Celebrating Ramadan During A Pandemic NPR's Michel Martin speaks with Imam Rizwan Ali of the Islamic Center of Naperville about celebrating Ramadan during the coronavirus pandemic.
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Celebrating Ramadan During A Pandemic

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Celebrating Ramadan During A Pandemic

Celebrating Ramadan During A Pandemic

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We spent a lot of time on this program talking about how the coronavirus outbreak has changed religious practice, at least for now. So now we want to turn our attention to those who are observing the holy month of Ramadan. This annual month of fasting and reflection in Islam began Thursday evening. Normally, it would involve religious services and communal meals to break the daily fast. But those are the very activities banned in many states throughout the country.

We've been checking in with religious leaders around the country to find out how they and their congregations are adapting to all this, so we've called on Imam Rizwan Ali once again. He is the religious director at the Islamic Center of Naperville in Naperville, Ill.

Welcome back, Imam Ali. Nice to have you back on the program. And Ramadan Mubarak to you.

RIZWAN ALI: Thank you very much. I'm honored and privileged to be here.

MARTIN: So before we get into what's changed, would you just briefly tell us a little bit about Ramadan? Why is it so important in Islam? And how is it normally observed?

ALI: So Ramadan is the holy month of Islam. This is the month in which we believe that the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, first received revelation. And observance of this month - we fast, right? So fasting is from before sunrise to sunset, and we abstain from eating and drinking and fulfilling any type of desires in terms of intimacy and things of that sort during this time.

And after what we call iftar, when we break the fast, usually we have communal nightly prayer specifically for this month of Ramadan. It's called tarawih, which unfortunately we're not able to pray this year. But it's a very communal and festive event that helps the community come together.

MARTIN: Well, when we spoke last month, you had only recently made the decision to close down the Islamic center. And, you know, you walked us through that. And it was actually - I have to be honest, it was very moving to sort of hear how you were trying to think about how to handle this. But you've had a couple of weeks now to think about how to observe Ramadan. So what have you come up with?

ALI: So if you look at Ramadan, there's the fasting aspect of it, and which we're still able to do but not in a communal setting. There's a prayer aspect, which we can't do really in a communal setting, in a virtual setting.

But one other very important aspects of Ramadan is the community. So we've basically taken all of our programs and shifted them online. So we have our workshops, daily reminders, classes, youth programs, elementary programs. Then we have the whole social media aspect. I think we're probably more active this year than as if we would have been on site, which is really amazing for me to say.

MARTIN: What has been - I know this - maybe it sounds like a crazy question, but what's been the best part of this for you, if there is any good part of it for you? And what's been the worst part of it for you?

ALI: You know, I tell my community that this is a challenge, and in life, we go through different challenges. But you always remember the people that are there for you during the hardship and just how the community has come together. For example, we were going to set up a program for the elementary age group, right - pre-school to third grade. And I was, like, look this is not my forte. I really don't know. I can do adults, high schoolers, middle schoolers. That's where I kind of excel, right?

So then I was, like, OK, let's contact people in the community. And they stepped up. They have daily story reading sessions, volunteers, flyers. And I was just amazed at the community's, you know, willingness and their zeal to come out and help out in whatever capacity that they can.

MARTIN: And what's been the worst part?

ALI: The worst part is just missing people, honestly. Like, I got a text from one of my youth in the community, and he's, like, I don't ever remember Ramadan in my life which I didn't pray behind you. And that made me emotional a little bit. First, it made me feel old. Second, I was just, like, you know, I miss him.

I was saying that, you know, after I was preparing for the prayers, I was making mudla (ph) in my house. And I was, like, you know, I never thought that I would miss the long lines in the mosque to make mudul (ph) and to prepare for the prayer. Well, those are the little things that you miss - the smiles, the faces. I can close my eyes and tell you where each person is sitting. And I'm missing all of those little experiences now.

MARTIN: And I don't want to kind of gloss past the economic pains because we're finding that - as we see that unemployment has, you know, skyrocketed around the country. Are you hearing from people who have economic concerns?

ALI: So this is another very important aspect of Ramadan, is the concept of charity. We believe the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, was generous at all times, but he was even more generous during the month of Ramadan.

So one of the things that we have is that you know the communal meal? A lot of us are able to, you know, have the resources to get food and break the fast. But there are some people in our community that are not. So what we're doing is we're sponsoring, and they can come up and pick up a box meal from the mosque for themselves and their families and whoever needs it.

Another thing that we're doing is that we had to get really creative with this. Ramadan is the time where many organizations, Islamic organizations - that the bulk of their donation, their fundraising, is done in the month of Ramadan. And this year, they're not going to have access to the mosques and Islamic centers.

So we said, OK. Look. We're having a online reminder every night. How about we try to give organizations an opportunity? Come join, like, the stream yard or the session - so open our community up to others, give our community the opportunity to contribute to other organizations and gain the reward of that and the blessings of the work that they're doing.

MARTIN: I don't want to make this a political conversation, but, you know, President Trump did suggest in one of his briefings a couple of days ago that he thought that, you know, there might be or - some double standard, or that he thought that Christians were being treated unfairly, basically suggesting that he thought that Islamic communities were not going to be observing the same strictures that Christian communities were. Did any of those comments kind of resonate with you? Did you notice? Did it have any effect in the community?

ALI: To be honest, it was a little bit offensive because a lot of Muslim community, including our own - and I talked about this last time I was with you - we agonized through the process. And we actually closed down the Islamic center before Governor Pritzker and the state of Illinois ordered the stay-at-home order.

One of our principles of our faith is the preservation of life and the preservation of health. So when he said that, I was just like, look, this is a little bit like lack of knowledge about a religion and a lack of knowledge of the practices that have been taking place in Muslim communities across the nation.

MARTIN: And what about the congregation that you serve with? You miss them. You've told us that you miss them very much, and seeing people. But is there something that you see in the community at large that you think has changed?

ALI: I think they're very appreciative of the sense that, you know, of the community coming together. We always - we take things for granted, and we say, OK, look - the programs, the services - we always think it's going to be there. But now everyone's just, like, look, I don't take anything for granted, you know. The most - it was one of my colleagues said the most important Ramadan of your life is the Ramadan of now, right? And that's something that's - everyone's kind of realizing now because it has more impact, because we can't take anything for granted.

So I was, like, look. All those things that have happened in the past about what's happened in the center - you know, cherish them. Show gratitude. And when things open up, take advantage of opportunity because you don't know when and if we may ever face a situation like this. We hope and pray not, but we really don't know.

MARTIN: That's Imam Rizwan Ali. He is the religious director at the Islamic Center of Naperville in Naperville, Ill.

Imam, thank you so much for speaking with us again. We hope that you have a joyous reflection despite all the circumstances.

ALI: I really appreciate it. Thank you for giving us the opportunity.

(SOUNDBITE OF EL TEN ELEVEN'S "MY ONLY SWERVING")

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