CORONAVIRUS

Holy month of Ramadan takes on new significance for Muslims during coronavirus

Sabah Hasan Khan prepares dinner for her family as they celebrate the first night of Ramadan at their home in Cedar Rapi
Sabah Hasan Khan prepares dinner for her family as they celebrate the first night of Ramadan at their home in Cedar Rapids on Friday, April 24, 2020. Muslims worldwide observe a month of daily fasting, but like other world religions, they have had to adapt to the state’s recommendations for avoiding the spread of the coronavirus. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — As the sun set Thursday on the first night of Ramadan, Hassan Selim, imam of the Islamic Center of Cedar Rapids, sang out the call to prayer from the top of the mosque — but instead of celebrating the start of the holiday with his congregation in person, he was streaming the call on Facebook.

The mosque was lit up outside with blue lights in honor of both the holiday and health care workers, but the inside of the building was empty.

During the holiest month of the year for Muslims, the community is finding new ways to keep the faith in the midst of a pandemic.

“Like other religious communities, we have shifted everything pretty much online. The nature of our rituals and prayers does require we gather in person, but since we haven’t been able to gather in the mosque, we have been trying to find substitutes,” Selim said. “They aren’t really as strong in spirit as if we were able to meet in person, but we have been trying to make the best out of it.”

Ramadan began at sundown Thursday and continues until May 23 with the celebration Eid al-Fitr.

“It’s a unique experience. Muslims are typically waiting in excitement for Ramadan,” said Islamic Center member Abu Halawa. “Ramadan, for us, is a time of joy and festivity.”

Throughout the month, Muslims fast between sunrise and sunset. Normally, congregation members gather to break their fast with a meal each evening at the mosque, followed by prayers.

“Everyone in the community from 5 years old to 90 years old looks forward to Ramadan. It’s the month where everyone in our community gets together, shares a meal together, prays together,” said mosque member Adil Ansari.

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This year, with social distancing in place due to the coronavirus, those traditions must be practiced at home.

“It is not the same as coming together to have a meal and praying together throughout the night, but it is our way of adapting,” Selim said. “I’m telling our congregation this is a great opportunity to do some spiritual reflection, to take care of yourself and your spirit.”

In the virtual sermons he’s been sharing online, Selim said he’s focusing not on what the community is missing, but on what it has.

“I’ve been really focusing on hopeful and positive messages, and I think people are really in need of that,” he said. “The theme for the congregation this year is finding hope in times of crisis.”

Ansari said he and his family are taking that message to heart. He and his wife, Sabah Hasan Khan, have two children, ages 6 and 12.

“We have to take it in a positive way — we are getting more time for spending time with family, more time for prayers, and cleansing our hearts, everything,” he said.

Selim said fasting takes on even deeper significance in a crisis. The practice of voluntarily giving up food and water during the day is meant to increase empathy with those who are less fortunate and are struggling.

“I think Ramadan this year will have a deeper spiritual meaning as we realize there are so many people around us and around the world who are affected in one way or another. We have this collective concern and struggle and fight,” he said. “I think fasting this year will be not only a spiritual practice but a form of global solidarity.”

In a way, the whole world is fasting now, he said, with life as we know it upended.

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“Ramadan is going to be a time when we realize the blessings. When you’re hungry or thirsty and break your fast, you say, ‘Wow, I have taken my daily bread for granted every day,’” he said. “Through challenges we grow spiritually and mentally and otherwise.”

Some things cannot be replicated at home. Halawa said reading the Quran is not the same as hearing it recited in the mosque.

“Your heart lifts when Imam Selim recites the Quran, it puts you in a different place,” he said. “There’s this mystical feeling, this joyful feeling. I know how much we’re going to miss that.”

Still, he sees one benefit to this year’s holiday. He and his wife, Malieh Halawa, have five children between the ages of 13 and 25. The four oldest are all university students, but with classes moved online, the whole family is at home together for Ramadan for the first time in years.

“It is good for me, because they are all here. We can all break our fast and pray at the same time,” he said. “This year all of them will be home during the month of Ramadan, so we will not be lonely, but we will miss going to the mosque.”

Shams Ghoneim, a board member of the Iowa City Mosque, said in an email not being able to gather for the evening meal is especially difficult for the elderly and the students the Iowa City Mosque serves, who may not have family nearby to break their fast with.

Still, she said this has encouraged community members to be more diligent than ever in checking in with each other.

“The pandemic brought us closer together, calling, emailing, and checking on one another in spite of our staying at home,” she said. “It reminded us of what is really important in our life. It is family and friends and a larger community and neighbors offering help.”

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Ansari said one of his family’s favorite parts of the meals at the Cedar Rapids mosque is the diversity, with members from different ethnic and national backgrounds all bringing dishes to share.

“We’re originally from India, but when we go to the mosque, everyone from different backgrounds prepares food. There is Lebanese food, Syrian, Somalian, Russian, American; the kids get food from every culture, from everywhere,” he said.

He said for their nightly meals throughout the month, they’ll try to keep that mix of influences going; one small nod to the community they can’t break bread with in person.

Mosque member Fatima Smejkal was organizing the Islamic Center’s Middle Eastern Dinner fundraiser, which was meant to be April 5 but was canceled this year. She said she’s looking forward to when the community — both Muslims and others — can come together again to share meals and fellowship.

“It is disheartening to not be able to celebrate together,” she said. “But we’re all in it together, no matter our faith. We will persevere and we will keep the faith.”

Comments: (319) 398-8339; alison.gowans@thegazette.com

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