Ramadan the way it should be: a ‘very, very amazing bonding experience’

After two years of pandemic restrictions, large gatherings to break the fast are back.

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Hamzah Latif, a human rights consultant with Amnesty International, is looking forward to having friends over to his Pilsen home to break fast during Ramadan.

Hamzah Latif, a human rights consultant with Amnesty International, looks forward to having friends over to his Pilsen home to break the fast during Ramadan.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

After two years of small gatherings and at-home Ramadan celebrations, Hamzah Latif has invited 100 people to his home to break the Ramadan fast together next week.

It will be the first large iftar meal Latif has hosted since 2019, when 63 people gathered at his apartment to eat, pray and socialize before heading to the mosque for prayers.

Some mosques planned to begin observing Ramadan Friday night, while others will wait for the sighting of the moon and may start later. The month is observed by fasting (no food or drink, even water) from sunrise to sundown, so when his guests arrive, Latif said, most look exhausted.

But as they break the fast together, energy levels spike.

“It’s so amazing to see,” Latif said. “Like honestly, that’s what keeps me going. It’s actually pretty crazy. You see a bunch of young professionals come in, everyone’s tired, and you break fast together. It’s a very, very amazing bonding experience.”

That’s an important part of Ramadan, said Salman Azam, an executive board member of the Downtown Islamic Center. It’s about spirituality, but it’s also a time to reconnect with the community.

Salman Azam, a board member of the Downtown Islamic Center, is looking forward to a more typical Ramadan after celebrating mostly at home for the past two years.

Salman Azam, a board member of the Downtown Islamic Center, and his wife, Saba Azam, are eager to have a more typical Ramadan after celebrating mostly at home for two years.

Provided

And this year, for the first time since the pandemic began, both parts of Ramadan are back, with most iftars and services fully in person.

“I think that’s why it’s going to be markedly better” this year, Azam added. After all, he said, many Muslims visit their mosque more during Ramadan than any other time of the year.

“You would see kids playing outside, people hanging around even after, people who come for the breaking of the fast and stay all the way until the nightly prayers, spending several hours at the mosque,” Azam said.

The Downtown Islamic Center was shut down during Ramadan in 2020. Last year, it was open, but a registration system was used to limit capacity to around 25%. Social distancing and face masks were required. People accustomed to praying shoulder to shoulder instead prayed 6 feet apart, every other row.

Still, many got in line even before tickets were released, going to great lengths to get an opportunity to pray inside the mosque.

“There was an overwhelming eagerness for people last year, even though we were limited, to want to come because they missed that aspect of Ramadan — the social and community aspect of Ramadan,” Azam said. “This was the first time because of an external force they were kept out of God’s house, and they really felt how different Ramadan is when you don’t visit God’s house.”

Rania Abdul Bari of Morton Grove certainly did. She hasn’t seen some friends in two years and is excited to reconnect.

Last year, she could have prayed at the Muslim Education Center in Morton Grove; it’s within walking distance of her home. But she was not excited about social distancing and masking rules, and chose to pray at home for most of the month.

It was harder, Bari said, to endure Ramadan at home. Celebrating the month with her community, she says, gives her something to look forward to each day and makes fasting easier.

“Sometimes you go through a difficult time, or you’re just tired, but when you see people going through what you go through you tell yourself, ‘OK, it’s not only me,’” Bari said. “It just makes the day a little bit different, like every night is different. It’s not the same routine. When you look forward to something, it makes your time go by.”

Many mosques this year will also reinstate additional programming along with prayer services.

The Downtown Islamic Center will hold classes before the nightly prayer, Azam said, including a class in which passages of the Quran are translated for those who don’t speak Arabic.

The only part of the celebration still missing this year for the Downtown Islamic Center is hosting a big meal at the mosque to break the fast; instead, congregates will get a date and a bottle of water.

Along with the return of local gatherings, many in Chicago are encouraged by the continuation of in-person Ramadan celebrations across the world, such as the pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, Azam said.

“After experiencing some Ramadans like no other,” Azam said, “it’s going to be a welcome change to go back to things how they were.”

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