Covid-19 pandemic casts long shadow as Ramadan starts [GUARDIAN]

April 23, 2020

Ramadan is normally a sociable time, as abstention from food and water during daylight hours gives way to sumptuous meals and gatherings at dusk.

But this year, the coronavirus pandemic has cast a long shadow over the rituals, which have been modified to fit public health directives on physical distancing. The month of fasting and reflection, which has begun with the sighting of the crescent moon, will be observed by the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims mostly in private.

Mosques will remain closed to evening prayers and feasting will become a more intimate affair, within the confines of family homes. Large public banquets, provided by authorities, or benefactors, have been outlawed in much of the Islamic world, where curfews and lockdowns remain rigidly enforced.

Over the past two months, Muslims in the Middle East and other parts of the world have become accustomed to a variation on the call to prayer, caused by state restrictions on social gatherings. From mosques across the world, the familiar summons “come to pray” has been replaced by “pray at home”. And with the arrival of the year’s most sacred month, the ban on getting together has become more pointed.

“I’m not really looking forward to fasting this year, said Firas Mahmoud, a resident of the Lebanese capital Beirut. “It’s in spring this year, which is better than the last nine years of summer, but having no one to break the fast with, it feels like suffering. It feels flat.”

Ahead of the fast there was even discussion about whether going without sustenance for much of the day might have an effect on immunity – , and hence people’s capacity to fight off Covid-19. However, with no clarity about whether this is the case, and evidence to support the contrary – that fasting may in fact be beneficial – the premise of this year’s Ramadan remains unchanged.

“Muslim religious authorities around the world are advocating wide restrictions on gatherings, in or out of mosques, as a result of the [coronavirus] pandemic,” said Dr HA Hellyer, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“The mosques will remain virtually closed; the usual charity meal tables will be absent from the streets; and the frequent family socialising associated with Ramadan will be suspended.”

Ramadan under lockdown is the antithesis of the festival. However, as Covid-19 took hold in the lead-up to the fast, religious authorities and governments were determined to ban congregational activities – a move that could deny the impoverished more than the chance to fraternise. Charity is also an important part of the month, with cash, food and other donations regularly given to those with few means to afford them.

Mosques across the Middle East and North Africa – in Egypt Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Jordan, Iraq and the United Arab Emirates – have largely been shuttered throughout the crisis and will not offer shelter or seclusion to those fasting this year.

With global travel grinding largely to a halt, supply lines have also suffered and there are fears that food may be in short supply in some areas. “This is the first time we’ve had to worry about that,” said Bashar Abu Samra, from the northern Lebanon city of Tripoli. “A scarcity of food during Ramadan. Can you imagine?”

Some states have amended their curfew times to make it easier for people to shop during fasting hours. The virus has even taken a toll on traditional Ramadan TV fare, with distancing disrupting filming in the run-up, leaving shows unfinished. Clerical bodies meanwhile have encouraged families to embrace this year’s restrictions by focusing on intimate family members.

In a statement earlier this month, Egypt’s Grand Mufti, Shawki Allam, said: “We must look to the positive aspects during these exceptional times that have compelled many people to be quarantined in their homes and turn this into an opportunity for bonding and forgiveness and restoring the spirit of serenity and cooperation.”

In north-west Syria, where the fasting may at least put a stop to relentless war, Ahmad Mustafa, a shopkeeper in Idlib, said the month was still welcome. “Everybody can pause to see where they’re at. The world needs to change. And maybe this time it will happen for real.”

Source: The Guardian

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