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Vast Changes in Ramadan 2020, Thanks to COVID-19

Dave Dunwoody, WUWF Public Media

Ramadan begins at sundown on Thursday and will end at sundown on Saturday, May 23. But there are some changes to Islam’s holiest observance, thanks to the coronavirus.

As with Jews and Christians at Passover and Easter, the world’s nearly two billion Muslims are facing a new norm when it comes to worship because of COVID-19 -- with closed mosques, curfews and bans on mass prayers.

“I hope that God removes this calamity very soon; not just for Muslims [but] for everyone because it is a general disaster,” said Imam Hosny Ibrahim at the Islamic Center of Northwest Florida in Pensacola.

“Everyone stay home and pray; everything is suspended until further notice. Of course, we have to follow the law,” said Ibrahim.

Ramadan commemorates the first revelation of the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad, by fasting during the daylight hours. This year, there will be no large get-togethers to break the fast at sundown each evening.

“During the day we remember God by saying ‘There is no God but Allah,’” said Ibrahim. “Most of our action is fortified by the Quran. Each family can pray in congregation at home, but not at the mosque.”

Due to COVID, special Ramadan prayers – known as “taraweeh” – during which long portions of the Quran are recited -- will be offered in homes this year.

“People go and pray together -- especially the evening prayers,” said Dr. Tarek Eldawy, an oncologist at Ascension Sacred Heart Hospital. “Say in the mosque in Pensacola, you’ll have maybe close to 200 people attending; it usually takes a few hours. Now, of course, after closing the two mosques in Pensacola, they will have to do the prayers at home.”

The faithful will break their fast while joining others though Skype, Zoom, and other online conferencing.

“Thank God for the technology now, but many people depend on charity, and charities in general,” said Eldawy. “People prepare what they call ‘food parcels’ – different items for the poor and those in need, and they usually distribute them in Ramadan. Now, with the anxiety about the coronavirus, I’m not sure how they’re going to work.”

Saudi Arabia has temporarily halted religious visits to Islam’s holiest cities – Mecca and Medina -- to help prevent the spread of the virus in that country. Eldawy – who once practiced in a Saudi hospital -- says that was something of a shock.

“This is a big deal because for people like in Ramadan, close to 2 million people will be there in Mecca and Medina every night,” said Eldawy. “Just imagine having all those people in a very small area there. I’m actually very impress that the Saudi government did that.”

Coming up on the Muslim calendar is Eid in two parts – the one just after Ramadan is expected to feel the impact of the pandemic. But it’s not yet known how it may affect the second Eid, which falls on July 30-31.

“People are hoping that this pandemic will get maybe better around July; as a physician I don’t think that will happen,” said Eldawy. “And that will maybe the first time in centuries that they would have to cancel Hajj – or pilgrimage – [to Mecca].”

“This issue [coronavirus] is in the hands of God only,” said Imam Hosny Ibrahim. “The One who created it and The One who is able to remove it completely for, I hope, any Muslim, Christian, [and] Jews. Any type of worshiper, they must seek protection from God.”

Imam Ossama Bahloul, the resident scholar at the Islamic Center of Nashville, Tennessee, tells the Knoxville News-Sentinel that Islam does not have the concept of clergy -- which he views as a plus in this time of social distancing and self-isolation. He contends that anyone actually can reach God from anywhere.

Dave came to WUWF in September, 2002, after 14 years as News Director at the Alabama Radio Network in Montgomery, Mobile and Birmingham and a total of 27 years in commercial radio. He's also served as Alabama Bureau Chief for United Press International, and a stringer for the Birmingham Post-Herald.