Some community organizers are hoping the changes driven by the pandemic will improve Ramadan for years to come
When I broke my fasts at mosques during pre-pandemic Ramadans, I basked in the unspoken agreement among the strangers in the room that filling everyone’s stomach was an urgent and shared responsibility. Iftar gatherings worldwide take pride in providing copious amounts of food every night for 30 days. At each iftar (the meal eaten at sunset to break fast), every person was guaranteed water, dates, fruit, and if they were lucky, a warm pakora. I’d arrive no later than sunset for the pakoras and stay past twilight for the steaming pots of Palestinian makloubeh, an aromatic rice dish layered with chicken and vegetables.
Community iftars are almost always planned in advance. Families race to sign up for a day to sponsor the iftar, often cooking it themselves. For other iftars, mosques use their budgets to book catering from halal restaurants. On any given evening, one could expect to be greeted with giant trays of a neighbor’s home-cooked biryani, or spicy chicken burgers sponsored by a halal fried chicken joint, and typically that food would nourish upwards of 500 people per night.
But COVID shutdowns last spring halted any possibility of people breaking fast side by side at mosques, and as a result, in-person donations to mosques declined. A year after Muslim community leaders and volunteers scrambled to create a sense of togetherness in the midst of the first lockdowns in the U.S., thousands of Muslims are reviving traditional Ramadan customs with pandemic-safe initiatives. These range from socially distant community service projects to drive-thru iftars served in to-go boxes. And despite operating on historically low budgets, organizers are contemplating ways to best serve a new set of needs that have emerged from the pandemic, recalibrating their communities’ relationships with food and Ramadan for the future.
Roswell Community Masjid (RCM), in Metro Atlanta, stopped holding community iftars in 2020 due to lockdowns and financial constraints. “When suddenly everything stopped, we had to focus on how we’d sustain the money,” says Lubna Merchant, RCM’s operations manager. “We started planning for this last July.” Regaining their losses wasn’t the organizers’ only consideration; they also believed they could improve on their usual Ramadan programming from an ethical standpoint.
In Islamic teaching, Muslims are instructed to break their fasts with humble portions of food, motivating those who fast to avoid gluttony. But food waste plagues countless Muslim communities, as a culture of overindulgence has overtaken the historical practice of breaking fast with no more than a simple date and glass of milk. Merchant recalls the exorbitant food waste she witnessed during pre-COVID iftars at the mosque. “When you’re fasting and opening your fast, you’re just trying to stuff your plate,” she says.
As RCM brings back iftars for this year’s Ramadan programming, the meals look different. In the spirit of sustaining the mosque’s budget and reducing food waste, weekly iftars feature balanced portions served in compostable to-go boxes. The goal for this year’s programming, under the theme Ramadan Revive, is to carve out economically and environmentally sustainable food traditions that will lay new groundwork for the Ramadans to come. Even when people can gather again, the food at iftars will be limited. And while the changes to RCM’s Ramadan programming were driven by budget constraints, they also serve the greater purpose of Ramadan, which is centered on community.
“[It’s] about getting community life back up as we’ve learned new technologies and invested in our ability to reach a broader audience,” says Arshad Anwar, RCM’s resident imam.
In another measure to bolster its budget and emphasize community over consumption, RCM published a cookbook, RCM Eats, on the first day of Ramadan. Families submitted hundreds of their most precious Ramadan recipes, ranging from a Pakistani family’s take on koobideh kabobs to the RCM executive director’s famous pot of beef chili. The book covers go-tos for both the early morning suhoor and evening iftars. Merchant’s son, a 19-year-old home cook and baker, contributed a chocolate samosa recipe to the desserts section. The cookbook will give RCM members one more way to feel connected even as they can’t gather in person. “We wanted the book to be a bond between the different communities that are part of RCM and make RCM what it is. Our hope is that recipes from different parts of the world will be a part of every home and foster a sense of community,” says Merchant.
