A brief look into how the pandemic has changed the way Ramadan is celebrated by Muslim immigrants, and in a Muslim majority country such as Pakistan. As more and more people turn to spirituality to deal with their anxiety, what advice does religion offer them? Can a 1500-year-old religion adapt to deal with a crisis, the likes of which it has not had to deal with before? But most importantly, is the advice being offered variable depending on the social class it’s being offered to? I try to grapple with these questions below.
I ran a fever for two days straight. The first day was manageable. I was lethargic and constantly shivering. The next day was worse – I was falling asleep every other hour and feeling cold no matter how high we cranked the temperature up. With my asthma and the fact that my husband is considered an essential worker and had been going into work, both of us were secretly afraid of the same thing: a positive coronavirus diagnosis. By the evening I had developed a little cough and felt some compression on my chest. My husband told me to skip a day of fasting, his logic being that I needed the calories to fight off whatever my body was battling with. I was too tired to argue with him and ended up skipping a fast. I caught up on some much-needed sleep, and while I didn’t eat much, I drank a lot of water.
My fever dissipated and my cough and breathing issues were no more. Apparently, the lack of sleep had caused the fever and the coughing and breathing were psychosomatic; or maybe my body had succeeded in its battle. Ramadan in a pandemic is a different beast, with new fears and stresses.
Currently, Muslims all over the world are fasting in Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. Waking up to eat before sunrise (suhoor), the fast cannot be broken until sunset (iftar). No food, water, medication or even chewing gum. The aim is to detox the soul and the body and build up empathy for those less privileged. All who have crossed the age of puberty must fast, except for pregnant women, sick people and travellers (1).
Back home in Pakistan, under normal circumstances, the spirit of Ramadan can be embraced fully. Friends and family meet up for suhoor and iftar, as well as the congregational taraweeh prayers. Most schools and offices run on shorter times, allowing people time to rest and pray at home. There is Islamic programming on television and on the radio. Mosques and other gathering places offer group suhoor and iftar for those who cannot afford their own meals. There is a general air of celebration and excitement as Eid-ul-Fitr, one of the two major Islamic celebrations, arrives at the end of the month to mark the end of the fasting period.
This year the peak of the virus in Pakistan is expected to coincide with Eid at the end of May. It’s a different kind of anticipation that holds Muslims in thrall this time around.
For immigrants like myself, living in a country where Muslims are a minority, it’s a different matter. One needs to juggle a full workday with a fast that, in the summer, can last easily up to 18 hours. Somehow a question that’s asked with the very best of interests, “not even water?”, can really start to rub one raw after a few years. Also, hearing “I could never do this” now makes me roll my eyes. If the rise of intermittent fasting has taught me anything it’s this: put any concept in the package of “wellness” and you will see people jump through hoops to consume it. Socialising is difficult. At dinners you will be sitting around waiting for the sun to set to eat while others around you either politely wait with you or awkwardly eat, apologising all the while. Going out after iftar is not really an option, as you need to finish up your prayers and catch some sleep before waking up to eat again. And no one is going to be up before sunrise to eat with you.
COVID-19 has turned this dynamic upside down.
Working from home during Ramadan is nothing short of a boon. Simply going to and from work can be mentally and physically exhausting. Removing the dressing up and the commute saves time that can be spent sleeping, or simply relaxing. With no one dropping by the office to chat, I can conserve all my precious energy and time to get my work done as efficiently as possible. In the safety of my home, I can also stop acting like the ambassador of Muslims all over the world and confess to my husband when I’m starving. There is no need to gloss over the physical harshness of my undertaking and the toll it does take on me emotionally as well.
Back home however, the lockdown has created little islands of isolation that people cannot seem to wait to jump off from. Not without a little bit of glee (that others are finally living my Ramadan experiences) and bitterness (at how much of a fuss they are allowed to make), I hear complaints about how everyone is missing the joint suhoors and the iftars with extended family and friends. I take this all with a grain of salt, given the sizes of the families that live together and the economic class of the people complaining to me.
Like in every calamity, Ramadan in lockdown is disproportionately hitting the economically disadvantaged. In order to preserve their health, many of the people that employ live-in staff have laid down an ultimatum: if they go home, they cannot come back. While this lockdown should serve as a two-way street of protection for both the employers and the employees, unfortunately the employers cannot be trusted to maintain their part of the social contract. While they have asked their domestic helpers to choose between their families or their livelihood, they have not had to make such decisions themselves. With stable salaries and work-from-home options, they are still violating lockdown to see siblings and parents. Numerous people have justified their breaking of the lockdown to me. Explanations run from everyone being careful in both houses, their higher education affording them a better grasp of social distancing, to their use of private cars instead of public transport to avoid a source of exposure. I cannot help but see this as sheer classism. A belief that one’s education and social class will prevent them from catching a viral disease, is nothing but a deadly form of superiority complex. If the people you employ to take care of your children and live in your house cannot be trusted to social distance properly, then you may not have done a particularly great job of hiring them.
