By Aina Khan
For over 1400 years, Muslims have observed Ramadan, a holy month in the Islamic calendar in which Muslims cannot eat and drink from dawn till dusk. Within the five pillars of Islam, Ramadan is the fourth pillar, the month in which the Quran was revealed.
Instead of following the Gregorian solar calendar, the Islamic calendar follows the lunar calendar, similar to the Jewish tradition. Ramadan begins on the ninth lunar month with the sighting of the crescent moon every year. This year, it starts on Thursday 23rd March, during the coronavirus lockdown, which will have a significant impact on the way that Ramadan practices are observed.
At its most superficial level, Ramadan is about the physical abstinence from food and drink; and yes, this even includes water. Ramadan fell during the summer last year and British Muslims were fasting up to 18 hours. Despite being long and thirsty work during uncannily warm British summers, the only exemptions from fasting include women who are pregnant and those who rely on medication.
However, it is also a month of mercy, forgiveness and introspection, where Muslims retreat inwards to reflect on their actions and think of their place and contribution (or lack thereof) as viceroys of the earth. It is this inner jihad (struggle), the battle with one’s nafs or ego, that supersedes the more tangible affair of a hungry stomach.
The month of spiritual intimacy which encourages connection with God as much as with the community, now finds itself disconnected from congregational taraweeh prayers and families breaking their fasts together at the dinner table, all of which have been the heart and soul of Ramadan since its inception.
Daily taraweeh prayers are conducted after every evening’s last daily prayer. These commonly take place in mosques where Muslims pray in congregation. Although they are not compulsory, taraweeh are strongly recommended during Ramadan.
Taraweeh is regarded as a meditation, from an Arabic word meaning “to rest and relax”. It involves reading long portions of the Qur’an, as well as performing rakahs, cycles of movement in prayer, followed by sitting in silence for brief periods.
The Qu’ran is read on successive evenings, divided into equal portions, with the aim of reading the entire Qur’an by the end of Ramadan.
But with mosques shut, ingenious digital alternatives are emerging. Assan Ali, a regular at East London Mosque, is intent not to let the pandemic disrupt his taraweeh prayers.
“Ramadan for me has been an annual target where I work on myself throughout the year to ensure I am ready to gain the most from the holy month. My last ‘normal’ Ramadan was in 2012 where I enjoyed and experienced the atmosphere that so many of us look forward to: that amazing feeling when you break your fast with the juiciest date and the coolest glass of water; where you experience Taraweeh in the Mosque and the social gatherings that come after it; the diary management required to fit in all your social Iftars, and much more. The temporary closure of the Mosques since the Coronavirus pandemic now means that I would need to experience all the above in my small but lively home. I guess that means I would need to now ready myself for that important role of Imam of Taraweeh at the Ali household.”
For Zlakha Ahmed, the Chief Executive of the sexual violence charity Apna Haq, it will be the first time she is spending Ramadan away from her children.
“I have grown up children who will be away, so I will be by myself, that will be a new experience for Ramadan. I suppose it will lead to my appreciating even more the family time Ramadan gives you, as usually it’s the only time of year that we all come together to eat together. It will become a month that we will talk about to our future generations.”
The congregational taraweeh prayers held in mosques across the country every day during Ramadan, were an uplifting spiritual experience which infused a sprite of togetherness for Ahmed.
“I always go to taraweeh at the mosque when I’m home. For me being part of the sisterhood and brotherhood, of being together, that you experience during this month is something very special. The recitations are always so exquisite that I’m always eager for the evening to commence. It’s an incredibly spiritual experience, that I will miss and know that I’m extremely blessed to be part of.”
For Imran, a man who regularly performs his taraweeh prayers at Masjid Noor (mosque) in Harrow, mosque gatherings are not only about spiritual rejuvenation of the soul, but an opportunity to fund-raise for charity where the zeal of activists raising awareness of social issues locally and globally spills into the mosque hall.
The length of taraweeh prayers varies depending on the mosque. Some are longer than others. After a long day’s work without food and water, for Imran, completing taraweeh prayers leaves him with a triumphant sense of accomplishment
“Tarawih gives you that extra feeling that you’ve done something, it gives that real sense of feeling that its Ramadan. It completes the day when you’ve fasted and prayed tarawih. It’s a recharge in that sense. To not have them this year is going to be challenging. You can do tarawih at home but it’s not going to be the same,” he said.
Perhaps the most poignant aspect of taraweeh prayers is the melodic recitation of the Quran by whoever leads the prayer, the perfect antidote for a long day of fasting.
“A beautiful recitation can help you concentrate on what’s being said, to help reinvigorate you,” said Imran. “For someone like me who doesn’t really recite the Quran during normal days, it’s an opportunity to actually hear the beautiful recitation and just take it in although you may not understand what’s being said.”