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Without social gatherings, Muslims across Southern California begin a sequestered Ramadan

Community leaders hope to zero in on family and spirituality in the absence of communal worship and big, festive meals.

During the holy month of Ramadan, Ihab Elannan typically is surrounded by hundreds of people breaking their daily fast in the courtyard of his Anaheim restaurant, enjoying his cooking and the warm spring nights.

All year long, he looks forward to his special shish barak, a dish of labor-intensive, meat-stuffed dumplings he cooks in yogurt stew. In a usual month of Ramadan festivities, his Little Arabia Lebanese Bakery and Cuisine eatery turns the equivalent of eight months in profit.

But this year, as coronavirus stay-at-home orders persist and COVID-19 deaths spike, its unlikely there will be festive meals shared among extended family and friends. If Elannan makes even 30% of his usual Ramadan income by staying open for reduced-price takeout, he’ll consider himself lucky.

As Ramadan began Thursday at sundown, this small business blow is just one example of the changes Muslims across Southern California will see to their usual festivities amid COVID-19, from the spiritual to communal to financial. Friday sermons are now virtual, mass evening prayers must be held in isolation and mosques have become aid hubs.

Most observant Muslims began fasting for Ramadan on Friday, the holy month commemorating the first revelation of the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad. During the festival, marked by the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar, adults fast from dusk to dawn unless they are ill, pregnant or traveling, among other limitations.

Amid restrictions due to the coronavirus, many mosques will stream daily Quran recitations and commentaries akin to churches, synagogues and other places of worship. Most Islamic scholars, however, advise participating in Isha and Taraweeh prayers off-screen.

Fasting one of ‘five pillars’

Fasting during Ramadan is one of the “five pillars” of Islam, along with the declaration of faith, daily prayers, charity and pilgrimage to Mecca. The end of Ramadan is marked by communal prayers called Eid ul-Fitr, the Feast of the Fast-Breaking, on May 24.

“The fast is performed to increase spirituality, discipline, self-restraint and generosity while obeying God’s commandments,” said Hussam Ayloush, executive director of CAIR-LA, Southern California’s largest Muslim civil liberties and advocacy organization.

The Fiqh Council of North America, a national council of Islamic legal scholars, has called on mosques and Islamic centers to “strictly follow the health and state official guidelines for social gatherings and distancing” and to hold special nightly Ramadan prayers “at home within a family setting.”

Focus on sanctity of family

As Muslim worshippers fast, pray and feast without the company of friends, the essence of the celebration for many, communal leaders expect this year’s Ramadan to be a difficult time for members.

In his Friday afternoon sermon to the congregation over Zoom, Islamic Society of Orange County Imam Muzammil Siddiqi urged worshippers to focus on the sanctity of family in this time of social distancing. He, too, is separated from several of his children, but staying connected through FaceTime and meal drop-offs.

“We used to go to the mosque to break the fast together, coming together every evening for prayer. But now no, so let us focus on what we’re doing at home,” he said of his message to community members.

“They should still feel that we are celebrating Ramadan. Talk to the children about it. Pray together and do meals together. In this way we can have a benefit and not feel lonely.”

Help for those who are ‘struggling’

In the San Fernando Valley, Ibrahim Qureshi, religious director of Islamic Center of Northridge, sees this Ramadan as an opportunity to focus on individual spirituality. That said, the mosque also must play the role of granting relief in times of massive job loss and death of loved ones within the community.

“Many community members are struggling, and we’ve been helping them out financially,” Qureshi said. “Maybe not rent or anything like that but things like groceries, definitely we are helping out.”

In response to need in San Bernardino, the Sahaba Initiative has kept its community center open as a daily food pantry. Arbazz M. Nizami, a co-founder of the organization, said charity has been a key priority for many mosques under the Inland Empire Islamic Sharia Council in the absence of communal worship.

“Sometimes communal life can actually distract you from the purpose of what you’re doing,” Nizami said. “I think everyone’s going to do something different, spend time with their families and things, which is maybe what the core of Ramadan is about, which is connecting to God.”

At mosques belonging to the Ahmadiyya Muslim community in Hawthorne, Pico Rivera and Chino, youth groups have held food delivery drives for the elderly and other vulnerable groups. The sect also has transformed several mosques into blood donation centers, and hope to collect 1,000 pints of blood by summer’s end.

When it comes to personal Ramadan practice, coronavirus restrictions can add levels of complication to the daily rhythm of fasting, praying and eating, suggested Fullerton City Councilman Ahmad Zahra, one of three Muslim elected officials in Orange County.

‘We’ll get through it’

With work schedules different than normal, business closures add a level of complication to those needing to shop and prepare holiday meals. And hotter weather makes it difficult to stay hydrated for those not drinking water throughout the day.

That said, virtually everyone on the planet is struggling and adapting. It’s the memories of homemade Syrian food from his childhood that easily conjure up the spirit of Ramadan, Zahra said, though his renditions will never be the same as his mother’s.

“I don’t think it’s different from anyone else’s struggles right now. It’s adjusting to the new circumstances, but we’ll get through it,” he said. “Whether you’re Muslim or Christian or Jewish, we’re all human in the end, and what I’m realizing is how such an event can show our commonalities.”

On Friday afternoon, Elannan and his staff were preparing the special Ramadan menu at Little Arabia Lebanese Bakery and Cuisine, from stuffed zucchini and grape leaves to lamb shoulder and biryani rice. The shish barak, of course, and atayef for dessert — pistachio and ricotta creme filled treats.

Like other restaurants catering to the Muslim community, he plans to open at sundown for Iftar meal and for the Sahoor morning meal from 1-4 a.m. as normal. Instead of cooking all the main dishes once a day, he will be making them once a week.

The restaurant owner said he is still waiting for small business support from the federal government. But the most painful part this Ramadan is missing extended family during a time meant to bring them closer.

“It’s sad, but it’s the whole world like this, not just us,” he said. “We hope that it’s going to end soon.”

City News Service contributed to this report.