Fasting only scratches the surface of how Muslims practice their faith in this holy month. During Ramadan, Muslim communities intensify their commitment to social responsibility and engage in volunteer activities, most often designed to combat food insecurity. Feed the City is one of many service projects organized by 901 Ummah, a Memphis-based nonprofit founded by and for young Muslim professionals. In its earlier days, Feed the City took the form of a traditional soup kitchen, where volunteers served hot meals. But in the lead-up to this Ramadan, Adil Abdurahman, community service co-chair of 901 Ummah, revamped the meals to emphasize more produce.
“I’ve been given an above-average cooking ability and passion for combating food insecurity,” Abdurahman says. “It’s an obligation for me to use these gifts I’ve been given.” Volunteers have dubbed the future medical student “head chef,” as he cooks meals such as coconut curry or cumin-spiked veggie stir-fry for Feed the City to distribute weekly in food-insecure areas of Memphis.
Community engagement isn’t possible for some people due to COVID restrictions, but for Abdurahman, the pandemic’s impact on this Ramadan made his call to service feel all the more urgent. Abdurahman learned to cook Ethiopian staples like elecha and gomen alongside his mother when he was 13. His childhood interest in cooking coincided with his diagnosis of type 1 diabetes. Even though his condition put him at higher risk for severe COVID complications, Abdurahman saw the pandemic as a time to count his blessings and do more to give back. “It’s our duty as Muslims to seek out people in need and use whatever energy we have left on this earth to give people a better week or a better day,” he says.
The pandemic also created obstacles for organizations like Believers Bail Out, a community-led effort to bail out Muslims in pretrial incarceration and ICE custody. “Community building is a lot easier in person, especially when you’re trying to expand movement building,” says Isra Rahman, whose Ramadan volunteer service focuses on the Chicago-based group. “There was no chaplain on site due to the pandemic,” Rahman says. “People in prison aren’t even permitted the right to worship or break their fast when they should.”
Believers Bail Out has nonetheless made progress toward its ultimate goal of building a movement around abolition work by engaging Muslim communities in grassroots abolitionist advocacy. This Ramadan, Rahman is engaging in a variety of Believers Bail Out initiatives, like packaging hot foods into iftar boxes and delivering them to recently-bailed-out Muslims. For the first time in its history, Believers Bail Out is providing an opportunity for incarcerated Muslims to partake in the Islamic tradition of breaking their fasts with a date: After finding a sponsor to donate dates and battling the bureaucracies of the prison system, the group got permission to donate dates to more than 200 Muslims in Chicago’s Cook County Jail. Rahman, alongside a team of volunteers, spent three days dividing and packing 18,000 dates into individual COVID-friendly packets.
For Rahman, working with Believers Bail Out a full year into the pandemic made the urgency of abolition work more relevant than ever. “I have seen how COVID isolates incarcerated members of our community. It’s reminded me of all the ways prisons are unjust.” Rahman, and many volunteers like her, have a new understanding of what it means to serve a community in its entirety, allotting due diligence to the often lonely Ramadan experiences of incarcerated and previously incarcerated Muslims. “Abolition is really an extension of Islam for me,” Rahman says.
As Muslims continue to get vaccinated, the spirit of revival grows among those rejoining festivities and prayers — ultimately in the hope of creating some semblance of a pre-COVID Ramadan. Meanwhile, for folks waiting on their vaccine appointments, this Ramadan doesn’t look that different from 2020’s Zoom iftars and socially distant food exchanges.
But restoring Ramadan festivities to the pre-COVID status quo is no longer the priority for organizers. While the pandemic’s ongoing economic burden and safety regulations left many with perpetual logistical nightmares to troubleshoot, it was under these circumstances that organizers stepped up to the plate and redesigned Ramadan practices with new standards of ethics and inclusivity — standards that will transcend this year and beautify Ramadan for good.
Mehreen Karim is a recipe developer and writer.