“It’s a feeling of unity, and you know everyone is going through it together.''

For the past weeks, Muslims around the world have celebrated the holy month of Ramadan. For many in the EUR community (as well as 2 billion Muslims) this is a time of reflection, where a focus on charity is supported by daytime fasting, night-time feasting, as well as increased socializing and communal prayer.

Nonetheless, the drastic social change brought about by COVID-19 and the new working and studying practices that have come with it will mean that Ramadan this year is going to be potentially quite different. We asked students and staff observing Ramadan, how they are approaching this period during this time of COVID-19 restrictions, and what they have learnt so far.

The Fast
A well-known part of Ramadan is the fasting that occurs between Sunrise and Sunset every day. Suhoor being the last meal before sunrise and the Iftar being the first meal after sunset. “For the Suhoor it is very important that you eat food that will get you through the day” explains Sara Shagiwal, a researcher at ESSB. “In our household, we eat dates, bananas, waffles made with wholemeal flour”

Meanwhile the Iftar, after sunset is usually the larger meal of the day. With soups, salads, and usually chicken and fish typically eaten, amongst other foods.

Iftar’s are times where cooking and eating with extended family is common. Sara explains, “It was not just a family 5 or 10 people but a family of 30 people just getting together. Alternatively, “in many cases families will go out to restaurants”. Unfortunately, at present these options are unviable given the response to COVID-19 and with the advent of social distancing. As such, Ramadan this year is markedly different.

Sara Shagiwal, ESSB

Social Distancing
The impact of social distancing presents new challenges in this Ramadan for Sara. “It’s going to be difficult this year compared to previous years. Of course, you are fasting, you are doing prayers, but these aspects of Ramadan are also done in with social gatherings with your family,” Sara explains.

Central to these social gatherings is the ‘Tarawih’: A daily practice of prayers and communal reading of the Koran that occurs after fasting is broken at sunset. During a typical Ramadan, “we would go to the mosque and do the prayers, and during weekends, it was about getting together with the family and preparing big meals together.”

Camiel Endert, a student at RSM, shares similar experiences during Ramadan. “Last year, I had my cousins and my brother come over and stay. That was really nice. Just going to the mosque together and breaking fast together, praying together and everything.” “It’s a huge part of Ramadan so not being able to go is a bit of a shame.”

Community support and motivation
Both Sara and Camiel recognise the new challenges when observing Ramadan in lockdown, particularly in motivation. “After Iftar (evening meal), my husband and I would go to the mosque, and you are so motivated seeing everyone and praying together with them”, Sara explains. This year, she wrestles more with the idea: “It’s only the two of us in the house. So, if you do not feel like praying, you’re more likely to think we can do it tomorrow.” It takes discipline to overcome that.

Camiel concurs that a lot of motivation comes from knowing as a family or community that “you all have similar goals” and have “a feeling of unity that you and everyone are going through it together”. As such, being alone this year is a unique challenge.

Digital Ramadan
However, like with work and study, digital technologies are increasingly filling the space to recreate that sense of community. Webcams from local mosques, and even a live feed from Mecca of prayers, have already been a feature of Ramadan’s for many. Now Sara sees how Tarawih’s can be done by teleconferencing; ’We can just motivate each other and say, come at nine o’clock tonight, and we can start the prayers altogether.”

However, Sara still notices limits to this digital conversion. “It’s difficult because some families are not well digitally equipped or less digitally literate so there are differences in how much of a community feeling everyone can get.” Overall, despite these digital aids, whilst “the unity is there” Sara admits “the bond is not as strong as it has been.”

Hana Taher, ESSB student

“Despite these weakened bonds of community brought by quarantine, Ramadan and quarantine itself are opportunities to focus towards individual reflection.” “The fast is not just about saying; you know what, I’m just going to refrain from not eating and drinking from sunset to sunrise”, Sara explains. “You have to share some kind of solidarity with the poor people who are fasting every day without having a choice.”

However, Sara explains fasting is also about “abandoning abstract actions [along with physical ones], abandoning your ego, becoming selfless and bringing yourself closer to the divine”.

Charity and Community
Developing selflessness and Zakia (charity) is key for Muslims during Ramadan. For ESSB student, Hana Taher, Ramadan is a period where “People just help each other out without asking or wanting anything in return, because it is a time of giving”. Sara agrees; “It’s all about giving charity. It’s all about being there for the less fortunate.” Overall, there is optimism in how the response to COVID-19 is reinforcing lessons of solidarity and community. “A lot of restaurants are cooking meals and distributing it out to not only less fortunate members of the community, but to the community in general” explains Sara. Social media is also coming to supporting acts of charity, with some organisations notifying people observing Ramadan that they can bring groceries and ‘Ramadan Packs’ of staple products to them. For most however, individual acts of charity are a key part in keeping solidarity. “I think in this Ramadan it will be very important to for me at least to donate money or to aid people getting food,” states Camiel. “Coronavirus is going to affect some people worse than others, as a lot of people are losing jobs. Fortunately, I think I am one of the least affected, being a student.”

Studying/Working from Home
Nonetheless, there was a sense of positivity and resilience around working/studying from home despite the disruption. “We have to make the best of every situation with this lockdown. We have much more energy now much more time to sit and do what is requested of us for these next 30 days [of Ramadan]” states Sara.

Sara outlines the delicate balance to fulfil her commitments as a researcher and colleague, with the requirements of observing Ramadan: “It’s very difficult, as you would get up around 3.30AM and eat and then go back to sleep and then around 6AM you get up again to go to work on campus. Then you would leave work around 6/7PM, you are coming back home tired with no energy and you just want to go eat and sleep. There is little time to read the Koran properly or enjoy prayers.”

Finding the balance is no different for students also, despite some advantages. “Before lockdown, I had some classes that were scheduled during a prayer time and so I’d have to pray late” explains Camiel. “Now I can just mute my microphone, turn off for 10 minutes to pray and then come back to class”.

However, despite the added flexibility that studying/working from home offers, keeping focus, and keeping busy are crucial factors when doing Ramadan.

“Even in previous years, the days that I would spend just inside, doing nothing, those were the toughest”

He keeps sanguine outlook about the lockdown and the potential pitfalls of home-working: “I think it could be a good thing. Just mind control and spirituality. Because it’s now a true test of strength because you really have to be in control, to avoid distractions” [for your work] but also “there are no distractions; There’s no family to distract, no outside activities or other work and stuff.”

This positivity is shared by Sara; “During these 30 days, you have the chance to self-improve, but also to reflect, on yourself, but also your behaviour with others”. “We will miss the social interaction doing the prayers together with friends or families at the mosque”. But she cautions: “We must make the best of it. We have no choice. We are dealing with a pandemic.”