Virus shifts Michigan Muslims' Ramadan traditions

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

The Muslim holy month of Ramadan is reflective and festive: a time to fast, pray, feast with loved ones and volunteer.

A home in Wayne County decorated for the holiday in 2019.

This year's observance, though, is different for Metro Detroiters. The coronavirus pandemic has pushed many of those activities online and forced worshipers to avoid public places that they typically would frequent in large groups. 

Now, modifications to limit face-to-face contact and adhere to the state’s stay-at-home orders mean finding creative initiatives to stay spiritually connected while also aiding the vulnerable.

“We won’t let COVID stop us from doing what we need to do,” said Shabnam Khan of Rochester Hills. “It’s all about using this time in the most beneficial way.”

For years, Khan and other members of Impact, a community group launched in the 1990s, have helped feed residents in need near the Masjid Al Haqq in west Detroit during their iftars, the meals breaking the daylong fasts.

Now, she and volunteers are collecting and distributing boxes full of non-perishable items.

Meanwhile, Khan has been cooking more dishes to deliver to older acquaintances so they won’t have to leave home. The acts, she believes, fulfill a pillar of Islam — charity — emphasized during the holy month.

“I feel like it’s more of a spiritual connection,” she said. “It’s far more personal to give our time ... When you give part of yourself, it’s priceless.”

Other efforts formed during the pandemic and slated to last through Ramadan, which started on Thursday and ends in late May, heed a similar ethos.

A task force of Michigan Muslims that includes many mosques and groups has several initiatives, including a grocery delivering service for seniors and others considered high-risk for the virus.

More than 300 volunteers have joined, and distribution has reached as many as 140 families in the region, said Riyah Basha, a Metro Detroit native who helped coordinate the effort.

The program is expected to expand as needs grow among people laid off or furloughed, which helps place the holy month in perspective, she said. “It’s time to really focus on the things that matter and re-calibrate your relationship with God. I’m really grateful for a way to get right with the people around me and hopefully be a benefit.”

Besides focusing on helping others, Ramadan also is a month when mosques and affiliated groups raise money to boost long-term projects. This year, however, “crowdfunding will play a much bigger role than in the past” since in-person fundraisers are forbidden, said Muzammil Ahmed, board member at the Michigan Muslim Community Council

Although some Muslims may have less to give due to furloughs or layoffs related to the COVID-19 crisis, said Dawud Walid executive director at the Council on American-Relations’ Michigan chapter, “those who are able to give probably will give more, because we all know of people who have been affected by the coronavirus pandemic.”

That notion, and the belief that rewards from giving back increase during Ramadan, inspires Khadija Peracha, who is helping lead a grocery delivery effort through her mosque, the Muslim Community of Western Suburbs in Canton Township.

Though the volunteers’ eagerness and gratitude from families were energizing, the mother of four already misses the traditions she savored during the holy month: evening prayers, lavish iftars, mingling with friends encouraging her to remain strong enough to avoid food and drink for more than 12 hours.

Thanks to technology, those have been replaced with a more inwardly focused period, Peracha said. “We can see each other, we can talk to each other, the imams are talking to us. We feel our faith strengthened. … We’re doing everything except the gathering.”

That doesn’t mean some vestiges of previous observances are gone, though.

In recent years, it has become common for Muslims to adorn their homes during the period with colorful lights and decorations, welcoming visitors strolling the neighborhood after iftars. 

This year, three community groups are hosting a “Ramadan Lights Challenge” and asking Dearborn and Dearborn Heights residents to nominate their own home or a neighbor’s with photos with the most eye-catching display. The public can view the pictures online to pick the top 10 before judges next month select the most creative ones from each district.

“It’s really important to have something positive like this right now,” said Razi Jafri, a documentarian with the Center for Arab American Studies at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, which features Halal Metropolis, a partner in the competition.

“If it wasn’t for the coronavirus, people could (walk) through some of these neighborhoods. …This year, we’re telling people to stay home and take it in through the photos.”