Read: I have seen the future—and it’s not the life we knew
Turning everything digital isn’t a panacea, of course. For those like my grandfather, who keeps his life decidedly offline, such innovations can feel out of reach. For others, they simply create nostalgia for all the traditions that can’t be replaced, such as preparing qatayef (a crescent-shaped Levantine pastry made especially during Ramadan) with family or spending evenings in the mosque, sometimes overnight. “The fact that we cannot be together with our children and grandchildren is really a deprivation,” Muhammad Abdel Haleem, the director of the Centre of Islamic Studies at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, told me.
There is no modern precedent for adapting Ramadan to a pandemic, nor does the Quran exactly come with detailed instructions on what to do if one occurs. But there are some clues. “The major texts … they all have chapters on plagues,” Suhaib Webb, an imam and a resident scholar at the Islamic Center at New York University, told me. The Muslim world was racked by plagues from the sixth century to the 14th, influencing the philosophy of Islamic scholars who lived through them. One, Ibn Hajar, lost several children to the Black Death. “He talked about how one of the virtues of living in a pandemic is that you learn to appreciate things you may have not sought before,” Webb said. Since this pandemic began, Webb said he has been researching early Islamic history and hadith literature, or sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, to help inform his weekly sermons, which now take place online. He isn’t the only one finding spiritual guidance this way: In one hadith I’ve seen cited plenty this Ramadan, the Prophet Muhammad is believed to have told his followers: “If you hear of an outbreak of plague in a land, do not enter it; but if the plague breaks out in a place while you are in it, do not leave that place.”
Webb’s main focus is making sure that people have the information they need to celebrate Ramadan this year as best, and as safely as, they can. “It’s just trying to make sure people know that religiously you can stay home,” he said. “You don’t have to go to taraweeh; you don’t have to go to jummah [Friday prayers]; here’s how you do janazah,” the funeral prayer.
“We have so many acts of worship that are conditioned on community,” Webb added. “The bigger challenge has been mourning alone.”
That challenge isn’t unique to the Muslim community. To date, more than 250,000 people worldwide have died from the coronavirus, and funerals have been difficult to organize or, in some places, banned. This is particularly difficult for faiths that observe strict mourning rituals. In both Judaism and Islam, for example, burials should happen within days of death—something that has proved almost impossible for overwhelmed funeral homes and cemeteries. The absence of such memorial services don’t just prevent people from observing burial rituals, but it robs them of the opportunity to grieve with others. I witnessed the difficulty of this challenge recently, when I came across a funeral during a walk around my North London neighborhood. A young woman had died, and hundreds of mourners from the local Orthdox Jewish community had gathered on the street to pay their respects. As I approached, I couldn’t help but feel nervous. It was the largest group of people I had come into contact with in weeks, and most of us weren’t wearing face masks, let alone keeping six feet apart. But the overwhelming feeling I had was grief—not just for the young woman and the community mourning her, but for the fact that we were there at all. Funerals aren’t meant to happen on the street. In an unprecedented situation, however, many have found themselves making unprecedented choices.