When you ask a Muslim, or even a non-Muslim, the question: what is Ramadan? Almost always, the answer is a month of fasting, of abstaining from food and drink from sunrise to sunset. The follow up would be: “not even water?”
Indeed, fasting is the hallmark of Ramadan, the holiest month of the year for Muslims. Many wake up to eat suhoor, a meal before fajr, dawn, and break their fast with a meal known as iftar at sunset, often with dates and milk or water as exemplified by the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). As Ramadan follows the lunar calendar, the start of the month varies from year to year, dependent on the sighting of the moon. This also means that the hours which Muslims fast vary by the area they live in, which can range from 10 to 20 hours per day. Exemptions apply for those obliged to fast but are unable to, such as patients with long-term health conditions, menstruating and pregnant women, and children, who may make it up by charitable acts or fasting when they are able to do so.
But Ramadan is more than a month of abstention – it is a month of devotion, reconnection with the Divine and spiritual self-improvement. Linguistically, scholars have noted that the word Ramadan is derived from ‘ramadha’, which means ‘to burn’, symbolising the burning of our sins, where the act of fasting ‘burns’ and relinquishes them. Ramadan is also the month of the Qur’an as it is the month in which the Holy Scripture of Islam was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), so Muslims commemorate this revelation through prayer, charity, and building a closer relationship with God.
Although worship is a personal matter, the Muslim is subjected to the shari’ah law, a set of Islamic laws that encompass the religious and the secular, and the public and the private aspects of Muslim life. Fard al-kifayah, the concept of communal obligation in Islam, includes performing ritualistic acts of worship such as congregational prayers. Tarawih prayers are congregational night prayers specifically performed during the month of Ramadan, but it is sunnah, i.e. not obligatory but highly encouraged as the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) had done so. Mosques around the world hold tarawih prayers every night and for many Muslims, from the religious to the not-so religious, going to these prayers with family holds not only spiritual but also cultural significance for them.
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic over the last two years has put a hold on such communality. Lockdowns and restrictions have impacted the more cultural aspect of Ramadan festivities, from large family gatherings and reunions for iftar to the joy of visiting overand spending on delicious food and sweets at Ramadan bazaars. But more importantly, the cohesion of the Muslim community, the ummah, and the congregational aspect of worship has been threatened.
The shari’ah law, which governs religious practices, has had to adapt to state-enforced social isolation measures. Congregational prayers are performed with the opposite of such, as the imam, the leader of the prayer, stands at the forefront by himself, followed by the congregation standing in rows behind him: ankle-to-ankle, shoulder-to-shoulder. With the onset of the pandemic, religious authorities had to revise religious rulings, known as fatwas, to comply not only with social distancing measures but also the shari’ah.
For example, Friday prayers, which can only be prayed congregationally, were suspended for the first time in many countries across the world such as Malaysia, Pakistan, and Scotland, where religious authorities declared it permissible to be conducted at home. As restrictions slowly eased in mid-2020, the resumption of congregational prayers in mosques had to comply with government regulations to ensure the safety of the community. For example, in June 2020, the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore issued a fatwa which discussed how to perform congregational daily and Friday prayers, identified those excused from the obligation of Friday prayers and suggested how to accommodate more congregants given space limitations. These legal rulings on the rituals of worship were revised and interpreted to adapt to the restrictions of the pandemic, and it is this dynamism and flexibility of the Islamic law that has allowed it to maintain its relevance to Muslim life throughout history.
Lockdowns were also a threat to the cohesion of the Muslim community, as the closure of social spaces limited not only community worship, but also severed the ‘connection’ and human interaction within the wider community. Mosques, which in this modern day and age may seem as a mere physical space of worship, plays a central role in providing social, emotional, and even financial support. The loss of such spaces when the lockdowns in 2020 coincided with the holy month of Ramadan and the subsequent Eid celebrations, led to recreation of such experiences at home. According to a study by Laura Jones-Ahmed on ‘British Muslim Experiences of Ramadan in Lockdown’, many Muslims in Ramadan 2020 lamented the loss of the mosque and its community, often seen as interchangeable concepts, and its communal activities such as tarawih prayers and large iftars. This led to a focus towards the nuclear family instead, where many felt that the benefit of the pandemic was that praying together as a family had brought them closer. There was more time for spiritual practices together, as the isolation caused by the social restrictions encouraged reflection and enhanced their ability to connect with God during the blessed month of Ramadan.
