Muslims navigate restrictions in the second pandemic Ramadhan

Mariam Fam, Kathy Gannon & Bassem Mroue

CAIRO (AP) — For Ramadhan this year, Magdy Hafez has been longing to reclaim a cherished ritual: performing the nighttime group prayers called Tarawikh at the mosque once again.

Last year, the coronavirus upended the 68-year-old Egyptian’s routine of going to the mosque to perform those prayers, traditional during Islam’s holiest month. The pandemic had disrupted Islamic worship the world over, including in Egypt where mosques were closed to worshippers last Ramadhan.

“I have been going to the mosque for 40 years so it was definitely a very, very, difficult thing,” he said. “But our religion orders us to protect one another.”

Still, “It’s a whole other feeling, and the spirituality in Ramadhan is like nothing else.”

Egypt has since allowed most mosques to re-open for Friday communal prayers and for this Ramadhan it will let them hold Tarawikh, also with precautions, including shortening its duration.

Ramadhan, which begins this week, comes as much of the world has been hit by an intense new coronavirus wave. For many Muslims navigating restrictions, that means hopes of a better Ramadhan than last year have been dashed with the surge in infection rates though regulations vary in different countries.

Volunteers clean the outer areas of the historic Mohabat Khan Mosque ahead of the upcoming Ramadhan in Peshawar, Pakistan. PHOTOS: AP
ABOVE & BELOW: A Palestinian shopkeeper hangs Ramadhan lanterns ahead of the fasting month of Ramadhan in the West Bank city of Nablus; and a street vendor sells dates ahead of Ramadhan in Kabul, Afghanistan

A time for fasting, worship and charity, Ramadhan is also when people typically congregate for prayers, gather around festive meals to break their day-long fast, throng cafes and exchange visits.

Once again, some countries are imposing new restrictions. But concern is high that the month’s communal rituals could stoke a further surge. “The lack of adherence that happened last Ramadhan, hasty lifting of the curfew imposed at the time and re-opening of places of congregations … led to grave consequences that lasted for months,” World Health Organization (WHO) Regional Director for the Eastern Mediterranean Ahmed Al-Mandhari said.

“We have a lot of worries of a repeat of what had happened last Ramadhan, especially since Ramadhan coincides with another important holiday, which is Easter,” he said by e-mail.

In Pakistan, new case numbers grew from fewer than 800 a day at the start of the month last year to more than 6,000 a day a few weeks after Ramadhan ended. Officials largely attributed the increase to Pakistanis flouting restrictions. After a dip, the country is back up to more than 5,000 new cases a day.

Iran on Saturday began a 10-day lockdown amid a severe surge in infections that followed a two-week public holiday for Nowruz, the Persian New Year.

Economic hardship also looms over the month for many. In war-torn Syria, Abed al-Yassin was concerned about what his iftar – the meal at sunset breaking the fast— will look like this year.

“It will be difficult to even have fattoush,” al-Yassin said, referring to a salad that is a staple of the holy month in his country.

He’s spending his second Ramadhan in a tent settlement near the Turkish border after he was driven from his hometown last year during a Russian-backed government offensive that displaced hundreds of thousands.

“Our main wish is to return to our homes,” said al-Yassin, who lives with his wife, three sons and daughter in a tent. He relies mostly on food aid, he said. Camp residents have recently received bags of lentils, pasta and bulgur and receive bread on daily basis.

Lebanon is being squeezed by the worst economic and financial crisis in its modern history, exacerbated by the pandemic and a massive deadly explosion in Beirut in August.

“We are going through a period when some people are fasting whether during Ramadhan or not,” said Natalie Najm, an insurance broker. Even with her job, she can barely cover food costs, she said. “What about others who lost their jobs?”

To prevent large gatherings in Ramadhan, Saudi Arabia has forbidden mosques from serving iftar and suhoor, a meal just before the fast’s start at sunrise.

Many Muslim religious leaders, including in Saudi Arabia, have tried to dispel concerns about getting the coronavirus vaccine in Ramadhan, saying that doing so does not constitute breaking the fast.

With new infections exceeding earlier peaks in India, Muslim scholars there have appealed to their communities to strictly follow restrictions and refrain from large gatherings, while asking volunteers and elders to look after the needy.

In Pakistan, authorities are allowing mosques to remain open during Ramadhan with rules in place that include barring worshippers over 50-years-old and requiring masks.

But given how rules were widely ignored last year there, doctors have been asking the government to close mosques.

“We are very concerned about the gatherings,” Pakistan Medical Association Secretary General Dr Qaiser Sajjad said on Sunday. He urged the government and Pakistan’s clerics to put together a better plan during Ramadhan to stop the spread of the virus.

“We must learn from the previous year,” he said. Sajjad is calling for a complete lockdown of the eastern city of Lahore.

Afghanistan is leaving it up to worshippers to watch out for each other, keep their distance and stay away from the mosques if they are feeling ill.

“Saving a human life is an obligation … you can’t put the life of a human in danger or at risk at all,” said Sayed Mohammad Sherzadi, head of Haj and Religious Sffairs Fepartment for Kabul province.

Malaysia has some movement restrictions in place and has declared a coronavirus emergency that suspended Parliament until August following spikes in infections. But it has lifted last year’s ban on Tarawikh prayers and Ramadhan bazaars, which sell food, drink and clothes, though strict measures will be in place.

Back in Egypt, Undersecretary for Mosque Affairs at the country’s Ministry of Endowments Nouh Elesawy had a message to the faithful ahead of the start of the month: “If you want the houses of God to remain open, adhere to the precautionary procedures and regulations.”

Ramadhan also typically has a distinct cultural and social flavour for many.

In Egypt, giant billboards bearing the faces of celebrities advertise Ramadhan television series, a favourite pastime for many. In bustling markets around Cairo’s Al-Sayeda Zainab Mosque, shoppers browsed stalls stacked with decorative Ramadhan lanterns in vibrant colours, inspected the offerings and bargained for
a deal.

In another Cairo neighbourhood, people posed with a giant Ramadhan lantern towering over one street and snapped photos.

One Ramadhan tradition in Egypt that remains a casualty of the virus for the second year is the ‘Tables of the Compassionate’, communal charity iftars where strangers would break bread together at free meals served on long tables on the street.

The tables may be gone, but not the month’s spirit of giving.

Neveen Hussein, 48, said colleagues brought her “Ramadhan bags” filled with rice, oil, sugar and other staples to distribute to needy families. It’s an annual tradition, she said, rendered more urgent by a pandemic that has hurt the livelihoods of many of those already struggling.

“This is a month of mercy,” she said. “God is generous, and this is a month of generosity.”