Islam’s holiest month of Ramadan, which fills the hearts of billions of Muslims around the world with piety, sympathy and respect of others, began April 13 under the continuing shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic but with much more relaxed restrictions compared to last year.
Although authorities have imposed limits on many of the nighttime festivities and other collective activities that Muslims typically look forward to, communal prayers under rigorous social-distancing conditions have been permitted in many countries.
That is in sharp contrast to 2020. Amid a spike in coronavirus infections a year ago, mosques just about everywhere were closed for prayers. Curfews prevented friends and relatives from gathering after observing the traditional fast that prohibits eating, drinking and smoking from dawn to dusk.
Fasting during Ramadan is among the five pillars of Islam, which include the declaration of faith, daily prayer, charity and going on the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, Islam’s holiest site, in Saudi Arabia.
“Last year, I felt depressed and I didn’t know how long the pandemic would last,” Riyad Deis, a co-owner of a spice and dried-fruit store in Jerusalem’s Old City told The New York Times.
The neighborhood’s narrow alleys thronged with worshippers on the annual festival’s first day as they browsed Ramadan sweets and headed to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third-holiest site and a seventh-century shrine where Muslims believe Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven.
The entire holy month is a celebration of the month during which Muhammad received the initial revelations of the Quran over 1,400 years ago.
“Now I am relaxed,” Deis said, explaining why. “I have enough money to provide for my family and people are purchasing goods from my shop. It’s a totally different reality.”
Many worshippers looked forward to getting together with family and friends in smaller groups for iftar, the meal after sunset where Muslims break their fast, pray and replenish themselves.
Their plans appeared to be progressing regardless of whether they have been vaccinated or not.
Even in the days before Ramadan, the Times reports, festive crowds packed shopping districts and poured into mosques in many Middle Eastern countries—despite the risks of a potential surge in COVID-19 cases.
Government officials in Egypt warned of a third wave of infections in the run-up to the holy month, not least because this year Ramadan coincides with Orthodox Easter, which the country’s Coptic Christians will celebrate on May 3. What’s more, Sham El Nessim, another Egyptian national holiday that marks the beginning of spring, coincides with Orthodox Easter.
Residents of low-income Egyptian neighborhoods are likely to be the hardest hit by this year’s pandemic restrictions. As in 2020, authorities have prohibited the public display of tables of iftar food that the poor customarily feast on, thanks to donations by individuals, mosques or organizations. This year, once again, the poor will have to make do with boxes of foods that charity groups are distributing in Cairo.
Overall, however, a festive atmosphere reigns across much of the region. “These are times of great happiness,” Omar Kiswani, director of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, said, pointing out that some 11,000 socially distanced worshippers had prayed at the shrine on the eve of Ramadan as part of Taraweeh, communal prayers in which Muslims typically spill out from mosque compounds into surrounding streets, in the belief that collective prayer brings greater spiritual benefit to worshippers.
“We hope the blessed Aqsa Mosque will return to its pre-pandemic glory,” Kiswani said, emphasizing that both indoor and outdoor spaces will be sterilized daily. Because the virus, he added, “is still out there.”
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