What does it mean to be Muslim in a Ramadan changed by MCO?

APRIL 26 ― This year’s Ramadan is not the same due to the Covid-19 pandemic ― or at least Ramadan as how it is envisioned in most Muslims’ minds here.

It is telling that when Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin announced an extension to the movement control order (MCO) earlier this week, he mentioned the absence of the Ramadan bazaars first.

But religious rituals have had to change too, as restrictions have been put on mass gatherings. The tarawih prayers, usually performed in mosques every night, have disappeared ― and with them the catching up during moreh suppers afterwards.

In most Muslim communities across the world, tarawih is now performed at home with the congregation now made up of family members.

In Malaysia, some mosques will be live-streaming their committee members ― usually limited to just three men ― performing tarawih prayers through their social media accounts. 

But almost everywhere, the interpretation of Islamic jurisprudence when it comes to virtual congregations still skews towards the conservative side.

Earlier this week, Religious Affairs Minister Zulkifli Mohamad was quoted insisting that a congregational prayer is only valid if everyone is in the same space as the imam, who leads the prayers, and can see the latter’s prayer movements. There is also the issue of lagging internet connection, or time-outs, he said.

But there have been progressive interpretations elsewhere. The Islamic Centre of Ireland’s Sheikh Muhammad Umar al-Qadri, for example, delivered a fatwa, or religious edict, permitting virtual Friday and tarawih prayers, where one can join in and be part of the congregation online.

But it also comes with a caveat, admitting in its newsletter that the fatwa of permissibility is a minority opinion, and not binding. Those who are not comfortable with joining the virtual prayers can keep to the traditional way.

The fasting, of course, is still around. As one of the Five Pillars of Islam, it would continue to be practised even in calamities, although Zulkifli reminded frontliners that it is harus, or permissible for them to break their fast if this affects their focus and ability to treat patients.

But if this leeway is given ― as with many other leeways for those who cannot fast ― then Muslims have to think about the horrendous moral policing that happens every year previously against those who eat in public during Ramadan, when they are not even fasting.

Now that most adherents are stuck at home, away from the judgmental public eye, it would be pertinent to ask whether they still fast now ― or did they only do it before because they were forced to?

And if we are more than fine to leave each other alone now without moral policing ― what more as we realise that religious policing does not in any way count as “essential services” ― why do we insist on shaming those who do not fast on any other day?

The way Islam has been institutionalised and enforced here suggests that for a majority of Muslims, rituals define their religiousness.

Now that the proverbial rug has been pulled from under their feet, for some that can undeniably be scary.

But it is also a time for Muslims to ask what makes them a Muslim in these troubled times?

Is it Friday prayers, is it their weekly sermons, or tarawih prayers, or paying the zakat fitrah alms? Now that those are all gone, is one a lesser Muslim for that?

Or is one a Muslim because one holds dear values that were precious to the Prophet: to urge for the Good and leave out the Bad, to not harm oneself or others, that everyone is equal in the eyes of God, of compassion, love for all, hatred for none, and above all, to spread mercy to all mankind?

Going into Ramadan, we have seen disgusting ways how Islam has been perverted, like the daughter of a high-ranking politician who allegedly violated the MCO to get an audience ― and was allowed, mind you ― with a minister merely to lobby for certain Islamic NGOs that persecute the LGBT minority through harmful conversion therapy.

While the whole country is struggling to beat a pandemic, such nefarious rent-seeking seeks to put our marginalised more at a risk in this public health crisis, all for money and political returns. 

This should be the furthest away from what a Muslim should do, and yet this was presented for religious bragging rights.

And even without all the rituals, Ramadan is still a time for contemplation, for Muslims to abstain from worldly pleasures to get closer to God, and a poignant reminder that there are many who are less fortunate, who are hungry and thirsty ― and fasting is a symbol of unity and solidarity with them.

Those who need our compassion this month include our foreign and migrant workers, whose situations are exacerbated by enhanced MCOs, and especially the refugee community including the Rohingya ― who are currently facing vicious and merciless attacks from Malaysians, simply for having the “luck” of being run out of their land, and with nowhere to go, landed on our shores.

Scholar Afiq M Noor had, on Twitter, drawn comparisons between how the Rohingya are reviled for being refugees by the Muslims whose Prophet himself was a refugee during his exodus from Mecca to Yathrib (later Medina): “There is no disdain to be a refugee, dark-skinned, or even illiterate.”



The Twitter account for Islamic Religious Council of Singapore’s halal issues, @halalSG, said it best on this relatively silent month. “Ramadan with quiet days and solemn nights is still Ramadan. We are living in unprecedented times; but the Mercy of our God is consistent, His Benevolence is constant,” it posted.

If to be shorn of these religious rituals during MCO, what more during Ramadan, does not make one less of a Muslim ― then why should it on any other day?

Hope you have a blessed Ramadan, and keep caring for yourself during the MCO. May this month serve as a reminder to us all.

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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