Not a hardship, but a blessing: Back-to-basics Ramadan

Not a hardship, but a blessing: Back-to-basics Ramadan

Why We Wrote This

By design, Ramadan is a soulful time of fasting, reflection, and charity. But for many in recent years, it’s also become a time of conspicuous consumption and competition. The pandemic has stripped that away.

Alaa al-Marjani/Reuters

Iraqi family members eat their evening iftar meal to break the fast during Ramadan in the holy city of Najaf, Iraq, April 27, 2020.

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May 19, 2020

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In recent years, many Arab families were expected to whip up or order an Instagram-able feast to break the fast each night of Ramadan. To “keep up with the neighbors” and impress waves of guests, families would give rooms an entire makeover: new cushions, drapes, light fixtures. A new television. In some Arab countries, estimates of food waste during Ramadan reached 25% to 30%.

But this year, no guests are walking through the door. Salaries have been slashed, jobs furloughed. Indeed, the coronavirus pandemic’s restrictions are stripping away a consumerist culture that recently had built up around an austere holiday of fasting. In its place, spirituality is refilling the void in a back-to-basics Ramadan.

“We don’t need extravagance for Ramadan,” says Mohammed, a retired clerk in Amman as he shops for pita. “We just thank God for our health, a home, and food to eat.”

“There is no need to go to a salon or dress up every night from home,” says Rana Masri, a nurse and mother in the West Bank. “This pandemic has been a reminder that outward appearances aren’t important. It is your faith and your heart that matters.”

AMMAN, Jordan

Traversing a downtown Amman market, Mohammed breezes right by what were once must stops for Ramadan: decor shops, sweets, colorful lights, tailors.

He is here only for the basics: bread.

With Muslims dealing with both social distancing and the growing economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, many like Mohammed have a new perspective on the holy month.

“We don’t need extravagance for Ramadan,” the retired clerk says as he enters a bakery for a 75-cent-bag of pita. “We just thank God for our health, a home, and food to eat.”

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Indeed, the pandemic’s restrictions are stripping away a consumerist culture that recently had built up around an austere holiday of fasting and, with it, the social pressure to host and impress.

In their place, spirituality is refilling the void: The core tenets of prayer, reflection, patience, and charity are again the focus of a back-to-basics Ramadan.

From feast to frugal

One of the places where this shift is most visible is the home itself.

On Instagram and Facebook, in lifestyle magazines and on Youtube channels, pressure had intensified on Muslim families to serve elaborate fast-breaking sunset iftar meals with a perfect decor that would put Martha Stewart to shame. 

In some Muslim communities, in order to “keep up with the neighbors” and impress waves of guests during the holy month, families would give rooms an entire makeover: new cushions, drapes, light fixtures, a fresh coat of paint, holiday-themed plateware, a new television.  

Expenditures in Arab households would rise 30% to 50% during Ramadan, according to various estimates.

But this year, no guests are walking through the door. Salaries have been slashed, jobs furloughed; for some, there has been no income at all. Local markets have shortages, and economies from Saudi Arabia to Lebanon are in crisis.

“My salary has been cut in half; we don’t have savings to change the decor – and besides, no one is coming over,” says Murad Seif, a Jordanian plumber who last year purchased a new sofa and chairs prior to the holy month. He has only been back at work since last week, having had no income since March.

“Instead of wasting what little savings we have this month on something we don’t need, we will donate it as zakat to someone who can’t meet their basic needs,” he says.

Trips to the hair salon, manicures and pedicures, and new “Ramadan fashion” suddenly seem redundant and excessive.

“There is no need to go to a salon or dress up every night from home,” says Rana Masri, a nurse and mother from Nablus, in the West Bank. “This pandemic has been a reminder that outward appearances aren’t important. It is your faith and your heart that matters.”

Refocusing on prayer

In recent years there was no shortage of distractions for Abu Aamar’s family or for many others in the evenings following the iftar.

