During Ramadan, Islam’s holiest month, the faithful fast from sunrise to sunset and devote long hours to prayer and self-reflection. It is also a time to spend with family and friends over lavish nighttime feasts, ending with Eid al-Fitr, the “Festival of Breaking the Fast.” Around the world, the 1.8 billion Muslims preparing for Ramadan, a time to reconnect spiritually and socially that is expected to start Friday in most places.
But the rapid spread of the deadly coronavirus has forced people around the Middle East and beyond to stay home and change many of their religious rituals.
Governments in the region have banned large gatherings and close contact beyond the immediate family, saying they have consulted with the World Health Organization before taking these steps.
Prayers in mosques throughout the region will be suspended, including the taraweeh nighttime services. The iftar communal evening break-fast meals will also be canceled.
Muhammad Hussein, the grand mufti of Jerusalem and the Palestinian territories, told The Media Line that these restrictive measures were “in the best interests of the people.”
The Jordanian/Palestinian-led Waqf Islamic trust, which administers Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, Islam’s third-holiest site, confirmed that the mosque would continue to be closed to worshippers during Ramadan.
Sheikh Azzam Khateeb, director general of the Waqf, said that it was a “difficult” decision, but “the well-being of the worshippers comes first.”
The Palestinian Authority has loosened its curfew, allowing some shops and businesses to open for limited hours. However, the announcement did not please everyone.
Abdelaziz Oudeh, an imam at al-Qassam Mosque in Gaza, said it was “disappointing” to see empty mosques and to be unable to pray in groups. He questioned the decision to ease restrictions on businesses but not on houses of worship.
“If people can go out and shop and buy what they need, what’s wrong with them praying in mosques? What’s Ramadan without gathering for prayers?” Oudeh asked.
The restrictions thus far have hit businesses in the Palestinian territories hard. During Ramadan, restaurants, cafes and stores are normally packed at night.
Eman Abdallah, a master’s degree student at Birzeit University in the West Bank, lives with her parents. She said that her brothers’ and sisters’ families had made it a habit to break the daily fast at the family home several times each Ramadan – although not this year.
“In my opinion, family and social gatherings represent the easiest environment for transmission of the coronavirus. If the rituals are not omitted, we could reach a catastrophic situation. We must abide by these decisions and abide by restrictions and refrain from these gatherings,” she said. “Our family will convert the living room into a mosque.”
Abdallah said she would turn to technology to stay in touch with family and friends.
“I will use video calls to check on everyone. We can have virtual meals and gatherings,” she said laughing. “Isn’t that how we live now?”
In Jordan, as in many Islamic countries, Ramadan iftar tents normally sprout throughout the kingdom and are packed with families and friends spending time together late into the night.
Abeer Shamali, who lives in Amman and was set to be in charge of one the biggest tents in the capital, said that the ban on these tents this year had hurt the economy.
“Business used to be brisk,” he said. “We employed at least 25-30 extra kitchen staff and servers each Ramadan.”
Jordan has been recognized as doing a better job than most countries in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. In neighboring Syria, the economy and health sectors are in shambles as a result of the ongoing civil war that began nine years ago.
Omar Mardini, owner of a well-known restaurant in the capital Damascus, said that the coronavirus had turned people’s lives “upside down” and forced governments to impose harsh measures.
“We rely heavily on this month,” he said. “I make almost half of my yearly revenue during Ramadan. I don’t know what to do now. People are afraid to come out and socialize.”
Damascus’s famous Umayyad Mosque normally hosts thousands of worshipers every night during Ramadan. Also known as the Great Mosque of Damascus, it will stand empty this year.
Mardini waxed nostalgic when talking about Ramadan in Damascus, and the colorful lights that normally decorate its Old City during the holy month.
Dima Alhamod, a resident of Damascus, is happy with the some of the changes.
“This will force people to stay home with their families,” she said. “I never liked these social events to start with.”
Ramadan is a family affair and it should stay that way, Alhamod said.
“We are a big family. When we all meet, we are 35 people spanning three generations, and for the sake of our health we will stay home this year,” she stated.
In Israel, there has been a strict ban on public gatherings for several weeks. The number of coronavirus cases is still on the rise, and harsh restrictions during Ramadan have broad public support in the Muslim community.
In Baqa al-Gharbiyye, an Israeli Arab town of some 30,000 residents, Reem Hassadieh-Ftaimy, a dental technician, wife and mother of a two-month-old baby, said: “My heart is sad, very sad. There is neither joy nor happiness for this holy month. We used to receive Ramadan with great joy, pleasure and enthusiasm.”
Sheikh Mashhour Fawaz, head of the Islamic Council in Israel, pleaded with people to stay at home. He said that everyone should abide by the instructions of the Health Ministry.
“People should avoid all gatherings during Ramadan in all forms,” he said.
“Yes, we prefer social relations, but in these circumstances we all have to stay home and communicate via phones and other channels,” he continued. “Social communication! Do not underestimate the danger of the virus!”
For many Muslims, Ramadan is a time to read the Quran and an opportunity to purify the soul. It provides for a fresh start.
Sondos Mara’i, who lives in Qalansawe, Israel, said she waits patiently each year for the holy month.
“I do not care about the gatherings that much. I normally finish reading the holy book during Ramadan,” she said.
Mara’i added that she was sad she would be unable to attend mosques.
“Muslims prefer to pray together at the mosque,” she noted. “I will miss taraweeh prayers in the mosques the most.”