Throughout the month of Ramadan, Muslims who are able fast from dawn to sunset. For many, the hardest part of Ramadan is not the physical fast itself but finding food for iftar — the nightly meal breaking it. Often, iftars are pictured as giant meals with plenty of fresh, juicy fruit and deep-fried foods like sambusa to share with your family or friends, but that’s not an option for everybody. Numerous times, I would not have been able to break my fast with more than some basic ramen if it wasn’t for a local masjid providing nightly iftars.
I’m not alone: A 2018 study from the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding found that one-third of Muslims in America are at or below the poverty line. In fact, Black Muslim households are more likely than any other racial group to earn less than $30,000 a year. Of course, Muslims are feeling the economic impacts of the coronavirus crisis, such as soaring unemployment. However, the pandemic is also changing how Muslims will practice their faith. This year, Muslims in the United States must adapt to a Ramadan under the shadow of the novel coronavirus.
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In early April, the Fiqh Council of North America, a body of Islamic scholars from the United States and Canada, wrote “masajids and Islamic centers shall strictly follow the health and state official guidelines for social gatherings and distancing.” These necessary guidelines mean Muslims will not have access to some of the usual spaces for community in Ramadan, including the masjid’s iftars. For Black Muslim hubs, like Philadelphia, where community leaders estimate the Muslim population to be at 150,000 to 200,000 — or 10 to 15 percent of the total population — a Ramadan under lockdown can have drastic impacts on the community.
In Philadelphia, five masjids are responding to the pandemic with Philly Iftar 2020 where volunteers will help deliver iftars. It is one way to ensure that those who normally rely on the masjid to provide iftar are able to still access that service. Qasim Rashad, Amir of the United Muslim Masjid (UMM), located ten blocks from Philadelphia’s City Hall, told TalkPoverty, “We do service a low-income population and we rely upon those who have greater resources to help us do that.”
Outside of Philadelphia, Muslims continue to worry about how their communities will fare. Aicha Belabbes, a Muslim living in Boston, shared that she was furloughed due to the pandemic and it has amplified some of her pre-existing concerns for her community.
“In Boston, there were iftars galore. If you needed food, there was always a place to go,” Belabbes told TalkPoverty. “Now, I think for students, for low-income people, for [essential workers like] delivery drivers, Uber drivers, there’s no longer those places of food. Ramadan served as an escape for so many people who had difficult relationships with their families and things like that and were able to find their safe spaces. Now, that’s no longer the case.”
Belabbes said pre-existing organizations who deliver food to Muslims have been “at capacity during the virus.” In addition, a food bank run out of a local Black masjid shut down after the imam showed COVID-like symptoms. Safiyah Cheatam, a Baltimore-based interdisciplinary artist, also told TalkPoverty that go-to gathering spots in her city are no longer viable. Many in Cheatam’s community rely on masjids or Muslim-owned establishments like Nailah’s Kitchen, a Senegalese restaurant, for iftar and she sees a need for relief like the mutual aid grants popular on social media.
Masjids are not the only ones taking on the issue of food access. In Buffalo, New York, Drea d’Nur, an artist and mother of five, founded healthy and halal food pantry Feed Buffalo in 2018. She was inspired by her own experiences using food pantries where there were no halal options and few healthy foods. d’Nur told TalkPoverty, “In the discussion of building healthy communities, we stand on the truth that no one should be exempt from healthy food access despite health conditions or spiritual practices. It was important to me that Muslims have a space that honors the halal standard and that all are served with love.”
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, Feed Buffalo is now functioning as an emergency food relief center for at least four hours every day of the week. In addition, the pantry will hold its second annual Ramadan Healthy Food Giveaway, where d’Nur estimates that Feed Buffalo provides 200 healthy food bags to fasting families, and commits to preparing soups for at least 50 families using ingredients from local farmers once a week.
Support for low-income Muslims in Ramadan extends past food alone. For example, while some Muslims may be able to access community by congregating with their families (or whoever else they’re already social distancing with) in their homes, this isn’t an option for everybody. Both Belabbes and Cheatam raised concerns over reports of rising domestic violence rates during the pandemic. Home may not be a safe space or, like myself, you may live alone and be the only Muslim in your family. Rashad shared that the UMM is conscious of this and will continue making plans to look after the spiritual needs of its community. Rashad said, “We want to keep and maintain that spiritual connection because spiritual mental health is important. We want to maintain their connection to Allah and their connection to the masjid.”
Belabbes hopes that the larger Muslim community understands issues amplified by the pandemic will not disappear when it ends. Belabbes said, “I’ve seen a lot of people saying, ‘I’ve never had to do things virtually.’ But a lot of Muslims who are marginalized had to do things virtually for a long time. I would like there to be an understanding that in the eyes of Allah, everyone’s equal, and everybody deserves to be seen equally in the community.”