Wednesday 20 May 2020

'It’s a very different Ramadan': how coronavirus has upended ancient rituals

This year, Islam’s holiest month has been held in lockdown in Australia. Mufti Zeeyad Ravat, from Melbourne, sees some positives: ‘It’s bonding families’

Mufti Zeeyad Ravat is an Islamic scholar, an authority on the day-to-day practice of Islam. His path to Australia was a circuitous one, from his birthplace in Johannesburg, South Africa, through India, Syria (where he studied Arabic), Brazil, Brisbane and Melbourne. In March last year, he travelled to New Zealand to lead a prayer service in Christchurch after 50 worshipers at a mosque were slaughtered.
During Ramadan, Mufti Zeeyad Ravat broadcasts lessons live on social media from his home in Melbourne, Australia. He sees coronavirus as a test and a vehicle to take him closer to God. Photograph: Gay Alcorn/The Guardian

Ravat, 39, is a bundle of energy, his arms waving to make a point, one leg tucked underneath him on a recliner in his home in Dandenong in south-east Melbourne. The everyday noise of family life (he is married with five children) break through from the next room as he explains how important Ramadan is, and how the coronavirus pandemic has upended its rituals.

“It’s a very different Ramadan,” he says. “I think it’s the first and last Ramadan of this kind.”

There are 1.8 billion Muslims in the world. More than 600,000 live in Australia, some born here, some arriving from countries as diverse as Indonesia, Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt, Indonesia, Pakistan and Somalia. There are different cultures, different traditions.

Like the followers of any religion, there are the devout and the less devout. Some people, says Ravat, pray five times a day. Others turn up for Friday prayers only. But Ramadan is special.

Ramadan is Islam’s holiest month, a time for reflection and self-discipline, as well as fasting from dawn to dusk for 30 days. This year in Australia, it began on 23 April and ends on 23 May.
Mufti Zeeyad Ravat (right) leads a prayer at the Deans Avenue memorial near the Al Noor mosque in Christchurch on 19 March 2019. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

The idea of Ramadan hasn’t changed, Ravat says. It’s a time when acts of goodness – always an obligation – are especially rewarded. The practice of generosity, particularly to the poor and vulnerable, is intensified. Ravat’s garage is full of boxes of groceries ready to be delivered to those struggling to buy food.

“We look forward to the month of Ramadan, because it’s that time that whatever you couldn’t do in the last 11 months, it’s the one month that you can speed up things, you can get things going from the spiritual perspective.”

The world is full of greed and power, he says, and “fasting is to realign our focus. We keep hungry for 30 days during the day. It’s taming the ego, and ultimately, slowly, that ego breaks down and the spirituality takes over. It’s about becoming peaceful.”

The rituals of Ramadan are impossible this year, with academics saying the restrictions are a first for Islam.

There are no communal gatherings in mosques for “tarawih” prayers every night after the fast is broken. There are no large iftar dinners with family and friends.

Last year, Ravat spent Ramadan at the Pillars of Guidance Community Centre, which he helped found in Melbourne’s south-east in 2016. Ravat is Sunni, of the Hanafi school, but says the centre’s purpose is to welcome everyone. There’s a strong social welfare program, youth classes, advice on traditions such as weddings, and a fine-dining restaurant.
The Gallipoli mosque in Auburn, Sydney, is among places of worship around the world that are closed to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Photograph: Brook Mitchell/Getty Images

During Ramadan, Muslims gathered at the centre after dusk to listen to Ravat recite a chapter of the Qur’an (the whole Qur’an is spoken over 30 days) and to teach a lesson afterwards.

As a boy in South Africa, Ravat memorised the Qur’an – a respected but uncommon practice among Muslims – and says that even if people can’t understand Arabic, it has meaning.

“It’s so melodious and beautiful that when you read it it actually soothes you and the meaning is so beautiful, because God is talking to you,” he says.

This year, mosques and other places of religious worship are shut to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Families are expected to recite the tarawih prayers at home and iftars are only for households. Each evening, Ravat or his eldest son recite a chapter of the Qur’an to the family. The little ones, he says, get a little tired of the prayers and are not expected to fast every day.

“The challenge is that in normal Ramadans, you have a strong environment in the mosque, a community that creates that vibe of Ramadan,” he says. “You go to the mosque, everyone is praying, and the imam is reading … and there’s these huge iftars that are happening.

God creates everything, whether it is a plague or whether it’s good times- Mufti Zeeyad Ravat

“There’s no environment [now] … that has bothered a lot of people, a lot of people are feeling down,” he says.

But “disaster is the mother of invention”. A week before Ramadan, Ravat set up a makeshift studio in his living room, with a camera and lights. Each night he broadcasts a lesson live on social media. His 18-year-old son, a tech wizard, works the camera. Up to 12,000 people have tuned in.

Similar experiments are happening across the country. Dr Ibrahim Abu Muhammad, the Grand Mufti of Australia and New Zealand, has said that online tarawih prayers should not be held “because one of the conditions of the group prayers is that there is direct contact between the imam and the people”. But online lessons and teachings are encouraged.

Ravat sees some positives emerging.

“It’s bonding families,” he says. “We’re stuck at home now [and] we actually eat much more slowly because there’s no rush.”

Every major religion has struggled to explain suffering in a spiritual context. Some believers have argued that natural disasters are a test of faith; others that they are a punishment of some kind, a notion that can seem cruel.
Mufti Zeeyad Ravat gives a lesson to his children at home. Photograph: Gay Alcorn/The Guardian

Jesuit priest James Martin wrote in the New York Times that it’s the same question when a single child dies from cancer or a hurricane kills hundreds of people: why, if God is all powerful and all-loving, does he not prevent such suffering?

“In the end, the most honest answer to the question of why the Covid-19 virus is killing thousands of people, why infectious diseases ravage humanity and why there is suffering at all is: we don’t know,” he writes.

For Ravat, Allah is all-knowing, the creator of everything, which includes Covid-19. Mehmet Ozalp, associate professor in Islamic Studies at Charles Sturt University, wrote in the Conversation that while the emergence of the virus might not be in human control, its spread is. The prophet Muhammad sought medical treatment and encouraged his followers to do the same, saying that “God has not made a disease without appointing a remedy for it, with the exception of one disease – old age”.

Ravat puts it this way: “God creates everything, whether it is a plague or whether it’s good times, God creates it, but it’s us with our actions that draws whichever one [out].”

He does see this time as some kind of cleansing, some kind of reckoning. “As human beings we are greedy, we cannot just be happy with what we have, we want to conquer this world, we want to dig every hole, we want to turn every mountain upside down, we want to pull every [piece of] coal out, we want to suppress the weaker.”

Coronavirus is a test, a vehicle to take him closer to God. But has it shaken his faith in any way, even for a moment?
“No,” he says. “Never ever.”

(Source: The Guardian)

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