Ramadan: Muslims fast, observe traditions amid social distancing

Woman in hijab on prayer rug, head down

Photo by Staff Sgt. Enjoli Saunders, courtesy of U.S. Air Force

SUNSET THURSDAY, APRIL 23: The world’s 1.8 billion Muslims—nearly a quarter of Earth’s population—begin the month of Ramadan, as a crescent moon appears and is spotted around the globe. (Note: Starting dates in communities around the world may vary by location and by method of calculation.)

As the Islamic calendar is lunar, the beginning and end of Ramadan is based on a crescent moon sighting that is typically visible 1-2 days after the astronomical new moon. The end of Ramadan—the ninth month of the Islamic calendar—is met with Eid al-Fitr, a festival of the breaking of the fast. Eid al-Fitr marks the beginning of the next lunar month, Shawwal, and is a time of great feasting and family celebrations.


Empty mosque Ramadan

Many mosques are expected to remain empty (or near-empty) of worshipers through Ramadan. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

As the three Abrahamic faiths—Islam, Christianity and Judaism—observe major holiday periods during April in 2020, the global coronavirus pandemic is forcing billions to reconsider how they celebrate. With social distancing mandatory across most of the world, the feasts and large gatherings typically associated with these holiday periods are taking place virtually, instead: videoconferencing tools are helping to connect many faith adherents.

This year, many of the traditions typically associated with Ramadan are being cancelled: Iran’s supreme leader recently suggested that mass gatherings be barred during Ramadan (read more from AP News), and Saudi Arabia suspended travel to its holiest sites in late February. While many Muslims complete umrah, an optional pilgrimage to Mecca, in the months prior to and during Ramadan, that will not be possible this year—and the sites at Mecca and Medina are nearly empty for the first time in centuries. In many communities across the Middle East, a pre-dawn awakening via drumming harkens Muslims to the suhoor, or pre-dawn meal. This year, the tradition will be halted in most communities. (Read more here.)

As fasting is mandatory during Ramadan (with exceptions for children, some women and those ill or traveling), this primary observation can still be conducted, at home. The iftar, or meal breaking the fast each evening, will this year be held in individual households and not shared among many.

To connect with Muslim adherents, many mosques and organizations have set up online webinars, video conferences, live streaming and more. In some parts of the Middle East, the athaan—call to prayer—that is amplified from mosques will, this year, be altered to include the phrase “pray in your homes” instead of “come to pray.”


Dates in hand, Ramadan

It is tradition to break the Ramadan fast with dates. Photo by Marco Verch, courtesy of Flickr

Muslims observe the month of Ramadan with a strict sunrise-to-sunset fast, which means that nothing passes the lips during those hours. All food and drink (including water) is prohibited. Meanwhile, prayer is increased, as is reading from the Quran. According to Muslim belief, the first revelation of the Quran to Muhammad occurred during Ramadan, and as such, observance of the month is one of the Five Pillars of Islam. During the month of Ramadan, Muslims partake in a pre-dawn meal known as the Suhoor, and do not return to eating until after sunset—with the iftar. Three dates customarily break the fast each day of Ramadan, prior to the iftar.





Najah Bazzy, author of The Beauty of Ramadanreminds readers in her opening pages that Ramadan is about far more than denial of food and water during daylight hours. Bazzy, a nationally known expert on cross-cultural healthcare, covers many of the health-related issues in her book. But she calls on a traditional text credited to the Prophet Muhammad for the deeper meaning of this special month. In addition to fasting, prayer and Quran study:

Give alms to the poor and the needy. Pay respect to your elders. Have pity on those younger than you and be kind toward your relatives and kinsmen. Guard your tongues against unworthy words, and your eyes from such scenes that are forbidden and your ears from such sounds as should not be heard. Be kind to orphans.



In addition to fasting, Muslims donate to charity during Ramadan. Charity, known as zakat, sometimes translated as “the poor-rate,” is an obligatory practice. This year, experts are anticipating that a majority of zakat will take place online.

Laylat al-Qadr, or the “night of power,” is considered the holiest night of the year and commemorates the night the first revelation of the Quran was sent to Muhammad. Around the Islamic world, traditions vary for identifying the date of Laylat al-Qadr—though it is generally believed to fall on one of the odd-numbered nights of the last 10 days of Ramadan.

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