Sameer Sarmast and his family follow the “fried food diet” during Ramadan, breaking their fast at sunset with pakoras, veggie fritters and keema or minced beef samosas.
For the Bergen County, New Jersey family, the monthlong holiday is a time to disconnect from the daily routine, bond spiritually with Allah, strengthen community relationships and eat good food.
Ramadan, a Muslim holiday that spans the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, runs from April 13 to May 12 this year.
The month is dedicated to worship, charity and community. It welcomes Muslims to retreat from human and worldly desires and focus on renewing their Iman, or faith. Muslims celebrate by abstaining from food, drink and sexual activity from sunrise to sunset, and typically join in communal prayer and post-sunset feasting.
After last year’s Ramadan with its pandemic-altered observances, where mosques were shuttered and community gatherings were eliminated, Muslims this year are planning another holiday of modified celebrations as COVID-19 continues to spread, even as vaccines are distributed.
Ramadan celebrations are smaller due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemicListen as Abdella Elhafiz, an Imam at the Islamic Association of Erie, describes the difference in celebrating Ramadan during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I could see myself getting together with people for iftars (the meal that breaks the fast) at restaurants like we used to,” Sarmast said. “I think I could see myself, along with my parents, back at the mosque for the Taraweeh prayers (additional night prayers).”
His favorite things about the holiday are praying, eating and breaking fast with the community because “Ramadan brings people together,” Sarmast said, and pushes Muslims to seek forgiveness and be kinder.
So, he’s looking forward to doing those things again this year, while taking stock of lessons learned from the pandemic.
“I think the pandemic in a sense kind of taught us lessons that Ramadan would also teach because we were restraining ourselves from doing things during the pandemic, like going out, restraining from going to the movies or enjoying normalcy like a form of entertainment,” Sarmast said.
“These are things, even during Ramadan we abstain from … we try to focus more on prayer and spirituality” he observed.
Ramadan for Lamisa Fairooz of Rochester, New York, means cooking with her mom, nightly visits at the mosque and lots of bhoot moori — black peas and puffed rice.
To have some communal engagement last year, she and her family made weekly iftar packages for local college students with the Islamic Center of Rochester. They would spend the day cooking and packaging the meals, and her brother and his friends would drive around the city to deliver them.
The mosque will continue its meal distribution this Ramadan with no-contact drive-up iftars to families in need during the month at the mosque.
Fairooz, a student at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), said last year’s modifications showed her family how to celebrate without having to rely on going to public iftars
“We get to spend more time with our family,” Fairooz said. “My brother’s wife came from Bangladesh a couple of days ago … so this Ramadan, we have a new member in the family, which is going to be really cool.”
Fairooz and her family are open to visiting the mosque once in a while this Ramadan since they received their vaccines. So, she’s looking forward to returning to the place of worship for her favorite part of the holiday, the nightly Taraweeh prayers, and continuing the tradition of cooking with her mom.
For Tahir Qazi, the last 10 nights of the holiday are particularly special as he performs I’tikaaf, the practice of staying in a mosque for a prescribed number of days and devoting oneself to worship.
Last year, Qazi and his family adjusted their observances at home with Facebook Live sessions from the local mosque and having iftars together as a family.
Qazi, who lives in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, thinks this year will be different with more people getting vaccinated.
“I’m not sure how it will look like this year,” Qazi said. “We’ve been vaccinated already and so it’s quite possible that it might happen that I will stay a few days at the masjid (mosque). We have started meeting with people because they’re all vaccinated and we’re all vaccinated, so it’s easier to meet now.”
Baltimore native and resident Zainab Chaudry said the vaccine distribution process has been “convoluted and complicated” in Maryland, so she thinks mosques won’t be offering communal iftars like usual.
“It would be a recipe for disaster, no pun intended, if like everybody came together for an iftar at the mosque, because obviously when you eat, you have to take off the face mask and it’s hard to stay socially or physically distanced,” Chaudry said.
As director of CAIR or the Council on American-Islamic Relations office in Maryland, she knows many mosques will continue pandemic protocols like temperature scanning, requesting members bring their own prayer mats and offering virtual programming to encourage congregations to stay home as much as possible.
Chaudry plans to spend the holiday with family members but still exercises precautions like social distancing and masks because not everyone has been vaccinated.
“It’s a very special time of year for Muslims, especially when nieces and nephews come over — like they feel it, too,” Chaudry said.
She’ll be continuing her tradition of decorating and eating traditional Pakistani foods such as kebabs, samosas and falooda, a cold milk dessert made of rose syrup, vermicelli and sweet basil seeds.
In normal times, the Islamic Society of Delaware, the oldest and largest mosque in the state, Ramadan is packed with 700 to 800 people every night for Taraweeh prayers.
The number was reduced to zero during the pandemic and stayed so long after the 2020 holiday ended. A couple of months ago, the mosque reopened, with 6-foot distance protocols in place.
Imam Hadi Shehata sees some semblance of normal this Ramadan but with the challenge of keeping numbers low since social distancing only leaves space for 120 to 150 people.
The mosque plans to have tents outside, bringing up the number to 350. They will also cancel iftars — which typically brings in an extra 100 to 120 people on the weekends — and just offer water and dates for members.
“Just for the safety of everyone — we want to make sure that everybody will be safe and secure,” Shehata said.
Ramadan is particularly special for Shehata as he left Egypt 15 years ago to lead prayers during the holiday and ended up staying to serve as the mosque’s imam. He is looking forward to eating his favorite food, biryani (a South Asian mixed rice dish), and seeing the community congregating again, even in smaller numbers.
“It makes me so happy to see new faces (that) are coming to the lecture during the month of Ramadan,” Shehata said. “People come to Taraweeh every single time, and so you feel like (it is) something very unique … in the month of Ramadan when you see that 29 days or 30 days in a row and that definitely the level of Iman (faith) goes so high.”