fund, and anonymous donor and readers like you.

AboutNargis Rahman
Nargis Rahman is a Bangladeshi-American Muslim writer and a mother of three. She is passionate about community journalism in the Greater Detroit area and about giving American Muslims and people of color a voice in today’s media. A former journalism fellow for Feet in 2 Worlds/WDET 101.9 FM, her work has appeared in Haute Hijab, Eater, Detroiter Magazine, The Muslim Observer and others.