The Muslim holy month of Ramadan will be different this year. Around the world, mosques will be closed, when they would normally have worshipers spilling out onto the street. Extended families will remain apart, when they would typically gather for Iftar to break the fast and share homemade treats. And shopping malls, cafes and streets will be eerily quiet, when they would normally come alive after dark.
Ramadan still began on Thursday evening, though, and in the early hours on Friday morning, households gathered, as they have for centuries, to share a sleepy suhur — the pre-dawn meal.
Even as the world grapples with COVID-19, the yearly rituals of Ramadan will continue. Throughout the holy month, most of the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims will fast between dawn and sunset, spend time in Quranic recitation, self-reflection and prayer in an effort to become closer to God, and give thanks for our blessings. But this year, the prescribed exceptions from fasting for young children, travelers, pregnant mothers and anyone who is sick will now be extended to those feeling symptoms of COVID-19.
And this year, our prayers will include special emphasis on the health care workers, emergency workers and other essential employees who are on the front lines of the fight to protect our communities. In the eyes of God, saving human lives and benefitting humanity are most noble endeavors: The Quran likens saving a life to saving the whole of humanity, and the Prophet Muhammad (upon whom be God’s peace and blessings) says that the best of humans are those who benefit other humans.
Our obligation to help and support those in need also takes on added meaning this year as our neighbors and communities face sickness, grief, economic hardship and the loneliness of self-isolation.
Perhaps the most difficult obligation for many, though, will be forgoing the long-planned gatherings of the season, in order to comply with precautions issued by authorities. But following these measures is a duty of our citizenship and a necessity of our social responsibility to respect God’s laws in the universe. For instance, the Prophet Muhammad — whose belief and trust in God was beyond description — even advised quarantining a town in the event of an infectious disease.
Each of us should take the extra time and space afforded by the pandemic's social distancing measures as an opportunity for further examination of our connection with God, our families and our core values. This time offers a mandatory retreat from the busy nature of our daily lives and a chance to turn toward God, deepening our faith, knowledge and practice. I hope that imams will offer reminders about these opportunities to their congregations.
This period also forces us to rely on the internet and the technologies built upon it. Our young generations have been well-versed in these technologies ahead of their parents. Throughout history, messengers of God and those who strive for the enlightenment of humanity always used the available cultural tools and practices to spread their messages. We also must take this time to connect with our communities in new ways, including making our spiritual resources accessible to younger generations using their language and their familiar technologies.
The challenges of responding to the pandemic and altering our lives might push some of us to seek people to blame or to criticize. As we enter Ramadan, it is paramount that we devote ourselves to helping those in need, rather than finding others to blame. Even as people, groups or nations with whom we have had past differences may be suffering, each of us must reject as inhumane the thought that anyone deserved a calamity.
In a globalized world, nobody is isolated from a potent problem, be it environmental, medical or economic. This is a time to share data, and to collaborate to find solutions. This is a time to realize our interdependence as nations, as communities and as inhabitants of a global ecosystem — a time to recognize that we all are members of the human family and each have the opportunity to show the true potential of humanity.
As we enter this holy month, it is crucial that we look forward with hope and not despair, which stifles people and progress. Humanity has overcome great challenges in the past, and we will find ways to overcome this challenge, too. If we focus on the opportunities this pandemic presents, we will be able to keep our spirits high and reach the end of this tunnel much quicker.
Our observance of Ramadan will necessarily be different this year. But in many ways it will be like any other year: We will fast, we will pray, we will recite our holy book and we will take time for reflection and charity throughout the holy month. May God enable us to benefit fully from the feast of bounty in Ramadan.
Translated by Alp Aslandogan, the executive director of the Alliance for Shared Values.