With Eid-ul-Fitr coming up in the last week of May, Ramzan, the holy month of fasting, is being observed by Muslims the world over alongside the challenges of the global health and economic crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
All over the world, from Mecca to New York, government officials and Muslim scholars and leaders have urged people to stay in their homes to avoid potential spread of the virus.
In India, too, before Ramzan began on 24 April, the Union government impressed upon the Muslim community the need to maintain social distancing and hold prayers at home.
The Muslim community in India set aside ideological differences between the various Shia and Sunni sects to issue common appeals and fatwas to followers to minimise physical contact, as it collectively grapples with how to adapt to the new reality of Covid-19 while fulfilling religious and cultural obligations.
Fasting under lockdown
For Mumbai-based lawyer Saamir Askari, fasting this year has felt different as time seems to move a lot slower under lockdown, but he is thankful to be at home and spending this Ramzan with his family in New Delhi after many years. The lack of food supplies, naturally, has meant iftar (the evening meal with which one breaks their fast) and sehri (the dawn meal one eats before beginning their day’s fast) are different this year, but staples like fruit chat, chana and pakodi remain, he tells ThePrint. “Our meals have shifted towards being more vegetarian, as getting meat is super difficult.”
Nazia Erum, author of Mothering a Muslim, echoes the problem of limited access to food supplies. Based in Greater Noida, she has found that access to meat in the state of Uttar Pradesh has been extremely limited. “In addition, we are also working from home, parenting, cooking and cleaning. There’s no time for doing extra special things, so we are doing the bare minimum.” There is also a sense of guilt over the migrants’ crisis caused by the lockdown, hence it feels wrong to cook anything elaborate, she adds.
In parts of Kashmir, too, lamb prices have gone up, points out Salik Bashirat, a research associate at Ashoka University who is currently visiting family in Srinagar. Furthermore, rituals like visiting bakeries and buying Kashmir’s famous chicken patties have taken a backseat this year.
For Bashirat, whose Sunni Muslim family is spread across Kashmir, other parts of India and Saudi Arabia, Ramzan has always meant a combination of different practices, but fasting is always a must. His parents, who are doctors in Saudi Arabia, spend their days at the hospital, come back home to a designated room in the house to first sanitise themselves, then proceed to prepare a meal with which to break their roza (fast). Things are particularly challenging for his father, who is a frontline doctor in a Covid-19 ward. This is their first Ramzan without their children, but they make it a point to video chat with them every day, asking about their day and what was eaten for iftar, despite the fact that due to different time zones, they cannot break their fast together.
Community is a big part of Ramzan
As with most religious festivals in India, Ramzan, too, is centred around community interactions and practices. But under lockdown, prayers (tarawih) at one’s mosque, as well as iftar and sehri are all being practised through newly adopted norms of social distancing.
“With mosques/masjids shut, prayers are happening at an individual level at home. No Jumma namaz (Friday prayers), no visiting family friends, no iftar parties this year,” observes Bashirat. For Kashmir, a region that has been subject to an intense lockdown, including a communication blackout, for much of the past year after the revocation of Article 370, the mosque had assumed an even more important role in community solidarity. It is where “ek dusre ko dilasa dete hain” (people give each other reassurance and support), explains Salik. Of course, this has come to a grinding halt because of coronavirus.
But apart from praying together, the act of breaking the fast together over a shared plate of food is also a crucial part of Ramzan, says Nazia Erum, host of Interfaith Iftars, community gatherings meant to initiate people of different faiths into the rituals associated with an iftar. The initiative was started three years ago, by Erum and a group of women who host different groups of people at different venues across New Delhi.
The gatherings were organised with the intention of dispelling misconceptions or prejudices many may hold due to their lack of connect or access to Muslim families, explains Erum. “This year Ramzan lacks the joy of being in a community. With Interfaith Iftars, it had become a highlight of our month, the whole week was spent planning for the event.”
Her co-host, historian Rana Safvi, tells ThePrint that the purpose of the gatherings was not just to build community but also fight Islamophobia. “Once you come to know each other, any hostilities that may have existed are bound to finish. They exist because either you are afraid or don’t understand something.”
Many Muslims depend on the mosque itself for iftar to collectively break their fasts. This is why the Dawoodi Bohra Muslim community — the highly close-knit sect of Shia Muslims concentrated in Western India — informed their network of jamaats (community centres) to send packages of dry rations to all Bohras in their respective neighbourhoods. Mumbai-based Tasneem Biviji was pleasantly surprised to receive a package from the mosque that included a whole month’s rations. “All the staples for sehri, iftari and a simple dinner for the month of Ramzan have been provided for,” she says.
And this is not just for Mumbai. Jamaats and chapters in different cities and countries have organised the same. Far away from his family in Mumbai, Biviji’s nephew in Boston received food from his mosque as well — just that instead of being sent a general package, he was first sent a list and asked to tick the items he required from it.
Prayers, recipes and charity online
As social media becomes increasingly central to our social and cultural lives, expressing one’s faith on different platforms has become the new normal, especially when people are shut in their homes. On video-sharing platform TikTok, videos hashtagged#Ramzan or #Ramadan include everything from sketches to spread messages of togetherness the importance of fasting and charity during Ramzan to tutorials on how to cook staple iftar snacks like samosas.
This year, Safvi, an active blogger and social media user, has launched a series called Dastarkhwan e Ramzan on YouTube and Instagram, in lieu of people not being able to connect with others. “During our iftar parties, I would always talk about importance of Ramzan and iftar. But this year I decided to use Instagram and YouTube instead.” Earlier, Safvi would post special iftar recipes daily on her blog and social media pages. But this year, due to the pandemic, the food shortage, plus the migrant labourers’ crisis and job losses, she decided to replace food recipes with stories, which include old Islamic tales, such as the ones about Hazrat Ali and the loaves of bread, Prophet Yunus and the Whale and Solomon and the Ant.
Charity, another crucial aspect of Ramzan, has also gone digital, says Safvi. “ Earlier, we used to send food for iftars to masjids, but now we are now sending money to different individuals or organisations behind applications like Free Ration App to donate ration packages to people affected by the lockdown.” Started by an NGO, the app accepts applications from those in need of supplies, and upon verification, connects them with a local grocery store with which it partners and informs the applicants to collect their essentials from the store.
The Bohra Muslim community, on the other hand, is harnessing the power of technology to allow its members to continue to pray together. “Every evening, families receive a link around 9-9.30 at night, which leads a live reading of a sermon. So one can take part in prayers or quran readings online,” says Biviji. “The feeling of praying together in a mosque is very different from this, yet it is nice to be able to have some sense of togetherness at such a time.”
A return to simpler celebrations
As community celebrations have given way to a more inward observance of spirituality during the pandemic, Ramzan this year has spelt introspection and simplicity.
For Bashirat, the return to a simpler tradition of iftar has been welcome. “The prophet had a very minimalistic approach. He’d only consume a date and water at iftar, that was his way. He’d advise not to eat much, to detoxify.” It was also a way of understanding what it is like to not have food — a sentiment that has lost relevance in the modern idea of Ramzan wherein sehri and iftar are observed by many through sumptuous feasts.
Safvi, too, recalls having very simple iftar meals as a child and says there was hardly any conspicuous consumption. This year, for Eid too, the message is to be simple and thrifty, with nothing wasteful or elaborate.
“In the beginning it was more difficult, but now it is becoming easier to rediscover smaller joys,” remarks Erum, who tells ThePrint that most people she speaks to say they feel more connected with god, and find solace in reading religious scriptures during such a time.
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