The crescent moon, marking the night sky like the point of a nail, announces the arrival of Ramadan. It is the holiest month for Muslims, a time when the city is a religious tradition. And it’s more of a ritual that the Covid-19 pandemic has transformed.
The governments of predominantly Muslim countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, have announced a series of measures to avoid meetings typical of this period – in practice, shutting down mosques and creating a public debate similar to what is happening. goes to Brazil, where there are some who want to open churches. There is another challenge in this region: the idea, among some religious, that the vaccine harms their faith.
Ramadan marks the time of year when, according to Islamic tradition, the Prophet Muhammad received his divine revelations in the 7th century To celebrate the arrival of his religious laws, Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset. It is one of the pillars of Islam, sometimes followed even by those who do not practice their faith on a daily basis. It is also one of the pillars of your social life.
As Islam follows a lunar calendar, the date varies each year. It depends on whether the crescent moon is seen. This year, most Muslims should start fasting on Tuesday morning (13). In general, the times before and after fasting are intense social interactions. The last meal before sunrise, known as sahur, and the breaking of the fast, iftar, are celebrations that sometimes draw hundreds of people.
Muslims gather around the table to drink qamar al-din, a sweet drink made from apricot paste and sugar. This happens at home or in armed tents on the street, where charities distribute food to the poor. Then they go to the mosque for the so-called tarawih, the typical nighttime prayers of Ramadan.
There are a number of other social traditions, depending on the country. For example, people known as musaharati walk around neighborhoods playing drums to wake people up before sunrise. There is also the itikaf, a name given to the religious custom of living inside the mosque.
This is what happens in an ordinary year.
Risking friction with its more conservative population, most countries now impose restrictive measures. Turkey, for example, will have curfews from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m., in addition to banning sahur, iftar and tarawih. Egypt has banned food tents, which particularly affects the population who depend on the charity of others to break their fast.
One of the bets around the world of the Muslim majority is to offer prayers online, accompanied from a distance. Another tradition that must occur on the Internet is that of religious study circles known as halakah. But officials fear those options may not be enough for those who are fed up with isolating themselves.
Even when mosques are closed, part of the population may decide to meet at home, regardless of social isolation measures. It’s traditional for people to gather, for example, to watch the famous Ramadan soap operas – mega-productions that last the entire month and mark the cultural calendar.
“People were very patient last year when we imposed drastic restrictions,” said Ahmed Gaaloul, who was Tunisia’s Minister of Sports and Youth in 2020. “But they were waiting for the pandemic to end soon. This year, they are resisting the isolation measures because public opinion has changed. This explains, says Gaaloul, why governments are trying to open loopholes, already predicting that it will be difficult to force total isolation.
In Saudi Arabia, for example, the capacity of the Prophet’s Mosque – one of the holiest in Islam – has been reduced from 350,000 to 60,000, and with social distancing. Anyone who proves they are already immune will be able to make a pilgrimage to Mecca. In the United Arab Emirates, it will be possible to participate in nightly prayers, which were banned in 2020 during the first year of the Ramadan pandemic.
“The issue of isolation during Ramadan touches a sensitive point in our societies, it touches people’s emotions and faith,” said the former Tunisian minister. So much so that, if in 2020 people accept the ban on funerals for victims of Covid-19, this year they are circumventing the laws and hiding the cause of death of their family members in order to continue their rituals.
Besides social isolation, another challenge for governments will be convincing the more conservative sectors that vaccination does not break the fast. Anticipating this resistance, as countries rush to immunize their populations, religious officials have released a series of announcements saying the injection does not interfere with Ramadan.
In this sense, the statement of the Saudi authorities – who control the most sacred mosques in Mecca and Medina – reassured the reluctant. One way to get around this resistance is to vaccinate the population at night, in mosques, outside of fasting hours. Thus, authorities can also cope with the fatigue of those who once thought that the pandemic would now be over.
“By vaccinating people, we are sending the message that this will all be over one day, which helps people come to terms with spending another Ramadan in social isolation,” says Gaaloul.