Gulf countries have celebrated the arrival of the holy month of Ramadan under unprecedented and strict precautionary measures to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. Yet Gulf citizens are still finding ways to pray communally and sustain community.
Gulf countries have celebrated the arrival of the holy month of Ramadan under unprecedented and strict precautionary measures to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. Mosques have been closed, extended families’ and friends’ iftars (breaking the fast) and sohours (late Ramadan dinners) have been canceled, cities have been put on lockdown, and streets and shops have been abandoned.
The essence of Ramadan lies in social and religious life, which are both affected by these measures. Religious clerics and Islamic endowment ministries have issued fatwas making it clear that Muslims are obligated to pray at home amid spiking numbers of coronavirus cases. Meanwhile, social gatherings are explicitly banned; hence social life is limited to mainly in-house immediate family gatherings and virtual events.
Yet Gulf states are gradually easing these restrictions during Ramadan. Saudi Arabia partially lifted its curfew restriction and ended Qatif city’s quarantine. It reopened shopping malls and is allowing the Taraweeh prayers (a night prayer encouraged during the holy month) in the two holy mosques, albeit with restrictions. Likewise, the United Arab Emirates has reopened some shopping malls and restaurants and reduced working hours for public employees and e-learning hours for students. In Oman, the coronavirus task force allowed some commercial activities around the country to resume.
Bahrain livestreamed the Taraweeh prayer from al-Fateh mosque to create a spiritual atmosphere for families at home. The kingdom also launched a virtual shopping mall for shops to operate during Ramadan so people can buy products; meanwhile, the partial curfew has been extended for two weeks. In Kuwait, restrictions are being gradually eased, including a partial opening of stores at Al Mubarakiya market and allowing food delivery services to operate until 1:00 a.m. Most importantly, the emir of Kuwait issued a directive to allow for the repatriation of 40,000 Kuwaitis abroad to spend Ramadan with their families.
In alignment with states’ efforts, nonstate actors and individuals have also played a role in relieving social restrictions amid the pandemic. In Kuwait, co-ops have allowed online shopping and extended delivery services to sohour times (2:00 a.m.). To accommodate the religious aspect, Islamic centers in Saudi Arabia have been holding virtual Quranic sessions and other religious webinars to provide an alternative to mosques.
Webinars and live Instagram interviews by social media influencers have become more popular than ever on Ramadan nights; even telecom companies have launched virtual events and interviews to keep people engaged during the shutdown.
Even so, people are still missing the joy of Ramadan gatherings. In a Gulf Daily News online poll about how people are observing Ramadan, the majority expressed longing for family iftars and visiting mosques.
Adjusting to the New Social Norm
It is hard to imagine Ramadan without the social festivities associated with it, like Girgian (like Halloween celebrated mid-Ramadan), Ghabgas (occasional Ramadan evening gatherings), majlises or diwaniyas, communal mass iftars, and exchanging food with neighbors.
“Virtual meetings became the new social norm,” said al-Muather al-Nahawi, an engineer from Muscat. “Selat al-rahem, [exchanging family visits], which is mandatory in Islam and encouraged during Ramadan, has disappeared for the sake of the safety of our community. And that’s the thing I miss most,” added Muather. The current situation and the strict measures have impacted social life among close relatives in countries with strict curfews.
“Not seeing my two married daughters along with their children for a month became a norm,” said Hanan al-Surai’e, a mother of six in Kuwait. “My other daughter is in a 28-day mandatory self-quarantine, my elder son is stranded abroad, and my son-in-law is serving on the frontlines, all who I haven’t seen for months,” added Hanan. However, some people think of social occasions as social obligations that could not have been avoided otherwise. “The current situation is a tribulation and a gift from God at the same time,” says Abdullah al-Tuwaijri, a Saudi from Buraidah.
Adjusting to Prayer in Seclusion
Despite restrictions on mass prayers in mosques, some people think of seclusion as an opportunity to become closer to God, away from public life. “I took the ban as an opportunity to offer more prayers and felt the sweetness of the holy month, unlike before, when we used to get distracted by social occasions and gatherings,” Mubarak al-Qena’ie tweeted. Other families were creative enough to preparemusallas (informal mosques) at their homes and prayed communally with their children.
In Islam, communal prayers are more rewarding than individual prayers. “Ramadan is a month of spirituality to seek forgiveness from God. For the first time ever, we started praying the Taraweeh together at home with our kids,” said Hanan. More religious families are trying to make up for what they miss as a result of mosques shutting down. “I pray at home with my kids, recite the Quran, and then give them Quranic lessons,” said Abdullah. “However, I miss the feeling of offering mass prayers at the mosque at Ramadan,” Abdullah added. Mosques are not only important for communal prayers, they’re also the only place where Muslims can do Etekaf (devoting oneself to worship by spending a certain number of days in a mosque during the last 10 days of Ramadan). However, adhering to stay-at-home orders with the intention of dedicating your time to worship, is considered Etekaf to some clerics.
Some activists in Kuwait have called on the government to reconsider opening mosques during the holy month with strict guidelines. “It is heartbreaking to watch other countries broadcasting Friday sermons, while we’re forbidden to,” said Abdulaziz al-Hudaib.
As a result of Ramadan coinciding with such difficult circumstances, people have more free time. “I have more time to read the Quran, watch television, and exercise outdoors. I’m making the best of what I have,” said Muather. However, in other countries with strict stay-at-home orders, families have created mini-gyms at home. Professional trainers have launched in-home training sessions during Ramadan to ease restrictions on trainees. “We spend our free time either watching TV, reading the Quran, or working out in our homemade mini-gym,” says Hanan.
Worsening Conditions for Guest Workers
While citizens and high-income workers are looking for ways to enjoy and adapt to the current situation, vulnerable migrant workers are struggling to survive the crisis.
Throughout the holy month, most migrant workers rely on local mosques and public tents that offer free meals to break their fast. Today, most low-wage workers live in overcrowded areas that are epicenters of the pandemic. In Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, a significant population of low-wage workers reside in areas under full lockdown. Therefore, charities that are responsible for delivering iftar meals and essential foods are their only hope. Numerous attempted suicides were reported in Kuwait as of the first week of Ramadan amid strict coronavirus lockdowns. Despite efforts to secure food supplies for those areas, expatriates’ lives are becoming even harder.
Although most Gulf countries have eased restrictions, coronavirus cases are increasing. The new social norm could extend to other religious holidays such as Eid al-Fitr(a religious festival the first day after Ramadan) and beyond. Saudi Arabia’s grand mufti has already announced that Eid prayers will likely be held at home. Finally, people are complying with authorities’ guidelines and asking Allah in this holy month to end this pandemic, hoping to get back to normal before Eid.
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