The Rafiq family usually gathers with friends and relatives to break their fast during the month of Ramadan, sharing dishes like roti and pakoras and praying at the local mosque in Osterville.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, observances for Ramadan — the holy month of Islam — have changed significantly for the 25 to 30 Muslim families on the Cape.
“The socialized aspect is missing,” said Hira Rafiq, a Sandwich resident whose father, Mohammad Rafiq, is president of the Islamic Center of Cape Cod.
Now many Muslim families on the Cape eat by themselves, and many of them choose to pray at home.
What is Ramadan?
Ramadan is a monthlong holiday during which Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset as a test of their perseverance and patience, Hira Rafiq said. Muslims pray throughout the day, reflect and give back to their community.
“It’s all about focusing on purity and being kind and being patient,” Hira Rafiq said.
Ramadan, adhering to the lunar calendar when the crescent moon appears, started on April 12 and will last through May 11. Ramadan is the ninth month in the Islamic calendar, which is believed to be the month in which God revealed the holy book — the Quran — to Prophet Muhammad as a “guidance for the people” more than 1,400 years ago, according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica.
The month of Ramadan helps Muslims understand what it feels like to be deprived, said Muska Yousuf, a Yarmouth resident born in Afghanistan, who is also Muslim.
“The whole concept is that you’re supposed to feel on the body what other people experience when they’re hungry,” Yousuf said. “There are people out there who are hungry and who are suffering.”
When they break the fast, Muslims from different countries enjoy different foods, although most start with eating dates, as that is what Prophet Muhammad ate when he broke his fast. In Pakistan, for example, they eat roti, which is like a thin naan flatbread, said Amana Rafiq, Hira’s sister. They also drink milk with rose syrup as well as eat pakoras, or fritters.
In Afghanistan, many people eat Kabuli pulao, an Afghan rice dish with raisins and carrots, Yousuf said, as well as kofta, which is lamb or chicken prepared in a pressure cooker and served over the Kabuli pulao.
During Ramadan, Muslims are reminded to be generous and to give to charity. Amana Rafiq said her family collects money to send back to Pakistan for those who need it. In some places there is a shortage of water, she said, so they will collect money to build water pumps. Her family also donates to organizations such as Helping Hands of America and Ehsaas, an aid and development charity.
For the second year in a row, COVID-19 has transformed the way Muslims normally observe the holiday.
Last year was especially difficult for Muslims across the world, said Usama El-Sehrawey, a Dennis resident. Nobody could gather and mosques were completely closed, forcing Muslims to do their evening prayers at home, he said.
“It’s affected us and the way we normally celebrate the month of Ramadan,” El-Sehrawey said.
An imam — who leads worshippers in prayer — usually comes from New York every year to the Cape Cod mosque, said Mohammad Rafiq, but that has not happened since the pandemic.
This year, the mosque in Osterville is open for a limited number of people. Normally, those attending prayer stand side by side, but now they separate 6 feet apart while wearing face masks.
With limited seating, some people do not get in, Amana Rafiq said.
“It’s really hard right now,” she said.
Especially as they read reports of COVID-19 variants, some Muslims are afraid to go to the mosque and instead do their prayers at home, El-Sehrawey said.
Mohammad Rafiq, the president of the mosque, said not many people have gone there to pray since the start of Ramadan because of the pandemic. The mosque used to host about 40 to 45 people during the prayers; now it ranges from five to 15.
Muslims on the Cape used to meet almost every weekend during the month of Ramadan to break their fasts together, also known iftar, El-Sehrawey said. Sometimes, each family would bring a dish for a potluck, or one family would sponsor the feast, El-Sehrawey said. This year, families are doing their iftar at home, he said.
Hira Rafiq said most of her immediate family is vaccinated, so they get together at the end of the day for iftar. But it is more difficult to meet with her extended family and those who are not yet vaccinated, she said.
Muslim families on the Cape are planning to celebrate Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan, with a large feast and further prayer and worship.
The Eid services will be split up at the mosque, so half of the worshippers can go to the first session and the other half can go to a later service, Mohammad Rafiq said.
Depending on the rules of gathering indoors, families will either meet inside or host a celebration outside at a park, El-Sehrawey said. Weather depending, families can bring some carpets and pray outside, he said.
Growing Muslim population
Over the last few years, Ramadan celebrations have gotten larger as more Muslims have moved to the Cape; the Rafiq family has noticed the shift. Perhaps more Muslim families are living on the Cape, Hira Rafiq said, because residents here are more accepting and interested in learning about different religions and cultures.
“That’s been great,” she said, “considering the turmoil in the country in terms of not accepting other communities and religions.”
Mohammad Rafiq said there are between 25 to 30 Muslim families who are part of the Cape mosque, and there could be more families in the Outer Cape area.
El-Sehrawey has lived on the Cape for 31 years and also has seen more Muslim families move here. He said residents will tell their friends and extended families about the Cape and convince others to move.
El-Sehrawey and others are working to build a mosque in the Hyannis area as it would be closer for families who live in the Yarmouth and Harwich areas.
“It’s a great place to live,” he said of Cape Cod.