One week into lockdown Ramadan: bring your own iftar

The pandemic has transformed many aspects of the holy month, but we can preserve and even amplify the most meaningful parts

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This year it was difficult to imagine what Ramadan would be like be like in lockdown, but we are already a week in.

At the closing of our first fast, our family sat around the dining table and connected to a Zoom video conference with relatives gathering from across four locations. We dubbed it BYOI: bring your own iftar.

The computer screen was filled with dining rooms that were almost as familiar as our own but felt far away. Everyone spoke and laughed at once. The children pulled funny faces. We talked about what everyone was eating and held the cameras of our devices over the food so that everyone could have a closer look.

As the time arrived to break the fast, we offered prayers. Soon, our screens were all at once noisy with excitement, and then quiet as everyone focused on eating and drinking.

It was joyful to at least be able to see one another. But screens are not a substitute and the closeness of being together in person could not be replicated. This has been the hardest aspect of lockdown during Ramadan.

I am not the only one who feels this way. Being separated from parents and siblings who live only doors away is tough. Equally, many are craving the spiritual gatherings at mosques where congregation and prayer are the pillars of Ramadan.

Despite all of this, the mood thus far has been surprisingly positive. This is the first year that my young children have stayed up beyond their bedtime for iftar, which has been at around 8:30pm in London, where we live.

With no pressure to wake up for school and no commute to factor in, they can sleep in later in the mornings. They are being home-schooled and my husband and I are working from home. Those few extra hours in the morning have made all the difference.

In fact, the pressure feels off all around, and that is the biggest change in routine for me in my lockdown bubble. There is no stress to dress up for iftars, no burden to put on a big feast, no need to decorate the house to the nines  – we still have though, because the children love balloons and lanterns.

Volunteers prepare Iftar meals to be given to migrant workers during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan within the initiative of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, to distribute 10 million meals, on April 28, 2020 in Dubai.  / AFP / Karim SAHIB

While the togetherness of Ramadan – which is what anchors big meals, mosque gatherings and socialising – is missing, there is a new kind of togetherness, one with the immediate family. We have more time as a family. My husband and I have more time together.

It has been a relaxing Ramadan in our community too. While for us the children require non-stop entertainment and activities, others in our social circle who don’t have children are taking afternoon naps to keep up their energy levels.

There has been a flourish of online and live streaming. Some local mosques broadcast from afternoon until late evening, practically creating television channels overnight. We have watched everything from sermons and deep Quranic interpretations to cartoons, cooking shows and advice on how to stay healthy while fasting.

Perhaps the most profound and positive difference this year has been the opportunity for greater self-reflection. It is always a benefit of Ramadan, but more so this year. With commuting and socialising gone from our schedules, there is that much more time to introspect.

Ramadan, however, has always been about thinking of others, and it is hard not to think about how much our experiences are based on privilege. We are not essential workers. Many in dire financial need are not only bearing the full brunt of lockdown, but are also fasting everyday and going out to work.

It has been heartening to see charities delivering iftar packages to the needy. Many volunteers are stepping up even from the safety of their homes to offer help in a digital capacity, or at least by donating to causes that aid the most vulnerable.

The opportunity for greater self-reflection is always a benefit of Ramadan, but more so this year

In the UK in particular, the number of deaths of Muslims and those of black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds is disproportionately high. In this first week of Ramadan, there have been calls for an enquiry into why this is the case.

It is heartbreaking that my social media feeds are a roll call of obituaries of the family members of Muslims that I know, including Muslim healthcare professionals. Despite the positive sides of Ramadan in lockdown, there is a constant sense of pain.

While Ramadan is always transformative, putting the daily grind on pause and transporting us away from life's struggles, this year’s Ramadan has so far been a time to escape from pressure and to build spiritual as well as immediate family bonds.

There is always a sense of eager trepidation in preparing for Ramadan, and with lockdown that sense was heightened. But at the end of the first week, we have ahead of us a once-in-a-lifetime chance to transform ourselves.

Shelina Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World