For Ireland’s Muslims, this year’s Eid-ul-Fitr has been unlike any other

A Law student’s experience of exams and social distancing during Ramadan

This year, whenever Ramadan is mentioned, I become nostalgic. I reminisce on memorable communal iftars with luscious food shared between family and friends. I miss wearing abayas, the long elegant gowns, and enthusiastically attending Taraweeh prayers and meeting fellow Muslims. I miss knowing the route to the mosque just by seeing other Muslims dressed in festive clothing walking towards it. After Eid prayer, Muslims would hug and kiss each other Eid Mubarak with excitement and give each other Baklavas and dates. This year, due to Covid-19 and social distancing, Eid has been very different.

For the past 30 days prior to Eid-ul-Fitr this Sunday, Muslims around the world fasted for almost 18 hours a day in the month of Ramadan, fulfilling one of the five pillars of Islam. The holy month of Ramadan is a time for reflection, patience and heightened devotion. By fasting each day for a month, Muslims sacrifice food and water as a means of charity for the body and to empathise with those less fortunate and commit to worship. The month of Ramadan has great spiritual significance, as well as being the main conduit for communal gathering for the small, but vibrant, Muslim community in Ireland.

“As much as we like to make it look easy, fasting in itself is challenging, especially if exam season clashes with Ramadan – even more if you have a caffeine addiction.”

As much as we like to make it look easy, fasting in itself is challenging, especially if exam season clashes with Ramadan – even more if you have a caffeine addiction. So when the Academic Registry pushed my exam further into the second week of May, I was of mixed emotions. While, admittedly, I was delighted to have more time to prepare for an open book exam, I was also anxious since assignments and exam preparation would affect much of Ramadan. This meant that while my family was praying and reading the Holy Qur’an, I was researching and studying for exams. I felt guilty that I couldn’t fully devote myself and attain the blessings of Ramadan. I began to question my path of life. I did not like being distracted from my deen (religion) by the world’s affairs. But there was nothing I could do to solve my inner turmoil. I was a dedicated student after all, who had studied hard to reach my current position.

“I did not like being distracted from my deen (religion) by the world’s affairs.”

Although the first week of Ramadan went by quickly, I struggled to keep up the routine I had developed at the start of the lockdown. By my 10th fast, I had established a new kind of routine, albeit a distorted one. I would sleep from around 4 or 5 am after fasting and wake up around noon. I would pray the Dhuhr (noon) prayer and start working. However, no matter how much I tried, I could not keep up my focus after a few hours without my daily cappuccino. So I would often take prayer breaks to keep the appropriate balance. I would retire from my desk at around 7 pm to prepare delicious food for iftar, a period when fasting ends at sunset, which was, like all Muslims, my favourite part of the day. We would open our fast, pray Maghrib (dawn) prayer and feast as a family, since the pandemic restrictions this year swept away any plans of collective iftar. Soon after I would pray Isha (night prayer) and Taraweeh before returning to my desk to do some not-so-mentally-demanding tasks.

Usually, Taraweeh prayers would be the height of social life for Muslims in Ramadan. It is a prayer specific in the month of Ramadan when Muslims would gather in the mosque shortly after iftar and, through the prayer, set our intentions to fast on the following day. It has a great religious significance for Muslims. Furthermore, gathering as a community to pray to Allah (swt) provided tranquillity like nothing else. The prayer is the epitome of Ramadan. It would have served as the perfect de-stressor in the exam season. With the restrictions, communal congregation such as this was not possible and we were urged to pray at home. Covid-19 had deprived us of many of Ramadan’s traditions and rituals, but there was hope that things would be better for Eid. We continued other traditions virtually, like giving charity.

“Covid-19 had deprived us of many of Ramadan’s traditions and rituals, but there was hope that things would be better for Eid.”

As exam time approached, adrenaline did its work and days were more productive, notwithstanding that I was fasting throughout. The exam itself should have demanded most of my attention; it was a 4-hour exam in a module with an intensive workload. However, the biggest stumbling block for me was the time of the exam, which was scheduled at 9:30 am. I had to re-juggle my routine once more.

The night before the exam, I had suhoor, a period before sunrise when Muslims eat food, two hours early at around 2am. I began my fast and – after some tossing and turning – fell asleep. I woke up at 7 am, prayed, and did some revision to the background noise of my stomach rumbling. Perfect! Anyhow, I kept my focus and started the exam with the easier question. Time went quickly, but an hour before the end of the exam, I lost focus completely and had an excruciating headache. I paused for a while to pray and finished the exam, thankfully, with time to spare. While an online, open-book exam was otherwise a relief, fasting through a four-hour exam was intense. Ultimately, the experience was spiritually elevating, and I was proud. All I then had to do was survive my longest fast of the year. I was excitedly looking forward to my reward, Eid-Ul-Fitr, more than ever.

Soon after, the Imam, the head of the mosque, announced that instead of carrying out the Eid prayer with social distancing measures, it would be cancelled, and he instructed Muslims to pray at home. I had just come to terms with the fact that we would be devoid of Taraweeh prayers, and the cancellation of the Eid prayer was another disappointment. Notifications that Eid festivals and social events had been cancelled began to pop up on my social media feed. For some, these events offer a crucial sense of belonging while living abroad or away from relatives, while for others, they’re a source of appetizing food – either way, an undeniably important aspect of Eid. The Eid spirit in me was diminishing. It seemed unfair that nothing was being done about the fact that our important religious festival was majorly affected, nor was there any public acknowledgement of how our community was being impacted at one of the most important times in our religious calendar.

“As we continue to celebrate Eid in the coming days we mustn’t be disheartened and instead thank Allah (swt) for protecting us in these months of hardship.”

But nonetheless, accepting the awful realities, we, like the Muslim community in Ireland, abided by the restrictions like responsible citizens. Guided by religious teaching, we were optimistic. Under normal circumstances, there are no public holidays in Ireland, as of yet, for Eid. Due to Covid-19, everyone was working from home, which meant that I could celebrate Eid with my family for the entire day, which would otherwise not have been possible. I sat down with my siblings and prepared an elaborate plan for Eid involving a myriad of family activities. All the ladies in the house sat down the night before Eid and applied henna on each other’s hands. It was a night of laughter and joy.

On Eid day, following the sunnah, we wore our Eid clothes and followed the rituals, even though we were praying at home. My dad led the Eid prayer, with all my family following him. Needless to say, it was a sweet family moment. We then got our eidi or “eid present” in cash this year. Other than the prayer timing, the plan, like any other plan, was not followed! However, it was most definitely a food-filled day, and also involved endless photo sessions and video calls. It was an Eid we will all remember fondly.

While this year’s Eid festivities have been scaled down, we cherished the ability to celebrate with our family, safe and healthy, while also praying for those who are affected by the pandemic. As we continue to celebrate Eid in the coming days we must not be disheartened and instead thank Allah (swt) for protecting us in these months of hardship. Eid this year may be different, but not an imperfect one. Eid Mubarak everyone!

Saba Malik

Saba is the Deputy Online Editor of Trinity News.