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What is Ramadan, and how will it be different for Baltimore Muslims during the coronavirus pandemic?

Earl El-Amin, resident imam of the Muslim Community Cultural Center of Baltimore,, talks about celebrating the holy month of Ramadan during the COVID-19 pandemic.

During the month of Ramadan, the Islamic holiday that begins at sunset Thursday, Muslims normally “flock to their mosque in droves,” said Earl El-Amin, arriving to take part in the prayers, readings, teaching circles and meals that have been basic to the period for centuries.

But this year’s Ramadan will be unlike any during all that time, said El-Amin, the longtime imam of the Muslim Community Cultural Center of Baltimore.

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Area mosques will be closed, as they will worldwide, thanks to government-mandated limitations on gatherings during the time of the coronavirus, leaving Muslims to pray at home, observe rituals online and share meals in small, private groups.

From El-Amin’s congregation in West Baltimore, with its 125 mostly African American members, to the Islamic Society of Baltimore in Catonsville, an ethnically diverse community of thousands, area Muslims will experience a more remote, less convivial Ramadan in the time of COVID-19, but one that could present a unique chance to reflect on the holy month and its meaning.

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What is Ramadan, and how is it normally celebrated?

The ninth month on the lunar Islamic calendar, Ramadan generally begins on the day when the crescent of a new moon becomes visible. It’s viewed as sacred because it’s believed to be the month in which Islam’s holy book, the Quran, was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad.

Resident imam Earl El-Amin prays at the Muslim Community Cultural Center of Baltimore. During Ramadan, El-Amin will perform Islam’s Friday prayer, Salat al-Jumu’ah, from his dining room table each week, streaming it live via Facebook, and his mosque will make video-recorded teachings available online at 5 a.m. daily.
Resident imam Earl El-Amin prays at the Muslim Community Cultural Center of Baltimore. During Ramadan, El-Amin will perform Islam’s Friday prayer, Salat al-Jumu’ah, from his dining room table each week, streaming it live via Facebook, and his mosque will make video-recorded teachings available online at 5 a.m. daily. (Kenneth K. Lam)

Observing the occasion, an act considered one of the Five Pillars of Islam, centers on daily fasting — specifically, refraining from eating, drinking and sexual activity — as a way of cleansing the mind and spirit. Muslims fast from dawn to sundown, then break their fast with a festive evening meal, iftar, usually sharing it in groups in restaurants, in homes or at the mosque.

Observers also take part in regular daily prayers as well as special evening prayers and spend time refamiliarizing themselves with the Quran, listening each night as scholars recite juz, passages that each make up 1/30 of the sacred book.

The fasting is meant to encourage deep reflection, said Ed Tori, president of the Islamic Society of Baltimore, and to lay the groundwork for other forms of healthy self-discipline.

“If you can control your most basic urges," he said, "then why can’t you stop gossiping, stop smoking, start giving more in charity, do better at work or school? It’s a moment of self-improvement, a time to hold yourself accountable.”

El-Amin added that God forgives the sins of those who fast and pray.

“For me, it’s like being born again each year," he said.

How will some rituals be different in 2020?

One won’t. Muslims will work and attend school as usual, albeit mostly via the internet like everyone else, but most will start their days by rising before 5 a.m., enjoying a predawn meal, or suhoor, with family, then fasting from dawn until sunset. But with mosques shuttered, activities that would be communal will be conducted online.

El-Amin will perform Islam’s Friday prayer, Salat al-Jumu’ah, from his dining room table each week, streaming it live via Facebook, and his mosque will make video-recorded teachings available online at 5 a.m. daily. The Islamic Society of Baltimore will present religious activities and programming on its YouTube channel, ISB Live, nearly around the clock, including story times for children, interactive discussions on the Quran and lectures.

One tradition usually sees Muslims in their teens and 20s gathering for meals at “any restaurant that might be open” before dawn, Tori said, but since those are closed, “that won’t happen.”

Nor will the usual iftar parties, where Muslims serve and sample foods from various ethnic traditions. The Islamic Society plans one innovation: drive-thru ethnic meals served by food trucks in the parking lot.

Charitable giving, another pillar of Islam practiced more intensively during Ramadan, will look different: Where Muslims typically set out in groups to serve the needy, some will volunteer to make individual drop-offs while others make donations online.

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Finally, many Muslims choose Ramadan as the month to make the journey called umrah, a nonmandatory pilgrimage to the holy cities of Mecca or Medinah, Saudi Arabia, that may be taken at any time of the year. But the holy sites have been shuttered, leaving tens of thousands to change long-held plans. The Islamic Society did not organize a group pilgrimage this year, but Tori said many members had made flight and hotel reservations and had to cancel.

“No one is especially upset,” he said. “The attitude is simply, ‘It wasn’t my time. When God wants me to be there, I’ll be there.’”

“Coronavirus has brought so many things to a standstill, but that gives us an opportunity to really come to grips with who we are as human beings,” Earl El-Amin said. “I think we’ll all learn some humility. People are going to come out of this with a great spirit.”
“Coronavirus has brought so many things to a standstill, but that gives us an opportunity to really come to grips with who we are as human beings,” Earl El-Amin said. “I think we’ll all learn some humility. People are going to come out of this with a great spirit.” (Kenneth K. Lam)

What about the big celebration at Ramadan’s end?

Eid-al-Fitr, which breaks the monthlong fast, normally starts with a day of religious observances on the first day of the 10th month, and continues over two more days of gift-giving, gatherings and celebrations. Maryland’s mosque leaders are conferring on how to celebrate it should lockdowns still be in effect next month.

Are there silver linings for Muslims this Ramadan?

Most agree the feel won’t be the same. Tori said his own children look forward to the camaraderie of Ramadan so much each year that “they’re sad before it has even started."

Still, El-Amin said, coronavirus has forced a broader kind of cleansing as people drive and consume less, and that’s in keeping with the holiday. And ongoing restrictions have removed “a lot of distractions” from the process of self-reflection.

“Coronavirus has brought so many things to a standstill, but that gives us an opportunity to really come to grips with who we are as human beings,” he said. “I think we’ll all learn some humility. People are going to come out of this with a great spirit.”

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