Balkan Muslims Find Second Pandemic Ramadan a Challenge

Balkan Muslims Find Second Pandemic Ramadan a Challenge

Many Muslims in the Balkans find marking another Ramadan under COVID restrictions difficult – but some see it as an opportunity to focus on the month’s real meaning, and ask important questions.

Islam’s holiest month of Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr is a time of social solidarity, tolerance and contemplation. During these holy days, Muslim believers fast from sunrise until sunset and help the poor and those in need.

Mass prayers, iftar dinners – breaking the daily fast – and family and neighbourhood gatherings are essential parts of Ramadan, besides other events such as concerts, fairs and conferences.

Finally, in Eid al-Fitr, known also in the Balkans as Ramazan Bajram, believers come together to celebrate the end of the holy month.

However, for a second year in a row, thanks to government measures to halt the spread of COVID-19, Balkan Muslims have not been able to organise mass prayers, iftar dinners and many other events.

In approximately half-Muslim Bosnia and in overwhelmingly Muslim Kosovo, governments have imposed lockdowns and banned mass prayers, crowded iftar dinners and other social events, or allowed only a few, under strict conditions.

Turkey’s government went further and introduced a full lockdown during the month of Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr.

Muslim believers in the region are grieved by having to experience another non-conventional Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr, with some calling it an unimaginable development.

“The pandemic has changed everything we know about the world and religion, as well as how we experience the month of Ramadan,” Vural Akcay, an imam from the Turkish port city of Izmir, told BIRN.

Akcay added that it was bewildering to have no Friday prayers or tarawih prayers – special night prayers in Ramadan – or crowded iftar dinners. “No one could have imagined we would live in such days,” he added.

A digital Ramadan is not the same thing
However, Vural said believers were responding to the challenge with the aid of modern technology

“The Turkish Religious Authority, the Diyanet, and other religious institutions were the ones that were most distant [previously] from information technology – but now we are organising Koranic lectures and muqabalahs [recitations of the Koran] on online,” Akcay added.

One of the practices of Ramadan is for believers to gather in mosques and houses to perform muqabalahs, and, by citing the Prophet Muhammad and the Angel Gabriel, create a sacred ambiance.

Muzafer Latic, an imam in Bugojno, central Bosnia, told BIRN that imams and believers are doing their best to deal with the challenge of these extraordinary circumstances.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has affected worship … Masks in mosques and social distance are mandatory, we try to stay in the mosques and other indoors places as briefly as we can, and tarawihs are also banned because of the threat of the pandemic,” Latic said.

However, Bosnian Muslims have restarted their tarawihs under strict measures after the authorities moved the start of the daily lockdown from 9pm to 11pm on May 7.

As in Turkey, the Bosnian religious authorities are also holding religious events online.

“We organise muqabalahs online on various platforms and share our sermons on social networks and write sermons on paper and distribute them to our jamaat [congregation]. By this way, we maintain contacts with the members of the congregation,” Latic added.

Despite that, many believers impatiently await the end of these times, and yearn to return to a normal life and a normal Ramadan experience.

Mehdi, aged 67, from Kosovo, told BIRN that he longs for the day when the world gets back to normal, and he can enjoy iftar dinners with his broader family members and friends.

“This is the second Ramadan that we are not gathering with family and friends. We are having Ramadan dinners only within our [small] family,” Mehdi said just before entering a Pristina mosque for the afternoon prayer.

Dino Softic, aged 30, from Sarajevo, said a digital Ramadan was not the same as the usual experience.

“During Ramadan, Sarajevo becomes a different and even a mystical place, where families, friends and believers gather for iftar dinners, tarawihs and other events,” he said.

“It strengthens the bonds between us. Unfortunately, we are not having this kind of Ramadan this year again, due to the pandemic. Instead, we hear sermons on TV or attend online religious lectures,” he told BIRN.

An opportunity for self-questioning
Kadir, aged 33, a religious culture and moral knowledge teacher from Istanbul, echoed those laments.

“Iftar dinners, muqabalahs and tarawihs were occasions for family members, friends and neighbours to meet and refresh bonds, but this year we are not having these practices,” he said.

“Cultural fairs and other social events were also places to teach our culture and religion to the young. Without these practices, Ramadan is very toneless and sad,” Kadir told BIRN.

Zuhdi Hajzeri, an imam from Peja in Kosovo, agreed. “The pandemic has had a negative impact on believers praying in the mosques,” he told BIRN.

“It has limited many activities; we cannot freely achieve our obligations in the mosques, closeness with believers is very limited, and family gatherings have been cut off. It’s like Ramadan has lost its satisfaction,” he added.

“We are missing that difference which Ramadan makes to the other months,” Hajzeri continued.

However, some are less downbeat. Akcay, from Izmir, insists that even if the usual religious prayers and practices have been cancelled, the spirit of solidarity is still very much alive.

“Besides fasting and mass gatherings and prayers, Ramadan is also the month of solidarity, tolerance and helping the poor and those in need,” he said, mentioning Zakat al-Fitr, or Fitrah, and adding that social solidarity has become more important in these times of a pandemic, which has negatively affected so many people in economic terms.

Zakat al-Fitr or Fitrah is a charity drive taken on behalf of the poor a few days before the Ramadan fast ends.

As one of the “Five Pillars” of Islam, Zakat al-Mal is a religious duty for all Muslims who meet the criteria of possessing enough wealth to help the needy.

Akcay also said people should question themselves why this pandemic calamity had hit us.

“The Koran says Allah only improve the conditions of his subjects when they change their incorrect behaviour. We all should wonder what we have done wrong,” he said.

“Ramadan is the month of contemplation and self-questioning and we have a lot of time to do that in this Ramadan, under the pandemic measures,” he added.

Kadir, from Istanbul, said that many Muslims before the pandemic had started to lose the real meaning of Ramadan in terms of the prayers and social solidarity that go with it.

“In this sense, the pandemic gives us an opportunity to rethink and requestion ourselves, our faith and our society,” he concluded.

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