For Muslims, Ramadan is one of the most special times of the year.
"It’s very spiritually uplifting, because you pray and have iftar and then you pray again," says Muhammad Kolila, imam at the Downtown Denver Islamic Center, of the nightly Ramadan routine, using the Arabic word "iftar" for breaking of the daily fast.
But the traditional holy month for Muslims was very different in 2020, when Ramadan started in late April and lasted through much of May — just as some of the strictest pandemic protocols were put in place statewide.
In Islam, God revealed the Quran, the holiest book for Muslims, to the prophet Muhammad during Ramadan; the month's start depends on the sighting of the new moon. Fasting lasts from dawn to sunset every day of the month and is broken by iftar. When the month of Ramadan ends, Muslims, numbering nearly two billion worldwide, traditionally celebrate the holiday with multiple days of feasting and gatherings. But that's difficult during a pandemic.
Kolila's mosque and others across Colorado were closed and unable to host worshippers for iftar meals after the daily fasting last year; nor could they welcome Muslims for the nightly prayers and Quranic recitation.
Instead, everything was virtual, including Kolila's engagement with congregants.
"I think it’s been the hardest for people who are by themselves in the U.S. or people who are new to the faith. It has been hard for converts even before COVID, and COVID hit and makes it much, much harder," says Kolila.
The 2021 edition of Ramadan, set to start on the evening of April 12 in Colorado, offers a bit more hope.
"It will be better this year, but it will not be normal, by any means," says Ryan Harris, a local sports broadcaster, author and Muslim, who was an offensive lineman when the Broncos won the Super Bowl in 2016. "I believe every person of faith, no matter what religion, has missed that community aspect."
Harris looks forward to breaking the fast with friends and fellow worshippers this year. And he also anticipates not losing as much weight as he did last year during Ramadan.
"Last year was the first year I lost weight. Doing iftar by yourself, there's no one saying you need an extra helping of dessert," says Harris, who goes on to describe eating rice and goat dishes and sweets with Afghani and Indian Muslims during Ramadan at the mosque he attends in Northglenn. "Muslims, we do desserts very well."
Rather than host virtual classes, as he did for congregants six days a week during Ramadan last year, Kolila is aiming to open up the mosque for the nightly iftar.
"We’re planning to carefully do what we used to do before COVID, but be really careful with that. We plan to have a daily iftar for everybody who's interested to come, but up to 25 people maximum," says Kolila, who will be encouraging people to eat in their cars or in the parking lot if they can.
The Colorado Muslim Society, a Denver mosque located on South Parker Road bordering Aurora, will hand out boxed food at iftar time during Ramadan. Individuals and families can then eat the meals in their cars in the parking lot, or take them home.
"Traditionally, we feed about 400 people in Ramadan," says Iman Jodeh, a member of the Colorado Muslim Society's executive committee who's a representative in the Colorado Legislature. Many of those served are of lower socio-economic backgrounds, immigrants and refugees or students, she points out.
The Colorado Muslim Society will also host the nightly "taraweeh" prayers, which involve recitation of the Quran from cover to cover, with one chapter read each night, at half-capacity.
At the start of the pandemic, the Colorado Muslim Society closed its building, which Jodeh remembers as a difficult decision but the right one. "Sometimes those were tough calls to make, but it's also un-Islamic to put people at risk in the time of a pandemic," she says. Last June, the mosque reopened its doors for limited worship; it just recently started allowing worshippers to access the ablutions area before prayers.
"We've wanted to not only emulate our Islamic values by protecting public health, but we've also not wanted to contribute to risky behavior," Jodeh explains.
The Downtown Denver Islamic Center, which is located at 2952 Downing Street, will host in-person taraweeh prayers this Ramadan, albeit with shorter recitations each night. The mosque has also opened its ablutions area, but asks that worshippers try to wash at home before praying.
"The concept of patience in Islam, the virtue of patience, you relate to it now," says Kolila. "You’ll find that you were taking things for granted."
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