COTABATO CITY – The plague of COVID-19 has emptied houses of worship across the world: Catholics observed Lent and the Holy Week celebration under quarantine, and Christians all over the world celebrated Easter with more solemnity and social distancing than they ever have. Religious practices and traditions had to be adjusted to ensure the health and safety of the religious.
The last week of April will mark another important religious event – this time for Muslims: the holy month of Ramadan which will bring close to two billion people around the world together in fasting, prayer, and charitable works, despite this pandemic.
“This mosque used to be packed with the faithful especially during Friday prayers,” said 67-year-old Haron Menang, who is a caretaker of the Al Borhan Mosque in Cotabato City. He said hundreds of people used to attend daily prayers at this mosque, but this all stopped after COVID-19. He said this is not the norm.
In mid-March, the Bangsamoro Grand Mufti, one of the leading Islamic clerics in the region issued a declaration temporarily suspending all congregational prayers in small and big mosques across the Bangsamoro region.
Menang, who hails from Datu Piang in the nearby province of Maguindanao, said that he has been a caretaker of the Al Borhan Mosque for decades. He considers this holy site as his second home.
Next week, Muslims around the world will start the month-long fast of Ramadan, the most important month for the Muslim faithful, when they engage in reflection and works of charity.
With a pandemic confining people to their homes, the upcoming month-long observance is more challenging than usual for Menang now that the suspension of congregations has not been lifted, and people continue to observe the quarantine.
“It was our routine every Friday to clean this mosque thoroughly since people gather for the Friday prayer. Now, I am the only one left praying here.”
“I always include a request for this to end soon in my daily prayers,” Menang said. “because it affects the lives of the people negatively.” He added that this will be the first time he is observing the month-long fast with no congregation prayers in the mosque.
This is true not only for Menang, but for other Muslims in other parts of the Philippines.
Davao-based Nina Bahjin-Imlan, a working professional and a mother of one, highlights the sense of community during Ramadan: “Ramadan for me is really about having a sense of community. It’s the time of the year where I get to connect the most with my fellow Muslims.”
She said “I’ve lived half my life in Metro Manila away from my family, but I’ve never felt alone during Ramadan. My usual routine consists of fasting during the day, breaking my fast with the community (whether at UP, or in other mosques), praying tarawih collectively, even partaking my pre-dawn meals with Muslim neighbors and friends whenever we get the chance to do so.”
Tarawih is the additional prayers perform by Muslims at night during Ramadan – more than an hour after they break their fast at dusk. Bahjin-Imlan said that she also makes sure to maximize social media during Ramadan so she can listen online to daily khutbahs, the public preaching of local and international imams. On weekends, she sometimes joins charity events and interfaith iftars organized by Muslim organizations.
Iftar is a meal Muslims eat at sunset to break their fast. In recent years, community iftars were enjoyed not just by a Muslim community, but by various groups that host such shared meals as a means for fostering interfaith solidarity in some parts of Mindanao and in Metro Manila. Schools and universities in Mindanao have also organized community iftars inside their campuses in the past. This year, that is not happening.
For her, Ramadan also makes it easier for other Muslims from other cultures to reconnect with their faith and the global community of the Islamic faithful.
“There’s a certain magic during Ramadan that seems to break social barriers brought about by cultural differences within the Muslim community,” she said. “It is especially during Ramadan where I see Tausug praying alongside Meranaw, born Muslims organizing events with Muslim reverts, or Arab Muslims breaking their fast amongst Filipino Muslims. These slight differences in culture that are otherwise magnified for various reasons (often political) seem to come to a halt during Ramadan, and that’s one of the most special things about this season.”
This year’s Ramadan will be different, she said, because the contagion that holds the world hostage has yet to be contained and defeated.
“Should the enhanced community quarantine still be in place when Ramadan comes in, I suppose that this year there will be no community iftars, congregational prayers, and physical gatherings. It will be heartbreaking, especially for Muslim females who, more often than not, only get to feel that they’re part of the community during this time of the year. It’s a good thing that, with social media, people will still have access to online khutbahs. The internet also gives a lot of room for innovative ideas to take place. However, I imagine that the adjustment period will be difficult.”
She said Ramadan will be extra challenging for people like her who have family members working at the front lines.
“Personally, since my husband is a medical doctor who works at the front lines, Ramadan will be especially harder for me as I would have to go through the holy month alone,” Bahjin-Imlan added. “I imagine that I would need to wake up in ungodly hours to cook alone, take my pre-dawn meal alone, break my fast alone, and pray alone. Not being with the community during Ramadan is hard enough as it is, but not being with your family and knowing that they are at a big risk of contracting the virus is a different kind of heartbreak altogether.”
“I can only hope that this will be a blessing as much as it is a trial—that through this experience, I would be able to empathize more with the poor and the needy who are in far more disadvantaged situations than I am,” she said.
Look at the bright side
For Andrew Alonto, who works for the Bangsamoro autonomous government, his Ramadan routine “has been pretty much the same in recent years. We would have this Ramadan fair where I work. For the whole month, exhibitors would set up booths and sell a variety of products from food to souvenir items.”
“Before heading home after work, I would usually pass by the fair and see what I can buy and take home for my wife,” Alonto said. “I usually go for my wife’s favorites—siomai, takoyaki, and tapioca. When my parents are in town to spend some days of Ramadan with us, I’d include grilled fish and some Meranaw food. There are days also where we have iftars in the home of my aunt who lives nearby.”
He also said that “we have a way of breaking our fast: As soon as we hear the adhan for magrib, we break the fast with fruit salad, pray, and then have some soup with bread. This is heavy enough to last until the end of tarawih. After tarawih, we have our actual dinner and some dessert after.”
Adhan is the Islamic call to prayer that summons Muslims to perform the obligatory five prayers a day. Magrib. is one of the five obligatory prayers and it is performed just after sunset.
Look at the bright side, he said: “I know this year will be a lot different. We can’t expect the usual festive mood that Ramadan brings. There won’t be any trade fairs. There won’t be any tarawih prayers in the mosques. There won’t be any breaking of iftar with friends and other relatives. However, I choose not to take it negatively. Maybe this year, the spiritual side of Ramadan will be highlighted. I think it will be an opportunity to have a sincere reflection of the past and to solemnly pray for the ummah (Muslim community).”
This year’s Ramadan will definitely be very different for Muslims around the world. This also offers an opportunity for Muslims to step back and deepen their reflections.
The dreaded COVID-19 may have challenged Muslims' ability to gather in mosques, or to be with families and friends during community iftars. It may have succeeded, at some point in separating them physically from each other. But it will not destroy their resolve, our faith, or their hopes that they will be able to come together in spirit, and observe a meaningful Ramadan. – Rappler.com