Bringing cheer amid virus gloom

Mariam Fam

WINTER PARK, FLORIDA (AP) – With no congregational prayers or family gatherings, Salsabiel Mujovic has been worried that this year’s Aidilfitri celebration will pale. Still, she’s determined to bring home holiday cheer amid the coronavirus gloom.

Her family can’t go to the mosque, but the 29-year-old New Jersey resident bought new outfits for herself and her daughters. They are praying at home and having a family photo session. The kids are decorating cookies in a virtual gathering, and popping balloons with money or candy inside – a twist on a tradition of giving children cash gifts for the occasion.

“We’re used to, just like, easily going and seeing family, but now it’s just like there’s so much fear and anxiety,” she said. “Growing up, I always loved Aidilfitri… It’s like a Christmas for a Muslim.”

Like Mujovic, many Muslims in America are navigating balancing religious and social rituals with concerns over the virus as they look for ways to capture the Aidilfitri spirit this weekend.

Aidilfitri – the feast of breaking the fast – marks the end of Ramadhan, when Muslims abstain from food and drink from sunrise to sunset. Just like they did during Ramadhan, many are resorting to at-home worship and relying on technology for online gatherings, sermons and, now, Aidilfitri entertainment.

Children use a speaker to pray while waiting with others during a drive-through Aidilfitri celebration outside a closed mosque in Plano, Texas. PHOTOS: AP
ABOVE & BELOW: A small group prays inside an empty mosque amid concerns of the spread of COVID-19; and a video image shows Liyana Mujovic, two, and her sister Suhaila, five decorating cookies for Aidilfitri with a group of friends while celebrating the end of Ramadhan

This year, some Muslim-majority countries have tightened restrictions for the holiday which traditionally means family visits, group outings and worshippers flooding mosques or filling public spaces.

The Aidilfitri prayer normally attracts particularly large crowds. The Fiqh Council of North America, a body of Islamic scholars, encouraged Muslims to perform the Aidilfitri prayer at home.

“We don’t want to have gatherings and congregations,” Sheikh Yasir Qadhi, who prepared the council’s Fatwa, or religious edict, said in an interview. “We should try to keep the spirit of Aidilfitri alive, even if it’s just in our houses, even if we just decorate our houses and wear our finest for each other.”

While some are eager for mosques to re-open, Qadhi said, “We don’t want to be a conduit for the situation exacerbating. We need to think rationally and not emotionally.”

The North Texas Imams Council, of which he is a member, has recommended mosques remain closed. He said he expected the majority of mosques to stay closed to the public, though he worries about smaller mosques re-opening.

On the first day of Aidilfitri, Qadhi, resident scholar at East Plano Islamic Center in Texas, and just a few others chanted “Allahu Akbar” from a mosque that he said remained closed to worshippers.

“Today we are celebrating Aidilfitri like we have never celebrated before,” Qadhi said in a sermon streamed online. “It’s an atypical celebration but it is a celebration nonetheless.”

He reflected on lessons such as appreciating blessings once taken for granted.

“It’s gonna be an Aidilfitri for the books” but “we have to make the best of this Aidilfitri”, he said after the sermon. Outside, cars-some with giggling kids looking out of windows-snaked around the mosque for a drive-through celebration to pick up goody bags.

In Florida, the Islamic Center of Osceola County, Masjid Taqwa held the Aidilfitri prayer outdoors in the parking lot after announcing social distancing rules.

Guidelines posted online included worshippers bringing their own prayer rugs, wearing mandatory masks and praying next to their cars while staying at least six feet apart. Participants were told not to hug or shake hands.

“Aidilfitri is important but more important is the health of the people,” said Maulana Abdulrahman Patel, the imam. “We’ve been taking a lot of precautions,” and not acting on “sentiments or emotional feelings,” he said before the holiday, adding they have been consulting with health and other officials.

Major Jacob Ruiz, the major of administration at Osceola County Sheriff’s Office, said he and the sheriff had met with Patel before Aidilfitri. “Everybody was in agreement that it’s going to be something that’s gonna be successful for them,” he added before the start of the holiday.

The Muslim community in the county “has been very receptive and proactive in ensuring that they keep safety guidelines”, he said.

The Masjid Taqwa prayer was open for men only, the mosque said, citing “constraints”. Plans for men-only prayers announced by at least one other mosque have prompted objections by some about excluding women.

For Masjid Taqwa, the decision to include just men was taken because having families together would make crowd control more difficult, Patel said.

Also Sunday, the Islamic Community Center of Phoenix held four Aidilfitri prayers, said its president, Usama Shami. “It went better than we expected,” he said. Precautions included taping over spots where people may set their prayer rugs to keep a safe distance and offering masks to those who want them, he said. Additional guidelines the centre posted online included sterilising hands before entering the mosque and not congregating inside after the prayer. A video of worshippers showed some in masks and some not.

The centre started re-opening for some prayers during Ramadhan, Shami said, adding that at the time this sparked “a couple of negative” online comments from the Muslim community.

In Michigan, the Michigan Muslim Community Council organised a televised Aidilfitri ceremony. It included the Aidilfitri sermon, greetings from local elected officials and members of Muslim communities, said council chairman Mahmoud Al-Hadidi.

“It’s just to keep people connected,” he said. Normally, Aidilfitri is an all-day celebration with large gatherings over meals and a carnival for kids, he added. “Aidilfitri is a huge thing here.”

Back in New Jersey on the holiday’s eve, Mujovic and two of her daughters joined friends and others online to decorate cookies. Squeezing icing out and spreading it on cookies shaped like Ramadhan lanterns or spelling out the word “AIDILFITRI”, the girls stopped to lick their fingers or munch on the treats.

As children waved, squealed and showed off their creations, it started to feel like Aidilfitri for Mujovic. “It was nice seeing happy faces,” she said.