Muslims may be missing community during this important holiday. Here’s how to cope.

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To say that COVID-19 has changed the world as we know it would be an understatement.

From work to weddings, the pandemic has disrupted everything. This is especially true for socializing. Safety guidelines forced many of us to spend every occasion, be it the Lunar New Year, Diwali, or Christmas, with little-to-no social contact.

Many Muslims in North America have resigned themselves to spending another Ramadan under lockdown.

The ever-accumulating quarantine fatigue, stress, and heightened feelings of isolation mean that Ramadan will likely be harder this year than ever.

The ninth month in the Islamic lunar calendar, Ramadan denotes a 29 or 30-day period during which Muslims fast from sunup to sundown.

Fasting, often called a sawm or a rozah, is the third of the five pillars of Islam. It’s mandatory for all Muslims past puberty who are not acutely or chronically ill, breastfeeding, or menstruating.

While fasting, Muslims abstain not only from ingesting food and drink but also from sexual activity, smoking, and arguing between the Fajr prayer at sunup and the Maghrib prayer at sunset.

Muslims eat a meal called suhoor, or sehri, prior to making the fast, and they break the fast with a meal called the iftar. It’s a common occurrence for Muslims around the world to have iftar parties with their friends and family.

COVID-19 has made this impossible.

Many Muslims strive to improve their relationship with God during Ramadan due to its status as the holiest Islamic month.

While Muslims can worship alone, they’re encouraged to pray in a congregation. Prior to COVID-19, many Muslims made an increased effort to attend their local mosque during Ramadan to break their fast as part of a congregation.

“I’d always go over to [my extended] family’s [house and] we’d have iftar together. Every night, I’d always go to the mosque to praywith my family,” says Khabir Ahmed, a 27-year-old from Burlington, Canada.

This wasn’t just a one-time practice for Ahmed. The family did it all 30 days of Ramadan every year.

Sariya Senderovic, a 23-year-old of Mississauga, Canada, echoes this experience.

“Going to the mosque late at night has always been a tradition,” Senderovic says. “That’s really special. That’s a thing that you can’t replace in any way.”

Muslims in areas without a mosque nearby often travel a significant distance every night to pray as part of a congregation during Ramadan.

If they live in a big enough community, they often create makeshift mosques in local community centers or high schools.

Going to the mosque is an important aspect of Ramadan for Muslims. Many mosques offer free meals during iftar that benefit people in need — and they also allow Muslims to feel a sense of community in parts of the world where Islamophobia is common.

This feeling of community is especially important for converts, reverts, new immigrants, and refugees who may not have a lot of family to celebrate with.

It offers them a glimpse of being back in their home countries.

Mahera Islam, 24, emphasizes the importance of community.

“You still feel like an outsider many days…. You still feel like your culture, or your ‘lifestyle as a Muslim,’ is somehow not in line with… North American culture,” she says. “Seeing people every day during Ramadan practicing and being unapologetically Muslim brings up your mood, and it makes you feel happy.”

Aya Mohamed, a 17-year-old who immigrated from Egypt to Canada with her family in 2017, agrees.

“I’m so happy to be within the community [at the mosque] because [it] makes me motivated and encouraged to practice my religion,” she says. “You just forget that you’re in Canada for a while. [It’s] one part that makes me feel… like, ‘I belong in this community.’”

Senderovic recalls that going to the mosque was essential for her parents to find a community when they immigrated from Bosnia.

“That’s where all the newcomers congregate every year… That’s why my parents have friends that they’ve known for 20 years,” she says. “Losing that is definitely tough.”

It’s natural to feel a sense of loss and longing when the pandemic has disrupted a ritual so central to Ramadan. This can take a toll on Muslims’ mental health.

Some Muslims are coping with the lack of community during the pandemic by focusing on their relationship with God.

“I just turn more to the faith-based side of it rather than social networks, and I’m like, ‘Okay, if God wills it, Insha Allah, I’ll live to see many more Ramadans. This one will just be in the background one day,’” Senderovic says.

For some, being at home has been a blessing.

Farwah Batool, 23, says being at home allowed her to pray more and be more mindful during her prayers. “I feel like last year was the best Ramadan I’ve had,” she says.

Still, Batool admits that she’s in a privileged position. She lives with her parents and doesn’t have to worry much about bills and rent.

She also recognizes that the emotional exhaustion ensuing from the pandemic may diffuse the excitement of Ramadan for many.

“I feel like [people] might not have the same energy [for Ramadan] because everyone is so exhausted,” Batool says.

Amber Azam, 29, relates to this.

“Pre-COVID-19, if you were fasting and were still at work, you still had activities to do in-between — whether it’s meeting up with someone, going out, or anything that takes your mind off of [being] hungry,” she says.

“I [haven’t] been able to do that… because we’re in lockdown. It definitely made it a bit more tough to fast. I think [my] energy levels [last year] were even lower than they normally are.”

Azam hopes that being able to work remotely, instead of in-person, will ease things by enabling her to get more rest.

“I think it will really give me a lot of time back in my day to use it either to rest, pray, or just make food,” she says.

Areeba Aziz, 22, who will be working at a school this year as part of her master’s program placement, says she’s unsure how to balance rest and prayer.

“I’ll be trying. But it’s just really hard with everything going on,” Aziz says. “I’m not mentally prepared [and] kind of burnt out from school, to be honest.”

Many Muslims are essential workers on the frontline and can’t afford to not work. It’s likely they feel similarly.

Though the increased exhaustion and isolation of COVID-19 might make Ramadan 2021 seem overwhelming, here are some tips to make this month meaningful in spite of it.

Prioritize food over sleep

It might be tempting to skip suhoor in order to get more sleep.

However, going without food will inevitably lower your energy levels and motivation throughout the day. Make sure to wake up and fill up on food and water.

Take things slow

Give yourself permission to take things slow this year, whether it comes to preparing smaller iftars, skipping out on decorating your house, or sending food to your neighbors.

Don’t force yourself to mimic or surpass your efforts in previous years.

Opt for quality over quantity

It’s entirely possible that you may only have time for shorter prayers or fewer rounds of prayers.

Rather than feeling guilty about not being able to do more, make sure you’re mindful of what you are able to do.

Remember that small forms of worship are just as meaningful

You might not be able to read as much Quran per day as you hope or offer complementary prayers on a daily basis.

Try to incorporate small forms of worship instead. Focus on dhikr, or repeating the name of God, and tasbeeh, or prayers counted with beads, that you can do regularly and repeatedly.

Be kind

Make an increased effort to be kind to make this admittedly hard time easier for people — whether it’s giving money to charity, donating food to your local soup kitchen, volunteering your time to deliver iftars, or just being more patient with your coworkers and yourself.

Many Muslims are missing the sense of community felt during Ramadan.

Despite all the disruption COVID-19 has brought on, there are still ways to make Ramadan 2021 special.

By focusing on faith and going easy on yourself, you can have a meaningful, transformative experience.

Zeahaa (pronounced Zaha) Rehman is a Pakistani-Canadian freelance journalist who likes deconstructing everything from pop culture to politics with an intersectional lens. Her work has been published in Chatelaine, Flare Canada, The RepresentAsian Project and more.