Finding Unity in Separation: Observing Ramadan during Quarantine
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Right now, everything seems different. The quarantine has caused schools and businesses across the country to close down, forcing children out of school and adults out of work. Holidays such as Passover and Easter have passed during quarantine, with families using virtual platforms to keep in contact and celebrate together. Now, as the world enters yet another week of quarantine, Muslims around the world are celebrating their own holiday: the holy month of Ramadan.
Fasting during Ramadan is one of the Five Pillars of Islam, a cornerstone of the Islamic faith and a practice that strengthens observers’ interpersonal and spiritual connections. Ramadan begins at the first sighting of the crescent moon and thus varies each year, though it usually begins around late April or early May. The holiday ends 29 to 30 days later, at the sighting of the next crescent moon. Over the next three days, Muslims celebrate Eid al-Fitr, a holiday marking the end of Ramadan and the start of a new month called Shawwal.
A multitude of traditions characterizes Ramadan. The most well-known tradition is the practice of fasting during the day, which begins at sunrise and ends at sunset. In addition to this tradition, observers are also encouraged to be more charitable, pray nightly, and recite the Quran. Food is also embedded in Ramadan tradition—traditionally, Muslims break their fasts each night with a date. At dinnertime, families come together to enjoy a table full of delicious cuisine. Some foods that can be found on the table of a South Asian Muslim family may include biryani (yellow rice coupled with spices and meat), piyaju (red lentil and onion fritters), and haleem (a chunky stew made of wheat, barley, and meat). Dessert can consist of kheer (a type of rice pudding), dahi baray (a combination of yogurt and balls of flour), and carrot halwa (a pudding consisting of carrots, milk, sugar, ghee, and nuts). Occasionally, people go to mosques to break the fast and pray with other Muslims. Some also volunteer to give out food to others who are hungry.
Of course, the meal only comes at the end of a daylong fast. Participation in the fast varies for each individual. Some students, such as junior Yasmeen Hassan, started fasting at a very young age. She remembers being around four or five years old when she began, though in a more lenient format that allowed her to take breaks. This staggered or partial fasting was an experience shared by many students, regardless of when they began. “I started fasting half of the day when I was six or seven years old,” sophomore Kaniz Akter said, who began full fasts at age ten.
Some students believe that fasting gets easier with time, as the body adjusts to the change in food intake. Some, like senior Irtesam Kha, don’t even realize they are fasting: “I feel like every year, I'm too excited to notice whether I am hungry or not because I know that there's great reward to come from it.”
Other students find ways to distract themselves. For instance, junior Abdullah Alam takes naps to pass the time, and Hassan concentrates more on her schoolwork. Multiple students, including Akter and Kha, have also described fasting as habitual to the point where they forget what they are doing or even look forward to it. This ties in with the idea that fasting should not be seen as an obligation but rather an opportunity for personal and communal growth.
For many Muslims, Ramadan is characterized by its community involvement: crowded mosques during the late-night prayers and large gatherings where friends and family break their fast together. Unfortunately, this year, the COVID-19 pandemic forces Muslims to open themselves up to unprecedented changes in tradition and routine. They must find alternative ways to commemorate a month that celebrates togetherness and thoughtfulness while also abiding by social-distancing guidelines. Naturally, it’s challenging to commemorate a month of closeness while staying six feet away from others and wearing an N95 mask. Communities are prevented from coming together to celebrate, as many students noted their inability to visit mosques or participate in community charity events.
Even if the community aspect of Ramadan is no longer possible, Muslims are making the best of an unfortunate situation. Sophomore Ekra Sikder said, “Normally, my whole family is busy [...] It’s especially hard for my parents to fast because they’re working and all that, but now we’re home and everyone fasts [and] pray[s] together, and I actually like it a lot.” In the midst of all the craziness, Ramadan gives Muslim students time to step back and process everything going on around them.
Several practicing Muslim students at Stuyvesant have noticed the ways in which the quarantine has shaped Ramadan. “What's different about this year is the whole situation going on with the world: the remote learning and being quarantined. All these new changes just take the feeling of Ramadan out of Ramadan,” sophomore Semoi Khan said. “I can’t imagine Ramadan without Taraweeh [late-night prayers].” Though technology allows us to see each other, it is a sad approximation of the true Ramadan experience.
Observing Ramadan in the midst of a pandemic poses an interesting paradox: enforced separation during a time where community is sacred. This Ramadan, we all have the opportunity to reconsider the things that matter to us and give back to our communities, regardless of religion.