Story by Rjaa Ahmed
Tifrah Aktar, a 27-year-old resident of West Philadelphia, fondly recalled spending Ramadan growing up in various parts of the U.S. Akhtar eagerly looks forward to celebrating the holy month every year by cooking, doing henna with her friends, hosting dinner parties, and attending congregational prayers with the rest of the Muslim community around her.
“We would stay up all night for suhoor with friends and family when I was in Michigan and then cook together for iftar,” she said
Her experience celebrating Ramadan has been quite different during COVID-19, she said.
Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar during which Muslims fast from dawn to dusk, abstaining from food and water, and engaging in prayer. This year Ramadan began the evening of April 12 and concludes the night of May 12. This April marked the second time Muslims have celebrated this holy month during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Ramadan now is nothing like it used to be before as I can’t go out into the mosque or mingle with others as freely,” Akhtar said.
Muslims make up an estimated 1% of Pennsylvania’s population, with an estimated 100,000-150,000 Muslims living in Philadelphia, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center study. Philadelphia has the fourth most mosques of any American city, according to a report from the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
Akhtar moved back to Philadelphia last year but due to COVID-19 has not been able to access these mosques and other community spaces to meet Pakistani Americans like herself, she said.
Still, Muslims like Akhtar have found innovative ways to replicate the sense of community central to most Islamic religious practices, she said, with Zoom emerging as an alternative to in-person gatherings.
Victor Jackson, an artist and furniture designer residing in Germantown, said self-reflection while not feeling obligated to be surrounded by people was a silver lining for him while celebrating Ramadan during the pandemic.
Jackson said Ramadan during COVID-19 poses an opportunity for Muslims like himself to rethink their goals and how to replicate and envision themselves in spaces radically different from what they are used to being in.
It also offers a break for Muslims who are disillusioned by “mosque politics” and prefer solitary practice instead, he added.
“It allows us to explore different practice styles that Islam provides for people to feel closer to Allah and the community at large,” Jackson said. “COVID has given us an opportunity to be creative with the ways we hold ourselves and each other accountable in the absence of community.”
Muslims are not a “one size fits all,” Jackson said, and the pandemic poses an opportunity for the community to evolve with the digital age and to reflect on the universality of Islamic themes and practices as times change.
For others, like Tasnim Hasan, who originally hails from Bangladesh, finding community has been an uphill battle during the pandemic.
She came to Philadelphia as an international college student but hasn’t been able to find a mosque that fits her needs ever since she moved here in 2019. The process of finding a community away from home has been further complicated by COVID-19, she said.
“Being an international student it definitely affected me a lot because I haven’t seen my family in, like, nearly a year and a half,” Hasan said. “I like to hang out and meet people but my social life is very limited. And I’m trying to be very careful, even though I got my vaccination.”
Although Hasan was able to get vaccinated in the days leading up to Ramadan, there is misinformation circulating among Muslim circles worldwide about the “halal” status of the COVID-19 vaccine, and whether it is acceptable to receive a dose while one is fasting.
“Halal” is the Arabic word for “permissible” or “lawful.” The use of pork, alcohol, and animals that haven’t been slaughtered in accordance with Islamic regulations in products designed for human consumption can render those goods “haram,” which is the opposite of halal. This, thus, makes them unsuitable for lawful consumption.
“Vaccines save lives,” Dr. Nabile Safdar, president of the Islamic Medical Association of North America, said in a video statement released in January.
“The benefits of these vaccines far outweigh the potential risks,” Safdar said. “Overwhelmingly, these are safe. The vaccines available in the United States are halal. They have no objectionable ingredients.”
Furthermore, a report by Muslim Med asserts that even though the Johnson & Johnson vaccine may contain ingredients that pose ethical considerations for practicing Muslims, it is still permissible. However, the mRNA vaccines, Moderna and Pfizer, are more preferable when available, according to the study.
To allow Arab Muslims in Philadelphia access to the vaccine, the community organization Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture held a block party at Palmer Park in Kensington on April 24. The Arab American community organization invited a representative from VietLead to allow attendees to sign up for the vaccine while engaging with their community in a socially-distanced environment.
“Because of COVID, people haven’t had things like art-making tables and fun activities for kids,” David Heayn-Menendez, the director of public education for Al-Bustan, said. “And we’re trying to do it in a way that can be safe, be fun, communal, and really start encouraging people to once again be part of that community.”
This community event not only served as a space for Arab Muslims to find each other, but also posed an opportunity for members of the organization to disseminate information about the upcoming primary elections, as well as COVID-related resources, Heayn-Menendez said.
There weren’t many people present at the party, due in part to it being held very close to “iftar,” or the time when Muslims break their fast right before the sun sets, according to volunteers present at the park.
“There’s a tradition in many Muslim majority countries where during Ramadan, after you break fast, and you pray and you have your meal, you come out and you have activities, especially for kids,” Heayn-Menendez said. “We’re kind of hoping that that will encourage people to come by having something like that for their kids nearby that could maybe mimic what they’re used to if they’re coming from a country that had that.”
Al-Bustan organized mask-making and lamp-designing activities at the party, as well as traditional Arab sweets to help replicate the spirit of Ramadan in a COVID-safe environment. In accordance with Islamic laws, there was no music at the party, according to Heayn-Menendez.
To ensure adherence with COVID-safe practices prescribed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Al-Bustan offered spare masks, hand sanitizer, and multiple copies of their civic engagement flyers to ensure there was no cross contamination as people stopped by their station to read up about the organization and voter registration.
Al-Bustan hosted another event on May 15 after Eid, which marks the end of Ramadan, in lower Northeast Philadelphia to encourage even more people to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.
“The vast majority of Arabs in the city live in the lower Northeast, and it has one of the lowest COVID vaccine rates in the city,” Heayn-Menendez said. “Ramadan is the occasion for the Muslim community to get together, making it perfect for us to impart some of this important information.”
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