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Bay Area Muslims redefine tradition as fasting begins under lockdown

*Editor’s note: Noor Baig is a journalism students in SF State’s Journalism 575 Community Media this spring. Taught by professor Jon Funabiki, the class is a collaboration with El Tecolote.

On April 23, a first for many, Muslim families began a month of fasting and praying late into the night without ever stepping foot in a masjid. 

Some Muslims—like Athar Siddiqee—are having to reimagine this highlight of the Islamic lunar year, the month of Ramadan, due to the indefinitely continuing shelter-in-place order. 

“It’s a very strange unusual feeling that something’s missing,” Siddiqee said, lifelong Bay Area resident and board member of South Bay Islamic Association (SBIA). “Because when you go for the prayer it’s not just the religious aspect that is involved, but rather the ability to reconnect with friends that you haven’t seen since the prior week and meet others. There’s a kind of camaraderie there that is very special.”

The shelter-in-place halted Siddiqee’s regular visits to the masjid and gave him new responsibilities to his community as Ramadan approached. Ramadan is observed by abstaining from food and drink while the sun is up, and increasing focus on prayer and spiritual practices. 

Vietnamese-Americans after Eid prayers in 2017. Courtesy: Rick Rocamora

Muslim-American culture often includes families breaking fast (iftar) together at the masjid or at home, and then going to the masjid for nighttime Taraweeh prayers with the community. However, congregational Taraweeh and Friday prayers have been cancelled until public spaces can reopen. 

“We have five daily prayers and the mosque, or masjid, is a place that many people in our community go to 35 times a week,” Siddiqee said.

SBIA and other Bay Area masjids have shifted their Friday sermon and other programming to online live streaming services, and have actually seen an increase in attendance, Siddiqee said.

“I guess the silver lining to all this is that this horrific virus isn’t taking place in 1980, when we wouldn’t have many options to have a remote access vehicle,” Siddiqee said. “But rather in 2020 when we have technology that enables us to have more group phone calls or group video chats or other ways for people to be able to connect.”

San Francisco resident Antonia Ford said she has been trying to make the most of sheltering-in-place and being able to practice her faith from home. 

“As a Muslim in the workforce, one of the ways in which you’re challenged on a daily basis is finding time and space to pray,” Ford said. “So if you’re at home you can pray on time, in your space, you can make wudu not worrying about people looking at you like a weirdo.”

Ford said the shelter-in-place won’t greatly affect the community aspect of her Ramadan, as she usually has iftar at home with her partner.

Muslims celebrating at the South Bay Islamic Association’s biannual Eid festival at Santa Clara County Fairgrounds, circa 2017. More than 7000 people from the Bay Area and beyond attend to enjoy rides, food vendors, and the Eid bazaar. Courtesy: Rick Rocamora

“As a convert, community has always been something that’s been difficult for me,” Ford said. “I’ve of course found community in [the Muslim Student Association] when I was at SF State, but then since I’ve graduated it’s been tough to maintain relationships or form new ones with other Muslims.”

Ford said she has found community with Muslims online, and has been listening to Islamic podcasts and recorded khutbahs during the pandemic. 

“Even though I myself feel kind of at a loss as to why this is happening, I’m just holding onto the idea of this is all part of God’s plans,” Ford said. “I’m really finding a lot of comfort in all the virtual resources that are out there to get religious content.”  

For SF State student Deena Abdelwahhab, Ramadan is a time for family gatherings and learning more about Islam. Despite being unable to practice their tradition of attending Taraweeh and Friday prayers, Abdelwahhab’s family has tried to fill the gap by praying together at home.

“We all have this one big family group chat … My uncle will record a khutbah and he’ll send it in the group chat,” Abdelwahhab said. “And so we’ll all listen to it and we’ll pray, so I feel like that’s what we’re probably going to be doing during Ramadan.”

Abdelwahhab said she typically visits her immediate aunts’ and uncles’ home for iftar multiple times a week during Ramadan, and attends one large iftar with extended family and friends from her village in Palestine, Beit Hanina. 

Illustration: Noor Baig

“We rent out a big hall and they take turns making the food. I love Ramadan honestly because of that family connection that we get,” Abdelwahhab said. “Because we don’t do it throughout the whole year.”

Although the community may not be able to gather at the mosque for prayers and Ramadan traditions, they are still playing a key role in supporting each other’s needs through the holy month and the shelter-in-place.  

“You have people who work in the service industry who were banking on being able to drive people around, or small businesses that have had to be shuttered, or their business has reduced significantly. Those folks are in financial trouble,” Siddiqee said. “Food is often a concern, hygiene, whether it be hand sanitizer or wipes etc. that aren’t readily available in stores.”

SBIA is awaiting approval from the City of San Jose to open a free medical clinic, and is meanwhile partnering with Rahima Foundation, a local charity, to help provide food to the needy in the Bay Area.

“We’re prepared for this to be longer term and we’re certainly counting on those members of the community who are able to continue their work, and continue to receive a paycheck, and others who might be better off than some of us to hopefully donate for the cause of the greater good,” Siddiqee said.

As for Eid—the three-day celebration that marks the end of Ramadan—masjids and will likely have to cancel congressional Eid prayers and festivities with the shelter-in-place order extended through May. SBIA holds Eid celebrations at the Santa Clara County fairgrounds, with over 7,000 people in attendance from all over the Bay Area coming to enjoy rides, food vendors, and the Eid bazaar. 

“That is a day where you’re often seeing people that you won’t the rest of the year,” Siddiqee said. “Maybe they live far away, and the only time you see them is at the fairgrounds. So that would be really heartbreaking for me personally as one of the leaders of the organization, not to be able to offer something we’ve offered every year, twice a year, for the past 25 years.”

For many, Eid morning consists of breaking out a new outfit and attending Eid prayers at the mosque followed by public festivities and any family traditions.

“We might sit down and have a conversation about how we can recreate that experience at home in an intentional way that’s meaningful,” Ford said. “And look to the Quran, look to the hadith, figure out what would be the most sunnah way to celebrate it, which actually now that I’m thinking about it … in some ways, I feel like that’s something we should do no matter what.” 

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