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'An Emptying Of That Community': Observing Ramadan During A Pandemic

A woman in a head scarf sits with her eyes closed, as seen through a window.
Elodie Reed
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VPR File
Saifa Hussain, an associate chaplain and Muslim advisor for Middlebury College, prays at home at sundown on Saturday, May 2. Hussain is among the thousands of Vermont Muslims observing Ramadan during the COVID-19 pandemic.

On the evening of Thursday, April 23, the crescent moon was born, and for the estimated 4,000 to 6,000 Muslims in Vermont, Ramadan began.

In a normal year, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar is marked with evening gatherings at the mosque, time with friends and family, and, after fasting during the day, eating lots of good food at night. But this year, due to COVID-19 concerns, much of that has changed.

Two photos side-by-side, one of a brick building on a blue-sky day, and another of an empty parking lot with tree shadows.
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The Islamic Society of Vermont in South Burlington.

Imam Islam Hassan said the Islamic Society of Vermont had only one service in its new building in South Burlington before Gov. Phil Scott declared a state of emergency on Friday, March 13.

By the following Monday the governor had banned gatherings of 50 or more people. Hassan said a normal service hosts somewhere between 200 and 300 people, so the mosque reached out to the South Burlington Police Department, which then contacted the Vermont Attorney General's office, to see if religious organizations were exempt.

"They only allow drive-in services," Hassan said, adding that everyone is required to stay in the car. But for Muslims, prayer is done in a line, and includes standing, bowing and prostration movements.

"We cannot do that when you're in the vehicle of course," he said.

A person standing in the light from a stained-glass window.
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Imam Islam Hassan poses for a portrait inside the empty Islamic Society of Vermont.

Ten years ago this spring, Hassan arrived in Vermont from Minnesota to recite the Quran for Ramadan services here. 

"This is my anniversary," he said. 

This is also the first time in Hassan's life that he and other community members haven't been able to gather during Ramadan.

"Basically Ramadan is the most sacred time of the year to many Muslims," he said, adding that it commemorates when the Prophet Muhammad first began receiving the Quran.

And in the absence of the coronavirus pandemic and social distancing requirements, Hassan said it's usually like "30 nights of Thanksgiving," with people meeting at the mosque at least three times a week to break their fast, pray and eat together.

"If you're not in the mosque, you're probably at someone else's place," Hassan said. "This is something very different."

Two photos side-by-side, one of germ-x sanitizer next to a mosque donation box, and another of an imam in an office next to a hallway.
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Since members of the South Burlington mosque can't congregate there during the COVID-19 pandemic, Imam Islam Hassan has been livestreaming services.

Hassan has been livestreaming Ramadan services, first from his home and now by himself from the mosque. He said he can't lead prayers remotely, since religious scholars around the world have said that's not allowed.

"You can do your own prayer at home," Hassan said. "We have to look at the shining part of it: Maybe it's a good chance to strengthen our ties to our families, to worship God in private."

Hassan said he is hopeful members of the mosque may be able to return to the building for the last few days of Ramadan, which continues for another eight days after the governor's Stay Home, Stay Safe order expires on May 15.

The imam said if community members do return to the mosque, they'll have safety measures in place, including keeping people six feet apart and having them wear cloth masks.

"A statement of the Prophet, peace be upon him, Prophet Muhammad who says that, if you find an outbreak of the plague somewhere, if you know that a city has an outbreak, do not enter it, and if an outbreak happens when you are in that city, do not leave the city," Hassan said. "Basically, the quarantine, the first idea of the quarantine — so these are the teachings of the Prophet."

A handwritten note in a mosque window informing community members it is closed due to state orders.
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The Islamic Community Center of Vermont in Winooski.

In Winooski, the Islamic Community Center of Vermont is also closed during the pandemic.

Burlington resident Aden Haji said it's normally where 30 to 40 people, mostly members of the Somali Bantu community, come together every evening during Ramadan. In past years, different families have taken turns making food for everyone to enjoy after breaking their fast. 

Two photos side-by-side, one of a man wearing a mask and helmet on a bike, and another of the same man, closer, with a mosque sign in the background.
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Aden Haji, 25, of Burlington, stands for a portrait outside his mosque in Winooski.

Haji, who is the youth coordinator for the Spectrum Multicultural Youth Program and a Burlington School Board member, said this year he's been sharing food and spending evenings during Ramadan with his parents and five siblings, as well as his uncle. He's also been staying in touch with family living in Kenya and Somalia through WhatsApp.

"They’re telling us how things are going on their end, and we’re updating them," Haji said. "I feel it’s important to keep the family ties together."

Also important to Haji is the communal experience of fasting during Ramadan, as well as praying five times a day.

“Prayer is such an important aspect of my life – it gives me strength and energy and hope," he said. "Looking at it through a spiritual perspective in that, Allah will bring us to a better place, we just gotta hang on and come together as a community."

Haji said he's especially grateful for the essential workers who are continuing their work while observing Ramadan, like his mother, who does housekeeping at UVM Medical Center.

Two people stand for a portrait in the setting sun with mountains in the background.
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Saifa Hussain and her husband, Matthew Casey, stand for a portrait shortly before sunset on the Middlebury College campus.

Throughout the COVID-19 outbreak, Saifa Hussain has been able to continue her work as an associate chaplain and Muslim advisor at Middlebury College. Granted she now does it remotely, and on an altered schedule for Ramadan, when, after a pre-sunrise smoothie and prayer, her days begin around 11 a.m. and end late at night.

In the meantime, Hussain is connecting with the 10 or so Muslim students still on campus. She said they're among the 70 international students allowed to stay after Middlebury College announced in March it would be moving to remote classes.

Once a week, Hussain teaches online religious sermons about Ramadan. She said she incorporates some Islamic mindfulness techniques for students to practice, like visualization and breathing exercises, that she's knows through her Sufi Islamic background. 

"I've done these things that I've found helpful," she said.

Hussain also routinely communicates with Muslim students on Facebook Messenger about their food needs for Ramadan. Many come from African backgrounds, she said, they've discussed trips to Burlington for comfort food.

"Thankfully, the dining services have really stepped in and done the majority of the work," Hussain said.

Middlebury's dining services also provided food during last year's Ramadan, when Hussain said she and her Muslim students also cooked together, and during the last few days of the month, they held a large, catered Arab feast. They won't do that this year.

Two photos side-by-side, one of two people petting a cat, another of a house at dusk with the lights on in the lower window.
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Left: Saifa Hussain, her husband Matthew Casey, and their cat, Sonia. Right: Hussain and Casey have been observing the normally-communal month of Ramadan alone, at home.

Growing up in Chicago in a diverse Muslim community, Hussain said her experiences of Ramadan are of austerity during the day, then a coming together in the evening.

“You’re with your family, everyone comes out with their best cooking, the mommas are showing off – as the kids say, they 'flex' their best cooking, everyone’s eating together, and just laughing and enjoying," she said. "And then usually, there are prayer practices to do in the mosque with the larger community. At that point, the mosque is just brimming with all of these people with like, full bellies, burping throughout prayer. It's really sweet, heartwarming and communal and just full."

Now, however, she called the experience "muted."

"There is ... an emptying of that community," Hussain said. "It's like that quietude in the day is extended to the night as well."

A person sitting and praying with two cats in a room.
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Saifa Hussain prays at home at sundown.

Spending Ramadan entirely at home this year, Hussain said, has had elements of both sadness and beauty.

"So much of our work is around spirituality and retreat – now we are really forced to establish retreat in our homes," she said. "I have to say, it’s been bringing so much more depth in this Ramadan than past Ramadans.”

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