Amid the global health emergency caused by the novel coronavirus pandemic, more than a billion Muslims are getting ready to mark the beginning of Ramadan next week, 23 April.
The start of the Muslim holy month dedicated to fasting and prayer varies by a few hours according to location, depending on when Muslim clerics can see the crescent moon.
The month-long event will end in the evening of 23 May with the Eid al-Fitr, a festival that includes the sharing of food. This year however, the feast is at risk as people are forced to celebrate at home since all public places, like cinemas, restaurants and cafes, are closed because of the COVID-19 outbreak.
During Ramadan Muslims traditionally abstain from eating and drinking from sunrise to sunset; smoking and sexual relations are also prohibited. After sundown, they break the fast with the iftar, the main meal of the day eaten in the evening.
According to tradition, God revealed the Qurʼān to the prophet Muhammad during this month, which is regarded as one of the five pillars (duties) of Islam together with the pilgrimage to Makkah, prayer, the profession of faith, and almsgiving.
Ramadan was celebrated for the first time in 624 AD, the second year of the Hjira (622 AD), when Muhammad fled Makkah for the oasis of Yathrib (Madinah).
Tradition has it that daily fasting begins when it is possible to distinguish a white thread from a black thread. Those who do not fast, like the sick and the elderly, must pray and perform acts of charity towards the poor every day. Many parents make children observe a partial fast, half day.
This year, Ramadan will be celebrated for the first time under curfews and lockdowns with mosques and shops closed.
In Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Jordan, Iraq and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the authorities have banned access to mosques or placed limits to the number of people who can visit them.
To address restrictions on travel and social life, including religious ceremonies, some Muslim organisations have promoted webinars and online video conferences.
In addition to places of worship, the pandemic could also affect food supplies, at a time when food sharing is commonplace when fasting ends after sunset.
In Saudi Arabia, supply companies boosted their strategic reserves of consumer goods ahead of the holy month; however, questions are being asked in the kingdom and in other countries, which are under a curfew, about how people will be able to shop safely and maintain social distancing during the emergency period.
In previous years, Muslims used to decorate houses, streets and shops for the holy month. Today many are struggling even to get the food they need to feed their family.
In Egypt, some stores have begun rationing products, making it harder for larger families. In a fatwa the Grand Mufti of Egypt Shawki Allam said to look at “the positive aspects” of this period in which many people are “quarantined”, so that the health crisis can be turned “into an opportunity for bonding and forgiveness and restoring the spirit of serenity and cooperation”.
In other parts of the Middle East, the call to prayer (adhan) is being used to encourage people to stay healthy. In Kuwait the traditional call was changed to include the words “pray in your homes” instead of the traditional “come to pray”.
In Turkey, the Presidency of Religious Affairs said that “every believer in good health must fast as God commands”. Despite shortages, “fasting for healthy people does not pose particular risks in the spread of the disease.”
Finally, Ramadan at the time of the coronavirus has led to another split between Sunnis and Shias, with the former refusing to waive fasting, whilst the latter are open to suspending it for the sake of the health of people who have to work.
For example, Grand Ayatollah Al Sistani has issued a fatwa whereby the “obligation to fast” does not apply to Muslims who fear infection.