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Southern California Muslims hopeful, but cautious, as mosques open for Ramadan

Over the past year, Imam Ahson Syed has prayed in the empty chambers of the King Fahad Mosque in Culver City, flanked only by the mosque’s security guard and another staff member.

A year after the lockdowns and some other pandemic-related restrictions lifted, Syed is waiting to welcome the community back during the holy month of Ramadan, which begins Monday, April 12, at sundown.

Muslims believe the Quran was first revealed to the Prophet Muhammad during this month. A time of reflection, charity, purity and prayer, Muslims fast from dawn to dusk during Ramadan. They end each day of the month by breaking the fast with a communal “iftar” meal.




Mosques open for prayers

This year, most Southern California mosques will be open during Ramadan, at least for prayers if not the fast-breaking meal, and that’s a significant improvement from the previous year when houses of worship were shut down as the coronavirus pandemic intensified.

Syed said his mosque used to have a daily dinner during the month of Ramadan shared by more than 600 people. This year, people can drive by and collect boxes of food and have dinner on their own. Masks will be worn and physical distancing observed. They’ll sanitize the building and prayers probably will be shortened, Syed said.

“It’s still going to be a little different, but at least we can gather now,” Syed said. “People are really happy and excited that the mosque is open again. What I really missed last year was this interaction with the community.”

He reminisced how people would remain after nightly prayers during Ramadan, and have discussions over tea, sometimes past midnight.

“It used to be so festive,” Syed said. “I hope we get all of it back next year.”

Measured optimism

Even though most of Southern California is in the less-restrictive orange tier in the state’s reopening framework, meaning houses of worship may operate at 50% capacity, not everyone may be ready for it, said Malek Bendelhoum, executive director of the Shura Council of Southern California in Orange, an umbrella organization for about 80 mosques in the region.

“What we’re instructing member mosques is, just because you can open up to 50%, you don’t have to feel compelled to do so,” he said. “It’s about what your center is capable of doing safely. It that’s 10%, then open up at 10%. We’re asking that they look beyond what’s allowed and look at what they are safely able to do.”

This year, the mood heading into Ramadan is one of excitement and anxiety, Bendelhoum said.

“This is a huge blessing to be able to gather,” he said. “But it’s also nerve-wracking because we’re concerned about gathering safely. There’s an element of risk.”

The Jamali Masjid in Ontario, which is the home of the Dawoodi Bohra community, a sect of Shia Islam that has followers in India, Pakistan and East Africa, will open up at 25% capacity for Ramadan, said board member Yusuf Shakir. The mosque largely has members in the Inland Empire and Orange County.

“We’re excited because we’ve been working for months in preparation for this day,” he said. “It was hard last year to not have that social connection. Fasting for an entire month is tiring and it’s that connection that gives you hope and encouragement — that you can do it.”

The mosque will follow social-distancing guidelines, require face coverings and the floors will be marked so people can keep a safe distance, Shakir said.

“A lot of it will eventually be self-regulatory, which can be tricky,” he said. “It’s very different than what we’ve been used to before.”

True meaning of Ramadan

The Islamic Society of Orange County, the largest mosque in the region, has been popular over the years for its iftar dinners during Ramadan — particularly their crunchy, homemade samosas and hot chai lattes — popular even among non-Muslim community members who were invited to partake. This year, the mosque is asking that people finish their dinner at home and then come to the mosque for “Tarawih,” the nightly prayer during the month of Ramadan, said Imam Muzammil Siddiqi.

“We’re going to have prayer arrangements inside as well as outside under tents,” he said. “We’ll give the choice to the people.”

Siddiqi said his message this Ramadan is one of hope and gratitude.

“Fasting is not just staying away from food and drink,” he said. “It’s about self-control, empathy for the poor and needy and appreciating God’s gifts. Fasting teaches us patience. We fast together as a community and this brings love, harmony and care for one another.”

During the month of Ramadan, many families will also miss loved ones lost to the coronavirus pandemic. Mousa Cahla and his wife, Dina, lost four members of their families over the past year, two to the virus.

“Ramadan is a time when the family comes together, eats and prays together,” he said. “It becomes much harder when we realize that we had four more of us last year. But Ramadan also keeps you grounded. It reminds you that nothing lasts forever.”

Cahla said his family is not “super religious,” but go to the mosque during Ramadan because they enjoy that sense of community.

“Going to the mosque felt like I was going to my grandma’s house,” he said. “There was always good food and chai and conversations.”

More than anything else, he has missed that sense of tranquility one gets from stepping into a place of worship, Cahla said.

“It’s just that act of walking in to the sanctuary, listening to the sheikh read the Quran,” he said. “It brings inner peace.”

Source: Orange County Register

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