Ramadan Under Lockdown:
Examining the Religious, Economic and Political Dynamics
by Maged Srour
On 23 April, the holy month of Ramadan began. This is a month of fasting, worship and community— Ramadan commemorates the Quran's revelation to Prophet Muhammad. Muslims fast during daylight hours, from dawn to sunset, a practice that is seen as one of the five pillars of Islam. The two main meals — 'suhoor' and 'iftar' — are usually enjoyed in group gatherings among family, friends or in mosques. The coronavirus pandemic has made this Ramadan very different and it forced religious and political authorities to review traditions and rituals in light of the measures of social distancing imposed worldwide to contain Covid-19.
If it were not for this pandemic, Muslim-majority countries across the Middle East and worldwide would now be immersed in festive atmospheres. Every day, after breaking their fast, people gather on the streets, shops, and restaurants until very late at night. Mosques would be crowded particularly after the sunset's prayer — 'maghreb' — to share the 'iftar' meal in groups and then later pray the Taraweeh, another typical ritual of the month of Ramadan.
Such conviviality and devotion has been reduced to individual homes because of Covid-19. As happened in other key sectors, such as education and sports (etc), digital tools made important contributions to community life while respecting international rules of engagement. For instance, the Grand Mufti of Egypt, Shawqi Allam, announced the beginning of Ramadan via Facebook video-conference and many sermons have been broadcast via Zoom while meals are prepared with YouTube recipes.
Among the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, all decided to adjust to the suit the current circumstances. Because of its early success in containing COVID-19, Bahrain, (unlike most of its Gulf neighbours), is hosting public Taraweeh prayers in the al-Fateh Grand Mosque. However, these prayers only involve five people and the imam and they are aired on television—all other mosques in the Kingdom remain closed. Kuwait extended its strict curfew until the end of May, including the whole of Ramadan. All mosques and prayer rooms will remain closed. Oman has banned all mass gatherings, including prayers. Qatar closed mosques with no announcement of them reopening and all Ramadan gatherings, such as 'iftar' in mosques and other group activities, is strictly prohibited. Saudi Arabia has also enforced strict lockdown measures, including the suspension of all prayers at mosques. The Kingdom's Grand Mufti, Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Sheikh, has said that even Eid al-Fitr prayers at the end of the month should be held at home. The Kingdom had earlier suspended the Islamic pilgrimage of Umrah. For Riyadh, this pandemic will inevitably cause significant economic loss and that is a problem that the Kingdom cannot underestimate because pilgrimage is the backbone of plans to expand visitor numbers under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's ambitious economic reform agenda. In the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the National Disinfection Programme has been amended to eight hours, from 2200h (10:00 pm) until 0600h (06:00 am) during Ramadan and residents are only allowed out for essential grocery and medicine purchases and vital sector work. The Emirates’ Fatwa Council urged Muslims to pray at home and ruled that the Taraweeh prayer could be done at home too.
The need to contain the spread of the virus has been adequately perceived across the region. However, what many analysts say is worrying are the consequences that these closures will have in the medium and long term.
What Happens after Ramadan?
All things considered, spending the month of Ramadan with strict social distancing is tolerable. This is a difficult sacrifice for Muslim communities as it entails suspending some traditions that cannot be repeated at any other time of the year. Because the world is now under special circumstances, such misgivings have been mitigated and largely accepted. However, beyond the obvious social ramifications, COVID-19 will have acute economic and political consequences.
The first serious economic effect will be felt immediately after Ramadan, on Eid al-Fitr, which is the first day of the month of Shawwal and a holiday known as the ‘Festival of Breaking the Fast.’ On that day, Muslims usually gather in mosques for the special prayer of the festivity, called ‘Salat al-Eid.’ This will likely not take place. Other typical customs of Eid al-Fitr are the exchange of gifts and the donning of new clothes for the day, which represents a spiritual renewal. During the last week of Ramadan, streets across Middle Eastern countries are usually crowded after the iftar meal. People go on major shopping outings to purchase gifts and clothing and toys for their families and friends. Each year, Eid al-Fitr sees a surge in consumption and local vendors rely on this surge, which will now be tempered because of the lockdown measures.
Tourism is also set to take a small stumble this year. The end of Ramadan usually marks the beginning of travel season for people of all social backgrounds. After an entire month of a changed daily schedule, sacrifice, spiritual reflection and renunciations it is common for people to take a well-needed break. In recent years, the end of Ramadan has even begun to coincide with the school summer holidays, making the end of the holy month pivotal for the tourism sector for all economies in the Middle East. The fight against COVID-19 is imposing losses in relation to tourism for both those that fully rely on it and for those, like Saudi Arabia, on the cusp of a tourism revival.
What Happens to the Hajj, to the Pilgrimage?
Saudi Arabia is likely cancelling the Hajj — the Mecca pilgrimage — this year, which should take place on 31 July. If it is cancelled, it marks a historical sacrifice. The Hajj is much more than tourism for the Kingdom, it is one of the five pillars of Islam and since Saudi Arabia is the recognised Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, the possible interruption of this year’s Hajj will illustrate both how cautious Saudi Arabia is being and responsible to the wider international community since the Hajj is truly a global event. And, between two to three million visitors gather in the hometown of Muhammad during the holy month of Dhu l-Hijja—the twelfth month of the Muslim calendar. In 2015, religious tourism generated six billion euros in Mecca during the pilgrimage month and 16 billion throughout the year. The cancellation of the pilgrimage would also be a tremendous economic loss for the Kingdom.
20 May 2020
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