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‘An emotional comeback’: Muslims prepare for 1st Ramadan together after COVID-19 restrictions lift

After a difficult two years in when Ramadan celebrations were forced online or severely curtailed because of pandemic restrictions, Muslims in Canada are preparing for a return to the kind of holy month they’ve long cherished — one that will mean much more this year now that they can once again be together.

For the first time since the start of the pandemic, mosques are getting ready to host prayers at full capacity now that most COVID-19 restrictions across the country have been lifted.

“I think it’s going to be very emotional for a lot of people. You don’t sense what you’ve lost until you don’t have it,” said Fouzan Khan, CEO of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) — a mosque in Mississauga, west of Toronto.

“We can now pray again the way we did, we can break our fast the way we did, we can be with each other the way we did … and not have to stay home and watch over an internet connection,” Khan told CBC News.

“We’ve been through all kinds of limitations and rightfully so, but people can’t wait to have that normal sense of Ramadan.”

Ramadan, expected to begin Saturday based on the sighting of the new moon, will see Muslims across the globe observe a period of daily fasting from dawn until sunset, placing special attention on prayer, internal reflection and charitable acts. In homes around the world, families and friends will gather to reflect, break their fasts and celebrate with a shared meal known as an iftar.

At the mosque, an iftar can be attended by hundreds or even thousands after a long day’s fast. Many will also join voluntary evening prayers, known as tarawih, held only during the fasting month.

But as parts of the country face down a sixth wave of the pandemic, congregants are encouraged to be cautious and keep masks on.

an emotional comeback muslims prepare for 1st ramadan together after covid 19 restrictions lift
Congregants at ISNA are being encouraged to keep masks on amid a sixth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Paul Smith/CBC)

Muslim medical group urges caution

The Canadian Muslim COVID-19 Task Force, which has developed a set of guidelines for a safe Ramada, says while in past years, mosque officials held registrations for individual congregants, it’s focusing this year on individual measures and smaller tweaks to tradition to keep worshippers safe. 

When it comes to breaking the fast, for example, the task force is encouraging mosques to hold iftars outdoors, or to provide takeaway boxes so that individuals aren’t gathering in large numbers indoors without masks. Those breaking the fast at each others’ homes are encouraged to do so in consistent bubbles to reduce the possibility of viral spread. 

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Dr. Mohammad Hashim Khan, a respirologist in Toronto, is the co-chair of the Canadian Muslim COVID-19 Task Force, which has developed a set of guidelines for a safe Ramadan. (CBC)

The task force is also encouraging the use of rapid tests and for anyone who might not yet have a full series of vaccines to take their third doses. Neither affects an individual’s fast in any way, says Dr. Mohammad Hashim Khan, the task force’s co-chair and a respirologist in Toronto. 

“We should just make sure that we’re being vigilant and smart, so that we’re not going to throw away all the hard work that was done over the past couple of years and we’re not going become sick and can actually benefit from the month of Ramadan and worship as much as we like,” he said.

“And hopefully we can make the best of the month.”

Giving back

During a month when giving back is of extra importance, the pressures of the pandemic mean food drives, such as those run by groups like Unity in Community, are that much more vital. 

Launched in 2015, the organization raises thousands of pounds of food each year to deliver to those in need. 

“The pandemic has affected a lot,” said Fasih Syed, an organizer with the group. “Every day we are getting calls from people for groceries and we are providing them.”

Nisa Homes, a charity that supports women and children experiencing domestic abuse, poverty or homelessness, or those who are seeking asylum, will be hosting charity iftars in several cities where individuals can offer donations while gathering to break their fast.

At the restaurant Lebanese Garden in downtown Toronto, the lifting of restrictions in time for Ramadan is a relief in a lot of ways — for the health of the business and the needs of the community. 

“We are expecting a large crowd coming in to break their fast and definitely a lot more parties at peoples homes and at the mosques,” said Mona Ahmed, the restaurant’s manager. “So it’ll be keeping us busy and on our toes.”

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For Mona Ahmed at the restaurant Lebanese Garden, the lifting of restrictions in time for Ramadan was a relief in a lot of ways.  (Paul Smith/CBC)

But with restrictions being lifted, there’s something else she’s looking forward to even more.

“I expect to be visiting the mosques a lot more with my children … and really reconnecting with people I’ve been alienated from for the past two years,” Ahmed said. 

Back at ISNA, which had been the site of a vaccination clinic at times during the pandemic, Fouzan Khan says being back at the mosque for prayer and congregation this year will be extra special.

“I think it’s a really emotional comeback.”

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