Celebrating Ramadan virtually: how quarantine has forced new traditions


Photo courtesy Iman Ilias

The Ilias family delivers sweets to friends for Eid in the time of a pandemic.

By Iman Ilias

Eating dates and samosas with friends at the mosque. Listening to the imam’s sermon late at night. Choosing what to wear on Eid. Praying side by side with people of all different backgrounds and ages. 

That’s what usually comes to mind when I think about Ramadan, the holy Islamic month during which Muslims around the world fast from dawn until dusk for 30 days. Muslims use this month to become closer to a higher power and to contemplate how they can reform their own characters, often alongside fellow members of their faith. Friends and family gather to worship and discuss religion, and, while fasting is challenging, I always enjoy learning about my faith and spending time with loved ones. 

Of course, Ramadan looked quite different this year. Starting at the end of April and wrapping up in late May, it landed smack in the middle of quarantine season. Muslims had to forgo group readings of the Qur’an, going to the mosque to pray and eating out for 4 a.m. breakfast before sunrise. No more curry and lentils at the mosque, no more cheerful banter at the crowded dinner table and no more giggling with friends during service. COVID-19 upended many of my family and community traditions. Luckily, members of my community found a way around these unforeseen challenges. 

While we couldn’t have live prayer at the mosque every night, countless families, including my own, tuned in to virtual sermons our imams gave over Zoom every evening. It wasn’t the same as a lecture in person, where you can see the imam’s every emotion and action and completely submerge yourself in the sermon. There’s something about breaking your fast and praying alongside other people that makes you feel like you’re all in it together — not just separate individuals confined to your own homes, but a real community. Nevertheless, the messages our imams conveyed in their virtual lectures resonated with everyone listening, and, to my surprise, they were able to make us feel that togetherness even when we were apart.  

Our imams spoke about the importance of internalizing the principles of our faith and acting on them rather than just studying them. They reminded us that, as Muslims, we believe everything happens for a reason and that we must trust that fate is leading us in the right direction, a sentiment which brought me comfort when thinking about the uncertainty of our current situation. They encouraged us to feel grateful that we have tight-knit families as well as a religious community to turn to in difficult times. 

In normal circumstances, being with friends and family strengthens the sense of accomplishment Muslims feel during Ramadan when we are finally allowed to eat after a long day of fasting. Not being able to surround myself with friends, family and community members this year made me appreciate it so much more when, on some nights, my family received homemade dinners on our doorstep, packed in beautiful packages with decorative wrapping and bows, from the people with whom we would usually spend our nights. These deliveries served as sweet reminders that although we couldn’t be together in person, we were together in spirit. 

During our fast-paced lives before quarantine, my family never got the chance to pray together or to take the time to think about what faith means to each of us. This Ramadan, however, every night after breaking our fasts, we prayed together — for our health, happiness and the ability to fulfill the purpose for which we were created. Ramadan ends with the festive holiday of Eid. Typically, Eid morning includes an imam leading prayer at the mosque with thousands of people listening and participating. This year, my 11-year-old brother led us in prayer from our home. 

Quarantine has given me time for self-reflection, and I’ve actually come to the realization that I’m not as close to my faith as I would like to be right now. That’s something I have to work on both during and after Ramadan. 

During quarantine, members of my mosque came together over Zoom to reflect on the world’s current situation; guest speakers offered their thoughts, and some groups of friends organized group studies on the weekend. My mosque distributed food packets in a food drive that reached hundreds of people. On Eid weekend, instead of hopping from party to party and eating delectable foods at every stop, my family made packages full of sweets with cards attached for almost every family we know and spent more than a day distributing them. Now, after Ramadan has ended, my mosque has organized a Friday “bistro” during which anyone in the general public can stop by and purchase different foods, like fruit salad or sweetmeats, from members of the mosque. 

While it was definitely not what I am accustomed to doing on such a festive and joyous holiday for my community, that didn’t matter when I saw how our friends’ faces lit up when my family delivered our gifts packed full of sweets. I don’t think anyone realized how much human interaction mattered before the pandemic hit. 

My novel experiences this month have made me realize that, while I couldn’t engage in the usual people-filled Ramadan traditions, the spirit of the month remained: the sense of community and the desire to give were still very much present. 

I’m thankful that my community was able to stay together — in some ways even become closer — and make everyone feel included amidst the chaos in our country and world. Rather than feeling isolated during this time, I’ve felt more supported than in normal circumstances. I’ve realized there’s nothing more comforting than knowing I will always have a group of people behind me who will show unwavering support even as the rest of the world shuts down.