As Ramadan begins Tuesday, Amin is navigating a maze of decisions including whether and where to listen to the nightly taraweeh prayer, how close to stand to others if he goes in person and how many people to break fast with. Embedded in each of these choices is the same dilemma: how to make the holy month meaningful and communal when Muslims are going in all different directions about how to mark it.
“I’m a bit fearful. My spirit was stronger last year. All I had was the book, the word and my own thoughts. I was able to really get back to the essence of it,” Amin, 43, said. Between the rapid closures of last April, the social unrest in the streets and the national election drama, “all the things you read about in the Koran were happening. Last year was more spiritual, and I hope we can get back to it.”
Amin is just one of millions of American Muslims for whom the second pandemic Ramadan is a spiritual, medical and political morass.
At Dar Al-Hijrah, a Falls Church, Va., mosque that usually draws 1,000 people each night during a normal Ramadan, the pandemic created a set of challenges for its scholars. One was figuring out how to balance Islam’s call for people to pray shoulder to shoulder, foot to foot — to emphasize communality — with the need to socially distance. With Ramadan starting and in accordance with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s latest coronavirus guidelines used in schools, Dar Al-Hijrah is moving its taped lines three feet closer, now to a three-foot distance, and expects 700 people for the nightly hour-long taraweeh prayers.
“I think, generally speaking, people want to come back, but I do think there are long-lasting psychological issues, questions about associating [in proximity] to people right now,” said Saif Abdul-Rahman, government affairs director of the mosque. “We still have to overcome what people got accustomed to and comfortable with.”
A new question this year is the coronavirus vaccine. Attitudes about vaccines vary widely among the United States’ extremely diverse Muslim population. But segments have pressed community leaders about whether ingesting a vaccine during Ramadan violates the call to fast during daylight hours, one of the five pillars of Islam, a practice meant to heighten awareness for the month. Some worry that potential vaccine side-effects could lead to the need to eat or drink during the day.
There have been enough questions that multiple national Muslim groups put out a joint statement last week noting that many U.S. Muslim medical and spiritual authorities have approved getting the vaccine during Ramadan — or as soon as people can.
Taking the vaccines “does not invalidate the fast during Ramadan as per the opinion of the majority of Islamic scholars,” says the statement of the Islamic Medical Association of North America.
Islam teaches that Muslims are exempt from the fast if and while they are sick or traveling, said Talib Shareef, imam of Masjid Muhammad in Northwest Washington. They can make up a missed fast day later, and it’s completely legitimate, he said.
“They put too much on themselves. I am telling them to think safety first, benefit over harm. We prayed last year for the vaccine, and I have to remind people: Now we have this. Some haven’t taken it because they’re hesitant. I’m emphasizing Ramadan is interested in the value of human life.”
There are also cultural and generational differences in the way people feel about taraweeh prayers. Most Muslims follow a tradition of having a reciter read the entire Koran to the community during Ramadan, one part per night. It usually takes about an hour. Sunni Muslims, who are the majority of Muslims in the United States, add additional prayers in which everyone participates. The prayers are called taraweeh.
While listening to the recitation under traditional Islamic law is technically optional, unlike the mandatory, year-round daily prayers, “for many people, it’s so ingrained in how they were raised that it’s hard for them to imagine the month of Ramadan without it,” said Imam Refai Arefin of the Islamic Community Center of Potomac.
“It’s the nexus of the Koran and prayer coming together into one ritual worship. It’s a chance to all be together and do it in a way that’s less than just in passing. It’s like completing summer camp, at the end everyone is hugging each other and giving high-fives!” Arefin said. Older Muslims in particular will hold fast to the tradition of having never missed a taraweeh night in their lives, he said.
Homayra Ziad, head of the Islamic Studies program at Johns Hopkins University, said she’s “noticing a lot of intergenerational strife” about the importance of going in person to hear the recitation between her peers in their 40s and parents in their 70s and 80s. “A number of my friends have been complaining about parents insisting on doing it at the mosque,” said Zaid, who lives in Baltimore but worships with a community in New York, where she’ll attend small garden iftars, the meals that break the fast.
Some faith leaders and parents of various faiths have noticed a positive pandemic trend: Some youths are getting more into spiritual practices and issues now that everything is either online or maybe in a park or something non-institutional when in person.
Ayesha Ahmad, 39, a teacher in Montgomery County, has three small children and other young relatives. She says she’s not religious and doesn’t attend a mosque, but marks Ramadan with iftars with relatives. This year, she expects to do some outdoors with her brothers and feels the loss of mosque services is more intense among older Muslims she knows.
“For a lot of our parents, especially if we’re first- or second-generation [immigrants], that’s the tie that binds, going to the places of worship. The younger generations don’t have as much of a push to go to mosque, it’s easier to make connections in other ways,” Ahmad said.
Arefin said he sees more engagement from young people as well, because the pandemic forced Muslim institutions to really step up their virtual programming. His center now has accounts running on Instagram, YouTube and other platforms.
Amin said he wants this Ramadan to continue the intensity he felt last year, when the strange pandemic holiday focused everything on a question: Why do I believe what I believe? He plans to go to in-person and virtual iftars, attend the mosque regularly during the month, but keep social distancing and “hold onto reading by myself.”
One thing all generations connect on, said Shareef, is the concern about racial division and the hope that Ramadan, with its goal of higher consciousness, will be a help. He cited concern about what he called “seeds” left over from the Trump presidency, and about a new Georgia law that critics say is aimed at decreasing voter turnout among Black voters.
The mosque will hold many talks during nightly, virtual prayers, about racism and nationalism and “the need to stand up for justice and fairness.” He says he hears the hope of many Muslims that this Ramadan will focus attention on this. “Ramadan gives an opportunity to reflect on the oneness of humanity. There is some negative energy pushing separatism based on race, and we have to be very conscious of that. And fasting is a way to get you to focus. There is only one type of human. There’s always good in every human, we will try to reach that good.”