Ramadan is often misunderstood as a one-month hunger strike. Whilst abstaining from eating and drinking is one aspect of Ramadan, and admittedly one of the more testing aspects, the month demands a unique isolation from the material world, with the aim of refreshing and strengthening one’s connection to God. This isolation is also achieved by abstaining from excessive spending, gossiping, and trivial uses of time—goodbye Netflix—and instead devoting oneself to learning about the Islamic faith.
As COVID-19 forces the world into stasis, Muslims seek solace in the knowledge that isolation is not foreign to the Islamic doctrine. Roughly 1400 years ago, Islam was born into the folds of isolation. Into an Arabian peninsula untouched by the empires of the day, into the home of nomads and traders, our beloved prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) was born. Muslims believe that on one of the last 10 nights of Ramadan, age 40, he received the first verses of the Quran from God, whilst in spiritual isolation in a cave on Mount Hira.
But there is unity in this isolation. Ramadan reconnects the Muslim community, through taraweeh (daily, communal nightly prayers), halaqas (group study of Islam and the Quran), and the Eid celebration after the month ceases. With the backdrop of COVID-19, we have had to adapt. In my household, my brother has assumed the role of imam (leader of prayer), we have resorted to Zoom halaqas, and we have come to accept that the iconic Eid in Lakemba will simply have to wait a year. For my shamelessly Arab family, refraining from eating iftars (the meal after breaking the fast) with our dozens of cousins and uncles and aunties, has been a difficult but necessary sacrifice. However, no pandemic could stop my grandma from dropping in with plates of kofta (spicy, minced lamb), fattoush (a Levantine salad) and koshari (lentils, rice, macaroni with chilli sauce) – what she likes to call ‘not much’.
My personal quest during this Ramadan has been to reflect on my purpose as a Muslim living in the 21st century, a purpose beyond self-service and betterment. COVID-19 has plunged the world into solitude. Ramadan encourages Muslims to embrace the solidarity in solitude, specifically for those, like myself, who live in predominantly secular nations. We are reminded that without our fine dining, our furnished households, our high-end educations, we are no different to our brothers and sisters practicing Islam across the seas. Paying zakat, is an obligation that realises this sentiment. As one of the five pillars of Islam, it requires all, able Muslims to pay two and a half per cent of their savings to a charity of their choice during Ramadan. When the time came for me to decide where to send my zakat, I was swamped with an overwhelming despair at the breadth of choice I had.
Should I send it to the Muslims in India, who are defenceless against the Islamophobia plaguing COVID-19 headlines? Whose recent persecution has moved employers to advertise that they will no longer hire people of the Islamic faith? Navigate West to Afghanistan, where the Taliban smear the name of Islam with blood. Should I send it to the innocent Muslim women and children suffering at their hands? How can the Taliban claim to serve God’s demands, when in the Quran, God ‘forbids injustice, immorality and oppression’ (16:90)?
Jump to the Middle East, to the land of Palestine, where my father’s family cannot visit the Islamic holy sites in Jerusalem. During this Ramadan, they observed ‘Nakba Day’ (the Day of Catastrophe) on May 15th, marking 72 years since 750,000 Palestinians were expelled from their country. Should I send my zakat to the generations of refugees residing on the fringes of their homeland? And even if I wished to, I cannot send my zakat to the Uyghur Muslims in China, as the CCP ferociously monitors the camps in Xinjiang. The Uyghur Muslims will witness Ramadan amidst those who wish to decimate their religious freedom. I can only pray for them.
Cross the Indian Ocean back to Australia, and I realise that my purpose is inseparable from my blessings. So when the sun sets and I break my fast with a warm meal, I remember the millions of Yemenis who will sleep on an empty stomach during Ramadan. I remember the Indian, Afghani, Palestinian, and Chinese Muslims whose suffering has not eased during this pandemic. Though Ramadan is coming to a close and ending the spiritual solitude of Muslims across the globe, the COVID-19 crisis will keep the world in stasis.
Like Ramadan, the crisis brings with it an opportunity to remember, and as Islam encourages, to give.