Algiers/Cairo/Jakarta: Days before the holy fasting month of Ramadan begins, the Islamic world is grappling with an untimely paradox of the new coronavirus pandemic: enforced separation at a time when socialising is almost sacred.
The holiest month in the Islamic calendar is one of family and togetherness – community, reflection, charity and prayer.
But with shuttered mosques, coronavirus curfews and bans on mass prayers from Senegal to Southeast Asia, some 1.8 billion Muslims are facing a Ramadan like never before.
Across the Muslim world the pandemic has generated new levels of anxiety before Ramadan begins on or around Thursday.
In Algiers, Yamine Hermache, 67, usually receives relatives and neighbours at her home for tea and cold drinks during the month that Muslims fast from dusk till dawn. But this year she fears it will be different.
“We may not visit them, and they will not come,” she said, weeping. “The coronavirus has made everyone afraid, even of distinguished guests.”
In a country where mosques have been closed, her husband Mohamed Djemoudi, 73, worries about something else.
“I cannot imagine Ramadan without Tarawih,” he said, referring to additional prayers performed at mosques after iftar, the evening meal in which Muslims break their fast.
Saudi Arabia urged Muslims not to gather for prayers or socialise because of the rising number of coronavirus cases in the Gulf region.
“We are all in one boat, if we commit together we’ll safely reach the shore. We used to have a lot of social activities during Ramadan, this year it will be different and I urge everyone to commit to social distancing,” Health Minister Tawfiq al-Rabiah said in a televised address on Monday.
In Jordan, the government, in coordination with neighbouring Arab countries, is expected to announce a fatwa, or edict, outlining what Ramadan rituals will be permitted, but for millions of Muslims, it already feels so different.
From Africa to Asia, the coronavirus has cast a shadow of gloom and uncertainty.
‘Worst year ever’
Around the souks and streets of Cairo, a sprawling city of 23 million, the coronavirus has been disastrous.
“People don’t want to visit shops, they are scared of the disease. It’s the worst year ever,” said Samir El-Khatib, who runs a stall by the historic al-Sayeda Zainab mosque. “Compared with last year, we haven’t even sold a quarter.”
During Ramadan, street traders in the Egyptian capital stack their tables with dates and apricots, sweet fruits to break the fast, and the city’s walls with towers of traditional lanterns known as “fawanees”.
But this year, authorities have imposed a night curfew and banned communal prayers and other activities, so not many people see much point in buying the lanterns.
Among the few who ventured out was Nasser Salah Abdelkader, 59, a manager in the Egyptian stock market.
“This year there’s no Ramadan mood at all,” he said. “I’d usually come to the market, and right from the start people were usually playing music, sitting around, almost living in the streets.”
Dampening the festivities before they begin, the coronavirus is also complicating another part of Ramadan, a time when both fasting and charity are seen as obligatory.
‘All kinds of togetherness missed’
In Algeria, restaurant owners are wondering how to offer iftar to the needy when their premises are closed, while charities in Abu Dhabi that hold iftar for low-paid South Asian workers are unsure what to do with mosques now closed.
Mohamed Aslam, an engineer from India who lives in a three-bedroom apartment in downtown Abu Dhabi with 14 others is unemployed because of the coronavirus. With his apartment building under quarantine after a resident tested positive, he has been relying on charity for food.
The United Arab Emirates launched a campaign on Sunday to provide 10 million meals or food parcels to communities hit by the outbreak in the country.
In Senegal, the plan is to continue charity in a limited way. In the capital Dakar, charities that characteristically hand out “Ndogou”, baguettes slathered with chocolate spread, cakes, dates, sugar and milk to those in need, will distribute them to Koranic schools rather than on the street.
In Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority country, some people will be meeting loved ones remotely this year.
Prabowo, who goes by one name, plans to host Eid al-Fitr, the celebration at the end of the fasting month, via the online meeting site Zoom instead of flying home.
“I worry about the coronavirus,” he said. “But all kinds of togetherness will be missed. No iftar together, no praying together at the mosque, and not even gossiping with friends.”