‘Closer to Allah’: Minnesota Muslims share Ramadan virtually in the time of coronavirus

A man stands in an empty mosque.
Imam Mohamed Nuh Dahir stands where would typically be a packed mosque for Friday prayer at the Islamic Center of St. Cloud on Friday, April 17.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

This story comes to you from Sahan Journal, a nonprofit newsroom dedicated to providing authentic news reporting about Minnesota's new immigrants and refugees. MPR News is a partner with Sahan Journal and shares stories between SahanJournal.com and MPRNews.org.

By Abdirahman Mohamed and Mukhtar M. Ibrahim

After so many years of being away from her family, Fadumo Osman hoped Ramadan in 2020 would be the year she would finally break fasts with her family.

The oldest of five siblings, the 24-year-old recent New York University graduate reunited with her family in Fridley in January. But as the holy month of Ramadan got closer, the COVID-19 pandemic was upending what was once normal: hugging your friend, going to the mosque for prayers, sharing iftar, a meal, with your family and friends at sunset.

Osman, a computer scientist, realized Ramadan in 2020 would be anything but normal. 

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“It’s within our (Islamic) teachings that through struggle, we come out learning more and becoming closer to Allah,” said Osman. 

Ramadan, the ninth month of the Muslim calendar and the holiest month, is a time of spiritual growth for many worshipers. From dawn to sunset, Muslims abstain from deeds that would nullify their fasting such as eating or drinking. Many people take time to read the Quran and deepen their relationship with God. They remember those who are less fortunate.

After a long day of fasting and self-reflection, families and friends would gather when the sun sets and share iftar. Mosques would be filled during the night.     

That’s changed this year because of COVID-19. The joy of Ramadan is tempered by the suffering of people worldwide in the pandemic. Because the disease can spread so easily in crowds, large gatherings have been discouraged.

Still, Minnesota Muslims are hoping to make this month as joyful and festive as possible while embracing a virtual Ramadan in the time of coronavirus. 

While sheltering in place, Muslims in Minneapolis’ Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, for example, will hear a historic adhan broadcast five times a day throughout Ramadan at Dar Al-Hijrah Mosque. Many mosques are live-streaming their nightly prayers on Facebook and Zoom. Community members are encouraging the faithful to donate food to the needy, a central tenet of the Muslim faith.

For religious leaders like imam Makram El-Amin of Masjid An-Nur in Minneapolis, Ramadan is a month of community and spiritual growth. 

“It’s been quite challenging,” El-Amin said. “Nothing will ever take the place of human interaction.”

He sees a level of angst in some of the community members who might have a tough time being away from the mosque during this month. To keep the community engaged and help sustain their faith, the imam has launched two initiatives that will provide meals to families in the area.

Outside of his mosque, El-Amin serves as a chaplain for the Minneapolis Police Department, where he finds himself comforting officers and others important to the COVID-19 response, regardless of their faith. There are police officers, grocery store workers, and pharmacists who have been confiding in the imam, sharing their concern for the health of their family.

“By and large they are dedicated to their profession,” he said. “These are really caring people who are willing to go above and beyond for others” 

Imam Asad Zaman, executive director of the Muslim American Society of Minnesota, usually travels through the state, providing lectures and sermons, but due to the virus he has had to take his approach online.  

The Muslim American Society of Minnesota and other Muslim organizations have partnered up to provide Ramadan virtual programming throughout the month. 

Zaman said more participants have attended his online sessions than his previous sessions that were held in person.  

The time at home has also given Zaman and others time to spend with their family, a key part of Ramadan. “In the past few days I have seen and spoken to more of my family members than I have all year,” Zaman laughed.

University students have always been under immense pressure towards the end of a semester. Add on a global pandemic and nearly 16-hour day fasts, some students are trying to adapt to a new world upended by the coronavirus.

Before the governor’s stay-at-home order, the work of Mohamud Awil Mohamed, the chaplain for the Muslim Student Association at the University of Minnesota, took place primarily on campus. Students would meet with him or take part in group events where Mohamed provided religious counseling. 

“Universities are a stressful place,” Mohamed said. “We utilize our faith to deal with adversity.”

Since the university closing, Mohamed has conducted his programming through online portals. 

On Tuesday afternoons, he participates in meetings over Zoom, the video conferencing app, focused on religious studies. Saturday meetings are dedicated to discussions and answering questions.

As a recent college graduate, Mohamed may be younger than the average university chaplain. However, he uses this relatability to build relationships with the students who look to him as a friend. 

Before the concept of social distancing took off, Mohamed prided himself in building relationships and made himself accessible on campus to those in need. Now with the digital approach, Mohamed is finding his own limitations during this time.

“I have a network of people that I confide in,” he said. 

He hopes to still be able to provide the religious guidance students received from him before the stay-home order went into effect. “I want to be intentional about cultivating community by planting seeds of friendship and family,” Mohamed said.

As Osman, the computer scientist, reflected back on her days in college of breaking long fasts, sometimes alone, sometimes with friends at the mosque or restaurants, she thought what would it be like to bring people together during the COVID-19 pandemic?

She got an idea when she talked to her Christian and Jewish friends. They told her how they observed Easter and Passover with their families and friends over Zoom.

Osman quickly put together a website, aptly named Remote Ifar

“Many are experiencing an isolated Ramadan for the first time, but many of our brothers and sisters have had lonely Holy Months before,” the website says. “Whether you’re experiencing Ramadan with your entire family, your roommate, or alone, sign up for a virtual Iftar in your area.”

The website matches participants by time zones. One person would become the host of the call and send out calendar invites to participants. 

When people break their fasts and do their prayers, they will open a Zoom link and join a group discussion while they are enjoying their meal. 

“The goal,” she said, “is to maintain that community and Ramadan spirit virtually.”