Reinventing Ramadan: Ottawa imam finds new ways to celebrate during COVID-19

If this were a normal Ramadan, Imam Sikander Hashmi would be inviting people into his mosque every night for prayers and the communal fast break. Instead he’s been advising people how to make their own home mosques.

Instead of inviting people into his mosque, Imam Sikander Hashmi advises to build one at home

Sikander Hashmi is an imam in Ottawa with the Kanata Muslim Association. (Submitted by Sikander Hashmi)

If this were a normal Ramadan, Imam Sikander Hashmi would be inviting people into his mosque nightly for prayers and the communal fast break. There'd be a feast for 200 to 300 people. And they would recite the whole Qur'an by memory throughout the month.

"All of that is gone this year, so it's a very different Ramadan," Hashmi said. "But I'm an optimist, so I don't necessarily see different as being bad."

Muslims across Canada face similar circumstances as the annual month of fasting and reflection began on April 23, roughly five weeks into Canada's physical distancing recommendations. 

Hashmi, who's the imam for the Kanata Muslim Association in Ottawa, stopped offering prayer service on March 13 following a discussion with the local Muslim community. 

Kanata Muslim Association has been live streaming messages and recitations on its website kanatamuslims.ca. (Submitted by Sikander Hashmi)

"The reality was that the first COVID-19 case in Ottawa was confirmed in our area, right across from where we offer Friday prayers," said Hashmi. 

The association has been renting a recreation complex in a technology park as their Friday mosalla, or prayer hall, while their new mosque is under construction.

"Since many of our congregants work in the area ... we decided that the prudent thing would be to suspend prayers," said Hashmi.

A mosque at home

Instead of the usual Ramadan traditions, Hashmi has been advising people how to make their own home mosques, what time to pray and when the Kanata Muslim Association will be broadcasting their call to prayer online.

We are all in our own mosques now.- Imam Sikander Hashmi

Hashmi recommended that people pick an empty room or a corner of a room where the congregant feels comfortable, and lay out a prayer mat, adding that Islam overall is a minimalistic faith.

"We don't require much in order to worship," he said.

The timing of the prayer is also important because of its ability to bring the community together, even if everyone is praying from their own homes, he added.

"We are all in our own mosques now," said Hashmi.

The community seems to be responding well to the changes, with a recent broadcast bringing in 215 families, according to Hashmi. 

The Kanata Muslim Association has also co-ordinated window walks, where congregants place Ramadan crafts in their windows for people to admire.

Congregants have been placing Ramadan crafts in their windows for people to admire from afar, as many remain unable to gather at the mosque for evening prayers. (Shawana Shah)

Tradition in a crisis

Hashmi added that it's moments like these where faith and solidarity are even more valuable than usual — even if you can't maintain the same traditions.

And that's not just true with Ramadan. The imam had to administer a funeral during the pandemic. 

"There's great virtue in attending funeral prayers in our faith, regardless of whether we know the individual or not, and to offer comfort to the family members," said Hashmi

As per Ontario's COVID-19 rules, he was one of only 10 people allowed to attend. A funeral several months earlier would have entailed the body being brought to the mosque and washed, followed later by an offering of condolences and a group prayer, before moving the body to a cemetery. None of that was possible. 

On a more personal level, Hashmi said that he makes sure to offer a shoulder for family members of the deceased at the gravesite, and tries to comfort them. 

"And this time, all I could do was just stand and watch them cry and watch their loved one being buried in front of them and not be able to do anything," said Hashmi. 

"So it was a very helpless feeling."

But he added that those helpless moments are when religious belief becomes most valuable.

"When we find ourselves at a point of desperation, where we know that the normal, regular things that we depend upon — other human beings, the services, the tools that are available to us — are no longer available to us ... I think that is when we really feel our weakness," said Hashmi. 

"And that is when I think faith and spirituality appeal to us."

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