Deanna Othman remembers Ramadan during this time last year, when the predawn darkness of Chicago’s streets were flooded with light as thousands of Muslim residents gathered their families and drove to the mosque for prayer.
“We would wake up typically at 1 or 2 a.m. — sometimes we wouldn’t even go to sleep,” said Deanna, an Oak Lawn resident who teaches at a Muslim private school. “Walking to the door of the mosque with the lights on and just seeing everyone kind of rushing in together, going in for the same purpose … that’s a very unique experience that you only feel during the month of Ramadan and that we look forward to every year.”
Ramadan lasts for an entire month. “It’s the one month where we exclusively focus on our prayer, fasting, giving charity, connecting with our holy book [the Quran], reflecting on its meaning,” Deanna said.
Muslims observe the holy month by fasting from sunup to sundown, attending evening prayers at their mosques, and coming together with family and friends for iftars, or break fast meals, and other gatherings.
“Especially in a big community, you could end up spending most of your month not even eating at home and joining with other people for these meals,” Deanna said.
Of course, this year is different. Due to the pandemic and Illinois’ stay-at-home order, families have had to adapt their traditions.
Deanna said her mosque has moved many of its normal activities online and that she’s staying connected with family and friends as much as possible, but “it definitely feels like a big disruption.”
She said she misses that experience of being together, in person, at meals and at the mosque.
“Obviously, it’s not the same. Obviously you don’t get the same feeling, you know, watching something on a screen that you do in a room filled with people where you’re participating in the same activity together,” Deanna said.
I’m experiencing Ramadan in a new way
Deanna said despite missing some things from years past, this year’s Ramadan has also provided her with an opportunity to really align with the spirit of the holy month. Acknowledging that the pandemic is difficult for everyone, Othman said it’s also been an opportunity to slow down and focus on the essentials.
“In the beginning, I was concerned that this would be a very different, sort of depressing Ramadan,” she said. “But as the [time] kind of wore on, I actually began to see how big of a blessing this is in its own way.”
She’s been taking walks with her four children and reading the Quran aloud with them. And instead of congregating at the mosque with her entire community, Deanna said she’s been observing the additional nightly prayer of Ramadan with just her husband and their kids.
“We’re praying together every night as a family, which we typically don’t do because we pray in the mosque,” said Deanna. “So it’s a more intimate experience, a more quiet experience.”
And while she says the experience of this holy month is unprecedented for her, it’s not the first time many people in her community have celebrated Ramadan under extreme conditions.
“People have gone through Ramadans where they have been in very trying situations, where their lives are under threat,” she said.
Her husband, Ibrahim Mansour, was born in Gaza, in Palestine. She says he remembers growing up, there were times when he was unable to go outside because it was too dangerous. So they’ve been focused recognizing that even under the stay-at-home-order, it’s still safe to go outside.
“We can go in our backyard, we can … be outside [unlike] those who have lived in conditions of war and conditions of being under siege in their homes, under lockdowns and curfews, where there was absolutely no movement outside and there was no Internet either,” Deanna said.
My faith is guiding me
Deanna is concerned about how the pandemic will affect the Muslim community even after Ramadan ends. Since Muslim worship intentionally places people in close proximity, standing or kneeling shoulder-to-shoulder during prayer, it may be some time before her community can safely come back together.
“I don’t expect us to go back to any sense of normalcy yet,” she said.
“But at the same time, in Islam worship is anywhere. You don’t have to necessarily worship in a mosque. You can worship at home. You can worship wherever you are.”
In the meantime, she’s relying on her faith to get her through. She said she’s been reflecting on one verse in the Quran says: “If any of My servants ask you about Me, tell them that the Lord says ‘I am near; I accept the prayers of those who pray.’” (Quran: 2:186)
And for Deanna, these words offer her comfort in a time when managing anxiety and worry can be especially difficult.
“When you really think about the fact that God is the one who’s in control of all of it, and you surrender yourself to that fact, I feel it’s a little bit easier to get through it,” she said.
“And to do your part in order to stay sane and stay healthy, and take care of yourself and those around you and just realize that whatever is going to happen is going to happen.”
Isabel Carter is an intern for WBEZ. Joe DeCeault is a senior producer for WBEZ. You can follow him on Twitter at @joedeceault.