Pandemic forcing changes to ancient Ramadan customs

The month of Ramadan, when Muslims go without food or drink from sunrise to sunset every day, then gather to break their fast and pray together, will look very different this year.

Month-long religious celebration set to begin Thursday

A volunteer disinfects a mosque ahead of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan in Karachi, Pakistan, April 21, 2020. Ramadan begins with the new moon later this week and Muslims around the world are trying to work out how to maintain the many cherished rituals of Islam's holiest month. (Fareed Khan/Associated Press)

This week is usually when Muslim kids get excited about an annual trip to see the new moon that marks the start of Ramadan.

But Cindy Jadayel, a member of Ottawa's Masjid ar-Rahmah or Mosque of Mercy, said that custom is just one of many community events that will be cancelled this year.

The month of Ramadan, when Muslims go without food or drink from sunrise to sunset every day, then gather to break their fast and pray together, will look very different this year.

Based on the Islamic lunar calendar, the celebration is set to start Thursday and last until May 23.

The moon viewing trip is based on an early tradition where religious leaders would declare the start of the new month when the first sliver of a new moon was spotted.

"[Kids] get excited about it," Jadayel said.

New customs

Those events, as well as nightly congregational prayers and community events at the mosque, will be cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Not having the community aspect of Ramadan this year "is going to be challenging," said Jadayel.

"We have to work harder this year to have families happier in the home because we can't go out and celebrate with others."

Sallah Hamdani, a former president of the Islamic Society of St. Catharines, Ont., said Muslims will try and look on the bright side of the time alone this year.

"You might not have to focus on hosting a dinner," said Hamdani, pointing out that it can be stressful for families to put together elaborate dinners at home while already dealing with a difficult fast.

"Instead you can enjoy that dinner or breaking the fast with your immediate family and creating a new custom that you probably had not implemented previously."

Sallah Hamdani, left, with his brother Hussein in 2016. (Jason Burles/CBC)

Muslim communities across Canada have already seen sweeping changes as physical distancing rules came into affect last month.

Daily prayers and weekly sermons have been cancelled, as well as Arabic classes, day camps and Qur'an readings that are often hosted by mosques.

"It was a shock, but since then we have almost all of our programs online," said Jadayel, who said they have hundreds of students studying online in various classes, as well as an online pre-recorded sermon that is posted every week.

She said people are also meeting on group calls to maintain a sense of community.

"We're meeting every week and we can feel that sense of gathering, it's like we're in the same room together."

In St. Catharines, Hamdani said one of the hardest events during physical distancing this year will be Eid al-Fitr, a multi-day holiday that celebrates the end of Ramadan.

"Not being able to get together for Eid will have a larger impact on the community than any other thing," said Hamdani.

"Whether you are a practising Muslim or not, Eid is a day of joy and a day of getting together and remembering your family."

Muslims offer prayers during the first day of Eid al-Fitr at BC Place in Vancouver, British Columbia on Tuesday, June 4, 2019. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Jadayel also pointed out that some mosques may see a drop in donations because up to half of all donations come during Ramadan.

Nonetheless, the Mosque of Mercy is still trying to provide for the community during Ramadan, and is offering packages of non-perishable food to seniors and people with compromised immune systems — for Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

"We don't want people to feel like they're in dire straits and that there's no one available to help them."

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