The month of Ramadan is typically a busy one for the Ariff family, filled with daily trips to the church that serves as their makeshift mosque and weekend gatherings with friends and family to break the fast that begins before sunrise each morning.
Typically, after returning from the mosque for evening prayers nightly, the family divides up money they’ve saved for this time of year and disperses it to various causes including local food banks, Islamic community centers or refugee shelters.
Ramadan is the holiest time of year for Muslims, a period in which the reward for doing good deeds and saying prayers is multiplied. It’s also a time where donations typically spike and provide Islamic organizations with most of the funding they need for the rest of the year.
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed what is usually a joyous, social time of year. Though the Ariff family mourned the loss of gatherings and memory-making with friends and family, they said the pandemic has forced them to devote more time to their faith, more attention to the needs of their neighbors and more gratitude for the blessings in their lives.
Praying five times a day in their living room
The Ariff family is made up of 52-year-old Asan, 49-year-old Julaiha and their children —26-year-old Azra, 22-year-old Anish and 16-year-old Afzal.
Both Azra and Anish were previously out of state, working and studying thousands of miles away. They returned to Arizona to be with family in their north Phoenix home once the pandemic hit.
Now that mosques are closed and mass gatherings are prohibited, the family has pivoted to at-home services.
They each spread out across the carpet in their large living room with their individual prayer mats. One person leads the prayer and the others follow.
It’s a far cry from the solidarity felt by praying alongside dozens of other Muslims under the guidance of an imam, but it will have to do for now.
“We have missed that, but we all have to do our due diligence and be aware of what is going on in the world and follow what is being advised,” she said.
Some things haven’t changed, though.
Julaiha Ariff still rushes home from her job to prepare for iftar, the breaking of the fast that she celebrates with her family each night. She typically starts cooking at 5 p.m. and serves the meal around 7:30 p.m., a process that’s repeated each night throughout the month.
They have tried to implement social distancing measures within their home, particularly because Julaiha and Asan are both physicians and said they do not want to unknowingly pass an illness onto their children.
Both said they immediately take off and wash their work uniforms upon returning home and that they only sit in every other chair at their dinner table.
Even if the mosque follows other sectors that have started resuming operations in Arizona and reopens before the end of Ramadan, the family said they would not go.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea when people … pray so close together,” Julaiha Ariff said. “I don’t think it’s a good idea even if restrictions have lifted.”
Both Julaiha and Asan said they also miss the physical interactions with their patients.
“We do the best we can with telemedicine but I think the whole picture of a physician isn’t complete without seeing and touching the patient,” Asan Ariff said. “I think at the end of they day, they don’t just come for the medicine — they come for the human interaction.”
What they’re grateful for
Each family member said they saw a silver lining in the pandemic, in that it’s given Muslims an opportunity for more introspection and gratitude for the simple things.
“When it’s all over, it will be a real blessing to see family and friends and sit together and have a meal together,” Julaiha Ariff said.
Her husband agreed, saying that he feels a renewed sense of spirituality and gratitude.
“Every morning is a blessing, every day there are thousands of people suffering and God has given you a roof and shelter and food on the table,” he said.
The couple’s 26-year-old daughter, Azra, says Ramadan – even during a pandemic – helps her take a breath.
“In our everyday lives it’s easy to get busy and not focus on introspection,” she said. “Ramadan gives us an opportunity to pause those things and think about what matters — whether it’s justice or spirituality or giving back.”
She added that it prompts her and other Muslims to think about how best to protect and serve their communities, which she said right now means staying home — even during the most festive month of the year.
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