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Muslims observe Ramadan in isolation due to coronavirus pandemic

Posted at 2:01 PM, May 05, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-06 11:03:38-04

CHICAGO -- The deadly coronavirus has disrupted life for people from all walks of life. Religious observations like Easter have been sidelined and Muslims around the globe are observing the holy month of Ramadan differently.

The faith has urged its followers to pray in congregation and sometimes requires it. But present circumstances mean adjusting to centuries of tradition.

It’s a busy time for millions of American Muslims like Sakina Syeda, her husband Nasir Kotelensky and their three children.

Ramadan, which is the ninth month in the Islamic calendar, is when Muslims fast from dawn to sunset. Each evening the fast is broken with an iftar, a traditional dinner, breaking bread with friends and family.

“It's really about community, it's about coming together. And you like congregation worship and to break fast together,” said Kotelensky.

“Then we would all come together for nighttime prayers at the mosque. And it would be so nice to catch up,” said Syeda.

But this year, stay-at-home orders mean a very different spiritual experience, one focused on worship and reflection in isolation.

“We're very much isolated whereas usually we're used to so much activity. The mosque typically for prayers would be completely full,” said Kotelensky.

Normally at this time of year, mosques around the country and the world would be crowded, with standing room only. But this year, the parking lots are deserted, the minarets dark.

Even the Grand Mosque in Mecca, historically humming with energy this time of year, is nearly empty.

“Maybe this is one of the goods that we come to realize just how beautiful it is to be able to worship in public because there's a lot of places around the world where that's not allowed,” said Imam Hisham Al Qaisi, a religious leader at the Islamic Foundation in Villa Park, Illinois.

Al Qaisi normally leads nightly vigils and prayers at the mosque but these days he’s alone in the prayer hall.

“This quiet and this emptiness that you see here it's an eerie feeling,” he said.

Instead Al Qaisi connects worshippers virtually online. But he says there is a lesson in this pandemic, in what he calls a return to the faith’s origins.

“Before we were able to congregate in public, before Islam became an international phenomenon, we had to do Islam in our homes. And that's exactly what we're returning to now,” said Al Qaisi.

Back at the Kotelensky household, 6-year-old Saffiyah is commemorating, completing her first fast with a ceremonial date.

And mom Sakina says she’s discovered the upside in the seclusion.

“There's a silver lining in this. And that silver lining is that we are focusing on our spiritual individual worship at home. And being there as a family that we didn’t get to have,” she said.

It’s a silver lining, she says in challenging times.