Many religious festivals combine the contemplative with the festive. Lent, a time of forgoing, is bookended by feasting and culminates with Easter food and celebration. Passover is a time of both spiritual and physical cleaning out but is also marked by coming together and sharing the seder meal. Ramadan is a month of fasting and prayer, but also a time of breaking fast – iftar – shared with family and friends and often with neighbours and the wider community in interfaith iftar events. All religious and secular holidays have taken on a different feel and change in practice for lockdown.
The contemplation, prayer and reflection may well be aided by lockdown for some. But the celebration, the festivity and togetherness is definitely hampered by social distancing. As Muslims mark the beginning of Ramadan, they are having to readjust expectations of observance. Are people particularly vulnerable to Covid-19 or doctors and nurses on the front line of fighting this virus exempt from fasting at this time, as depending on the religious source, they may be?
Ramadan is also a time of charitable giving and acts of service, and while there is no lack of need this year, it is rather a question of what is the safest and most helpful approach. A mosque in Inverness, for example, would normally prepare food for congregants, but instead this year is asking people to stay home and is distributing food to the homeless and others who may need it.
We spoke to Nadeem Murtuja and Jubeen Ashraf of Oxford City Council about what they are doing. As in many council areas, the approach of the pandemic prompted a coordinated campaign to work with voluntary and community sector. In Oxford, 1 in 6, residents identify as Muslim and so of course, local mosques were part of this work. The council was already identifying vulnerable people and working with local mosques both added people to the list, but also raised some duplications, but as Nadeem, who is the interim Executive Director Communities and Customers said “It is better to have some duplication than to miss anyone off the list.” And this included refugees and unaccompanied asylum seekers.
When it became apparent that lockdown would reach into Ramadan (and perhaps beyond), Oxford already had the links and networks. Special food packs have been prepared and the Oxford central mosque is making hot iftar meals for collection and delivery for those who may need it. Food distribution is available to everyone regardless of faith, and by coordinating distribution through the council’s single point of contact it is easier to manage who needs food and where it has been delivered.
While mosques are closed for congregation, they are open to providing content online – including prayers, other spiritual resources and online community iftars. They are encouraging people to explore options for sharing iftar through online tools.
Communication has been central to all pandemic responses and this is no different. Nadeem said that this crisis is really demonstrating how important it is to have a diverse workforce within councils. Jubeen Ashraf is from Oxford, and being local to the area and having existing connections helped her build on her existing cultural and community networks. Working with Asian broadcasters and community groups and even enlisting Pakistani cricketers to share important safety messages during this time has helped get the word out as well as ensuring that language barriers are overcome through translation.
Oxford City Council’s website has links to information and services about having a safe and fulfilling Ramadan and the Muslim Council of Britain has also published a comprehensive guide about Ramadan in lockdown for observant Muslims and people of all faiths and none.