Many of Zayna and Safiya Ahmed’s classmates may not know much about what Muslims do during the month of Ramadan since Muslims comprise only one percent of the U.S. population.
When asked what it’s like, 15 year old Zayna tells her Oak Park and River Forest High School friends, “Ramadan is a month in Islam where we fast for 30 days from sunrise to sunset to better ourselves and bring ourselves closer to God.”
Safiya, who is 11, explains to her Roosevelt Middle School classmates that while fasting Muslims pray and read the Qur’an in addition to going about their everyday routine. One thing it teaches you, she said, is to not take things for granted.
Suleyman Ahmed is a senior at the University of Chicago Lab School and therefore is acutely aware of how the coronavirus has robbed him of finishing his time in high school with his classmates and the graduation ceremony itself. He recently found out he is one of 621 semifinalists for the 2020 U.S. Presidential Scholars Program.
He said COVID-19 has also radically changed the way his family celebrates Ramadan. “Ramadan is a month for Muslims to really celebrate community,” he said. “We fast together, we break fast together, we pray together at mosques. Under a normal circumstance that would be what Ramadan would be about.”
Suleyman’s mother, Nausheen Akhter, added the stay at home order has forced Muslims to focus on their individual families more than on the wider community. “We have been getting on Zoom,” she said, “with my parents every evening before breaking fast for a discussion on a spiritual topic. Then we place the laptop right on the kitchen counter when it is time for Iftar [the meal that Muslims eat after sunset during Ramadan to break the day’s fast], so it feels like we are all together.
“We have also been doing the evening prayers which are usually done in a mosque, called taraweeh, at home together. There are a lot of Zoom educational classes that one can participate in as well.”
In several ways, however, sheltering at home has made this year’s Ramadan more meaningful from a spiritual point of view. Suleyman pointed out that “Ramadan has a lot to do with improving yourself, setting goals, and focusing on the important things in life. And I think fasting also makes you a little bit more empathetic to the actual struggles of people who are hungry and homeless, what they go through on a day to day basis.”
Nausheen’s husband, Syed Mohi Ahmed, believes that self-restraint is a character trait his family learns from fasting which applies directly to coping with the isolation most people are experiencing.
“Fasting in Ramadan,” he said, “generally involves abstaining from things that are usually permissible and enjoyed — food and drink — as a means of learning self-restraint through God consciousness. As a society in this pandemic, we are now individually required to hold back from doing things that bring us pleasure to promote the good health of our neighbors. That self-restraint that our family has learned can now be deployed in service of our community.”
Suleyman wanted readers to understand that fasting from sunup to sundown, as far as he is concerned, is not a sacrifice. “There is a misconception,” he said, “that in some ways I am forcing myself to do something that is hard. But it is definitely not like that. It is one of the things that I look forward to every year.”
Nausheen and Mohi are both physicians. Dr. Nausheen Akhter is a cardiologist at Northwestern Medicine and Dr. Mohi Ahmed an oncologist at Advocate Medical Group in Libertyville.
Dr. Akhter said the pandemic has affected her practice on many levels. “We are doing as much as possible remotely,” she said, “to promote social distancing, and prevent the spread of the virus to our most vulnerable patients. In my practice, we have switched our outpatient care to almost exclusively telemedicine for the past several weeks. As patients with both heart disease and cancer are at the highest risks for developing severe illness.”
Dr. Ahmed, an oncologist, said, “As devastating as this pandemic has been for society at large, the cancer community in particular continues to deal with an illness that deprives them of life and health every day. They are dealing with it even more so in this time of social isolation. I have lost a few of my cancer patients during this period of quarantine not to coronavirus, but to their cancer. The struggle that families go through after this death is usually mitigated by neighbors coalescing around them. Families have been deprived of this source of solace in the midst of our quarantine.”