For Muslim converts, an isolated Ramadan under coronavirus lockdown is nothing new

For Muslim converts, an isolated Ramadan under coronavirus lockdown is nothing new
All Muslims will have a taste of a convert's Ramadan this year, as coronavirus lockdowns around the world prevent the faithful from gathering.
8 min read
23 April, 2020
Converts to Islam struggle to find support networks [Getty]
Ramadan is traditionally a time of congregation - but not this year. Mosques are shut for nightly Taraweeh prayers, there is no possibility of having potluck Iftars with extended family and friends, and even the customary large-scale Eid prayer could be cancelled.

That said, for a minority of the Muslim population, the coronavirus pandemic will not change their experience of Ramadan. For converts - those who embraced Islam later in life - spending Ramadan without the company of others is nothing new.

And with everyone bound to the confines of their homes, many converts will undoubtedly struggle even more this Ramadan. Without a Muslim family, converts often rely on the mosque and local community during the holy month. However, this year there will be no such respite.

A report on converts in the United Kingdom by Faith Matters revealed that the feeling of isolation is one of the biggest problems facing converts. Half of the converts interviewed said that acceptance within the local Muslim community and locating support networks were difficulties they experienced.

This feeling of isolation, which one of Faith Matter's interviewees described as being "not fully integrated into the Muslim community but yet in some way separated from their former networks", will be more pronounced during this Ramadan than ever before.

Ramadan, which starts this week, unites Muslims the world over in fasting and worship. All fasting Muslims abstain from food and drink from sunrise to sunset, however their experiences differ greatly. 

For converts - those who embraced Islam later in life - spending Ramadan without the company of others is nothing new

With the coronavirus causing more and more countries around the world to go into lockdown, Muslims will get a unique glimpse into the fasting experience of a significant number of converts.

'Just a taste'

Converts and born Muslims alike have pointed to this phenomenon on social media. "Saw this on my FB from a Muslim brother: 'A lot of Muslims are going to have a taste of a convert's Ramadan this year'," one social media user tweeted.

But it will be just that - a taste. Social distancing measures may prevent born Muslims from socialising with anyone they wish, but at least they can still break the fast together with their Muslim family.

"The difficulty that converts face generally may be heightened around Ramadan if they don't have Muslim family members or close Muslim friends," Dutch university student Ibrahim told The New Arab.

"It can be difficult to feel accepted in the community and have meaningful relationships and interactions that help make Ramadan an amazing time."

Ibrahim spent his first Ramadan last year with his Muslim sister and her husband but "this Ramadan will be very different for me as I live alone now". 

"I luckily have a flatmate who is Muslim and am hoping to have Iftar and Suhoor meals with him. Those two moments especially are really important times to be around other people or else it can get very lonely and difficult to keep going with the best of intentions in your heart," he said. 

Convert Muslims who live alone will be opening their fast, fasting approximately 16 hours, and breaking the fast by themselves.

Paul, who lives in Seattle, had an "Eid at home, classic closet Ramadan" experience for most of his first eight years as a Muslim. Last year, he experienced his first community Ramadan at his college, but Paul said he would be going back to "eat[ing] Suhoor alone in the dark" this Ramadan.

It will be tough to find the same feeling of connection with Allah and His mercy that I do during those prayers if it is just me at home

"Being isolated from my Muslim friends and not being able to share meals or pray together, or even attend Taraweeh at the mosque by myself - missing out on all of that makes me very sad," Mel, who has been Muslim for six years, told The New Arab.

"I think it will be tough to find the same feeling of connection with Allah and His mercy that I do during those prayers if it is just me at home, struggling to motivate myself to either stumble over verses of the Quran I don't know or repeat the same verses I do have memorised."

Zoom Iftars

To bring isolated Muslims together to break the fast, many are turning to Zoom - a video conferencing software which millions of people have been using to communicate from home isolation.

Ramadan Tent Project, famous for its large community iftars in cities across the United Kingdom, has set up My Open Iftar to host virtual iftars for Muslims, and everyone else, to break the fast together.

And converts are looking to do the same. "Can someone who is more intrepid and entrepreneurial than me set up Zoom meetings during Ramadan for iftar so that converts who may be lonely can partially join in on the social aspect of iftar??" one person user tweeted.

Jodie, a therapist in the UK who converted to Islam in 2013, told The New Arab she was making an effort this year to have iftar over Zoom with her convert friends, as well as sharing reminders over a WhatsApp.  "I've also sent gifts to friends and we've made some lovely Ramadan cards," she said.

Paul said the Muslim community at his college were "pulling together" to support a "brand new" convert who was going into his first Ramadan with limited family support.

The college's Muslim chaplain has volunteered to delay Zoom calls to the time zone in which the new convert will break the fast, and they will spend time together virtually well into the night. Paul said they were planning to "do double time in our online presence to make sure he's not alienated from his religion". 

"The goal would be to not only recreate as much of a Ramadan as he would have had at school but to demonstrate that the Muslim community is there to support those who are vulnerable."

Family solace and family pressure

Those converts who have a Muslim spouse, and perhaps even children, say this will enliven their Ramadan hugely.

Jodie, who lives with her husband who is also a convert, has been engaging her child in Ramadan activities. "My little one is more interested this year so we're going to do activities and reading related to Ramadan Inshallah."

For those whose non-Muslim families are open to learning about Islam, this may be a year to engage them in the fasting. Jodie said she "get[s] to share Ramadan with my non-Muslim family and they enjoy learning about it. But I do feel lonely and a lack of connection with Muslims usually."

Paul, whose family has roots in the southern United States, said he would be "trying to halalify southern recipes [and] retro fit southern hymns into nasheeds".

Convert Muslims living with their parents or family who are not particularly supportive, and perhaps from whom they have to keep their conversion a secret, can find Ramadan especially hard.

A Chinese convert who shared her experience with The New Arab said Muslims should "appreciate the fact that we can still fast even during times of crisis, as I have Muslim friends in China who cannot even fast because they are stuck at home and fasting is not allowed by their parents".

"My parents are not tolerant of me practising and have threatened to kick me out if they catch me fasting," Indian-American convert Vee told The New Arab. "So I try to fast in secret but that is not always successful. I just fast for as long as I can before they become suspicious."

"It is a privilege to break fast with family and I think many people do not realise that," Vee added. 

Convert's dichotomy

Though Ramadan presents many unique challenges for converts to Islam, it is also often a time of reflection and spiritual growth.

"I feel there is a kind of dichotomy to Ramadan as a convert," shared Mel. "On the one hand, I feel like converts are able to appreciate the unique nature and benefits of this time of year."

"On the other hand, however, Ramadan can exacerbate the sense of loneliness and alienation that is unfortunately quite common for converts."

Many converts said they had more time to engage in prayer and reflection. This Ramadan could "even be more rewarding", a convert who wished to stay anonymous said.

"Maybe coronavirus is a hidden blessing to remind us of how we get distracted in daily life."

Born Muslims and converts alike will be praying for coronavirus, which has already disrupted Islamic worship the world over, to lift during Ramadan.

Read more: 'Quran-tine?': Coronavirus quarantine led Austrian MMA fighter to Islam 

In the meantime, this unprecedented Ramadan will give the Muslim community at large a taste of how vulnerable communities experience the fasting month.

"It'll be an experience for everybody," Paul said, reflecting on Ramadan which was only a few days away.

"Hopefully at the conclusion of this, people will feel slightly more compelled to invite converts to their homes for future Ramadans. We shall see."

Ella Linskens is a bilingual journalist based in Birmingham. Follow her on Twitter @ellalinskens