The Tensions Underlying Pakistan’s Ramadan Decision

The country has exempted Ramadan gatherings from its lockdown, illustrating the temptation, and the risks, of coming together.

Najeebah Al-Ghadban

Ramadan is not to be this year, at least not in its traditional form: For many of the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims, the holy month has been adapted to a new social-distancing reality, in which evening feasts with family and friends have been traded for modest meals in isolation, and communal prayers swapped for virtual sermons over Zoom.

Not everywhere, though. In Pakistan, mosques continue to host evening prayers and clerics encourage worshippers to gather. The country’s decision to exempt Ramadan congregations from its nationwide lockdown—on the condition that worshippers follow certain rules, such as wearing face masks, keeping six feet apart, and performing pre-prayer ablutions at home—puts it at odds with most Muslim-majority nations. The Grand Mosque in Mecca and Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, two of the faith’s holiest sites, which would normally be filled with worshippers this time of year, now stand virtually deserted. Even the traditional call to prayer that beckons Muslims to Hayya Ala Al Salah, or “come to prayer,” has in some places been adjusted to direct them instead to Al Salat Fi Beyootikum, or “pray at home.”

Experts have warned that Pakistan’s selective social-distancing measures could prove disastrous for the country’s overburdened health-care system. The country has already recorded more than 20,000 cases of the coronavirus, and with many mosques reportedly ignoring the government’s social-distancing guidance, that number is expected to grow—the World Health Organization projects that cases there could surge to 200,000.

Pakistan’s decision is more than just a political one, however. At its core, it exposes a fundamental tension that many people, irrespective of faith, are currently feeling. At a time when the world is experiencing an unparalleled level of anxiety and grief, the temptation to come together is strong, yet the risks in doing so are high. During a religious festival such as Ramadan, which centers around communal gatherings to eat, pray, and reflect, this isolation is even more pronounced. This tension extends well beyond the Muslim community, though. People of all faiths, including the Orthodox Jewish community in Britain and the Catholic community in Italy, and none are grappling with how to be together emotionally and spiritually while physically being apart. How Muslims choose to deal with this challenge, and the lessons Islamic history provides, offers a guide for how other communities might do the same.

Though Ramadan is perhaps best known as a month of spiritual discipline and fasting, during which adherents refrain from food and drink during daylight hours, it encompasses much more. The ninth month of the Islamic calendar marks the first revelation of the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad, and a time for many Muslims to focus on prayer, charity, and self-reflection. It’s also synonymous with gathering—for predawn breakfasts, known as suhoor; for sunset feasts, or iftars; and for special communal evening prayers, taraweeh.

This year, such gatherings offer ripe conditions for the coronavirus to spread. As a result, many Muslims have adapted their celebrations to the safety and seclusion of home: Sermons that would normally attract hundreds of worshippers to the mosque each evening are being live-streamed, and although many individuals can no longer break their fast physically with their loved ones, they can still do so virtually.

For the Ramadan Tent Project, a British organization that has been running “open iftars” since 2013, this year has been a case study in improvisation. The group had originally planned to host 50 events in venues as expansive as London’s Wembley Stadium and Trafalgar Square. “We didn’t want to simply cancel the events and that be it,” Rohma Ahmed, one of the event organizers, told me. So they changed tack: Instead of hosting iftars, they sent out packs with all the materials participants would need to create their own, including recipes, decorations, and games. And rather than cancel guest-speaker sessions, they invited people to tune in via Facebook Live and Zoom. Around the world, mosques and imams are attempting to improvise in similar ways, offering congregants virtual reflections and live-streamed prayers. “So many mosques have been working really hard over the last few weeks to bring their services online,” Zainab Gulamali, a spokesperson for the Muslim Council of Britain, told me. “That’s not really happened before.”

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.

Elsewhere, tensions have emerged in Italy between the Catholic Church and the state over the authorities’ continued ban on the opening of churches and the holding of public Masses, with some bishops demanding that the government revise its decision. (Similar debates are taking place in France and Greece.) The suspension of religious ceremonies has taken its toll on the staunchly Catholic country, where priests have been unable to visit dying patients to perform last rites and where funerals were for a long time suspended (the Italian government recently lifted its ban on funeral gatherings, as long as they are limited to 15 people). Though some churches have found ways of continuing services online, many want to resume their rituals in real life.

Despite all the challenges of celebrating Ramadan this year, I’ve actually found myself enjoying it. That the holy month happened to fall amid this crisis has in some ways felt like a blessing: When it feels as if everything normal has been upended, having something comforting and familiar to focus on has been nice, even in a slightly altered state. Unlike in previous years, I don’t have to contend with commuting to and from work while fasting, nor do I have to worry about passing up friends’ invitations to meet for coffee or lunch during the daytime. And though I can’t celebrate with loved ones the way I might like, this Ramadan has given me something that previous ones haven’t: more time—to pray; to reflect; and to take stock of everything I’m grateful for at a time when doing so feels especially important.

I’m not the only one who thinks so. Several Muslim writers have recounted finding their own silver linings this Ramadan, in its emphasis on perseverance and patience and the opportunity it presents to observe the month the way the Prophet Muhammad did—who himself began his journey to prophethood in solitude. “Islam does value interval isolation,” Webb said. “It’s seen as an important spiritual practice.”

So too is the act of charity, or zakat—another essential part of Ramadan that has manifested itself in new ways this year. In addition to people donating food and money, as is customary during the month, many mosques have stepped up in the fight against the coronavirus, with some operating as makeshift hospices, mortuaries, and food banks.

When I spoke with Gulamali from the Muslim Council of Britain during the first few days of Ramadan, she said she also felt positive about the holy month arriving when it did. “I think Ramadan has come at the best time for people,” she said. “When you look at the true essence of Ramadan, it’s compassion and acting in service to others, and I think there has been no other time when compassion and service to others has been so abundant in Muslim communities.”