Dubai- Days before the holy fasting month of Ramazan begins, the Islamic world is grappling with an untimely paradox of the new coronavirus pandemic: enforced separation at a time when socialising is almost sacred.
The holiest month in the Islamic calendar is one of family and togetherness — community, reflection, charity and prayer.
But with shuttered mosques, coronavirus curfews and bans on mass prayers from Senegal to Southeast Asia, some 1.8 billion Muslims are facing a Ramazan like never before.
Across the Muslim world, the pandemic has generated new levels of anxiety ahead of the holy month, which is expected to begin from Thursday evening in some countries.
In Algiers, Yamine Hermache, 67, usually receives relatives and neighbours at her home for tea and cold drinks during the month that Muslims fast from dusk till dawn. But this year she fears it will be different.
“We may not visit them, and they will not come,” she said, weeping. “The coronavirus has made everyone afraid, even of distinguished guests.”
In a country where mosques have been closed, her husband Mohamed Djemoudi, 73, worries about something else.
“I cannot imagine Ramazan without Taraweeh,” he said, referring to additional prayers performed at mosques after iftar.
In Jordan, the government in coordination with neighbouring Arab countries, is expected to announce a fatwa outlining what Ramazan rituals will be permitted, but for millions of Muslims, it already feels so different.
In Pakistan, ulema have agreed to follow government guidelines regarding congregational prayers and other Ramazan festivities. While mosques have been permitted to hold congregational prayers this year, the government has made it clear that any cases of flouting the guidelines or a sharp increase in coronavirus cases in the country.
From Africa to Asia, the coronavirus has cast a shadow of gloom and uncertainty.
Worst year ever
Around the souks and streets of Cairo, a sprawling city of 23 million people that normally never sleeps, the coronavirus has been disastrous.
“People don’t want to visit shops, they are scared of the disease. It’s the worst year ever,” said Samir El-Khatib, who runs a stall by the historic al-Sayeda Zainab mosque. “Compared with last year, we haven’t even sold a quarter.”
During Ramazan, street traders in the Egyptian capital stack their tables with dates and apricots, sweet fruits to break the fast, and the city’s walls with towers of traditional lanterns known as “fawanees”.
But this year, authorities have imposed a night curfew and banned communal prayers and other activities, so not many people see much point in buying the lanterns.
Among the few who ventured out was Nasser Salah Abdelkader, 59, a manager in the Egyptian stock market.
“This year there’s no Ramazan mood at all,” he said. “I’d usually come to the market, and right from the start people were usually playing music, sitting around, almost living in the streets.”
Dampening the festivities before they begin, the coronavirus is also complicating another part of Ramazan, a time when both fasting and charity are seen as obligatory.
‘All kinds of togetherness is missed’
In Algeria, restaurant owners are wondering how to offer iftar to the needy when their premises are closed, while charities in Abu Dhabi that hold iftar for low-paid South Asian workers are unsure what to do with mosques now closed.
Mohamed Aslam, an engineer from India who lives in a three-bedroom apartment in downtown Abu Dhabi with 14 others is unemployed because of the coronavirus. With his apartment building under quarantine after a resident tested positive, he has been relying on charity for food.
In Senegal, the plan is to continue charity albeit in a limited way. In the beachside capital of Dakar, charities that characteristically hand out “Ndogou”, baguettes slathered with chocolate spread, cakes, dates, sugar and milk to those in need, will distribute them to Koranic schools rather than on the street.
Meanwhile in Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority country, some people will be meeting loved ones remotely this year.
Prabowo, who goes by one name, said he will host Eidul Fitr via the online meeting site Zoom instead of flying home.
“I worry about the coronavirus,” he said. “But all kinds of togetherness will be missed. No iftar together, no praying together at the mosque, and not even gossiping with friends.”
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