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Ramadan during confinement: A homecoming to basics of the religion
In this time of health crisis, Ramadan is in turmoil. Places of worship are closed, and family gatherings are prohibited, preventing Muslims from practicing Ramadan as they used to. In every corner of Europe, believers are returning to their faith and taking advantage of these difficult times to find new ways to reconnect with their families and friends.
Being closer to your family
“Ramadan brings us closer to our family.” Chérine Chevalier, a 20-year-old French woman, is spending the school year alone in her apartment, far from her family. ’A religious aspect that is both linked to Ramadan and important to her is contact with others. Although she sometimes goes home to her parents on weekends, the French student takes advantage of this confinement to make up for lost time: “Usually, I don’t have much time for family moments.” Eldest of three brothers and sisters, the student devotes more time to them and takes benefits of this period to organize activities, such as board games. During Ramadan, meals are prepared with the entire family via video calls with the rest of the relatives living in Casablanca in Morocco. A convivial moment that she cherishes, and which reminds her of the festive meals celebrated in past years.
In the other end of Europe, almost 1400 kilometres from France, another country deals with this situation. In Turkey, Ramadan is an especially important period for religious people, which everyone takes serious. Living in Istanbul, Yagmur Akar, 22 years old, explains: “People usually avoid eating or drinking water in public areas in order to respect people who are fasting”.
As an only child, Yagmur Akar is celebrating Ramadan only with her parents this year in Istanbul. A situation she describes as “a little bit odd” because her family is used to meeting relatives and friends for dinner at the end of the fasting period. For her, Ramadan also means solidarity and unity. The Muslim woman remembers the atmosphere in the city during the previous years: “If Ramadan is during summer, generally, in some neighbourhoods, the municipality arranges open-air movie nights and other stuff to entertain people after dinner.” One of her warmest memories is linked to the traditional dish Ramadan pide. It is a special bread very much eaten by the Turks during this period. “People line up in front of bakeries especially just before dinner time to bring it home while it is still warm.” Since the coronavirus crisis, this tradition could not be renewed, to the great regret of the believer.
But this year, everything is being done remotely: “We will just make a video call with my family to make good wishes, some older people listen to prayers on television and pray with everybody at the same time.” Normally, after a month of fasting, she used to be reunited with her family to celebrate the end of Ramadan for three to four days. Far from the big feasts, this year, faith is expressed in a more personal way.
An overturned organization
In this period of confinement, Ramadan takes place in unusual times. Originally meaning “great heat” in Arabic, Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam. A particularly important period for the religious, which is celebrated during the ninth month of the Muslim calendar, then shifting the date each year. The purpose of fasting is the purification of believers, in order to detach themselves from material goods and devote entirely to God. In this time of crisis, Muslim authorities have decided to maintain Ramadan with adjusting measures. They have recalled that fasting can be dispensed for the sick of coronavirus, no matter what, as well as for travellers, the elderly, pregnant women or the ones who have just given birth. The fasting period can take place at a later date.
In France, as President Emmanuel Macron has plunged the country into complete confinement, it is impossible to get out. In this period of Ramadan, which began on the night of April 23 in France and will end around May 24, family reunification is prohibited and places of worship like mosques are closed.
In Turkey, Islam is the main religion followed by a vast majority. It is estimated that 83 per cent of the population is Muslim. For the beginning of Ramadan, President Erdogan announced a strict confinement from April 23 to April 26 to prevent the spread of the coronavirus epidemic. The number of deaths is estimated to be around 3000 people in Turkey. Outside these dates, the lockdown is not generalized but universities and public spaces are closed. Similarly, citizens under 20 years old and those over 65 years old are banned from the streets. Unable to go to school, Yagmur Akar stays at her parents’ house in Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city. This period of crisis is not easy to bear for her: “For me, I can’t say it helps a lot to get through this easier, but I sure feel like praying and practicing more. We feel the need to ask for help to get over with this as fast as we can.”
