Take two: This pandemic Ramadan will be different than the last
TORONTO -- Last year, the pandemic upended many religious gatherings across Canada, with Canadian Muslims turning to technology to observe Ramadan -- a month traditionally filled with seeing loved ones.
But with this being the second virtual Ramadan in a row, believers are much more prepared to rely on video calls for online gatherings, games and breaking their day-long fasts together.
And this year, activism and COVID-19 vaccines are top of mind.
“We're encouraging our members to, you know, first and foremost to protect their health and actually get the vaccine,” Hassaan Shahid told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview, echoing Muslim doctors who are encouraging fellow believers to get the COVID-19 shot.
Using the hashtag #VirtualRamadan, Shahid is helping to organize nationwide virtual events and presentations each night of the month, featuring speakers in cities such as Calgary, Vancouver, Ottawa and Montreal. He said vaccines will be one of many topics of discussion during these virtual gatherings.
“Those who are breaking their fast will come together on a video call and kind of talk about their day, talk about how their experience has been fasting,” Shahid said. “It's a sense of community and a sense of a gathering that we want to give to people, albeit virtually.”
His mosque, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jama`at Canada in Mississauga, Ont., is driving the effort, which is a larger-scale version of the countless virtual gatherings taking place this month, including some hosted by the Islamic Society of North America Canada.
MENTAL HEALTH FOCUS
Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar and marked by days of fasting, reflection and giving more to charity. And some faith leaders are using online-only events to tackle issues believers have been facing during the pandemic.
“As an imam, I've been receiving many calls from the youth … that they are having, you know, anxiety attacks, depression and loneliness,” Imam Nabil Mirza, who leads the Al Nusrat Mosque in Montreal, told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview.
During his local online gatherings, he’ll highlight mental health awareness and professional services and tell members that “you're not alone. We’re all in this together.”
Mirza also said “Islam is a very social religion,” but with lockdowns in several provinces, it’s especially unfortunate for children stuck at home.
“So we also have sports activities online, like push-up [challenges] just to keep them keep them engaged, you know?” he said, also noting children typically look forward to Eid, which marks the end of the month and involves gift-giving.
So this year, many families are planning on mailing or dropping gifts and gift bags at families’ front doors to prevent the spread of the virus. Other mosques including some in Vancouver will be hosting drive-thru gift exchanges.
CHECKING IN ON VULNERABLE
Another sore spot for Muslims is the lack of communal in-person prayers. But despite all mosques being closed in Edmonton and Calgary, mosques will broadcast the call to prayer from their loudspeakers once a day during the holy month.
Noor Al-Henedy, a spokesperson for the Al Rashid Mosque in Edmonton, told the Canadian Press that as the weather heats up, some will be praying together outside -- socially distanced and not shoulder-to-shoulder as is traditionally done.
And like many other communities across the country during Ramadan, her mosque plans to deliver meals to 500 people, particularly seniors.
"They have been the most isolated through this pandemic, considering that they are the most vulnerable," she said, with Mirza echoing that his community will similarly be “trying to still give them that peace virtually.”
THINK OF THE PLIGHT OF OTHERS
Several organizations and mosques are using the month to raise money for charitable causes.
For example, Nisa Homes, a non-profit charitable group providing safe havens and support services to women and families experiencing homelessness, is using the month to raise money to build a shelter in Montreal -- their eighth in the country.
Zainab Ibrahim, manager of the Vancouver location, told CTVNews.ca over the phone that everyone, especially Muslims, should be showing extra empathy through deeds such as donations.
“As practising Muslims, charity and giving to others especially during the month of Ramadan is extremely important… part of fasting is putting yourself in the shoes of others who don’t necessarily have access to the basic necessities,” she said.
For many Muslims, the month is a chance to also speak out against injustices.
“We know that we live in tough times with the pandemic and Islamophobia and hate-motivated attacks,” Fatema Abdalla, the National Council of Canadian Muslims’ (NCCM) communications co-ordinator, told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview.
This year, through its “Finding Light in the Dark” campaign, the NCCM is urging people to remember Mohamed-Aslim Zafis, who was murdered at a Toronto-area mosque last September, and to consider the plight of Muslims in Quebec.
Because of the province’s Bill 21, enacted in 2019 to ban religious symbols in the public sector, Muslim women are unable to wear their hijab or head covering if they work in public spaces and are unable to receive public services if they have their faces covered, though there is an exception for anyone "whose face is covered for reasons of health.”
“We wanted to show our solidarity with all those who faced injustices… we wanted to showcase their strength and show their courage in the fight for justice,” Abdalla said.
“NCCM is asking Muslim organizations and mosques that are holding virtual iftars [dinners where people break fasts] with politicians to ask them to condemn Bill 21… before they come to us,” Abdalla said.
As for her own private gathering, she’s looking forward to video calls this month with friends and family, but she has her fingers crossed that in-person gatherings will be safe this time next year.
“Hopefully we are the place where we can all get back together.”