With Eid-ul-Fitr, falling on 23-24th of May, Ramzan, the holy month of fasting, was being observed by Muslims all over the world, though alongside the challenges of the global health and economic crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. Worldwide, from Mecca to New York, government officials and Muslim scholars and leaders had appealed to people to stay in their homes to avoid the potential spread of the virus. In India, too, before Ramzan began, on April 24, the Union government had alerted the Muslim community about the need to maintain social distancing and hold prayers at home.
The Centre had reached out to Waqf Boards and Muslim religious leaders across states, early in April, in this respect. State governments had also been asked to hold similar meetings with community leaders to ensure that people do not step out of their homes. “There has been a unanimous decision by these leaders and organizations that social distancing will be maintained and prayers will be organized at homes rather than large gatherings in mosques,” said minority affairs minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi. This was thus, probably be the first time that Ramadan in the midst of COVID-19, has the potential of fulfilling many obligations for the faithful – Roza (fasting), namaz (praying), Zakat (charity) and jihad (struggle or quest) within a month. In fact, for the first time in recent memory, religious heads of all Muslim sects such as Deobandi, Barelvi, Shias, Bohras, and seminaries like Darul Uloom, Deoband, Nadwa, and organizations like Jamat-e-Islami, Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, Majlis Ahle Hadith, etc. had let go of their ideological differences to issue common appeals and fatwas to minimize physical contact. As with most religious festivals in India, Ramzan, too, is centered around community interactions and practices.
Fasting this year felt different, said most Muslims, as time seemed to move a lot slower under lockdown, but they were also thankful to be secure at home, spending this Ramzan closely with their families, after many years. The lack of food supplies, naturally, meant iftar (the evening meal with which one breaks their fast) and sehri (the dawn meal one eats before beginning their day's fast) was not up to expectations this year, but staples like fruit chaat, chana and pakodi remain. The Print reports that their meals were mostly vegetarian and less meat-oriented, for procuring meat was difficult in most areas in lockdown.
In Greater Noida, Nazia Erum, author of Mothering a Muslim, voiced the problem of limited access to food supplies. Access to meat in the state of Uttar Pradesh has been extremely limited and in addition to cooking, she said working from home, parenting, and cleaning left little time for doing special things. Their Ramadan was reduced to the bare minimum. There was also a sense of guilt over the migrants’ crisis caused by the lockdown, hence it felt wrong to cook anything elaborate, she added. 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 centers) to send packages of dry rations to all Bohras in their respective neighborhoods.
This year technology proved to be the strongest ally of Muslims in Ramzan. For recitation and listening of the Quran during Ramadan (a practice which is known as Tarawih), the Muslim community took to using their smartphones, television, radio, or the internet. There were many phone apps offering language translations and real-time telecast or recording of Quran recitation from Mecca, Medina, and other established seats. A series called Dastarkhwan e Ramzan was launched by active blogger Safvi on YouTube and Instagram, in lieu of people not being able to connect with others. During iftar parties, he would always talk about the importance of Ramzan and iftar; this year he took the decision of utilizing Instagram and Youtube for the same. Earlier, Safvi would post special iftar recipes daily on her blog and social media pages. Due to the pandemic, the food shortage, plus the migrant laborers’ crisis and job losses, she replaced food recipes with the narration of 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.
Many Muslims welcomed this return to a simple tradition of iftar. The prophet himself is said to have had a very minimalistic approach. His iftar was marked only by the consumption of date and water. He would advise not to eat much, to detoxify. This again is 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.
Evidently, Ramzan this year spelled introspection and simplicity with the lack of community celebrations paving the way for a more inward observance of spirituality. Although with interactive aspects, interactions were indeed facilitated by technology. But most importantly, this Ramzan managed to afford a higher incidence of inter-faith interaction. Amid the holy month of Ramadan, the Jammu and Kashmir government had been bringing back its residents from various Indian states, after which the Aashirwad Bhawan of the Shri Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine became a facility for isolation with around 500 beds. The shrine is famous and revered among Hindus and is also the second richest after the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams. The migrant workers arrived in Udhampur Town, J&K, from different states through the special Shramik trains. Those who came to the center were mostly laborers engaged in fasting due to Ramadan. While serving as a coronavirus quarantine center since March, the Shri Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine’s Aashirwad Bhawan had been providing sehri and iftari to about 500 Muslims isolated amid Ramadan. As per a Hindustan Times report, Ramesh Kumar, Chief executive officer of the board said that staff had been working overnight to provide sehri and iftari for their Muslim brethren every morning and evening.
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News 18, Vaishno Devi Shrine Provides Sehri & Iftari to Quarantined Muslims During Ramadan at Its Katra Bhawan, May 23, 2020. https://www.news18.com/news/india/vaishno-devi-shrine-provides-sehri-iftari-to-quarantined-muslims-during-ramadan-at-its-katra-bhawan-2633315.html
Ravi Krishnan Khajuria, Migrant workers in J&K urge government to run special trains to send them home, Hindustan Times, May 01,2020 https://www.hindustantimes.com/cities/migrant-workers-in-j-k-urge-government-to-run-special-trains-to-send-them-home/story-64Tsvzf9l4LdB9av5QSBUO.html
Zeena Salman, What It’s Like to Celebrate Ramadan Under Coronavirus Lockdown, Time magazine, Time.com, May 13, 2020. https://time.com/5833500/ramadan-lockdown-coronavirus/
Rasheed Kidwai, The lockdown Ramadan is truly special. It requires more discipline than usual, The Print, April 23, 2020. https://theprint.in/opinion/the-lockdown-ramadan-is-truly-special-it-requires-more-discipline-than-usual/407689/