With social distancing in place, religious institutions around the world also saw the need to move online to facilitate congregational worship and religious education. Muslims had to adapt to online worship, where the use of technology facilitated the livestreaming of Friday prayer sermons to a small socially-distanced congregation prayer on Facebook or Zoom. While religious practices had to be revised to adapt to technology, it was easier for religious education, an example being the halaqah religious study circles, to be held online. The impact of technology allowed Muslims to join across the world, facilitating the collective connection of the ummah, the Muslim community, and its spiritual revival during a time when it was most needed.
Fast forward to 2022: as COVID-19 restrictions are beginning to ease around the world today, it will be the first time since 2020 since Muslims have experienced a ‘normal’ Ramadan. From resumption of tarawih prayers outside the nuclear family and communal iftars at mosques to Ramadan bazaars and other cultural celebrations, the return to near normalcy of religious festivities and practices has garnered an emotional response from the Muslims – it is the community connection and the sense of solidarity that distinguishes this blessed month from the others. At the beginning of Ramadan this year, I noticed many Muslims on social media voicing their gratitude to be observing a ‘normal’ Ramadan, even those who do not consider themselves as particularly religious. The physical presence of the community that had been lost over the last two years has now returned – a joyous occasion for many. However, it is still a source of anxiety with most social-distancing measures being removed, and some may opt to pray at home to protect the more vulnerable members of their family.
As a third-year undergrad student here at Oxford, I had spent Ramadan 2020 online with the Oxford University Islamic Society, as I did not go back to my home in Malaysia. Iftars sessions were held on Zoom, allowing me to become acquainted with other Muslims around the city who were also going through Ramadan alone. Though Ramadan coincides with most of the Easter vacation this year, many students who are staying in Oxford over the holidays, including myself, are observing a ‘normal’ Ramadan with the wider Muslim community here in Oxford. For me, there is joy in breaking fast together every day at the Muslim Prayer Room at the Robert Hooke Building, followed by a much-needed cup of tea and catching-up with the other sisters before we wait for tarawih prayers. During previous Ramadans, my family and I would also go to our local mosque for iftars, and I am grateful to be able to carry on this tradition with the ISoc community here: and it feels like a home away from home.
While Ramadan has been depicted in the media through the celebration of cultural festivities throughout the Muslim world, such as endless food bazaars and extravagant iftar tents in the UAE, it is important for Muslims to remember that gluttony and the overindulgence are counterproductive to the spirit of Ramadan, which emphasises increasing good actions and generosity through charity. Fasting isn’t just about hunger – the very act offers an opportunity to take pause and reflect in this fast-paced world by disconnecting from the vicissitudes of modern life. Fasting itself is a major act of ibadah, worship, as its physical discipline and voluntary deprivation allows us to be more conscious of God and His blessings, and our vulnerability and limitations.
Eid al-Fitr, the holiday after the end of Ramadan, is a time for celebration of their efforts in Ramadan. From attending the communal Eid prayer in the morning to spending time and feasting with loved ones and the community, the ways in which Muslims celebrate vary across cultures around the world. This year, Muslims are looking forward to being able to celebrate a ‘normal’ Eid after so long.
Worship, from the Islamic perspective, is not mere ritual, but penetrates into the heart of the human being and encompasses everything about one’s ultimate concern including beliefs, feelings and actions. While the COVID-19 pandemic may have pressed pause on the congregational aspect of Islamic religious practices over the last two years, the core essence of Islam holds steadfast in the journey towards the return to normality.
Image credit: Shahab Ghayoumi / CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons