The Muslim call to prayer echoed from loudspeakers on the rooftop of a Minneapolis mosque Thursday night, one of the first signs that this Ramadan would be unlike any past celebrations in the Twin Cities.
Historically a time of community prayer and shared evening meals, Ramadan now unfolds as mosque doors are shut, imams preach from home computers, and families keep a social distance at home.
And many mosques, accustomed to holding major fundraisers during the holiday, instead are focusing on providing food and services to thousands in need.
Muslims in Minnesota and across the globe are reworking ancient traditions as the coronavirus upends society. That’s especially evident during Ramadan, Islam’s most sacred month, which began Thursday night with a historic first in Minneapolis.
Standing on the rooftop of Dar Al-Hijrah mosque at sunset, Ahmed Jamal solemnly approached a microphone, closed his eyes and began singing the prayer call, which was broadcast over loudspeakers donated by First Avenue to the surrounding neighborhood — a common religious practice in Muslim nations.
The public broadcast was followed by another first. The “adhan” summons Muslims to pray five times a day and invites the faithful to pray at their mosque. But this call to prayer was followed by a rare announcement urging the faithful to stay away.
“To protect human life is essential,” Imam Sharif Mohamed of Dar Al-Hijrah said as a dozen people watched from the rooftop.
“Even though we are telling people to come to the mosque, we’re also are telling them ‘Stay in your home.’ That was broadcast in Arabic, Somali, English and Oromo.”
Ramadan is Islam’s most sacred month, a time when the faithful refrain from food and drink from dawn to dusk as an act of sacrifice and discipline.
It’s also a time when Muslims for centuries have gathered with family and friends for a communal meal, called iftar, after the daily fast. The mosque has been the heart of spiritual life and social connections.
With mosque doors closed to prevent the spread of coronavirus, Ramadan is unfolding in unprecedented ways for both the faithful and their religious leaders.
Mohamed, for example, recited his evening prayers alone Thursday night, bowing on the soft carpeted floor in his mosque’s prayer hall. Other days, he’ll pray at home with his family.
“Normally there would be 400, even 500 people in here,” he said, gesturing to the large, separate prayer areas for men and women. “It would be close to midnight before some people went home.”
The scene was repeated outside mosques across Minnesota, where imams prayed with their families and then sat in front of their computers to deliver Islamic inspiration in the form of virtual prayer and teachings.
The Muslim faithful, meanwhile, were at home watching their imams via the internet. They, too, were celebrating Ramadan in new ways.
“At first there was a lot of anxiety and fear, people asking how are we going to observe Ramadan without the mosque?” said Nausheema Hussain, executive director of the nonprofit group Reviving the Islamic Sisterhood for Empowerment.
“It’s a big void,’’ Hussain said. “I’ve watched my friends who observed Passover or Easter. That’s a weekend or days. But Ramadan is 30 days. So there’s been anxiety over that.”
Hussain decided to make the most of the situation. She put up Ramadan decorations, laid down extra rugs in the living room for prayer, and included other touches to make staying at home more of a special occasion.
A native of India, she said she plans to wear traditional dress for the iftar, or evening meal, and prepare fresh, healthy foods. She and friends are now swapping ideas. Muslims are being creative and trying to make the best of their first stay-at-home Ramadan, she said.
Many religious leaders, meanwhile, have preached to their faithful that praying from home will not interfere with God hearing their prayers — a fear some Muslims have.
“Islamic centers are not the only place where we communicate with the divine,” said Imam Abdul Mawgoud Dardery of the Brooklyn Park Islamic Center. “Islam teaches that you can do that from the whole Earth.’’
Religious leaders such as Dardery also remind Muslims that Ramadan is a time for “both prayer and action.’’ While many families are making the best of the situation, others are hurting, with limited finances or far from families during this otherwise social holiday.
The Islamic Center in Brooklyn Park is encouraging its young people to reach out to older neighbors and to offer to get groceries, to visit, or to help them in other ways, Dardery said.
Other aid is being delivered in the form of food, personal counseling and other services.
In north Minneapolis, Imam Makram El-Amin is part of an effort by several organizations to provide food to Muslims in need.
“We always feed people, but with COVID-19 we were getting inundated with calls,” said El-Amin, of Masjid An-Nur.
“There’s a lot of anxiety. In short order, we had to ramp up to respond. We tapped into our core team, volunteers, our private donors, and asked them to support a project to feed mainly kids 18 and under, our seniors, and people who have disabilities.”
But calls for help aren’t just coming from Minnesota neighborhoods.
Muslims who immigrated here are also seeing increased requests from relatives back home.
“It’s a global pandemic,’’ said Kausar Hussain, who has a family nonprofit that is supporting iftar meals and food donations. “Everywhere people are struggling. People here are sending money to loved ones back home.’’
Despite this year’s uncertainties, Muslims will continue the Ramadan rituals they’ve followed for centuries — from the predawn breakfasts to daily prayers to iftar dinners with family.
Said Mohamed: “Ramadan is a joy.’’