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Ramadan in lockdown.

Maryam Khan is on the first year of our HR Graduate programme, joining us after completing a business management degree at university. We spoke about her faith, Ramadan and how the pandemic has impacted how the month will be celebrated this year.

Maryam’s experience of Ramadan

Ramadan, the most sacred month of the year for Muslims, comprises of key pillars such as spiritual reflection, gratitude, community, and connectivity. Some choose to set intentions, some may choose to give something up, and there is an emphasis on fundraising and donating to charity: it’s important that non-Muslims don’t make assumptions as to how the month is observed. The customary practice of giving a percentage of your pay or wealth, called Zakat, is a practice observed throughout the year but is one of the key pillars followed during Ramadan – with all monies going to those who are in need. Maryam explained,

‘It’s a time to focus on God, people around you, and the chance to try to become a better person. We tilt our perspectives – everyone has a chance each Ramadan to make positive changes. Everyone has different traditions and methods, for me I start the month by setting an intention which gives me something to focus on for the month - and hopefully beyond.’

For Maryam, this year she’s focusing on finding more confidence in her faith and rediscovering its beauty. Everyone will have their own focus and experience of the month, so Maryam’s take is just one of many and doesn’t account for how all Muslims practice. She explained how connectivity plays a huge part in the month,

‘We share a collective rise and energy to focus on what’s important. If we set intentions, we then go through it together. We can sign up to talks at the mosque, attend classes – such as reading the Quran – or learn about religion at our local Islamic school.’

Last year Maryam and her friends grouped together as they normally would, but in a virtual way,

‘Normally we’d meet for dinner – each taking turns to host – and break our fast together, but that’s not possible this year again. As with most other aspects of our lives during the pandemic, things have moved to Zoom. We’ll translate a page of the Quran and then regroup over Zoom to discuss how we can bring those key reflections into our daily lives. That shift from the coming together of neighbourhoods to linking in virtually will be felt strongly.

‘Technology helps us to connect, we use those tools and adapt. Seminars and events have moved online. But it’s difficult to commit to things and actions without the morale of others. Connectivity is such a big theme. People are normally incredibly active in the community, this year perhaps some will be focused more on their family or self-study.’

As with everyone’s individual focus for the month being unique, fasting isn’t practised by everyone either – some by choice, some for medical reasons or because of age. For those who choose to fast, this takes place between dawn and dusk and offers the space for spiritual discipline, of contemplation: an opportunity to really focus the mind, which abstinence from food and drinks allows. It’s also a chance to refrain from negative thoughts and actions towards others.

Maryam lives with family; her Grandmother is next door and extended family close by. If coronavirus hadn’t had the impact it had, Maryam would have lived with her fellow graduate programme cohort, many of which are non-Muslim so would have meant Maryam would have opened Iftar, the light meal that is consumed to break the fast, alone during Ramadan. Being able to be with her family is important, and perhaps one of few positives of the current lockdown. However, this year will be the first time Maryam’s embarked on fasting while working,

‘Working from home will help with this, I think. Its purpose is self-restraint and allows us to focus our minds on what’s important. Fasting is usually hard for the first couple of weeks but does get easier. And Eid, our celebration which takes place at the end of Ramadan, starts with first sighting of the new moon at the beginning of the tenth month of the Islamic calendar and is when we dress up, feast and share gifts and food with each other, and those less fortunate. It’s usually an all-day joyous occasion with the community. And we’ll miss the scale of that this year.’

The pandemic impacts

Like so much of the past year, Ramadan will be different – neighbourhood and family gatherings can’t take place and they’re such a core component of the month. Older people really rely on the nightly prayers at the mosque – a chance to see people, their community, be part of something. 2020 was a challenging year for everyone as the spiritual side and coming together is a huge aspect of the month, and for safety reason that couldn’t happen, which will be the same for this year.

Maryam explained,

‘Ordinarily, we’ll come together for prayer each night. Then each Friday we have lunchtime prayer. Men, women, and children all together at the mosque to listen to motivating Hadiths (old stories) and talks from the Imaan (leader of the community or prayer). It’s a time to give to your neighbours and some people will be completely alone this year. We’ll miss this coming together, the shared learning, and sense of community.’

For children, Ramadan is when they really start to learn about the spiritual side. They’ll join the evening meal, as families break their fast. These earlier memories lay a foundation that people carry with them, as Maryam reflected,

‘A core memory of Ramadan for me growing up - before I was of the age to fast myself – is of my Mum cooking, preparing food for Iftar, and us sitting together and sharing stories about Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him). Us all being together is a really special memory.’

Covid-19 has adversely affected black, Asian, and minority ethnics badly and Maryam knows a lot of people impacted. Therefore, gatherings are a definite no-go. Maryam noted that the month is also about healing,

‘We’ll use the month to really remember those we’ve lost.’

Maryam considered how the pandemic and recent social justice events have opened up conversations that didn’t take place before; there is a better understanding and awareness of other people,

‘The workplace is more empathetic to what Ramadan is. Non-Muslim colleagues have asked much more questions recently and shown an interest. With the islamophobia that sadly still takes place in the UK, a country I call my home, the more understanding the better.

‘We have more time now, we’re not busy and rushing to be somewhere: there’s the time to reflect and focus on treating each other and ourselves with more kindness, empathy and patience.’

A message we could all benefit from, regardless of our own religion.

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