Stacey L. Newman
A very pandemic Ramadan
Milton is a town settled within the Niagara escarpment system—northwest of Toronto—and home to just over 130,000 Miltonians. Our town’s population has grown exponentially over the last 20 years and, like the majority of large Canadian municipalities, Milton is culturally diverse: our population a mosaic that is emblematic of the multiculturalism intrinsic to our national identity. When a community is comprised of diverse peoples, cultures and interests, we are exposed to new celebrations, holidays, foods and languages. In Milton, we are home to diaspora from across the globe, including a large Muslim contingent. As a result, invitations to public celebrations around Muslim holidays—like Ramadan—have been extended to non-Muslims and Muslims alike, in Milton, for years.
Ramadan, in Islam, is the ninth month of the Muslim calendar and the holy month of fasting. It begins and ends with the appearance of the new moon. In 2020 Ramadan lasts from April 23 to May 23. For Muslims, Ramadan is a period of introspection, communal prayer (salat in Arabic) in the mosque, and reading of the Quran. God forgives the past sins of those who observe the holy month with fasting [from morning to sunset], prayer, and faithful intention.
After the sunset prayer, Muslims gather in their homes or mosques to break their fast with a meal called iftar that is often shared with friends and extended family. The iftar usually begins with dates, as was the custom of Muhammad, or apricots and water or sweetened milk. (Source: Encyclopedia Britannica)
I've been fortunate to attend many iftar celebrations with friends over the years. As a non-Muslim, I also look forward to Ramadan as a time of celebration with fellow Canadians. Iftar is a grand celebration each night after sunset when fasting is broken and people commune over dishes of traditional and modern foods, as well as sharing meals with those in need.
This year, things are different. Ramadan 2020 is happening amidst a global coronavirus pandemic, and this has changed traditional celebrations for Muslims everywhere. Decrees about pandemics are built into the Muslim faith and have been since 600 A.D. Therefore, many Muslims, I’m told, were imposing self-quarantine rules when the first news of the coronavirus outbreak was shared. "The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, said, ‘If you hear of a plague in a land, then do not go into it. If it happens in land where you are, then do not go out of it.’” - (Source: Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 5396, Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 2218)
"Quarantine has been ordained in Islam. Our predecessors in history showed that it is a crucial prevention, if not the overall solution, for a pandemic that crosses international boundaries. Islamic studies cite that Prophet Muhammad advised quarantine during the medieval times. "Those with contagious diseases should be kept away from those who are healthy." - (Source: Tasneem AbdulRauf, New Age Islam)
I was raised in a Catholic upbringing. Today, I’m not religious, but I continue to celebrate traditional Christian holidays. If this lockdown were happening around Christmastime, what would it look like for those of us who celebrate? No big suppers or family gatherings, no gatherings at all, no in-person church services, no shopping malls, and no office parties. I imagine how difficult it would be to endure a holiday season—usually marked by reflection, piety, joy, the sharing of meals and celebration—under a pandemic lockdown. People would want to celebrate in other ways, to see and hear the symbols and sounds of their traditions in order to maintain a semblance of normalcy and celebration during an otherwise difficult holiday season. This is how our Muslim neighbours are feeling. I reached out to Imam Khan who is the director of religious affairs at the Islamic Community Centre of Milton (ICCM). One of Khan’s jobs is to prepare the speaker system outside the building in order to broadcast the Adhan-pronounced in English as ‘ad-tzhan’—a call to prayer for Muslims that marks the time for the night prayer, sunset and an end to the day’s fasting.
The call to prayer is not normally broadcast outside the centre but heard inside during normal services, but as Muslims are observing Ramadan in quarantine, the broadcasts are meant to provide some solace during the holy month. The call to prayer is sung by the Imam and broadcast at sunset to signal the time for the night prayers. Some congregants may drive by the centre to hear the call. The centre chooses random dates on which to broadcast the prayer, rather than adhering to a public schedule, in order to avoid large congregations of listeners driving by.
There has been controversy in some Canadian municipalities about the broadcast of the Adhan on speakers outside mosques. In neighbouring Mississauga, a contingent of naysayers attempted to pressure city councillors to reverse a decision by the City of Mississauga to allow the broadcasts during Ramadan this year.
In Milton, we have our share of naysayers too. One such citizen has attempted to circulate a petition to have town Council disallow the broadcast. I will go a step further and characterize this petition as an act fuelled by ignorance, prejudice and Islamophobia. The petition uses inflammatory language and arguments couched in statements about ‘religion’ in broad terms, but which are clearly aimed solely at the broadcast of the Adhan at the ICCM. I would challenge the petition’s creator to imagine a very pandemic Christmas whereby Christmas music, lights and public displays are forbidden in the name of so-called ‘freedom.’ I somehow doubt the petition’s author and signatories would agree to such terms.
I was invited to attend the ICCM at sunset this past weekend. I met Imam Khan outside the building. There were less than a handful of other people present. Khan connected the speaker system outside and then I was invited to go inside and hear Khan sing the Adhan. Upon entering the mosque, I removed my shoes and placed them in a cubby, no shoes are worn inside. I entered the large, virtually empty room which would normally be packed with congregants. I remained off to the side with permission to photograph whatever I wished.
Khan approached the microphone, closed his eyes and he began to recite the Adhan. I don’t speak Arabic and therefore did not understand the words. The sound was solemn, melodic, and rhythmic. After a couple of minutes the call to prayer was complete. I was then invited to remain as Khan and four others in attendance completed their prayers.
(May 9, 2020 - Milton, Canada: The Adhan or call to prayer is sung by Imam Khan, followed by the night prayers at the Islamic Community Centre of Milton during Ramadan 2020. Photos by Stacey Newman)
When the night prayers were finished, Khan offered dates to those of us present, including me. The day’s fasting was broken and iftar would commence for celebrants at home.
Khan answered my questions, he explained each step of the schedule. There is something simple and gracious about being welcomed by fellow human beings to take part in their cultural festivities, especially when they are not our own traditions. There is a sense of peace, generosity and compassion to these acts and I can think of nothing more important during this very difficult time than these acts of humanity and inclusiveness.
These are our fellow citizens, Imam Khan tells me he was born and raised in Canada. He is Canadian. Full stop.
My family and I cannot attend iftar gatherings this year, and we are missing them—the celebrations are now part of the fabric of our annual traditions. But nevertheless, our friends have delivered iftari to us. Thus far, this Ramadan, we have received gifts of samosa, pulao, chicken tikka masala, kebabs, raita, Gajar ka halwa (a sweet, fragrant carrot dessert)…always with the accompaniment of dates, which we eat first. With one of these gifts, the dates were stuffed with almonds. I remarked to our friend how good these dates were and she told me that removing the pits and stuffing the dates with almonds was something her mother has always done for their family. It made me think about how special and cherished our family traditions are around Christmas. It left me feeling a pang of nostalgia for my grandparents’ special holiday foods, the songs we shared and the traditions we hold dear.
I admire Canadian Muslims who are observing the tenets of Ramadan with generosity and positivity despite being forced to celebrate this holiest of months in their faith under lockdown during a pandemic.