Muslims in North Carolina adapt Ramadan traditions to shutdown

This photo shows the Islamic Center of Charlotte's 2019 Eid al-Fitr services. The event draws the largest crowds of the year and coincides with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

RALEIGH — Islam’s holiest month of Ramadan, which for 2020 in the United States is April 23 to May 23, is observed around the world with daily fasting punctuated by large community feasts after sundown. But with stay-at-home orders in place across the state, North Carolina’s Muslim community has had to get creative. Like Christian congregations, they have been relying on streaming sermons and drive-by interactions from the safety of their cars.

“This is all new for us,” Fadi Deeb, a spokesperson for the Islamic Center of Charlotte, the city’s largest Muslim community, told NSJ. “Every day we are exploring different options of how we can connect with each other. We are connecting via the web, and Zoom is a very helpful tool.”

“It’s unprecedented. It’s never happened before like this,” Dr. Mohamed El Gamal, CEO of the Islamic Association of Raleigh, told NSJ regarding adjusting to a socially distant Ramadan. “Our building is closed based on the government recommendations and orders. But our services are still open through live streaming, recorded sermons and all that, for religious activities.”

Deeb said ICC has a YouTube channel now where their imam has been giving daily lectures. While five daily prayers are obligatory for Muslims, the only day they are required to attend masjid (sometimes called a mosque) to pray with the community is on Friday. Both ICC and IAR now stream their Friday prayers like area churches do Sunday worship.

But with the shutdown overlapping with Ramadan, masjids have to adjust much more than their Friday prayers — their community feasts at the end of every day, and especially the last feast, called Eid al-Fitr, are a highlight of the year for Muslims. These fast-breaking dinners, or iftar, are also important to fulfill a religious obligation to feed the hungry with funds from a religious tithe called the zakat. So North Carolina masjids have had to get creative here as well in order to find new ways of distributing this food and celebrating the iftar feasts.

“Every year during Ramadan, we would be able to feed between 250 and 300 people every day at sunset. This year we are not going to be able to do that,” said El Gamal.

Instead, he says his Raleigh congregation will deliver some meals to hungry families in the area and others will come pick up the food in a sort of drive-thru iftar feast. “People will come; they will not leave the car. Volunteers will put the food in the trunk, and they will leave. They will come in one gate and leave the other gate.”

The ICC masjid in Charlotte has developed a similar procedure. “We’ve been collecting canned foods, dry goods, napkins, all of that, and putting those in boxes and delivering those to people in need,” Deeb said. “We also have a drive-thru for people in our community with food enough for two weeks. We probably had about 100 families come by yesterday.”

El Gamal joked that for their Raleigh masjid to feast together while being socially distant, they’d “need a soccer field,” so the drive-thru and deliveries were the only practical option.

“But the people can take the food and go home and then tune to the IAR website and listen to a sermon,” El Gamal said. “They can listen to the imam or to Quran, but everybody has iftar, breaking the fast, at about the same time.”

El Gamal said that in addition to being a time to have iftar dinners at the masjid, Ramadan is also a time for connecting with loved ones. Families use the nightly iftar dinners to invite neighbors, friends and relatives to eat at their homes and to visit others’ homes.

“I used to invite maybe five families to my home. Instead this year, I will deliver the food to their homes,” said El Gamal, adding that to make this more personal, Muslims “can have visual or Zoom gatherings, where they can have fun and talk.”

Deeb said his community will also be leaning on the virtual meeting app Zoom for socializing during shelter-in-place iftar feasts.

Overall, both masjids said there was a general acceptance in their communities of the orders from the state to cancel their usual rituals. Their imams stressed that quarantines are discussed in Islamic history, so this is not a new idea or an abandonment of religious duties.

“For us to take precautions and not to infect or harm other people is more important than anything else,” said El Gamal. “But of course, people aren’t really happy about it.”

“There were some people pushing that we should go back, not being forceful, but in a civilized way, trying to see if we could do prayers for four people or five people or less than 10,” said Deeb on initial reaction from the community. But they determined they would just shut down in-person prayer and meals entirely. “We have to follow the rules and respect the rule of the land.”

Despite the state’s protective measures, El Gamal said three or four members of the Triangle-area Muslim community have died of coronavirus, and many others were infected. Deeb said he knows of two Muslim Charlotte-area doctors at Carolinas Medical Center who were infected, but both have since recovered.

El Gamal and Deeb say even if the shutdown orders are relaxed, it is unlikely the main Ramadan feast of Eid al-Fitr at the conclusion of the month will be held at their congregations as it is in ordinary years.

“My humble thoughts at this point is that we aren’t going to hold this festivity together because of the large volume,” Deeb said of ICC’s annual 13,000-person Eid al-Fitr service.

Deeb said most years he spends half the iftar dinners at the masjid and the other half at home with his family, “But this year is going to be different; it’s going to be with my wife and my two children who are at home. As soon as this restriction is off, the first thing I’m going to do is visit my daughter in Cary, North Carolina, to visit my grandchildren as well. That’s the top of my list.”

El Gamal said his plans for Ramadan are similar. “I will be with my family, but we will use Zoom to socialize. We will buy some food and deliver it to some friends and families, and I know many people are doing the same thing.”

“I agree with the president that we have to liberate the people, so to speak, but with safety first,” said El Gamal, saying he believes overall, the federal government has done an “excellent job.” “If there is even a small probability [of danger] though, we will continue social distancing.”