The Islamic holy month is just weeks away and many believers are preparing to put traditions on hold due to social distancing and life under lockdown.
The Muslims holy month of Ramadan is expected to start on April 24 and will go on until the day of Eid al Fitr on approximately May 23.
Ramadan is a special time for the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, not just for the spiritual obligations they undertake such as fasting, but also for its social function.
For many, it is a time spent with family members for the daily evening meal called iftar and the morning meal, known as suhoor.
But this year’s event comes amid exceptional circumstances, which could force Muslims to do away with some of their most valued traditions - temporarily.
The global Coronavirus pandemic, which started at a wet market in China’s Wuhan province, has led to the infections of more than 1.4 million people and killed more than 82,000 people at the time of publication on April 8.
A highly contagious disease, with an apparent death rate of between one and three percent, the Covid-19 virus has forced governments across the world to implement lockdowns and enforce social distancing measures, such as a ban on public gatherings.
These have invariably included religious gatherings, with a vast majority of Muslim countries suspending congregational prayers and services, such as the weekly Friday prayer.
With the pandemic, and following lockdown measures expected to continue for weeks, Muslims are preparing for an inevitable adjustment in practices.
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Impact on duties and rituals
The signature act of the month of Ramadan is fasting, and for the vast majority of the faithful there should be no impact on that particular tradition. Keeping the fast may even be easier if people stay at home and avoid the physically taxing activities they would be participating in outside in the heat.
Nevertheless, Islamic injunctions on who should keep a fast take on added significance during a time of mass illness.
Muslims are exempt from fasting during illness and such a ruling would naturally extend to those who are suffering from the coronavirus.
But while fasting will likely go on, one tradition that will definitely be impacted is the nightly Taraweeh prayer.
Each night in Ramadan, Muslims gather at mosques for an optional additional prayer, which is in addition to their five daily ones.
With obligatory congregational prayers, such as Friday prayers, cancelled, there is little likelihood Taraweeh prayers will commence this year.
Religious traditions are just one aspect of the Muslim holy month, as it is also a time in which Muslims make a special effort to spend time with their families, particularly during the iftar meal.
To be clear, for people isolating with their immediate family members, life would continue on pretty much normally. However, one of the great traditions of Ramadan, is inviting friends and relatives over to break the fast together. Lockdowns and social distancing measures will make doing so in 2020 near impossible, unless the pandemic dies down before the Eid holiday, which is unlikely.
To compensate for this lack of social interaction, some Muslims are using technologies such as Zoom to arrange communal online iftars.
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Poorer Muslims may also suffer disproportionately as they are normally reliant on communal iftars hosted by wealthier members of their community. In countries, such as Qatar for example, lavish banquets are laid out by businessmen for labourers.
While such restrictions will inevitably hamper the spirit of Ramadan, acts of charity can still be arranged through organisations that have the logistical capabilities to distribute food to the poor during the lockdown.
While Ramadan has many social characteristics, it is primarily a month of personal contemplation. It could be that staying at home with fewer material distractions will help people grow more spiritually than in preceding years.
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