The holy month of Ramadan officially began Thursday, April 23rd of April in France, where millions of French Muslims are celebrating in unprecedented conditions. The current pandemic has led to the lockdown of the country at least until the 11th of May with no guarantees concerning the specifics of the re-opening. Places of worships are closed, public gatherings are prohibited and French citizens are constrained to stay at home. In such conditions, Ramadan celebrations, which ordinarily include fasting, prayer, and charitable activities with friends and family, necessarily need adaptations. While far from exhaustive, this article provides an overview of French Muslims practices for Ramadan in times of Covid-19.
Adapting Ramadan Practices and Traditions
Similar to Pesach and Eastern celebrations which took place recently, Ramadan is impacted by the health requirements. President Macron explained to religious leaders that places of worship would not reopen before June. The necessity to “stay at home” and the confinement have made traditional communal iftar (evening meals to break daily fast, generally consumed with family, neighbours or friends) and tarawih prayers (collective evening prayers after iftar) impossible in their ordinary forms. How are French Muslims adapting to pursue their practices in such conditions? Collective gatherings are prohibited although one of the purposes of Ramadan is precisely to recreate the sense of community belonging: the month has a cultural dimension of spending time with family, friends and neighbours. Families are sometimes spread out the whole country and many faithful are forced to celebrate Ramadan alone. That is the case for example for many students who were unable to return to their families before lockdown.
Social Media and Internet as an Alternative
Just as in the UK context,Internet and new technologies will probably play a central role in helping people avoid celebrating Ramadan alone. Virtual iftar are organized via social-media, while religious teachings, sermons and preaches are broadcast live. Famous Imams, religious leaders, and Islamic centres have uploaded religious and pedagogical content online. From a French perspective, the current crisis has also revealed structural challenges for French Muslims, notably in terms of cemeteries. Because of the border closures, bodies cannot be repatriated to their countries of origins (mainly Maghreb) and have to be buried in France. A local Muslim federation the Mosques Council of Rhône (which gathers almost 40 associations in Lyon’s department) has released a fatwa allowing Muslims to exceptionally bury outside Muslim corners (https://www.saphirnews.com/Covid-19-une-fatwa-autorise-l-inhumation-des-defunts-hors-des-carres-musulmans-en-France_a27049.html). Such an alternative can be temporary (before a potential repatriation to their country of origins or a transfer to a Muslim corner) or definitive. Several petitions are already circulating online to request additional Muslim areas.
The Respect of Quarantine: Ramadan at Home
Despite some Islamophobic rumours, claiming that French Muslims would use Ramadan to disrespect confinement measures, Muslim leaders vividly reminded in an interview that “the majority of French Muslims and Imams do apply scientific and sanitary guidelines” (Le Monde). That is generally the message spread by the “community leaders” who presented Ramadan as a privileged moment for spirituality and introspection and an occasion to bring (back) religious rituals at home. Ramadan has even been depicted as a test for both individual spirituality and collective responsibility. At the same time, lots of calls for solidarity have been noticed. Indeed, during the holy month of Ramadan, charity is widely encouraged in such forms as taking care of society’s most vulnerable members.
Giving Charity and Solidarity under Lockdown
In Islam, gift and generosity are cherished and religiously rewarded, especially during Ramadan. Generally, iftar, in forms of street banquets, are organized as communal gathering by relatives, mosques or NGOs. They provide opportunities to share a convivial meal and moment with both Muslims and non-believers. Because of the context, adaptations are required for those in need. Food packages or “iftar boxes” are offered in the streets with sanitary restrictions or delivered at home. Although it is ordinarily accepted to give food as charity it is strongly encouraged to “translate” it into monetary donations for NGOs or social welfare actors. These organisations are better qualified to respect sanitary requirements. For instance, even if mosques closed their doors to worshippers, they remain active as logistical support (e.g. using their kitchens for the preparation of meals). As another example, Secours Islamique France, the former branch of Islamic Relief Worldwide, usually furnishes more than one thousand meals each night under a tent near Paris for fasters and non-fasters. It constitutes an important moment for the association, as it gathers staff, beneficiaries and volunteers together and creates large visibility for the association. The current context has led the NGO to reorient its activities towards food provisions for migrants located in hostels in Paris’ neighbourhoods. In other words, social distancing does not mean abandoning of social solidarity. Associations, local mosques and ordinary Muslims continue their actions in one way or another.
Fundraising in Uncertain Times
Furthermore, Ramadan is a crucial period in terms of fundraising, as mosques and associations generally raise almost 80% of their annual budget during this time. As an example, zakat (a mandatory almsgiving) has to be paid during the month (at least for Sunni Muslim which constitute the majority of French Muslims). Many building or renovation projects are on stand-by, despite the fact that people are continuing to give money online. Shops and halal restaurants similarly fear for their annual revenues but have managed to make their products deliverable online.
The example of Chibanis
The newspaper Libération has also shed light on the situation of the so-called Chibani. Chibani are former migrant workers originating from Maghreb who came to France in Les Trentes Glorieuses (The Glorious Thirty). Most of them continue to live in precarious conditions and are hosted in foster homes. Ordinarily they go back to their country of origins for Ramadan. Separated from their families they suffer from isolation and due to their age and promiscuity they run a higher risk of being contaminated. Unfamiliar with social media, they would be marginalized without the action of volunteers from diverse organisations and social services.
Uncertainties Regarding Eid Celebrations
May the 4th, the French Minister of the Interior Christophe Castaner has announced the potential reopening of religious ceremonies May the 9thas opposed to initially planed June 2d. Such date would allow the celebration of Pentecotes for Christians and risk Muslims to feel discriminated, as Eid should take place May the 24th. The Grand Mosque of Paris [La Grande Mosquée de Paris] published a statement where it explained its “disarray”. Negotiations between the Minister of the Interior and the major Muslim federations are currently on going and will probably also be determined by the general sanitary context, as France would gradually “ease” lockdown on May 11.