Finding comfort in faith
“Religion helps us get through this. We surrender to God; we pray for everything to work out.” As for many believers, Chérine Chevalier relies on her faith to overcome this period. Despite the changes related to Ramadan, she puts things into perspective and tries to take advantage of them. As a French engineering student, she does not have a lot of time for herself. “Confinement allows us to pray on time, which is more difficult when I have classes all day.” For her, Ramadan can be summed up in three pillars: gather, sharing and reflection. Taking the word literally, she takes benefits of her free time to read and learn more about her religion.
Alhadji Bouba Nouhou, a French professor specializing in the Arab world, has received testimonies from followers of multiple religions. “Individuals, believers or not, embark on a spiritual search through reading or meditation, because they have no other occupation that can disturb them.” A need for comfort seems necessary. “Whether in a scientific, historical or religious dimension, the individual seeks information to appease him,” he says. Many believers experience this period of confinement with difficulty because they are unable to meet with a religious leader and are not able to gather with their families. “Religious events such as baptisms and weddings are postponed. This is hard for people who have been planning this for years.” Social ties are also distant, preventing people from visiting their older relatives, and those who are critically ill.
“Originally, fasting was more of a spiritual retreat”
According to religious leaders, Ramadan loses one of its most important aspects because of the crisis: sharing. A time when it is difficult to be far away from each other, knowing that religion etymologically means “that connects together”. The social and convivial dimension is put aside”, says Alhadji Bouba Nouhou. If today Ramadan refers more to a great feast with the whole family, some religious as Kahina Bahloul, France’s first female imam, think that the confinement is also an opportunity to reconnect with the very origins of this event. ‘’The image of Ramadan today is very festive but originally, fasting was more of a spiritual retreat.’’ Interviewed by the French media France-Info, Kahina Bahloul redefines the main nature of Ramadan. ‘’The fasting of Ramadan was part of the early days of Islam as part of a wider ascetic practice. It was a spiritual retreat, a moment of recollection that was accompanied by fasting to put our physical senses on the alert and exacerbate our spiritual sensitivity,’’ she says.
The emergence of new religious practices
“We’re seeing a return of another way of believing”, says Alhadji Bouba Nouhou. For any religion, believers are looking for new ways to communicate and keep in touch with each other. “I received the testimony of a church in Corsica. The villagers sent photos of themselves to the priests, who stuck it on the empty chairs. Religious leaders practice after their oath,”explains the specialist. Far from each other, religious chiefs and believers are inventing new ways to exercise their faith, such as online prayers and preaching on the internet. The distance is compensated by virtual contacts. The Grand Mosque of Paris, for example, sets up a daily programme of invocations and recitations of the Koran broadcast on YouTube. Organizations such as the French Council of Muslim Worship are asking believers to participate in this virtual self-help. Making tools available on their website, the council calls on religious people to contribute “through oral or written interventions, recitations of the Koran, invocations and anything that can be an alternative to physical encounters in mosques.”
More believers at the end of containment?
But will all of these changes remain after the end of the lockdown? Will this period have an impact on the practice of religion? For Alhadji Bouba Nouhou, it is currently impossible to predict. “We have to wait until the deconfinement period to find out more, and that will require field surveys of religious leaders.” The question also concerns the number of believers, and whether or not it went up. “At the end of this period, people may seek psychological comfort from religion to find meaning in their lives.” Indeed, many people are going to need time to talk with each other and get to grips with their experiences.
This year, practices related to Ramadan are being disrupted. Shut away in their homes, Muslims are discovering new ways to learn about their faith. Testimonies of women believers in France and Turkey. After the United States, which takes in more than 22,000 children every year, France, along with Spain, is the second largest country in the world in terms of the importance of this type of adoption. However, in the last 10 years old, France is facing a decrease of the number of adoptions. In our final project, we want to understand what the causes and the consequences of this decreasing are.