Muslims prepare for a Ramadan like no other

Observing Islam’s holy month, with its fasting and togetherness, in a time of isolation and constant snacking.

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Isra Shatat (left) and her mother, Adla Shatat. The Logan Square publicist has relocated to her parents’ home in Indiana for Ramadan.

Isra Shatat (left) and her mother, Adla Shatat. The Logan Square publicist has relocated to her parents’ home in Indiana for Ramadan. “We will be making some of our favorites like maqluba, stuffed grape leaves, hummus, And addas soup,” she said. “We will also be baking lots of sweets like Kulaj, Mamool, and my favorite, Kanafeh.”

Provided

The holiest month of the Islamic calendar begins with the sighting of the new moon — probably this Friday. And just as earlier this month, when Jews faced the challenge of the Zoom Seder and Christians coped with Easter Mass celebrated in empty cathedrals, now Muslims prepare to enter a new world of social-distance Ramadan.

“It’s going to be very interesting,” said Nabeela Rasheed, a lawyer.

“Muslims around the world are bracing for a Ramadan of the likes they’ve never seen or imagined before,” said Salman Azam, a board member at the Downtown Islamic Center. “We watched our interfaith partners having Seders and Easter dinners virtually and it helped us get ideas for the breaking of the fast.”

The Ramadan dawn-to-darkness fast from eating and drinking is one of the five essential “pillars of Islam,” along with prayer, charity, pilgrimage, and declaration of faith. The fast is usually broken with a nighttime meal, called an “iftar,” a much-anticipated home-cooked feast eaten with friends and relations.

“Ramadan is a time when communities and families gather in large numbers,” said Ahmed Rehab, executive director of the Chicago office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “That obviously is not going to happen this Ramadan.”

“During Ramadan, along with fasting, you’re supposed to continue with your normal daily routine. My normal daily routine now is going every five minutes to the refrigerator. That is not going to be happening over Ramadan.”

So what is going to happen? The Downtown Islamic Center is trying to shift Ramadan festivities online.

“This year at DIC, we are emphasizing that social distancing is not social isolation,” said Azam. For congregants breaking the fast alone, “we have set up a virtual room where we will be offering online recipes of popular fast-breaking food items and allow them to showcase their skills and exchange daily reflections, goals and lessons as they break their fast together.”

That said, Muslims are already echoing a sentiment previously expressed by Jews and Christians — a rare fellowship of complete pan-religion unanimity — when comparing online celebration with that in the physical world.

“It’s not the same,” said Rasheed, who already listens to lectures online at The Concordia Forum. “I can’t imagine it’s going to be the same.”

And parts will definitely be harder because of the COVID-19 lockdown.

“During Ramadan, along with fasting, you’re supposed to continue with your normal daily routine,” said Rasheed. “That has been so disrupted already. My normal daily routine now is going every five minutes to the refrigerator. That is not going to be happening over Ramadan. I’m really wondering how I’m going to fill my days.”

Inability to gather, physically, undercuts the faith in two very real ways. First, Ramadan is a key fundraising opportunity, now lost.

“People are very giving at Ramadan. We’re all there, in one place. A lot of nonprofits, charities, they usually get a night at one of the mosques,” said Rehab, who estimates up to half of his budget is raised during Ramadan. “All that is done with. It’s going to affect our organization greatly. No alternate is going to make up for that.”

Second, Ramadan not only helps Muslims become closer but also helps organizations like Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN) integrate into their neighborhoods.

“IMAN uses the month of Ramadan not only as communal gathering with the larger Muslim community, but with our brothers and sisters in other faith traditions,” said Rami Nashashibi, executive director of IMAN. “The breaking of the fast is shared, IMAN invites people from the synagogue down the street, the church down the street. It’s a way to encounter Muslim faith practices in ways that they would typically never be given an opportunity to do.”

For some Muslim communities, joining together online is nothing new.

“We’ve been quietly doing this work in Chicago for last three years,” said Mahdia Lynn, co-founder of Masjid al-Rabia, a South Loop community center (slogan: “Spirtual Care for Marginalized Muslims”) focusing on those with disabilities or who are LGBTQ.

“From the beginning, we made all of our services — class on Wednesday, prayer on Friday, holidays and special events — available online. Accessibility is one of our highest priorities. For us, Islam is too important to leave anybody behind.”

Mahdia Lynn, co-founder of Masjid al-Rabia, a South Loop community center.

Mahdia Lynn, co-founder of Masjid al-Rabia, a South Loop community center, said the group l has services available online. “For us, Islam is too important to leave anybody behind.”

Annie Costabile/Sun-Times

“We grow up with very, very strong family values,” said Isra Shatat, a Logan Square resident. “It’s family time. Prior to the quarantine, we’d invite different families over. Everybody takes turns inviting people over for dinner.”

With her parents in Indiana, Shatat decided to spend Ramadan with them.

“If I’m going to quarantine for a month, I might as well do it here,” said Shatat, 30. “It makes more sense. I love to cook. My mom loves to cook. My little sister loves to cook. It’s fun for all of us. I’m excited having that time with my parents: quality time with my mom, quality time with my dad. As a child, I didn’t cook. Now I’m able to cook.”

And what’s on the menu?

“Grape leaves, traditional lentil soup, maqluba — upside-down rice, a very popular dish. Everybody cooks it differently. Rice mixed with fried vegetables, traditionally lamb or chicken. I’m plant-based, I don’t eat meat, so we’re doing it differently. My mom, she’s OK with it.”

Not that Ramadan is only about fasting and eating.

“Reflecting, a time of giving, giving back,” she said, recommending the charity Families in Palestine. “Grateful for what we have and are able to share.”

Elderly, poor and other challenged Muslims will have a harder time this year.

“For organizations like IMAN, many people coming to break fast with us, don’t have communal warm settings anywhere else,” said Nashashibi. “That’s going to weigh heavily on us: how do we tend to those many individuals, coming home from prison, or a person who is the only Muslim in a family? There are a lot of seniors isolated, alone. A lot of challenges for us, to make sure this month we’re doing everything possible to connect with them.”

The old challenges, then, of balancing faith and secular life, with a few new twists.

“While we don’t want our congregation to feel isolated, we are trying to emphasize that Ramadan is also about re-centering and strengthening one’s faith while avoiding worldly distractions,” said Azam. “This year offers a unique opportunity to make this one of the most individually-spiritual Ramadans, where people can take advantage of remote working and flexible schedules to learn more, read more and offer extra prayer.”

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