And yet Washington Imam Talib Shareef has a surprising prediction: “For some people, it’s going to be their best Ramadan ever.”
Shareef envisions a month when families will grow closer, as parents and children break their daily fast at iftar dinners for one household rather than hundreds of worshipers. He envisions a month when some people will find time to read the entire Koran. He envisions a month when the region’s Muslims will find their social calendars packed — not at in-person parties but at an abundance of online offerings, instead.
The region’s mosques are transforming Ramadan, which begins for most Muslims on Thursday night, into a remote experience.
At ADAMS, a Northern Virginia mosque with 11 locations, 4,000 to 7,000 congregants usually worship every night of the holiday, according to Rizwan Jaka, the chair of the board. Special days draw even larger crowds: 9,000 on Fridays and as many as 25,000 for Eid, the celebratory final day.
This year, the 11 buildings will stand almost entirely empty, including a new 9,000-square-foot facility in Ashburn that was supposed to open for Ramadan. Staff and volunteers have planned classes, children’s programs, Koran recitations and daily calls to prayer on every platform they can think of — Zoom, WebEx, Microsoft Teams, Google and Facebook.
The demand seems to be there: A four-hour Ramadan class the mosque live-streamed on Saturday drew 17,000 viewers.
Center DC, a congregation of mostly young professionals, compiled a spreadsheet of dozens of online classes, support calls, mental health hotlines, community services and recipes to help people get through the holiday in isolation. Members will gather in small groups twice a day to socialize virtually and make phone calls to elderly members of Masjid Muhammad, Shareef’s D.C. mosque, who might be lonely during the holiday.
Falls Church’s Dar al-Hijrah will live-stream certain prayers to congregants at home and host nightly activities such as classes and Koran readings. Every weekend, congregants will participate in an online cooking competition — the voting will be based on how good food looks in a Facebook photo — and game-show-style tests of religious knowledge on the school quiz platform Kahoot.
At this mosque, prayer and socializing will be virtual, but the food will be real. The mosque’s leaders are asking kitchen staff to make more than 500 meals a night, just as they do when people are breaking their fast in person at the mosque. The free iftar meals can be picked up curbside any evening. For more than 150 congregants who are elderly or ill, volunteers will deliver meals to their door.
Giving charity is an important component of observing Ramadan, and imams are confident the confluence of the holiday with the global health and economic crisis will motivate many to donate to efforts focused on hunger. They’re concerned, however, about the financial health of their mosques, which rely on donations people drop into a box when they attend during Ramadan.
At Dar al-Hijrah, director of public and government affairs Saif Rahman, said the mosque raises 20 percent to 30 percent of its annual budget from Ramadan donations and another 10 percent to 15 percent from a fundraiser that had to be canceled because of the novel coronavirus. Mosque operations cost $100,000 a month. “We’ve got to figure out how to keep going,” Rahman said.
The community includes many immigrants, and many members — Uber and taxi drivers, those who work in small businesses, and more — who have lost work due to the coronavirus and won’t be able to contribute as much this year.
Asha Noor is helping to organize a nationwide support network for Muslims affected by the coronavirus, called the National Black Muslim Covid Coalition. She said she and her family, who live in the D.C. area, normally would have stocked up on ingredients for special Ramadan dishes weeks before the holiday. This year, they have barely prepared, trying to avoid shopping trips that could expose them to the virus and concerned about the ethics of buying too much at a time when store shelves are bare.
“Was it a luxury that we used to plan three weeks in advance? And what does that look like in a crisis?” she said. She worried fasting would be harder without the normal distractions of the workday. “When you have far more time, you know, it just seems like it extends. When I’m busy … going to meetings all day, I feel like, ‘Oh, I just started fasting, and now it’s time to break the fast.’”
Others hoped the change in work patterns might make fasting easier, not harder. “To be honest, I think a lot of Muslims are really happy to be working from home during Ramadan,” said Jinan Shbat, a national organizer at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. “Commuting when I can’t eat or drink is such a challenge. The days are extremely long.”
What Shbat will miss most are the nightly iftars. Typically, she spends every night of the holiday breaking her fast with friends. Sometimes, she hosts post-sunset meals in her home for more than 40 people. This year, she’s by herself; even her fiance is keeping his distance because she has respiratory difficulties, and he has gone to work at his family’s car dealership so elderly employees don’t have to come in.
“It does get extremely lonely, not having anyone else to break your fast with,” Shbat said. But she praised the online alternatives — she went to a gala in her sweatpants just before the holiday’s start. “Our community is so resilient. A lot of us come from countries where we’ve had to adapt, and we’ve had to fight to survive. We have these problem-solving skills already built in us.”
Fazia Deen, a leader at Dar al-Hijrah, sees that resilience in her apartment complex, where she lives surrounded by many Muslim immigrant families. The women in the complex have been joking about how their headscarves, pinned a bit differently, also work as face masks. They’ve been forming long lines outside the Ethiopian grocery store and the halal butcher shop, standing six feet apart from one another.
Deen is over 50 and trying to stay socially distant. But she also is figuring out how she can cook for her neighbors and exchange food.
An Egyptian neighbor already brought her two heaping plates of stuffed grape leaves. They’re a laborious food to make: Each leaf has to be boiled, cooled and dried, then rolled one by one full of rice and meat.
This Ramadan, her neighbor had time to make hundreds of them.