Nights, prime viewing time for Ramadan TV specials, were also filled with visits to shopping malls, amusement parks, cafes buzzing with live music, cinemas, street markets, friends and relatives, with some families splitting up to go their separate ways after clearing their plates.

Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters

Before the pandemic, and during: Residents of Ezbet Hamada in the Mataria district gather to eat the sunset iftar meal during Ramadan in Cairo, May 20, 2019; the same area on May 1, 2020, as mass iftars were canceled due to the outbreak of the coronavirus.

Now Abu Aamar, whose insurance office has been shuttered since mid-March, spends his afternoons and evenings reading “stories of the prophets” to his children and reciting with them the Quran.

“This Ramadan has given me a chance to slow down and talk to my children about the Quran and what questions they had,” he says. “We always took for granted that going to Friday prayers together each week was enough.”

The pandemic is also emphasizing patience, a critical trait for Muslims, particularly during Ramadan.

“In Ramadan, you are making forbidden to yourself what is usually allowed, with the point of drawing yourself closer to the consciousness of God,” H.A. Hellyer, the Arab world scholar and writer, says from Cairo.

“It should not normally be forbidden to leave the house, to congregate with loved ones, or go to a restaurant, but that is exactly what is happening now,” he says. “We are making these permissible acts also forbidden – and for many this is another lesson in self-control and reflection.”

“By and large, Muslim scholars are encouraging Muslim communities to recognize that even in times of trial, there are opportunities to deepen the spiritual life.”

Meanwhile, restrictions that have meant the temporary loss of the mosque for communities have put prayer squarely back in the home.

Amid lockdowns and night curfews, many households are praying together regularly at home for the first time.

Muslims believe Ramadan is when the Quran was first revealed to the prophet Muhammad; Quranic verses and sayings attributed to Muhammad urge Muslims to use the holy month as a chance to focus on scripture and its meaning.

Says Ms. Masri, the Nablus nurse: “Instead of discovering a new TV series, we are rediscovering our holy text.”

Food revolution

Then there is the food.

In recent years, many Arab families were expected to whip up or order in an Instagram-able feast each night: stuffed roasted lamb, sushi, chow mein, custard tarts.

Large iftars featuring multiple main dishes, sides, appetizers, and salads – a far cry from the dates and yogurt that the prophet Muhammad and his companions would rely on to break their fast – would lead to an estimated 25% to 30% food waste in Arab countries.

“You would have huge, massive buffet-style iftars; nobody can eat all that, so people threw away a lot of this food – which obviously is not in keeping with the spirit of Ramadan in the slightest,” Dr. Hellyer says.

“Now instead, you are seeing more people cooking just enough to eat. There is a lot less waste happening, and people are spending less.”

Even in Saudi Arabia, where oil wealth fueled a mass-consumerist culture that spread throughout the region, frugality is in vogue.

“Restaurants are open, but we are not ordering or purchasing expensive sweets. Everything this year is from the home,” says Ali al-Sultan, a marketing officer from Riyadh. Like many Saudis, he has become anxious over an oil price plunge and an economic crisis in his country.

“We are using local ingredients like wheat and yogurt and going back to the simple recipes of our grandparents from before there was wealth or restaurants,” he says. “This is not a hardship. This is a blessing.”

In Amman, Um Aamar has gone from cooking international dishes such as chicken curry or Iraqi fish to carefully measuring ingredients and relying on what is saved up in her pantry.

“Last night we just cooked leftover fava beans, scrambled eggs, and put olives, hummus, and labneh on the table for iftar,” she says. “We never felt so full or satisfied. Our children said, ‘Let’s do this every Ramadan.’”

In Tunisia, where many have been hit by the loss of tourism, some families have been pooling their resources.

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“If we have extra chickpeas, we share with our neighbors; others distribute dates, others share their olive oil,” says Fadi, a driver, via phone from his home near Gabès in southern Tunisia. “Between all of us, we are full – thank God.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

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