For Muslims in Arab world, Ramadan is unlike any before

The usually festive spirit of the month is weighed down by wariness about the spread of the coronavirus pandemic in a region already concerned about armed conflict and economic crises.
Saturday 25/04/2020
Clerics and staff perform taraweeh prayers at the Kaaba in the Grand Mosque on the first day of the holy month of Ramadan, in the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, April 24. (Reuters)
Praying at home. Clerics and staff perform taraweeh prayers at the Kaaba in the Grand Mosque on the first day of the holy month of Ramadan, in the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, April 24. (Reuters)

TUNIS - The majority-Muslim population of the Arab world began observing the rites of the holy month of Ramadan April 24 and 25. But from the empty streets around the region, you would not know it is Ramadan.

The traditionally festive spirit of the month is marred by wariness about the spread of coronavirus in a region already burdened with armed conflict and economic crises.

Fasting during Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam and normally means more than just abstention from food and drink from dawn to sunset. It is usually a month of social celebration and communal worship.

But this year, most mosques are shuttered, collective prayers banned and family reunions strongly discouraged.

In the days preceding Ramadan, most religious authorities in the Muslim world, including Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz Al al-Sheikh, ruled that there should be no congregational prayers during Ramadan and Eid, the holiday that marks the end of the fast.

Nothing epitomised the unusual mood more than the closure of Saudi Arabia’s two holy sites — Mecca’s Grand Mosque and the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina — to worshippers during the day due to sanitary precautions. Evening prayers (taraweeh) in Mecca are limited to clerics and staff.

“It pains me to welcome the glorious month of Ramadan under circumstances that forbid us from prayers in mosques,” said Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, on the eve of Ramadan.

Only a few clerics wearing face masks attended the first Friday prayers of Ramadan at the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, instead of the thousands of worshippers usually drawn to the mosque. Prayer sessions were broadcast live on TV instead. “We ask God to have mercy on us and all of humanity and to save us from this lethal pandemic,” said the imam.

Many Muslims looked for ways around the unprecedented restrictions by organising virtual interfaith iftars and praying together via social media.

As they stayed at home, people watched some of the TV series that were completed just in time for Ramadan’s captive audiences, despite restrictions on shooting as the coronavirus reached Arab capitals.

Many Arab countries have reduced the time under curfews to allow people to break their fast at home. In parts of the United Arab Emirates, cafes, restaurants and shopping malls have been allowed to partially reopen during Ramadan. Some public transportation has resumed.

But overall, restrictions on movement and gatherings remained the rule in the Arab world and it was not possible for most families to visit each other or spend the evening together.

So the evening streets of Cairo, Casablanca and Baghdad are not bustling with shoppers, strollers and shisha-smokers in coffee shops.

Confinement measures have also hampered charity iftar dinners — at a time when they are needed more than ever.

Shuttered shops, restaurants and coffee shops will also mean lost revenue and much more. In many parts of the region, the pandemic has already raised concerns about lost jobs and economic hardship, especially for the poor and those without fixed income.

Many say they can only look to future Ramadans, free of the threat of pestilence and war.

The UN has called for a halt to all armed conflict but for Yemen’s pro-Iran Houthis there was no incentive to accept a unilateral one-month ceasefire offered by the Saudi-led coalition on the first day of Ramadan. The Houthis jockeyed instead to impose their conditions before they would stop the fighting, despite the risk of adding to the suffering of the Yemeni people and causing a potentially catastrophic spread of the virus.