Even worse is the economic impact on daily wages. The lockdown has led to a massive lack of jobs for people who run small shops, construction workers, house cleaners, launderers, and many others. Charity is a huge aspect of Ramadan and now private charity and government support are the only income some people are receiving. Countries like Pakistan are caught between the harsh realities of opening up the economy and exposing the workers to the disease, or letting people sink further into an economic turmoil that future generations may not be able to recover from. An Eid that would be spent without any celebrations – either due to the lockdown, finances, disease or death.
I have wondered if skipping the fasts during this Ramadan would be permissible. Life, and its preservation, has been given the highest priority in Islam (2). If there was any reason to believe that caloric deficit and exhaustion would lead me to become more susceptible to the virus, I would more than likely stop fasting. The hadith of the Prophet – peace be upon him – has made the rounds: “If you hear of a plague in a land, then do not go into it. If it happens in the land where you are, then do not go out of it” (3). And yet, the first cases in the Gaza strip were linked to a gathering in Pakistan of a conservative missionary group. The same group was responsible for 5 positive cases in Kyrgyzstan, and led to a Muslim neighbourhood in New Delhi, India, becoming a virus hotspot.
The Pakistani government has struggled to keep the mosques closed during the lockdown. There were the usual arguments of God protecting all those who believe, no matter how careless those believers are. Then they tried enforcing social distancing in the mosque. Finally, the country gave up and exempted Ramadan congregations from the lockdown, much to the dismay of some people. The WHO has estimated that this selective distancing can lead to upwards of 200,000 cases in a country that is not equipped to deal with the cases it already has.
With fear and frustration as daily companions, more and more Muslims are turning to their faith as a panacea. My family is holding online joint prayers. My friends and I are following online streams of Quran lessons. People who have not prayed for years are taking advantage of the lack of prohibition on the taraweeh to go pray – whether for spiritual solace or just to get out of the house, your guess is as good as mine.
In a world where the holiest sites of Mecca and Medina stand empty and in some countries the muezzin (the person who gives the call to prayer) has replaced the phrase “come to prayer” with “pray at home” or “pray where you are” to avoid congregation, why is there this disparity in dogma? Based on whose authority are the officials in Pakistan forced to leave the mosques open when the Kaabah itself is closed? It has been reported: “A man said, “O Messenger of Allah, should I tie my camel and trust in Allah, or should I leave her untied and trust in Allah?” The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “Tie her and trust in Allah”” (4). Why then, are people so willing to believe that Allah would save them without social distancing? It has been clearly ordained for people to work hard, and be sensible while being steadfast in their belief in God’s omnipotence. Why then is the narrative of divine intervention in all cases being pushed to an extent that the government has to bow down to it? I see economic disparity coming into play here again. I cannot reasonably expect everyone in Pakistan, a country that boasted internet access for 16% of its population in 2017, to access religion in the same way my family and I do.
People are afraid of change. They like their routines and they like their beliefs. A loosening of the way they follow their religion could mean that other practices are up for debate too. Change is contagious. Question one small teaching, and soon you will have the precedent to question and topple the power structure. Those who are comfortable in their positions in life and in the role allotted to them simply by virtue of birth into a certain country, gender and religion, will never willingly relinquish that comfort, standing on the backs of the poor and underprivileged to maintain their monopoly. The religious leaders would rather see the deaths of believers than renounce an iota of their power and let people follow the authority of the government or healthcare officials.
This Ramadan, in the peace and comfort of my own home, I think longingly of an Eid where I can cook mountains of food and invite our neighbours over to introduce them to the festival. I dream of when I will be able to see my family – it’s been a year and counting – and I take time to pray for their health and their safety, and for common sense and logic to prevail. At the same time, I am questioning the usefulness of handing over spiritual salvation to people who do not seem to care for the health of their followers, and I am questioning the current set up of the world, where in order to have any security in life, you must be part of the top 5%.
I am dreaming of Eid, and I am longing for a revolution.
Omaina H. Aziz
1. Quran, 2:183-184, 623
2. Quran, 5:33, 631/632
3. Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 5396, Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 2218, 846
4. Abu ʿIsa Muhammad ibn ʿIsa at-Tirmidhi, Sunan al-Tirmidhī 2517, 884