Delivering food from PitaZiki to workers at Yale New Haven Hospital (Courtesy of Gasser Badawi)

Friday Marks Start of Ramadan for Muslims Across Coastline Connecticut

Muslims across Connecticut begin fasting for Ramadan with sunrise on Friday, and congregations, communities, and businesses around the state are grappling with how to celebrate a holy month imbued with a communal spirit at at time when mosques and most other public spaces are closed to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

“This will be the most unique Ramadan of our lifetimes because none of us have lived through this and we hope that we don’t have to again,” said Imam Omer Bajwa, Muslim chaplain for Yale University.

Abdul-Rehman Malik, a journalist and guest lecturer in Islamic Studies at Yale Divinity School, said that this will be the first time that prayers at holy sites in Mecca and Medina will not be held and broadcast during Ramadan at least since those services began to be televised. Malik said that even less observant Muslims among the world’s 1.8 billion followers of Islam will frequently tune in for the “majesty” of that ritual.

“It’s something familiar that they remember from their childhood, and it’s something that’s so unique in the human experience… Thousands of people standing in prayer sometimes for hours hearing the words of God recited melodiously and to not be able to hear that underscores the seriousness of the moment that we’re in,” Malik said in a Friday interview.

During Ramadan, daily from sunrise to sunset observant Muslims abstain from food, all kinds of drink including water, smoking, medication and sex, although exceptions are made for the sick, elderly, pregnant and nursing mothers, children and some others.

Fasting “teaches you to really feel hungry in the most literal, visceral way, to be hungry and thirsty and that should engender empathy,” Bajwa explained. “And now when you open that fast, the first thing you want is to share that with your friends and your neighbors.”

For observant healthcare workers and others experiencing higher stress during Ramadan this year, Bajwa said that Muslims are able to seek guidance from their own community religious leaders on whether they can or should fast. Historically, exceptions have been made for travelers on strenuous journeys, and more recently for diabetics and others with underlying health concerns.

Malik said that the principal for making exceptions should focus on “preservation of life over and above anything else,” and that doctors — a group for which Muslims are over-represented compared to their share of the U.S. population — may consider skipping the fast and making up days later if they feel their work would be impaired.

But for many others, Malik said, the fast can be a healthy interruption and reassessment of daily habits, giving practitioners heightened awareness and renewed vigor.

The nightly breaking of the fast — iftar — is a time for gathering with family, friends, and community. Mosques and community organizations frequently host large catered meals, which Bajwa said can be a large part of business for Muslim caterers and have of course been significantly scaled back this year.

Business, charity and COVID-19

Governor Ned Lamont has limited religious gatherings in the state to no more than 50 people, but nearly all congregations in the state — including mosques — have closed their doors entirely in response to the virus.

Masjid Al Islam mosque, of which Imam Bajwa is a member of the congregation, is scaling down some of its usual large charitable meals for community members, due both to social distancing guidelines and to lost income from a lack of parishioners coming in person. Bajwa said that he and other members of the congregation have fundraised to give out about 130 individual boxed meals to congregation members once a week for the four weeks of Ramadan.

Jamshed Khalid, owner of Ali Baba’s Fusion restaurant and catering in Hamden, said that he expects his catering for mosques to be down by about 80 percent this year. His is one of several businesses in the area, along with PitaZiki and the nonprofit Sanctuary Kitchen in New Haven, that will be giving individual boxed meals to the congregation.

“There are a lot of people who are needy in that area,” Khalid said of the mosque’s congregation, “and they go to that mosque.”

Gasser Badawi, co-owner of PitaZiki in New Haven, said that Ramadan catering, is a large part of his business, and that they had already weathered earlier cancellations for Easter and Passover. 

“We definitely want to bring back that sense of hope and sense of normal life with our food, but we also want to make sure we do that at no risk,” Badawi said. He added that his restaurant has also started catering in individually boxed meals and required medical masks and new procedures for staff.

Sumiya Khan, program manager of the nonprofit Sanctuary Kitchen in New Haven, said that supply chain disruptions caused by COVID-19 have made it harder to find some particular food items usually served during Ramadan.

“Some prices have changed as a way to control the supply,” she said. “We’re actually finding a little bit of a challenge to get halal meat for our Muslim customers. We’re having some shortages in the various markets that are in the area. It hasn’t been impossible. We’ve just had to look at different options and that just sometimes affects our prices and food cost.”

Badawi said that his experience with his supply chain has been the opposite. His business hasn’t had to lay off any staff, he said, but his distributors have been receiving fewer orders which means more wasted food.

“The distributors are hurting because the restaurant business has been affected big time from COVID,” Badawi said. “So they’re not getting a lot of orders like produce and food. A lot has been going to waste because restaurants are not putting in large orders. The resources are there, there’s no shortage in food whatsoever, it’s just that there’s food that’s going to waste from restaurants shutting down.”

Khalid said that his catered Ramadan meals always include three dates — which the prophet Muhammad particularly enjoyed and recommended followers eat to break their fast.

Bajwa said that some businesses delivering dates have faced backlogs of orders, which creates a challenge for elderly Muslims who may be wary of going into a grocery store right now.

“If someone hadn’t ordered their dates already either you’ll have to call in a favor from someone who can out to the store, or you’ll have to just wait,” Bajwa said. 

Other than dates, Bajwa said there isn’t a particular cuisine universally associated with Ramadan in the U.S., at least partly because the American Muslim community tends to draw from people from many different countries with diverse cuisines.

Social distancing and worship

As was the case for Jews during Passover and Christians on Easter, many Muslim worship services have moved online. It’s customary during Ramdan for Muslims to attempt to recite — or at least hear recited — the entire Quran over the course of the month’s 30 days. Malik said that many imams and other Muslim leaders have committed to broadcast that recitation online.

Imam Bajwa, who before the pandemic led weekly prayer services for the Yale community, said that he has continued these services in part, but now calls them the “Friday reflection” rather than the “Friday prayer.” He said his sermons during these services can be shared online but that, at least in his opinion, digitally shared worship would not count as communal Friday prayers. Instead, he encouraged his usual congregants to pray at home privately or with family.

Malik said similarly, “In some ways the communal expression of these practices amplifies them, but in the absence of that, the essential practice of prayer we don’t lose…  People still share it with families, and it reminds us that faith ultimately begins with us as individuals. Ultimately we are the ones that choose to take on certain practices.”

As both Malik and Bajwa explained, Ramadan includes some duality in that it encompasses both the very private and quiet practice of fasting as well as the much more communal practice of breaking the fast with family. Bajwa said that he hopes this year’s Ramadan reminds practitioners to reflect and self-assess while avoiding the overconsumption that he said can sometimes accompany the holy month.

“Isn’t there something to be said to prayer at home with my family? And to do that regularly over the course of the month: to pray and reflect and meditate at home? To think about who I am, what’s my place in the world, and what I am doing?” he said. “These are deeper questions that Ramadan is supposed to be asking us.”

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