ST. PETERSBURG — The Muslim holy month of Ramadan, marked by daytime fasts culminating with communal evening prayers and meals, is being observed this year with unique adjustments for the social distancing mandated by the coronavirus pandemic.
A Tampa mosque has divided its Sligh Avenue space into “separate and sanitized prayer chambers,” partitioned with heavy plastic to accommodate groups of 10, with people praying 6 feet apart. Worshipers at the Islamic Society of Tampa Bay Area mosque must have their temperature tested, don masks and walk through a sanitizing mist before entering.
Unlike previous years, there will be no communal iftar dinner, the break-the-fast meal that’s part of Ramadan tradition across the globe. Instead, the iftar has been relegated to a drive-up, takeout event. During Ramadan, worshipers also have the option of participating in lectures and prayers online.
For observant Muslims, changes to this year’s observation are seismic.
Imam Askia Muhammad Aquil of St. Petersburg had been planning a post-Ramadan pilgrimage to Mecca — the hajj. But Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, postponed such visits because of the pandemic.
This will be unlike any other Ramadan, said Aquil, who was a student at the University of South Florida when he began studying Islam and later converted.
“It will require on my part the greatest adjustment I have made personally since I started fasting during the month of Ramadan in 1977,” he said. “Obviously, around the world, practicing Muslims look forward to praying together, to praying in congregation and breaking the fast together.”
Such traditions remind believers that they are part of a larger family, but Aquil mines spiritual teachings to come to terms with the current circumstances.
“God says that the whole earth is a mosque or a place of worship. So God is everywhere. God says it’s okay to pray with yourself or to pray with others,” he said. “This is the time of sacrifice. It is a time for restraining yourself. When you’re doing it collectively, you get reinforcement and affirmation ... We will have to make these adjustments.”
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This year’s Ramadan presents new challenges, said Mohamed Aqad, administrator of the Sligh Avenue mosque, but it also has created additional opportunities to help those in desperate need.
“We used to process about 10 financial applications a week,” he said. “Now we are processing up to 20 a day. Eighty percent of the assistance seekers are not Muslim.”
The mosque also expects to distribute hundreds of free take-out dinners each evening during Ramadan, with staff and volunteers in masks and gloves placing containers in the car trunks of anyone who preregisters online.
“Nobody that seeks a meal or seeks assistance will leave empty-handed,” Aqad said.
In St. Petersburg, social distancing for Imam Abdul Karim Ali and his wife, Raushanah, will mean breaking the daily fast quietly at home.
“We’re planning to observe Ramadan, but observe it with caution,” Ali said. “The coronavirus doesn’t stop us from fasting and being obedient to our creator, but we have to recognize there is an issue that we can’t ignore.”
Ali is president of the Tampa Bay Area Muslim Association, which during normal times meets at St. Petersburg’s Johnson Community Library. The pandemic forced his association and other groups to cancel the interfaith iftar dinner they had planned to host with Mayor Rick Kriseman at the St. Petersburg Coliseum. Another interfaith event scheduled at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg also had to be cancelled.
“We are planning, later this fall, to have some type of gathering to celebrate our common humanity,” Ali said. “That is one thing that the coronavirus is promoting, our common humanity.”
Ramadan, which commemorates the anniversary of God’s revelation of the Koran to the Prophet Mohammed, is when observant Muslims read the holy book from cover to cover, say additional prayers and increase charitable efforts. The period of fasting and penance is viewed as a time for renewal. For many, it’s also a time to slow down and reconnect with others.
Friday, the first day of Ramadan, Hassan Shibly had planned to host a handful of Muslim neighbors in his backyard for Jumah prayers, but the gathering was called off because of rain. Shibly, CEO of the Council on American-Islamic Relations of Florida, said he travels regularly throughout Florida and to other parts of the country to lead the Friday prayers. Current pandemic restrictions give him a chance to renew friendships by hosting the weekly prayers on his property, he said.
Shibly noted that the Prophet Mohammed received his revelation while in isolation.
“This is just a great opportunity to use our isolation to connect with the revelation and to strengthen our family bonds,” he said. “It’s definitely going to be a different Ramadan than we have ever seen in our lifetime.
"Instead of focusing on what we lost or what we will miss, we should focus on the opportunities that we have to gain. I believe that it is positioned to make this the best Ramadan we have ever had.”