This week marks the beginning of Ramadan, the most sacred month in Islam. For the second year in a row, most of the world's 1.6 billion Muslims are observing it during a global pandemic, which allows even more time for renewal and reflection.
The month-long celebration involves prayer, charity, gathering as a community, and fasting from sunrise to sundown. So how does that all come together in the middle of a health crisis in LA’s Muslim communities?
KCRW speaks with Imam Jihad Saafir, who leads Islah LA, a community center and academy in South Los Angeles.
KCRW: What does observing Ramadan look like for Islah LA when there isn’t a pandemic?
Jihad Saafir: “Ramadan is a very special and spectacular time for all Muslims around the country. ... For us, it symbolizes the ultimate moments in regards to sharing and building community with one another.
And then also, a lot of times we've veered in the wrong direction. Just being human beings, there's a lot of distractions out here. So Ramadan is a moment to become refocused, to recalibrate. You have a lot of moments of introspection and a lot of moments of reflection to really get back on the right track.
It's sort of like a vehicle where you have the oil change, you have the 70,000 mile checkup. Ramadan is there to recalibrate the human being.”
Last year, Ramadan began at the height of the first wave of the pandemic. What was it like at that time?
“So much uncertainty. It was a moment where we had to adjust. So the communities, we’re so familiar with each other. We want to be around each other. Now we're on Zoom. There's a learning curve. A lot of people had to learn and get many courses on how to operate Zoom. Communities that shied away from Facebook and Instagram, now all of a sudden they have to learn how to use these platforms. And it was a big adjustment and a lot of uncertainty. But we are resilient people. We made it through.”
During this month, practicing Muslims fast every day from dawn to sunset. Did the pandemic change that?
“The fasting is remaining the same. As a matter of fact, before, we found ourselves out and about more. … You may see something sweet, you coming back home with all the sweets and buying just the wrong things because of your appetite and your cravings at the peak. So Ramadan, we would stay put in the house.”
Quarantine makes it easier to control urges to buy sweets?
“[It’s] a lot easier when you're out and about. I mean, you have all types of distractions and temptations coming at you. So it may be a blessing when you reflect on it. All that we miss being at the Masjid, in person at the mosque … it was an opportunity for us to really focus on our relationship with God and focus on our relationship with each other, with our family members.”
How have you been able to communicate with new community members?
“We have a food pantry. So during the pandemic, because of the uncertainty, people were lined up around the corner at our food pantry. So we had to serve a lot more people. We also have housing available. So we found people who are in need of housing. So our services only increased during the month of Ramadan.”
What does Ramadan look like this year?
“A lot of the communities, they're reopening slowly. So for example, before we would have what is called Iftar, where we would gather at the mosque and eat together. Now that's becoming … a drive-thru Iftar. People pick up their food, and they go find a location and go home and eat, and then come back to the mosque for congregational prayer.
And also, there's a limit. Some of the services have increased to where they're doing two and three services, two and three prayer services to accommodate the social distancing.
There's a lot more services, but communities are slowly reopening, more people getting their vaccinations. So there's a lot more confidence than there was last year. People … were afraid to be around each other last year.”
Do you think some of the practices and changes you’ve made will be carried to future Ramadan celebrations?
“Of course. Muslims are so used to embracing each other, we hug everywhere we go. We shake hands everywhere we go … and so that's going to change.
For example, for myself, I worked around children, so I was getting cold, flu symptoms from just being around children all day and not having that consciousness and awareness of germs. So now I think … it's going to be difficult to remove just the mask from people. People aren't going to embrace as much, I assume, moving into the future.”
Islah LA is in South LA, an area hit hard by the pandemic. How’s it been running the center at this time?
“We have never stopped our food pantry, so we serve 150 to 200 families on a weekly basis. So we've kept consistent. … We have services for the formerly incarcerated. We kept consistent in that we have a weekly shower that allows local people who are homeless to take a shower and get their hygiene right. So we're continuing our services. It doesn't stop. We’re a service-oriented organization.”
In the Jewish religion, when we fast for the new year, we tell people to have a good fast. What's the equivalent for that during Ramadan? What do you say to people as it begins?
“We say ‘Ramadan Mubarak’ ... have a blessed Ramadan. … They trigger just a beautiful feeling.”