This is the Ramadan that we have been waiting for, although we may not know it, and we may not yet feel it. Our first instinct – in spite of all the how-to guides, motivational speeches and social media posts that inspire us to ‘rediscover’ the true meaning of Ramadan – is to feel worried and anxious about how we will ‘do’ Ramadan.
The anchors of shared gatherings and communal worship are no longer available during lockdown. And no matter how strong our desire to cling onto the cultural and social traditions of this annual event, we must resist them, following both scientific and religious advice to stay at home to protect ourselves, our loved ones and our societies at large. After all, there is an adage within Islam: if we have saved one life, it is as though we have saved the whole of humanity.
It is no wonder that we feel a sense of loss. Without the togetherness of shared meals, socialisation and spiritual congregation, we feel cast adrift at a time that has rituals, traditions and customs stretching back into our collective memories. Sometimes it’s not even the actions that carry the most weight, but the feelings: the excitement as the table is laid for iftar, the fatigue in the late afternoon, our mouths watering as we read recipes in the day, the energy as we browse late-night Ramadan markets, the love of gathering with friends, the fulfilment of giving to charity and the spiritual burst as we gather in mosques.
Technology is being brought into play; Zoom iftars will certainly be a mainstay of this year’s Ramadan. Video conference suhoors will likely be added – perhaps even as a bonus in parts of the earth where the shortness of the night makes it otherwise difficult to gather for the pre-dawn meal. There will be no shortage of live-streamed sermons, study circles and Qur’an recitations. The ease of access may, in fact, allow people to experience new perspectives from communities, teachers and mosques they otherwise would not attend, and that would be of great benefit. Undoubtedly we will need to keep in mind those who do not have these blessings of internet access and technological benefits. For them, we must spare a thought and give charitably where possible.
Of course, some Ramadan behaviours will remain, as they rightly should. People will still drop iftar meals to their neighbours and families – while maintaining social distancing. The levels of charity work and donations will also rise as they always do in Ramadan. Iftar packages will be delivered to those in need, and funds will be raised and distributed to families who need support. If anything, these must be higher on our agenda than ever, financially and – for those who have the capacity, health and safety to it in person safely and within legal guidelines – physically.
Despite these alternative arrangements, the sense of loss will still be strong; but to dwell on it and feel as though we are being deprived from a 'real Ramadan' would be a paradox, and one we must confront.
Ramadan is precisely about loss, and always has been. This includes a loss of normality, loss of food and even a loss of self. There's no need to struggle to reinvent it. Instead, we should accept the deprivation.
Ramadan has always been about stripping back the physical to the spiritual, considering others before ourselves and pushing ourselves to our limits.
Now, experiencing our own sense of loss, we must confront the advice we too easily dispense to others, and the explanations we trot out for why we fast. We speak about experiencing the difficulties of those who have less. Sadly, many of us will certainly have less this year, less access to food, more conscientiousness about avoiding waste, less jobs and less income.
Our loss will include freedom and togetherness – but these are already unavailable to many during Ramadan. Those who are disabled, or already live in isolation for health or financial or social reasons, have always lived this way. I, for one, feel a sense of shame at having only just now opened my own eyes to it.
In many corners of the Islamic community, some women have long raised the fact that they yearn for time for spirituality away from duties and childcare, or in communal gatherings. Some spouses of women in these circumstances say to them that staying at home to cook all day and care for children all night is a form of worship that is rewarded. Perhaps this year, their eyes will be opened to what the loss of communal prayer experiences really means, and how it affects women and all those unable to take part. Perhaps this is the year when responsibilities that primarily fall on women’s shoulders and which do not pause during Ramadan, will be shared by men at last.
This year’s Ramadan is a chance to embrace loss. After all, fasting is but deprivation in service of a greater goal. This year’s Ramadan is not less Ramadan. It is more Ramadan.
Shelina Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World