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Ramzan in the time of Covid-19: Keeping the spirit alive

Rana Safvi | Updated on April 25, 2020 Published on April 25, 2020

Ramzan, which began on April 24, has traditionally been associated with large family gatherings and sumptuous meals. How is it expected to change in a world under lockdown?

*Ramzan, which began on April 24 and will continue till May 23, is the holiest month in the Islamic calendar

*The Covid-19 lockdown has confined people to their homes and restricted the availability of many food items and ingredients

“O ye who believe! Fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you that ye may (learn) self-restraint” — The Holy Quran (Surah 2:183)

Ramzan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, is also its holiest. Muslims all over the world revere this period as it is during Ramzan that the Prophet Muhammad received the first verses of the Holy Quran in the form of divine revelations.

The sighting of the crescent moon, which signals the start of the month, is always a moment of great excitement. Growing up in Uttar Pradesh, these were magical days for everyone in the family. We would prepare for Ramzan weeks ahead. Despite it being a time for piety, restraint and fasting, the discussions on food were endless and so were the preparations.

The roza or the Ramzan fast begins before dawn with suhoor, or sehri, as it’s known in India.Our sehri at home would be very simple. We would have gajrela, a dish of grated carrots cooked in milk with a dash of jaggery. Along with it, we would have leftover chapatis from dinner and a fried egg or a kabab.

When I used to fast, I would often get severe headaches due to the lowering of sugar levels in the bloodstream. I was advised by my yoga teacher to have a lot of dates, as they released sugar into the bloodstream slower than other foods, which took care of my headaches and helped me through the duration of the fast.

The fast is broken at sundown with a light meal called iftar usually with dates, fruit and a milk-based drink. After prayers, we settle down to a heavier meal. A particular favourite for the evening snacks is boiled black gram sprinkled with lemon juice and chaat masala. Other snacks include namoona, a dish of fried green peas, and kachalu — sliced guavas sprinkled with chaat masala, lemon juice and a bit of sugar. The kachalu has to be made a little while before it is served, so that the juices and flavours are released into the dish. Having fasted the whole day, these guilt-free dishes are a relief. In addition, we also make pakodis, samosas and kababs. The kababs are always made in large batches and refrigerated. To keep ourselves hydrated, we make various sherbets — such as with falsa (a species of grewia), bael (wood apple) and lemon. Dinner would not be as elaborate unless we had guests for iftar. There would be the regular mutton and chicken curries, kababs and vegetable dishes.

I took it for granted that this is what everyone had for iftar. A few years ago, I was in Leh during Ramzan and asked someone there what he was having for iftar. Momos, he replied! I realised that food tastes depend on region, not religion!

I don’t fast now for medical reasons but I love the whole process and so I post a daily recipe on my blog for iftar, under the hashtag #dastarkhwaneramzan.

We eagerly look forward to iftar parties with friends and relatives every year. Along with a group of friends, I was involved in inter-faith iftars, which we started in Delhi a few years ago and that spread to many cities. We would invite non-Muslims who had never attended an iftar to come and share with us the joy and piety around a fast.

But this year’s iftar is very different. As people remain in their homes in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, this Ramzan — which started on April 24 — will see fewer gatherings of families and friends. Moreover, there will be fewer varieties of iftar dishes since many ingredients are no longer easily available.

However, the lockdown is a good reminder of the true objective of Ramzan. Despite its associations with feasting, this month is for intense spiritual introspection and personal growth, achieved through faith and devotion.

The purpose of the Ramzan fast is to learn self-control, restraint, strengthen willpower — to control the nafs (though this word literally means ‘self’ in Arabic, it is used for ego, base instincts, the propensity towards anything evil). A roza is not for the stomach alone, it’s for the tongue as well: One must not utter anything harsh — in anger, malice, spite or cruelty.

Moreover, the iftar is to inculcate the spirit of sharing one’s food, fortunes and spaces with those less privileged.

As the Prophet says, “He is not a believer whose stomach is filled while the neighbour to his side goes hungry.” This year, this spirit of sharing becomes crucial as daily wage earners, the migrant workers and all those who have lost their livelihoods are in need of our help.

Where Ramzan had largely been reduced to conspicuous consumption — lavish iftar parties, shopping and ostentation — this pandemic has given us the perfect opportunity to reflect on its true nature.

Rana Safvi is a Delhi-based author and historian

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Published on April 25, 2020
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