Ramadan 2021: Social media helps new Muslims connect as Covid closes mosques

From shared iftar meals on Zoom to YouTube guides on how to pray, converts are accessing more information on their faith than ever

Muslim demonstrating Hijab fashion online
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As Issa Al Kurtass wakes before the Riyadh sun to make his early morning suhoor meal, Flavia Shyti is settling down for the night in New York City, belly full after her iftar meal.

Both are logged in to the Iftar Together Discord server, where Ramadan veterans like Mr Al Kurtass guide new Muslim converts like Ms Shyti through their first fast.

“It is a friendly, safe space for people who are new to the religion or alone, it fills the void the pandemic has caused,” said Mr Al Kurtass, who cofounded the chat room.

As mosques closed or limited capacity due to Covid-19 restrictions, new converts to Islam took to the internet for spiritual services.

Ms Shyti has never been inside a mosque, her spiritual journey into Islam has taken place entirely online.

The 18-year-old computer science student converted to Islam two weeks before Ramadan, after years of studying the religion but feeling too overwhelmed to join.

“It really helped me convert,” she said of the Covid-19 pandemic. “It sped up my journey.”

With plenty of digital tools at their disposal, Muslims forced into isolation by Covid-19 and separated from their communities have created new spaces online to celebrate their faith and welcome newcomers.

Ms Shyti learnt how to pray through YouTube tutorials but perfected her prayers by joining the virtual Taraweeh offered by a mosque in small town Minnesota, the Al Amaan Centre.

“Going to the mosque, it’s a bit intimidating,” she said. “Before, when everything was in person, I felt much more isolated with my faith. Being online kind of takes that fear out of religion.”

Minnesota’s Al Amaan Centre began hosting online prayers for the local community that was separated by Covid-19 restrictions, but now their audience extends far beyond the small town of Eden Prairie, reaching international viewers.

“We got a lot of feedback, not just from Minnesota, but across the world, that these are very helpful,” said Marium Saroj Dhungel, a volunteer at the mosque. She said it’s now a priority for the mosque to continue offering online spiritual services after the pandemic ends.

A team of ten volunteers operate the mosque’s nightly Ramadan live-streams, which are broadcast on Facebook, YouTube and Zoom.

“Knowing how many people are benefiting from this, our plan is to continue to have these services available," said Ms Dhungel.

The Azazie Mosque livestream in facebook for Muslim community to pray from home, Varna, Bulgaria on April 07, 2020. Muslism meet the Night of Baraat  the 15th night of the month of Shaban. On this night Muslims do their rehearsal for the Month of Ramadan and everything they can in order to be closer to Allah (S.T.). They perform acts of worship in order to be better prepared for the meeting with the month of Ramadan, which is the worthiest among all months of the year. The Night of Baraat is the night in which Allah (S.T.) responds with forgiveness to anyone who turns to Him. This is the night in which everyone who ask for prosperity, will receive it from the Almighty! That is why Muslims do not miss to make sense of the hours of this night by performing acts of worship. The Azazie Mosque livestream in facebook for Muslim community to pray from home, Varna, Bulgaria on April 07, 2020 (Photo by Hristo Rusev/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Ms Shytia has also sought guidance on her spiritual journey from Muslim bloggers, YouTubers and Tik Tok-ers.

“Islam does have a space in this new modern age, and it's taking that space willingly,” she said.

Among Ms Shyti’s favourite videos are the ones from ‘Ninja Mommy’, an influencer with nearly one million followers on Tik Tok. Her videos provide answers to commonly asked questions from new converts, such as “why can’t women fast on their period?”

In the absence of a physical community, more Muslims are meeting online, and new converts like Ms Shyti are more fearless in their spiritual journey, seeking out the resources and answers they need.

“It's because it's virtual we can feel more vulnerable with one another,” said Wafa Ben-Hassine, a Tunisian-American human rights lawyer and digital rights advocate.

“That's just the nature of the internet, right? It kind of removes this veil of fear or ego or whatever it is.”

Millennials make up the majority of the US Muslim population, with 52 per cent of American Muslims born between 1981 and 1999, according to a 2017 study from the Pew Research Centre.

This young Muslim demographic has created a blossoming online community that is removing barriers for new converts to the religion, especially for those who haven’t grown up with Islamic practices.

The same Pew study found that Islam was the world’s fastest growing religion.

“I think it's important to make this fun, if we don't want our traditions to die away or wither away into history, I think it's important to create culture and to create fun activities around what we're doing,” said Ms Ben-Hassine.

Although she might not be surrounded by a physical Muslim community, Ms Shytia has found her support system online. She is fuelled by ‘Vlogadan’ Youtubers who post daily videos during Ramadan and late night Quran recitations with “cosy vibes” posted by Yusuf Truth, who brings in hundreds of thousands of views on his videos.

"People need people," said Mr Al Kurtass, who created the Iftar Together chat room for a friend who was spending their first Ramadan alone.

“It’s one thing that has changed for the better. This is a good thing that came from the pandemic.”