This year, Amira Shourbaji, a 38-year-old university instructor in Michigan and mother of four, is feeling particularly grateful.
Last Ramadan — the Islamic holy month that began Tuesday, during which Muslims fast each day from dusk to sunset — came at the peak of the pandemic, and like millions of other Americans, Shourbaji was in lockdown.
Ramadan is also a popular time for Muslims to gather and break fast together in each other’s homes, attend evening prayers at the mosque, and perform acts of charity collectively. But the pandemic brought all of that to a halt. Shourbaji’s local mosque closed in accordance with government restrictions, and the family stayed at home for the long, lonely month.
So when her local mosque announced this year that services and prayers would resume with tight restrictions, Shourbaji felt grateful for the opportunity.
“It’s not the same as it has been in previous years, but I definitely think we’re in a better place than we were last year,” Shourbaji told HuffPost. “At least there’s some sort of form socializing and at least we’ll get that feeling of Ramadan, even if it’s for just a few days.”
It gives us a feeling of hope that next year, that it will be a little bit more normal.
With more individuals getting vaccinated every day and the easing of government restrictions, some Muslim Americans across the country are welcoming the opportunity to celebrate the holy month in any small way they can. Mosques have cautiously reopened with strict rules on social distancing, limited capacity and required masks.
Prior to Ramadan, many mosques served as vaccination sites, and religious leaders worked around the clock issuing statements and using social media to dispel vaccine hesitancy in order to return people to their houses of worship.
Some families said they planned to host small iftars — communal dinner parties at the end of the fasting day — with other families in hopes of holding on to the Ramadan spirit of community. For new Muslims or those who don’t have family, Ramadan can be a particularly lonely time.
Shourbaji is vaccinated, as are her husband and teenage daughter. She plans to break fast with other vaccinated Muslim families. Her daughter, in particular, has been begging her mother to let her vaccinated friends come over. (Health officials say fully vaccinated people can safely gather.)
“It gives us a feeling of hope that next year, that it will be a little bit more normal,” she added.
Playing It Safe
Not all Muslim Americans are ready to gather for iftars and go to the mosque for prayers — which can bring in more than 1,000 people at some locations. Some find the risk still too great, and are planning to spend the holy month in lockdown and at home.
Ausma Khan, an author based in Denver, told HuffPost that she and her husband plan to spend this year’s Ramadan just like last year — strictly at home.
“Even though I got my first dose of vaccine, I still don’t feel it’s all that safe if most people haven’t been vaccinated yet,” said Khan. “I just think it’s too risky still.”
Even though she misses the community, Khan says she wants to play it safe. She has witnessed firsthand the stress and anxiety of her family members, many of whom are front-line essential workers. She had been counting down the days until her family members were vaccinated.
Khan said she was able to find an upside to Ramadan in lockdown last year: slowing down what was often a very hectic month.
“You’re always rushing around socializing and preparing these very elaborate iftars, going to the mosque, and it’s just go, go, go from the beginning to the end,” she said. “By the end of the month, you’re completely exhausted.”
Ramadan is really community-oriented, and it’s about the common good. So what can we do that would be better for the community but not to make one another ill.
At home, Khan has enjoyed a slower pace, spending the time reading the Quran and listening to religious lectures. She’s also made an effort to improve her cooking skills so that she and her husband, who is also vaccinated, can enjoy a hearty meal at the end of the fasting day.
“Pandemic Ramadan, for me, it’s really felt like one of the few times that I’ve been able to be very reflective, very focused on my prayer, just able to slow myself down completely and not worry about anything external,” she said.
“It’s lonelier. But there is a much deeper sense of connection to God that felt very fulfilling for me,” she added. “And just that sense of being able to slow down on him, and to concentrate on what I wanted to achieve spiritually and ethically.”
‘Things Will Be Better’
Khan hopes her efforts to stay isolated pay off – for her and her community. Her wish is that by Eid, the Islamic holiday that marks the end of Ramadan, she’ll be able to visit her family in Toronto. She hasn’t seen them in over 15 months.
“Ramadan is really community-oriented, and it’s about the common good. So what can we do that would be better for the community but not to make one another ill,” she said.
Back in Michigan, Shourbaji is still avoiding large crowds. Her local mosque has implemented a strict first-come, first-serve rule in addition to limiting the total number of people inside. All participants must wear a mask, and no one under 13 years old is allowed. And while Muslims usually pray shoulder to shoulder, all worshippers must maintain a minimum distance of six feet throughout services.
Shourbaji plans to take shifts with her husband to attend prayers while the other parent stays at home with their three younger children.
It’s not the perfect Ramadan, but she said it’s an important step in the right direction.
“I do feel more hopeful,” said Shourbaji. “We’ve come a long way in this past year, so inshallah [God willing], going forward, things will be a lot better.”
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