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Ramadan with a virtual community

Siham Ouchtou | Kersten Knipp
April 18, 2020

Ramadan begins next week even as the coronavirus pandemic upends life around the world. The crisis is forcing Muslims to rethink traditions and find new approaches to one of Islam's most important religious rituals.

Muslims pilgrims wear masks at the Grand Mosque in Mecca
Image: AFP/A.G. Bashir

As the coronavirus pandemic causes religious celebrations to be curtailed around the globe, authorities in the Muslim world have grappled with how to deal with this year's Ramadan, a month of fasting and extended communal prayer.

Earlier this week, Saudi Arabia's minister for Islamic affairs told the kingdom's Muslims they may only pray at home during the month, which begins on April 23, depending on sighting of the moon. A strict ban on public gatherings had already been in place since March 19, in a country which has seen more than 5,000 positive cases of the virus and whose memory of the 2012 MERS outbreak is still fresh.

Read more: Coronavirus in the Middle East: Creativity to help knows no bounds

After Saudi authorities cancelled the smaller year-round umrah pilgrimage in March, they told Muslims around the world to suspend plans for this year's hajj, which draws two to three million pilgrims to the country.

Egypt followed suit in early April, banning all public religious gatherings during Ramadan, but other recent restrictions haven't all gone over well.

Last month, for example, congregants at Cairo's Sayyida Zainab mosque clashed with other citizens who accused them of spreading the virus by not maintaining enough distance during communal prayers, forcing authorities to close the important place of worship.

Theological discussions

The question of whether to fast has also opened up theological debate. Traditionally, exemptions from the obligation to avoid food and drink from sunrise to sunset have only applied to groups such as those who are sick or pregnant, travellers or the very elderly or infirm.

Doctors in various countries have argued against fasting because it dries out the throat, increasing the risk of infection. Instead, they say believers should increase their donations to the poor, recommending Muslims order food parcels online to be sent to those in need.

But researchers at Cairo's Al-Azhar University, which specializes in religious law, have maintained that fasting is mandatory until any harmful effects in connection with the virus are medically proven.

'Diagnosis crucial'

Moroccan Islamic scholar Abdelwahab al-Rafiqi told DW that a diagnosis of underlying health conditions should exempt Muslims from the obligation.

"Since sick people cannot adequately fulfill their religious duties, they are exempt from the obligation to fast, just like everyone else who fears illness," al-Rifiqi said. "If one has to assume an increased risk of illness through fasting on the basis of a medical examination, then it is also permissible to suspend it."

Staying fed and hydrated could even be seen as a duty because the fight against the pandemic is the most important thing for Muslims — and the world — to focus on, he said. "This has priority over everything else."

Living rooms become mosques

Whereas Ramadan's rituals of prayer and breaking fast together are usually opportunities for community, some see the restricted circumstances as a way to increase awareness of the spiritual dimension of the holy month.

"Fasting should point the way to the spiritual treasure of Ramadan, the holy month in which the Quran was revealed, the month of mercy, of forgiveness, the month of prayer, of reading the Quran, of intimate conversation with God," wrote Aiman Mazyek, chairman of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany, on the body's website.

Of course, Muslims prefer to pray together at the mosque, wrote Mazyek. "But in coronavirus times, we turn our living rooms into mosques within our families after we have broken the fast together with them," he wrote.

Muslims break the fast in Baghdad during Ramadan in 2019
Mass iftars like this one in Baghdad are unlikely to happen this yearImage: picture-alliance/dpa/A. A. Mohammedaw

Iftar online

As the discussion of proper observance moves online, so will iftar, the daily breaking of the fast, through video and social media platforms.

In the UK, for example, the Ramadan Tent Project will be hosting communal iftarsthe video-conferencing platform Zoom and livestreaming them on Facebook "for those feeling isolated during Ramadan."

It is important that people can share a sense of belonging, Omar Salha, founder and CEO of the Ramadan Tent Project, told The National newspaper.

"Our virtual iftars will provide a platform for people to safely unite, share their experiences and achieve a sense of belonging, at a time when it's needed the most."

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Kersten Knipp
Kersten Knipp Political editor with a focus on the Middle East