“A Ramadan of isolation”: UMD Muslim students reflect on holy month during a pandemic

University of Maryland student Amara Kamal’s Ramadan setup of samosa chat bowls and glasses of mango lassis right before the iftar feast at sundown. (Photo courtesy of Amara Kamal)

By Lyna Bentahar and Clara Longo de Freitas

Staff writers

Last Ramadan, Amara Kamal woke up every morning in Cumberland Hall about an hour before sunrise. She ate and prayed before spending the rest of the day studying and going to classes. While the sun was in the sky, she didn’t eat or drink. When her friends went to the dining hall, she stayed behind and finished her homework.

But when the sun set, Kamal, an interfaith and spiritual diversity intern for Multicultural Involvement Community Advocacy, helped prepare its iftar feast in the Stamp Atrium, where Muslim students would pray and eat as a community.

As part of their religious practice, Muslims spend the lunar month called Ramadan fasting from sunrise to sunset. The month is a time to emphasize community as friends and family gather to eat each night. But amid the coronavirus pandemic, those communities are left fractured, forcing students to turn to alternative ways of celebrating and bonding during this time.

Many students have returned home for Ramadan, but even with familial support, it’s not always easy.

“I obviously still have my family, but I don’t have my community and my mosque, in person,” Kamal said. “There is a loss of community.”

But some, such as seniors Anisah Ingram and Yahya Cheema, are doing their best to keep in touch with the Muslim community during this time. 

[Read more: “In God’s hands”: How UMD’s religious communities are keeping the faith amid the pandemic]

Ingram and her friends will host Zoom game nights — where they play mafia and trivia — and share their prayers with one another over Google Docs to stay spiritually connected. Cheema also keeps up with friends through Zoom, talking about everything from verses in the Quran to how their Ramadan is going. 

Both also attend online discussion sessions — held by the University of Maryland’s Muslim chaplain — once a week, for relevant discussions and spiritual lessons.

Tarif Shraim, an imam and the university’s Muslim chaplain, started offering virtual counseling, prayers, funerals and marriages since the university shut down, and said he’s seen an uptick in engagement from Muslim students during Ramadan. Each night, over 200 people log in on Zoom to be led through prayer.

“[It] shows how much yearning there is for community connection,” he said. “It’s like a Ramadan of isolation.”

Shraim is especially proud of the creative ways he and other Muslim leaders are supporting families through Ramadan and the pandemic. While Ramadan is a month of fasting, it’s also one of charity, with Islamic tradition instructing Muslims to provide meals for those in need. Usually, iftar is provided at mosques or community centers, but this year, Shraim provided an opportunity for families to call in for free meal delivery or financial support.

“Adversity opened the doors for creativity,” Shraim said. 

Despite the hardship, Shraim highlighted that this time has been an opportunity for spiritual connection and that members of the community can be creative in how they spend their time.

Quarantine has also made it easier to balance fasting with schoolwork, Ingram said. Last year, the education and public policy major struggled to figure out how she would take final exams when fasting made her feel tired and unfocused. 

[Read more: A new UMD major focuses on the development of Christianity, Judaism and Islam]

“It is a blessing in disguise that we kind of are able to be home and that, if we are tired, we have the option of kind of just relaxing,” she said. 

And some things Kamal won’t miss about celebrating Ramadan on campus: the trek up Stamp Hill, for one, the junior operations management and business analytics and information systems major joked. 

And for Cheema, this unprecedented time brought him closer to his family. With the closing of mosques, their night prayers have been just the three of them. The close-knit setting is wholesome, the senior bioengineering major said. 

Since Cheema lives on campus during the school year, he isn’t always able to spend Ramadan with his family and only went home a couple of weekends. But now in quarantine, they break fast every night together at the dining table, sometimes with homemade naan filled with chicken meat. He’s gotten to learn more about his parents — their habits, the things they like to do, their stories. 

At a time where things are tough, this sense of closeness is a reassuring source of comfort, he said. 

“It gives me kind of hope, it kind of gives you optimism, it gives you, like, a sense of more purpose in a time where everything’s kind of up in the air,” Cheema said. 

That optimism would also inspire some creative ways for people to keep in touch with family. Most years, Ingram’s family would also go and eat with extended family at their homes or invite them to theirs — a tradition not possible now due to social distancing measures.

But Ingram’s mother suggested they continue the tradition in a different way: by cooking a meal and dropping it off at the door of their family members’ house. While they couldn’t eat together, she said, they could still enjoy each other’s cooking.

 “We’re celebrating together, even though we may not physically be together,” she said.

Ingram’s favorite memories of Ramadan are ones surrounded by friends — summer nights spent going to the mosque to pray and often break fast with her friends, usually in late-night restaurants such as IHOP. It was a time where she felt surrounded by her community.

But this year, the more lonely holiday might be her best one yet, she said. The solitude is refreshing, and it’s allowed her to appreciate the hope and happiness Ramadan has brought Muslims even during these times.

Kamal, too, has found solace in fasting and praying as a way to keep from thinking too much about the pandemic and distract herself from the news, she said.

“I think it’s going to be a great time to reflect,” Ingram said. “It’s a really nice blessing now that we have all this time so we can really focus on ourselves and our relationship with God.”

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