Ramadan and COVID-19: How the Muslim community in Hong Kong is navigating through it

April 3 marked the beginning of Ramadan this year in Hong Kong and in most parts of the world. Muslims see the month of Ramadan as one of the most spiritual and holiest time in which believers observe fasting from dawn to dusk every day. It is a time of the year when communities gather in union as they set out with new resolutions and focus on their relationship with God.

But more than anything, gatherings amongst Muslims during Ramadan are a pivotal part of the Islamic customs—from performing the daily five congregated prayers to having mass-dinners called the “Iftar” meals.

“I always look forward to Ramadan. It holds a special place in my heart. It’s a very peaceful month where I feel so much more connected to my God and my fellow Muslims,”

says Dani Bibi, an 18-year old Muslim.

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However, the way Ramadan is celebrated throughout the world has greatly been altered because of COVID-19, and Hong Kong Muslims have been in the thick of it. For the city’s Muslims, this is the third consecutive year Ramadan is being celebrated under the pandemic. The religious customs observed have been largely moulded. For many believers, it has severely changed the momentum around this holy month as tough social distancing rules and closures of mosques have disrupted certain religious practices.

Background: What exactly is Ramadan and what it means for Muslims?

A common practice for Muslims to return to mosque during Ramadan. (Photo: Alysha)

Ramadan is the ninth month in the Islamic calendar and for the 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide, this sacred month encompasses great significance. It is a time for empathy, spiritual discipline, worship, increased acts of charity and, of course, fasting.

For healthy adults, fasting is compulsory as it is one of the five pillars of Islam. Ramadan entails abstaining from food and any kind of drink including water from sunrise to sunset.

A brief overview of the fasting duration around the world. (Table: Alysha)

The fasting duration in different regions and countries varies. Take Hong Kong as an example, a standard fasting period usually lasts around 14 hours. However, fasting in Norway, for instance, could last up to over 18 hours.

Nonetheless, Ramadan is not just as simple as fasting. In fact, the rationale behind fasting is to encourage Muslims to empathise with those who are less fortunate and in return, be kinder and more compassionate to the needy. Moreover, during Ramadan, being more mindful to our habits as well as our relationship with God is often equally stressed upon. This month also highlights the importance of cleansing ourselves from our past mistakes through repenting and devoting more time to worshipping.

Kids attending special Quran lessons during Ramadan at a local mosque in Pakistan. (Photo: Alysha)

While going to the mosques for daily prayers and Quran lessons is a common practice, especially amongst the youth, mosques are usually filled with a lot more people during Ramadan. Within the Islamic belief, it is a shared view that praying with fellow Muslims in mosques tremendously benefits the amount of blessing one receives.

Hong Kong: How the local Muslims are spending this year’s Ramadan

Hong Kong is home to a large Muslim population, with about 300,000 of the Islamic faith residing in the city.

The first quarter of 2022 has definitely been a roller-coaster ride for Hong Kong. The fifth wave of COVID-19 in the city, with the highly transmissible Omicron as the dominant variant, has evidently been the deadliest outbreak the city has witnessed since the beginning of the pandemic in 2020. The city’s officials had put in place tough social gathering restrictions in an effort to target the transmission clusters. Under the social distancing measures comes the restrictions imposed on religious gatherings including closures of religious premises such as mosques.

A representative from the Islamic Union, Basmah Lok says that current measures have definitely affected people’s connection with their religion. She adds,

“There is an emptiness so you are not connected with other people. In a Muslim minority community, we may not have a lot of Muslim friends so people disconnect from the faith.”

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Muslims can no longer return to their religious sites to perform congregated prayers, partake in the Friday religious talks and more importantly, break their fast with fellow Muslims. It is usually a common practice for mosques to prepare large quantities of food as many believers flock to mosques by the end of the day to break their fast and subsequently, perform a special Ramadan evening prayer called “Taraweeh”.

“Ramadan has always been about communal prayers and enjoying Iftar meal with a large group of people, and not being able to do that just takes away one of the most significant parts (of) this month,” says Khan Kiran Nisa, a 20 year-old Pakistani Muslim born and raised in Hong Kong.

“It is just like celebrating your birthday all alone, it doesn’t feel complete. Ramadan has always been about big gathering and a time for sharing, and its disappointing to see how we are still stuck in the same place as we were two years ago,”

she continues.

However, as the COVID-19 cases start to plateau and infection caseload drops as the city logs less than 5,000 confirmed positive cases per day, almost eight times lower than the case count weeks ago, the government intends to relax the anti-epidemic related restrictions from April 21, given cases don’t rebound.

This would mean that mosques could be allowed to reopen and there could still be a chance for Muslims to return to mosques in the last few remaining days of Ramadan. In light of this, Hong Kong mosques are bracing for a reopening whilst also taking into account the latest COVID-19 guidelines.

The Chief Imam of Hong Kong, Mufti Mohammad Arshad,  says that the mosques are closely following the newest government social-distancing guidelines.

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For the Kowloon Mosque, the city’s largest mosque, preparation is on the way: A 1.5 meter distance between believers will also be observed as the mosque is being demarcated. Believers are also advised to perform adulation or “Wudu”, a purification ritual done before each prayer, at home before coming to the mosque. Those coming to the mosque are advised to put on a mask at all times, monitor their body temperature as well as sanitise their hands.

The number of worshippers allowed to pray per session will downsize from 3,000 people to just 500. As the Friday Zuhr congregation prayer, which takes place in the afternoon, is one of the most important prayers, the mosque will hold additional sessions to accommodate the increase in worshippers praying on the premise.

(Cover photo: Alysha)

Written by Alysha Bibi

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