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A Muslim worshiper arrives to attend noon prayers at a mosque, in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, on April 21, 2020.Anjum Naveed/The Associated Press

Fatima Al Fahim is a Vancouver-based writer.

The anticipated call to prayer echoes from a mosque’s loud speakers at sunset. My family, extended relatives and I take our first gulps of water since dawn and bite into sweet ripe dates. We then pray before gathering around a table laden with a fast-breaking iftar feast. We dig into a rich Biryani rice dish loaded with exotic spices and chicken, and harees, a porridge of seasoned boiled wheat with meat.

After dinner, we make our way to a nearby mosque. Lining up shoulder by shoulder, we perform the evening Isha prayers and Taraweeh, an additional voluntary prayer. Then the mosque fills with murmurs as people silently recite the Koran.

These are my memories of Ramadan. For many of the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims, including the more than one million Muslims in Canada, Ramadan is synonymous with large gatherings with family and friends.

But the novel coronavirus pandemic presents a disruption to the gathering norms of this year’s Ramadan, expected to begin Friday, depending on new moon sightings.

Gone are the days of large iftar parties, night gatherings at café terraces and communal prayers as emptiness proliferates. Mass prayers in mosques have been suspended and people are advised to pray at home. Even the rhythmic chant of the call to prayer was tweaked – “Hayya Alasalah” (come to prayer) was replaced with “Al Salat Fi Beyootikum” (pray at home) for the first time in history across some countries in the Middle East. The holiest site in Islam, the Kaaba, circled by more than two million Muslim pilgrims in the same counterclockwise direction every year, now sits in the middle of blank white tiles.

Muslim worshippers circumambulate the sacred Kaaba in Mecca's Grand Mosque on April 3, 2020.-/AFP/Getty Images

But the pandemic need not dampen Ramadan spirits. Physical distancing gives us a reminder of the true meaning of the holy month.

The holy month has, of late, become synonymous with forces that have nothing to do with the celebration. Consumerism increases, as brands and stores try to capitalize on Muslims’ desire to wear new clothes for family gatherings. Food waste, too, spikes about 25 per cent, as more food is cooked than can possibly be eaten, according to EcoMena, a Middle East sustainability initiative.

So with this unprecedented isolation comes an opportunity to focus on the true spirit of Ramadan.

Solitude has long been stigmatized in our social world. But solitude isn’t the same thing as loneliness. If anything, emptiness frees our minds for self-reflection and development.

Ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu noted, “Ordinary men hate solitude. But the master makes use of it, embracing his aloneness, realizing he is one with the whole universe.” Prophet Muhammad himself started his journey into prophethood in quarantine. He sat alone in a small cave in the barren Jabal an-Nour mountain near Mecca, fasting and practising spiritual contemplation, until one day he began receiving the divine revelations of the Koran, the holy book for Muslims. Ramadan commemorates this ninth month of the Islamic calendar when the Koran first descended into Earth.

Being stuck in a room with an empty stomach only refines our senses to the intellectual and spiritual benefits of isolation. “There is an unseen sweetness in the stomach’s emptiness. We are lutes, no more, no less. If the soundbox is stuffed full of anything, no music,” wrote 13th-century Sufi poet Rumi.

There is some scientific truth to this. Researchers show that ghrelin, the hormone responsible for stimulating hunger, also helps boost focus and memory.

This Ramadan, I will embrace the emptiness within and around me. The holy month is about more than fasting at daytime, and eating and drinking at night on repeat for a month. It’s a period of spiritual detox – of connecting with God, finding renewed meaning in daily prayers and immersing in the Koran. It’s a time to give to and reflect on those less fortunate, those who struggle to eat and drink daily.

It’s about refraining from gossip, jealousy, swearing and extravagance, and being grateful for the simple things in life – the warmth of holding a mug of hot tea, the musky smell of an old book, the blended gold and crimson hues of a sunset. The word Ramadan is derived from the Arabic word Ramad, meaning “intense heat.” And just like heat, Ramadan is a chance to burn away bad habits and carry positive ones throughout the year and beyond.

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