While Ramadan exemplifies the social nature of the Islamic faith, in a time of lockdown and social distancing, British Muslims have been forced to accept a Ramadan without iftar dinners with family and friends, communal gatherings in mosques for the Ramadan-specific tarawih night prayers and very possibly, restrictions on celebrating Eid at the end of Ramadan, one of the biggest social holidays for Muslims.
While Religious boards had already taken steps to restrict the communal acts of worship since the pandemic begun, for example, the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) called for the suspension of mosque congregations, while the British Board of Scholars and Imams (BBSI) has advised people to perform daily prayers at home, many have felt disheartened that the pandemic has continued into the holy month, with neither wars nor natural disasters previously preventing the ability of Muslims to observe their religious rituals together.
However Muslim organisations have been proactive in attempting to fill the hole left by the necessary social restrictions. Noor Hadi, an imam at the East London Mosque, London’s largest mosque, explains how the mosque and Muslim families are adapting to a month of worship; while he mentions a virtual breaking of the fast together, as well as the availability of online live lectures to replace the religious talks often given at the mosque during Ramadan, those without computers or wifi have also been taken into consideration, with a helpline set up and youth members of the Mosque monitoring and ready to be dispatched to help these families run errands, such as picking up groceries and prescriptions. Other mosques in the United Kingdom will also live-stream sermons, recitation of the Quran and prayers, using video-conferencing app Zoom, Facebook and YouTube. Ramadan Tent Project, which runs popular community iftars in cities across the United Kingdom, has also set up ‘My Open Iftar’ to host virtual iftars for Muslims, and everyone else, to break the fast together.
However Imam Hadi emphasises that in fact, isolation in order to self-reflect is also a prophetic tradition; a Ramadan under these circumstances should therefore enhance worship as individuals. Heba Shaheed, writing in The Guardian, reiterates this point, stating that though cultural traditions “have depicted Ramadan as a month of “feasting” and socialisation, in reality, the pure religious tenets stress Ramadan as a month of extreme self-discipline and self-mastery”, suggesting that physical distancing would in fact aid this, forcing Muslims to “reconnect to our God and the Qur’an on a deeply intimate level.” through spiritual seclusion.
Ella Linskens, writing in the The New Arab, however, points out that for those who have converted to Islam, this Ramadan in isolation will not be a new experience; highlighting a report on converts in the United Kingdom by Faith Matters which reveals that the feeling of isolation is one of the biggest problems facing converts, with acceptance within the local Muslim community and locating support network difficulties they experienced. While Ramadan provided them with some respite due the social activities mosques and local community, this will not available this year.
Yet while the social aspects of Ramadan may not be strictly necessary for the purpose of Ramadan, fasting, at least for those who are healthy, most invariably is. Questions have been asked about the possible health risk of fasting in the time of Covid-19, with the suggestion that it may cause a stress on the immune system. This has been answered by a number of Muslim Medics on behalf of the Oxford COVID-19 Evidence Service Team, the Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine, Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences of the University of Oxford, and the British Islamic Medical Association, who have concluded that there is no evidence to suggest an adverse effect from fasting during the Covid-19 pandemic on asymptomatic healthy individuals who have previously fasted safely. However, patients with fever and prolonged illness secondary to Covid-19 can become severely dehydrated and are at risk of sudden acute deterioration. As such, they advise that these patients should not fast, or should stop fasting, and ensure adequate hydration. Furthermore, they suggest that prior to commencing fasting, any comorbidities need to be risk stratified and discussed with the patient’s clinician, providing a ‘risk matrix’ to aid patient-centred shared decision-making on the appropriateness of fasting for a range of conditions.
Ultimately, the message of Ramadan 2020 is in line with that which has been expressed in the past two months, and that is pray and fast, but from home:
The message this Ramadan is simple: fast and pray at home and share Ramadan digitally. This is the way to worship Allah and help save lives. #StayHomeSaveLives #RamadanAtHome pic.twitter.com/o3YcTtZ4O1
— MCB (@MuslimCouncil) April 22, 2020