Coping with coronavirus is hard even when you’re surrounded by all your favorite creature comforts. And observing Ramadan, the month-long Islamic holiday that includes fasting during daylight hours, is an arduous task even when there isn’t a pandemic sweeping the globe. This year, the two have coincided. Ramadan began on April 23, and local observers have had to adapt to a holiday altered by a pandemic.
“What’s different is that at the end of Ramadan we’ll have a celebration called Eid, where a whole bunch of people come together and eat together,” says Charlottesville High School junior Abdellatif Yahya. “But we can’t do that because, you know, the coronavirus thing, six feet apart. It’ll just be us, my family.”
Yahya lives in town with his parents and three younger siblings, but he was born in Cairo. His immediate family came to the U.S. in 2006, and his extended relatives live in their homeland, Sudan. Yahya is one of a number of refugee students in Charlottesville who are juggling not just the holiday and the pandemic but also the college admissions process.
“Some of these students are Muslim, and they also have kind of said, ‘because we’re fasting, it might be hard to keep up with my homework, it might be hard to stay in touch with my teachers,’” says Rebecca Hill, the acting executive director of the Better Future Foundation, which provides counseling to students like Yahya.
Yahya, though, is an experienced faster. “[The] first time, your stomach feels weird. But the next day your stomach gets used to it. Your body knows that you’re not going to eat anything until this particular hour,” he says.
Now, with schools closed, he’s staying busy studying for the AP U.S. history test and teaching himself how to code—and observing the holiday with his family.
“Ramadan is when Muslims they say that hell’s gates are closed, and it’s the time to read the Quran and give charity, and do good,” says Yahya.
That charitable spirit has animated the Islamic Society of Central Virginia, Charlottesville’s masjid, or temple. During a normal Ramadan, the community breaks fast together at the mosque a few times a week, with a festive catered meal, says Mohammad Halaibeh, the society’s outreach secretary. With large gatherings outlawed, that’s not possible.
“We estimate a decent number of community members have been affected by the COVID situation,” Halaibeh says. “What we’re going to do starting this week is buy food in bulk—meat, chicken, oil, dates—and make boxes and distribute these boxes to families in need.”
The ban on gatherings disrupts other important elements of the holiday, too. “One of the hallmarks of Ramadan is the night prayer,” Halaibeh says, when people gather in the mosque after the evening meal.
While other religious traditions, from Passover Seders to Easter Sunday services, have been held online this year, the Islamic Society’s night prayer won’t be streamed.
“In Islam, you can’t just hold a prayer service over the internet,” Halaibeh says. The idea is that “you can always pray by yourself, so you don’t need internet to do it.”
“People have been praying in their homes,” says Halaibeh, a radiologist by trade. “Obviously it’s not the same as being in the mosque or the masjid, and seeing other people. It’s like watching a soccer game on TV [versus] being at the stadium.”
Still, the notion that some things can’t, and indeed shouldn’t, be replaced with a Zoom meeting might feel refreshing. “You don’t have to hold prayers in the masjid for them to be valid,” Halaibeh says. “They are valid anywhere you pray them.”