PATERSON, NJ – With New Jersey under a stay-at-home order until at least June and residents being urged to practice social distancing to prevent the spread of the virus, Paterson’s large Muslim community has changed how it’s observing their Ramadan.

Considered the holiest month in the Islamic calendar, Ramadan is when Muslims believe the Quran was first revealed to the Prophet Muhammad and mark the time with fasting from sunrise to sunset, prayer and charity.

“From the small to the largest aspects of the month, everything has changed,” said Salaheddin Mustafa, outreach director at the Islamic Center of Passaic County.

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Looking Back: Vibrancy of South Paterson Displayed on Eve of Ramadan

“We all actually spend most of the year yearning for the month to come because life, to some degree, slows down in this fast-paced society. You make time to visit family and friends. And, your priorities of faith, family and doing good deeds seem to be in order,” he said.

Typically a time for togetherness, community, reflection and prayer, Mustafa said, “There is definitely some heartbreak that we are not able to do the usual communal things during this month.”

“But, we thank God Almighty for all things and realize that this can also be a huge opportunity to deepen your relationship with him and to deepen your relationship with your immediate family,” Mustafa said. “This year is a much more ‘active’ and/or participative way of practicing our faith.”

How Ramadan is Normally Marked

During Ramadan, Muslims fast (“sawm”) during the daylight hours, a practice seen as one of the five pillars of Islam. They can eat before sunrise (“suhoor”) and break the fast after dusk each day (“iftar”), two meals that are typically shared amongst friends and family.

Another big aspect of Ramadan involves special evening prayers called “taraweeh,” which are held daily at a mosque and performed by the imam, the congregation’s prayer leader.

In addition to fasting and prayer during Ramadan, Muslims are focused on charity, or “zakat,” another of the five pillars of Islam.  Ramadan ends with a three-day holiday called Eid al-Fitr, which includes feasts, gift exchanges and celebrations.

Ramadan in 2020

The pandemic has disrupted worship around the world for Ramadan, which began on the evening of April 23 and lasts for 30 days, causing mosque closures and modified calls for prayers. “We are leading the prayers ourselves in our homes and reciting in our own voices,” Mustafa said.

“That’s why it is much more ‘active’ or participatory than the more ‘passive’ worship in the mosque where you are led in prayer by a religious leader,” he said. “Each home now has their own religious leader or ‘imam’ leading the prayer. In our home, we allow the children – in our case, all high school or college age, to lead prayers at times.”

The Islamic Center of Passaic County has several online offerings, including daily reflections with Imam Mohammad Qatanani, Quran study circles and Ramadan programs for families. The mosque is also providing hot meals that can be picked up curbside for senior citizens, disabled people and those in need.

As New Jersey continues to battle against the COVID-19 outbreak, Mustafa pointed out the need for charitable giving is especially great this year.  More than 135,000 people have been infected by the virus, close to 9,000 have died and over a million residents have filed jobless claims over the past seven weeks.

Mustafa said, “The most obvious way to help if you cannot physically perform is to donate financial resources to benefit those less fortunate than yourself.” The community “has really stepped up in a remarkable way to demonstrate that providing charity in a time like this is really what God wants us to do,” he said. 

“There are so many groups and individuals in our area that have done truly Godly work. Groups like the Palestinian American Community Center and of course the ICPC are just doing extraordinary work and touching thousands of people in need,” Mustafa said. “From delivering boxes filled with food items, to having a drive-up and pick-up nightly dinner, to providing cleaning products to those in need.”

Mustafa also praised local business owners, such as Al Basha Restaurant, Wise Guys Pizza, Toros Restaurant and Taskin Bakery, for pitching in to help.

“The list is too long so apologize that we can't add everyone as they are all deserving of recognition.  The work is just downright awe-inspiring and makes you really feel proud to be part of this community.  And this work has been recognized by our distinguished and honorable Gov. Phil Murphy,” he said.

A downside to this year’s observance is not being able to come together in the traditional sense. “You miss so much the ‘community’ of people that pray together,” Mustafa said.

Paterson is home to “one of the largest Muslim communities” in the country, with a congregant base of more than 250,000 people, according to the Islamic Center of Passaic County. There are also at least 12 mosques in the city.

Mustafa said, “What is so incredible in our area is the tremendous diversity of people that are all around you – from all over the world and from every race. So, you really miss seeing that mosaic and knowing that you are in communion with people everywhere.”

Muslims are being encouraged to stay in touch safely by using technology.

“From Zoom to FaceTime to YouTube to Google Duo, each family and organization has adapted as best as they can and would say it’s interesting that I have nightly conversations with my seven sisters and brothers. That never happened before. And I know other families are doing the same thing,” Mustafa said. “So, in a way, it has brought us closer together while we are apart.”

Plans for Eid al-Fitr – also known as “the festival of breaking the fast” – haven’t yet been determined, Mustafa said.

“There is a faint hope, of course, that there may be some ‘external’ commemoration, but reality is more likely that it will be a virtual Eid,” Mustafa said. “I would imagine similar to the way Easter was celebrated by our Christian brothers and sisters.”

“Our religious leaders will likely conduct virtual sermons with thousands of people tuning in. And then we do the traditional greetings to our family and friends wishing them well, but of course, via Zoom, FaceTime or Google Duo.”

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